welcome to The India Fix by Shoaib Daniyal, an Indian political news bulletin. To receive it in your inbox every Monday, register here. Do you have any comments, interesting links or memes? Send them to [email protected]
In 1981, the United States government amended the rules so as to allow ketchup to now be classified as a vegetable. The bizarre legal definition was to help save money on school lunches, switching to a condiment instead of real food. Forty years later, the Indian government has pulled off a similar lexical feat.
In October, the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force in the states of West Bengal, Punjab and Assam was extended to 50 km from the international border. The word “boundary” could mean a line drawn on a map. But now the “boundary” of the BSF would encompass a third of Bengal and at least nine quarters of Punjab, including major cities like Amtitsar.
Semantic leaps aside, what does this mean in the field? The BSF is a paramilitary force under the Union government whereas under the Indian Constitution, the police and law and order are subjects of the state. So while the BSF can raid, it can’t detain anyone beyond one day and cannot prosecute crimes. For this, he will have to turn the case over to the state police.
In practice, however, the BSF’s shadow hangs over those within its jurisdiction. This is especially true in the heavily populated areas of West Bengal, where complaints about force opening fire indiscriminately as well as torture were frequent.
So, it’s no surprise that the new rules were met with anger and shock in Punjab and West Bengal. On Saturday, Punjab moved the Supreme Court against the new 50km court. Earlier on Wednesday, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered the state police to block the BSF if it tries to enter the villages. Banerjee even referenced a massacre that took place in Nagaland on December 5, seeming to hint at what would happen if the state police lost their public order functions to central forces. The West Bengal and Punjab assemblies also passed resolutions opposing the move.
Indeed, strong opposition from both states has clouded how the BSF’s new jurisdiction will be implemented on the ground.
Is there a precedent for such a drastic confrontation between New Delhi and the states? Partly yes. For one thing, the Center’s expansion into the law and order realm is not new. In 1963, New Delhi established the Central Bureau of Investigation which interfered with the powers of the state “police”. This overbreadth was so egregious that in 2013 the Guwahati High Court forbidden the BCI itself. However, the judgment was immediately suspended by the Supreme Court, which has not heard the case since.
However, even by these standards, the federal standoff unfolding under the Narendra Modi government is perhaps unprecedented. In May, for example, the CBI arrested two senior Bengal ministers days after a new government was sworn in. Extreme center-state friction under Modi means that up to seven states have withdrawn their ‘blanket consent’ to the CBI since 2014, forcing the agency to approach state governments for clearance for each case .
On the BSF itself, while Union governments have also tried before to expand its powers, the current lack of consultation with the states is unique. In 2011, for example, the then government of the United Progressive Alliance also purchased a Invoice to extend the area of operations of the BSF to the whole country rather than only to the borders to fight, among others, the Maoists. Unlike at present, however, the Center made sure to consult with States (ironically, at the time, Fashion, as chief minister of Gujarat, had opposed the bill). In the end, the opposition meant that the bill never passed, which is completely unthinkable today.
What explains these exacerbated federal tensions? A major factor is the curious structure of politics in the country at the moment. While the BJP faces little opposition in the Center, the political challenge it faces actually revolves around a federal divide. Although unchallenged in New Delhi, BJP dominance is dropping sharply in states like West Bengal. In fact, even in states where it has a significant presence, there is now a steady pattern of BJP underperformance in state elections compared to national elections, reflecting its outsized power in New Delhi.
This lopsided distribution of power means that the BJP often abruptly uses its position in the Center to try to advance its agenda in the states given that its local influence can often be weak (or even close to zero in the two states involved in the line of the BSF: Bengal and Punjab). Notably, the BSF chief attributed the new rules to alleged demographic shifts, embarking on a political struggle over alleged migration from Bangladesh that the BJP is leading to Bengal and Assam. Even on mundane issues of governance, there are consistent reports that the Center barely consults states when developing policy.
The Farm Bills are a good example of Modi’s centralized style and the federal friction it causes. Passed in 2020, the laws encroached on a state subject, agriculture. Worse still, they were adopted without consultation with the States. As a result, laws have hit a brick wall in the states of Punjab and Haryana, where a large proportion of farmers have demonstrated in the streets. Punjab, in fact, even went as far as past its own legislation to try to counter the laws of the Center. Not wanting to bend, the Modi government had to break, by withdrawing the agricultural laws.
The BSF and farm laws are not the only examples of state recalcitrance in the Modi era. Also in 2019, several states said they would refuse to implement the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which for the first time introduced religion as a criterion for Indian citizenship by screening undocumented migrants by faith.
Of course, none of this is good news for India. If the states and the Center cannot agree on something as fundamental as the police, there is little hope for cooperation on the many governance issues that are at stake in India.
The Midnight Children
This fascinating clip from the Film Division interviews 20 people born on August 15, 1947 on their 20th birthday and that of India.
Historian William Dalrymple has a compelling thread about the exquisite Hindu temple architecture of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire.