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ITBP or Army? Questions arise on who will lead patrolling as LAC-China tensions continue

Defence Establishment Feels LAC Is An Active Border & Hence ITBP Should Be Brought Under Its Control, But MHA Feels Otherwise Citing 'one Border, One Force' Concept.

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Senior ITBP officers during a visit at border outposts (BOPs) in Ladakh | Twitter | @ITBP_official

New Delhi: With disengagement on at five stand-off positions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) even as the larger question of de-escalation remains, the government is considering on whether the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) or the Army should take the lead role for patrolling the borders with China, ThePrint has learnt.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants the ITBP to take a lead role but the Army is opposed to it and wants the central armed police force to be put operationally under its control, sources in the defence and security establishment said. 

Raised in 1962 exclusively for guarding the borders with Tibet and China, the ITBP is under the MHA’s operational control but works closely with the Army. All LAC patrols are carried out by a joint team of the Army and the ITBP.  At times, the Army takes the lead role while ITBP, too, assumes the lead role when it comes to patrolling.

Sources explained that it is the local Army brigade which decides on the patrolling patterns and who takes the lead role.

ThePrint had in July 2020 reported that the government was considering a more prominent role for the ITBP in LAC management with the Army taking charge of border defence.

The discussion had taken a backseat but fresh media reports suggest that the proposal is back on drawing boards. As per the original proposal which was being considered, the Army will be away from grey zone areas of the

3,488 km long LAC, especially since both India and China are creating buffer zones in locations where they have disengaged. The grey zones refer to areas where the forces from both countries patrol and come face to face. 

The Army argues that the ITBP cannot be given the lead role and that the force needs to come operationally under it for better coordination.

Incidentally, as ThePrint reported earlier, there have been multiple clashes between Indian and Chinese troops, more than what was publicly known in Ladakh during May and June in 2020. These included physical clashes and brawls between the two sides at various locations, including multiple patrolling points and along rivulets and nallahs in Eastern Ladakh where the ITBP were also involved.

The ITBP personnel were awarded with 20 gallantry medals for their action against Chinese troops in 2020.

Sources said the idea behind giving the ITBP a more active role is that it is a police force and sends out the right message that it is the police forces who man the borders and not the Army. “In most countries, it is the paramilitary or specialised border guarding forces which man the borders with the military staying behind,” one of the sources said.

Following the Group of Ministers (GoM) report after the Kargil conflict that recommended ‘One Border One Force’, ITBP was assigned the entire LAC in 2004, replacing Assam Rifles in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Arguments supporting Army’s operation control of ITBP

The defence establishment feels that the LAC is an active border, and hence the Army should get the lead role with the ITBP under its control like the Assam Rifles.

This is not the first time the Army has expressed this plan. In 2015 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was the then Home Minister, the Army had proposed the same. But the proposal was shot down, a decision which had the nod of then defence minister Manohar Parrikar, the sources said.

Defence sources point out that India has “unsettled and active borders” both on its western and northern borders with Pakistan and China. While the operational responsibility along both these is that of the Army, it is augmented with the deployment of BSF and ITBP, respectively. 

“Since this arrangement involves multiplicity of forces on the same border, it has its connected challenges of lack of accountability and coordination of command and control,” another source said.

Talking about the 2001 GoM report on LAC, the sources said it has suggested that till such time these ‘active’ borders are fully demarcated, the ITBP deployed along these should be placed under the Army’s operational control.

Para 5.21 of the report, according to the sources, state that in order to enable speedy response to emerging situations, since this border is operationally active, the ITBP deployed on this sector should be placed under the operational control of the Army till such time as these portions of the border are fully demarcated.

“Borders which are operationally active should be the responsibility of the Army. Any other Forces, if deployed to guard these, owing to their special skills etc should be placed under the direct operational control of the Army,” it said.

“The entire border with China should be guarded by the ITBP and it should be placed under the operational control of the Army until such time as the border is demarcated,” the report added.

Sources also pointed out that all meetings along the border are under the aegis of the Army. Similar arrangement is followed by the  People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as the PLA officers head the meetings attended by officers of its Border Defence Regiments (BDRs). 

Similarly, the existing hotlines are between the Indian Army formations and PLA formations and, hence, there is no need for any separate line for the ITBP. 

A third source said unlike ITBP, the BDRs are an integral part of the Chinese army and not a central armed police force. These units are equipped and trained in a similar manner to that of PLA battalions unlike the ITBP, the sources said.

Moreover, with the forward deployment of PLA forces, there is no method to distinguish between troops of regular PLA units or of the Border Defence units, the sources argued. 

“Given the sensitivities of India-China border and in consonance with GoM recommendations, the Army should continue to have the lead role in managing the border with ITBP placed under operational control,“ the third source said.

Arguments against operational control of Army 

Explaining why the ITBP should not be brought under the control of the Army, sources argued that the border guarding force acts as the parallel eyes and ears of the government.

‘The government assesses a situation and makes decisions not based on one agency but several others. Even in the current stand-off, ITBP inputs were useful,” said a source in the security establishment. 

The source pointed out that the Army and the ITBP have very distinct channels of communication, which would not be possible if the central police force comes under operational command of the Army. 

Sources argued that ITBP was given the responsibility of the entire LAC in 2004 precisely under the principle of ‘one border, one force’ as recommended by the GoM.

Asked about the GoM’s recommendation that the Army should be the lead agency, the sources said a decision was taken to have police border guards in the front for signalling and management while the Army focuses on capacity building and defending.

The ITBP is a specialised force which trains in mountain warfare and has been looking after the LAC since 1962, they argued.

Even in the current stand-off, they said, the ITBP has been standing shoulder to shoulder with the Army and has been involved in clashes while sticking to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) given by the government.

Besides being a parallel eyes and ears for the government, the ITBP cannot be brought under the Army’s operational command because it has multiple tasks, MHA sources said.

“ITBP personnel are also deployed for law and order duties, besides internal security operations. If they come under the Army, the dual capability will be gone,” a source said.

They also argued that the ITBP has operationalised and are manning a number of forward posts and has been undertaking multiple long-range patrols, including that last for over 30 days.

‘The ITBP is well-armed but does not have its own artillery or armoured elements. But then it is the same reason why it is the ITBP and not the Army. The Army will step in when they have to, but border management should ideally be done by the border forces and not the Army,” a second source said.