BSF as an instrument for politicising demographics

Assembly polls: BSF as an instrument for politicising demographics

The government is turning BSF into an instrument in its political fight to win in UP and salvage its popularity in Uttarakhand

 The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is wary of pressing the usual buttons to trigger majoritarian anxiety and garner support, and it needs a go-between – the BSF – to do so. Credit: PTI Photo

It is not the remit of the Border Security Force (BSF) to pronounce that "the demographic balance has been upset in border states like West Bengal and Assam over a period of time" and then taper off to explain that "it has changed for whatever reasons." The science of demographics does not allow such vague explanations as a reason for what is indisputably a pernicious political decision, to extend the jurisdiction and consequently unilaterally redefine the area within India that is borderland with Bangladesh on the east and Pakistan on the west in specific states – Assam, West Bengal and Punjab and for a different reason in Rajasthan.

The BSF's concern, as voiced by its Director General, Pankaj Kumar Singh, on November 30, is odder still, as Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai on the same day tabled a written reply in Parliament to a question from Congress member Hibi Eden on when the headcount of legitimate citizens through the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be done. The reply stated that the Narendra Modi government had not decided yet on preparing a pan-India NRC.

The Union Home Ministry and Amit Shah are the boss of the BSF DG and junior minister Rai. The BSF officially announced the "definite demographic change" on the day the government retreated from committing to a headcount, which could have confirmed the DG's claim that a BSF conducted survey had established "the voter pattern has changed in certain districts neighbouring border". It is a slick trick to keep the infiltrator-Muslims outnumbering the Hindus pot simmering ahead of the Assembly polls to five states, including Uttar Pradesh.

Also Read — Centre dubs apprehensions of Bengal, Punjab on BSF jurisdiction extension notification 'ill-founded'

The BSF, an institution accountable to the government, is being used to stoke the BJP's permanent agenda of hyper-nationalism even as the Modi regime slyly distances itself from making an official announcement, the politics of the borderlands have been incorporated into the campaign as a live issue of serious concern. The DG's clearance to say what he did came from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

It is a piquant problem. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is wary of pressing the usual buttons to trigger majoritarian anxiety and garner support, and it needs a go-between – the BSF – to do so. The BSF is not mandated to conduct surveys on the changing demographics in Indian states nor deliver authoritative statements on such matters, but that has not registered with the Modi government. The BSF DG said the survey was carried out in districts along the border, which revealed the changes in "voter patterns." It is a dead giveaway of why he was primed to say what he did.

This is unacceptable because the Modi government has turned the BSF into an instrument in its political fight to win in UP and salvage its popularity in Uttarakhand. The Modi government cannot use the BSF to fight Punjab and West Bengal governments over jurisdiction along the international borders. The decision to extend the BSF's area of operations to 50-kilometres from five kilometres in West Bengal, Punjab and Assam and reduce the operational area in Rajasthan to 50 km from 80 km has been questioned by the Congress and Trinamool Congress.

Also Read — Why BSF jurisdiction extension has triggered a political row

Infiltration, export of terrorism by anti-India regimes and "evil-minded" Islamist groups are part of the repertoire of the BJP's communally divisive, fear-inducing right-wing hyper-nationalist politics that is an enduring feature of its politics. The rhetoric invariably acquires an edge and shrillness whenever elections are scheduled.

Across UP and Punjab, and even Uttarakhand, the Sangh Parivar is uneasy about using its old routines of fuelling communal hostility in the context of the soon to be held elections. The old and invincible BJP would not have needed to use the BSF as its vanguard in a campaign that must deploy nationalism to sell Hindutva politics to voters to win on the one hand and keep the majority faithful to the saffron side. 

However, in too many constituencies in UP, the communal card would not work in the new solidarity forged by farmers through the farm movement. The BJP's precisely calculated appeal to caste groups is unlikely to work as effectively as it did in the past. Farmers have forged a new loyalty to their identity as annadata and patriots, who feed the nation and die while defending the international borders.

The consolidation of farmers into a distinct and different secular identity has weakened the BJP's old playbook with its usual discourse of nationalism and minority bashing. The year-long movement that has entered into its second year of resistance against the Modi government is a formidable opposition without a political label that the BJP can attack with its usual arsenal.

Turning the BSF, with its reputation pockmarked by years of complaints and investigations of corruption and connivance in turning a blind eye to illegal crossings along the borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh, into a knight defending the nation is just one of the ways in which the BJP, its popular prime minister, and its strategy mastermind Shah are paying the price for bad governance.

Voter disappointment with the Modi government and discontent with the Yogi Adityanath government in UP is not limited to the farmers' movement. Bad governance, economic crisis and the health crisis during the second wave of the pandemic that swept through India affecting every family, topped up by the farm agitation and the brutal conditions farmers endured to secure one part of their demand, the repeal of the three farm laws, has contributed to the BJP's crisis of confidence.

Dressing up infiltration as an attack on the nation by changing the demographics, as set out by the BSF, is a spin that reveals the urgency of the search for a new packaging by Modi and the BJP for its old majoritarian politics of communally divisive messaging. The headcount of citizens – the NRC – has also been put on hold because the BJP cannot afford to disturb the voters it needs to not only retain power in the states in which it heads the government, it requires the voters to stay on its side up to the 2024 general elections.

(The writer is a journalist based in Kolkata)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.