Something made my Diwali special this year: Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent the day with officers and jawans of the Indian Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force (ITBPF) and the Dogra Scouts who man the Tibet-India border in Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh.
The borders have always been neglected by Indian politicians, mostly busy preparing for the next election in their constituencies. It is truly a positive development to see the Prime Minister visiting the borders.
Though it was announced that Modi would be with the ITBPF at the Mana border post in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, he finally went to Kinnaur. Probably for security concerns, a diversionary announcement was made.
After landing at Chango, an Army and ITBP camp in Lahaul-Spiti, the Prime Minister travelled to Sumdo in Kinnaur district, where he distributed sweets to the jawans: “Our forces endure grave hardships for our security. If we remember them while being in a festive mood, our remembrance will give them strength and renewed energy”, he declared.
The Prime Minister is reported to have said, “Because you guard our borders, people sleep at night. If you were not on the borders, people couldn’t have slept.” Modi’s visit is crucial because India is facing a worrying situation on its borders; not only on the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, but also on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Between 200 and 300 Chinese intrusions occur inside Indian territory every year; for the sake of ‘normalisation’ with Beijing, Delhi usually keeps silent.
The Army and the paramilitary forces are deployed from Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Jachep La in Arunachal Pradesh along the 3488 km Indo-Tibet border. Apart from the young Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, how many senior politicians have visited these forward areas? The fingers of one hand are too many to count them.
But the time has come that not only Ministers, but babus too should be sent to forward areas; it is the only way for them to know the life and the difficulties faced by those manning these inhospitable posts. This is particularly true for senior IAS and IPS officers.
Remember former Defence Minister George Fernandes, who sent his ministry’s bureaucrats to Siachen to make them understand the use of snowmobiles?
Whether senior or junior, bureaucrats serving in the Ministry of Defence, Home Affairs or Finances, should spend a weekend every month in the border areas. It should not be seen as a punishment, but as a ‘refresher course’, to better understand and deal with the situation on the LOC and the LAC. However the Modi Government should take a step further. The civil administration in these Himalayan areas is still in the hands of young IAS officers, ill-equipped and often unwilling to go through the hardships necessary to interact and help the locals. Today, there is an acute need for a special cadre to administer India’s borders, principally in the Himalaya. The Government should take the first step in this direction, even if it ruffles some feathers, particularly within the all-powerful IAS/IPS lobbies.
It is worth noting that Jawaharlal Nehru did it, though out of romantic concerns. He believed in the ‘noble savage’ described by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.” Nehru had similar beliefs about the inhabitants of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and other border areas. He took the great initiative in creating a separate cadre for India’s frontiers, mainly NEFA, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan.
In 1953-54, the first batch of officers, drawn mainly from the Army but also from the All-India services, was posted on the frontiers.
The initial recruitment to the Indian Frontier Administrative Service (IFAS) was made through a Special Selection Board with representatives from the Ministries of External and Home Affairs and Defence, along with an expert in tribal affairs, Verrier Elwin, the Indian-naturalised anthropologist, author of The Philosophy of NEFA.
Sixty years later, one realises that, though the idea was good, the over-romantic views about the border population amounted to the segregation of a large chunk of the Indian population.
KC Johorey, who later became Chief Secretary of Goa, was one of the first pioneers who joined the IFAS. He still remembers what Nehru told his batch: “The staff must go along with the flag and the typewriters can follow later on.” Johorey recalls his first posting in Along in the Siang Frontier Division, “There were two houses, one for the burra sahib [for Yusuf Ali, his boss], and behind another smaller hut. The houses were really huts made of bamboos, palm leaves and canes. Even the tables and the beds were of bamboos. There were no mattresses, no electricity and no furniture. The houses were very clean and airy. That was all”, Johorey recalls.
One of the most famous members of the IFAS is Major Ranenglao ‘Bob’ Khathing, who single-handedly brought Tawang under Indian administration in February 1951. Unfortunately, Verrier Elwin could only see the anthropological side of the issue, forgetting the strategic as well the economic aspects of border development. The IFAS, an ad hoc creation of Nehru, was dissolved in the mid-1960s and the intrepid IFAS officers were ‘merged’ into the ‘ordinary’ IFS, IAS or IPS.
It is perhaps time to review the concept and create a Indo-Tibet Border Administrative Service, with daring officers coming from different walks of life (perhaps mainly from the Army to start with), but who would be willing to undertake the vital task to develop Indian frontiers. The IAS is today not fit for the job, though young dynamic IAS officers would be welcome in the new service.
A similar issue was recently highlighted by Brigadier V Mahalingam (retd) in The Times of India’s blog. He mentioned the case of the Border Security Force (BSF). On October 1, recruitment was held for 10 vacancies, as against 22 sanctioned posts of Inspector General (IG) of the force. Mahalingan writes: “Apparently, the appointment of nine IPS officers as IGs in the force was meant to fill up nine out of the 10 upgraded vacancies, leaving just one vacancy for the BSF cadre officers. Does that mean that there are shortages in DIG-ranked BSF officers in the 2,57,025 strong force with 186 operational battalions to fill up the vacancies of IGs?”
The solution to properly managing the border areas is to create a specialised cadre for which appointments will be based on merit either from the Army or through lateral entry. And from the existing cadres, if they fit the bill.
(The writer a commentator and author on India-China relations)