A BLEEDING SHOULDER – INDIA’S NORTHEAST
The Kashmir insurgency having taken centre-stage for many years now, the insurgencies of the Northeast no more occupy significant spaces of newsworthiness. Nevertheless, they aren’t dead as yet, lingering on preventing the region from going full steam on the road to development. This is an attempt to trace the histories of these insurgencies until 5 years ago when this study was undertaken. Nothing has changed drastically since then, with the insurgencies still existing or claiming to exist, with the formal burials yet to take place. Even the one notable development of the Government of India entering into a peace accord with NSCN (IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) in 2015, is yet to draw any dividends because the exact terms of the accord are yet to be made public and implemented. This is the sixth episode of a 9-blog serial on the various ethnic insurgencies of the North-East.
6 Tripura – The Success Story
Tripura – believed by some to have been named so to mean ‘the land of adjoining rivers’ – too, like Manipur, was once an independent kingdom – a large one that comprised the whole of Bengal’s Northeast below Brahmaputra with its history dating back to 13th Century AD – that succumbed to the Mughal expansionism and later became a British territory when the Mughals lost out to the British. Again like Manipur, it was not granted the ‘Princely State’ status by the British, and was merged with the Indian Union in 1949. Made a Union Territory in 1963, it was granted statehood in January 1972. Although the last king of Tripura reigned till 1949, the state’s historical background had nothing to do with the insurgency that grew up there. It began as a direct outcome of tribal population being pushed to the hills by immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh or Bengali-speaking locals. Although the earliest armed tribal movement took shape in the 1960s under the name and banner of Sengkrak (the Clenched Fist), following the immigrants occupying tribal reserve forest land, it subsided by the end of that decade. Subsequently an organization called the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) formed during the 1970s – dissolved in 1980 and revived in 1982 – took up the cause, but gave up militancy after an agreement signed in 1988. Another outfit, the All Tripura People’s Liberation Organization (ATPLO) also made a brief appearance in early 1980s, but went inactive subsequently.
The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) founded in March 1989 by some radical elements of the TNV has been the flag bearers of the Tripura insurgency since then, the movement having adopted a secessionist agenda to add teeth to its demands – a bargaining chip most insurgent outfits keep for the negotiations. The outfit is alleged to be communal in nature, attempting forced conversion of tribal people with the covert support of the Baptist Church – ‘Kingdom of God and Christ in Tripura’ – that led to ethnic riots. The NLFT probably holds the unenviable record among all the insurgent groups of the Northeast for the number of splits it has undergone. In the ultimate count the outfit has ended up with two main factions (both currently Bangladesh-based), one led by Biswamohan Debbarma and the other by Nayanbasi Jamatiya. A third outfit, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), another breakaway faction of the TNV – formed in 1990 as the All Tripura ‘Tribal’ Force, substituting the ‘Tribal’ by ‘Tiger’ in 1992 – led by Ranjit Debbarma is also based in Bangladesh. While the Jamatiya-led NLFT faction has signed a Memorandum of Settlement with the Union Government in 2004 (although Jamatiya himself jumped the bail and escaped to Bangladesh and still have some 250 of its cadres active), the other faction of the NLFT and ATTF remain combative. Another splinter outfit of the NLFT, the Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT), has also been operative – mainly staging abductions and extortions – since late 1990s.
The Tripura insurgency remained more or less a low-intensity affair till mid 1990s when it spiralled into a deadly movement, spreading an orgy of violence with killings, abductions and extortions. Tripura became the worst insurgency-hit state for a while. In 2001 alone there were 826 reported terrorist attacks, in which 405 people were killed. Another 481 were kidnapped during the year. However in a remarkable feat of police-led counter-insurgency operations – that should serve as an example and inspiration for all the state administrations confronting insurgency – during the better part of the next decade, the state government tackled the issue with such drive and tact that by 2004 the insurgency in Tripura was practically dead. Almost every insurgent outfit fled to safe havens in Bangladesh or surrendered en masse.
The coup de grace for the insurgents came in the form of the crackdown by the Bangladesh security forces in 2009. It hit the Tripura outfits just as hard as it did the rest of the Northeast outfits. Biswamohan Debbarma was nabbed in November 2009, following which a large number of the cadres, not only of the NLFT, but those of others like the ATTF and the BNCT surrendered. The ATTF chief, Ranjit Debbarma, who successfully evaded capture for quite a while was caught and handed over to the Indian authorities in January 2013. Surrender of his second-in-command and most of the cadres followed soon.
Though the insurgency has been contained to a great extent (Tripura stands rated the third lowest for insurgency-related incidents in the Northeast after Mizoram and Meghalaya), sporadic violence still continues. As late as October 2008, the state capital of Agartala was rocked by serial blasts which killed 2 people and injured 74. The resentment among the tribal population displaced by the commissioning of the Gumti Hydel Project still continues as their grievances have not yet been redressed satisfactorily by the state government. There is a strong case being made out for the scrapping of the project, which is perceived to be a white elephant. The land that can be reclaimed by closing the dam can resettle the entire lot of displaced families. The militants lying low in Bangladesh creeping back for mischief poses another threat. There are suspicions of Islamic militants from across the border – primarily the HuJI – being involved.[Tripura is one part of the Northeast which the people of East Bengal have been traditionally treating as their home territory; partly because of the geographic contiguity and partly since most of East Bengal once formed part of the old Tripura Kingdom. The partition hadn’t really made much difference to the trans-border movement of the people. For instance till the insurgency became widespread in the 1980s and 90s almost every other fish vendor one found in Agartala was from across the border, be it East Pakistan or Bangladesh. It seemed to hardly matter to these people – or to the Tripuraites – that they belonged to another country. Their earnings were in the Indian currency and so was their spending, and Agartala, as far as they were concerned, was their town too, no matter which country it belonged to.
Indeed such a transparent border came in mighty handy for the Indian Army – by way of easy availability of informants and thorough reconnaissance – during the buildup to the 1971 Bangladesh War in which Tripura was the jump off point for 57 Mountain Division. The tanks of this division were the first Indian elements to enter Dacca to mark the country’s victory in the war.]
Nevertheless, for a state which has had nearly 3500 insurgency-related fatalities between 1992 and 2010, there were merely 3 such cases in the following two years and none whatsoever in 2013. While the credit for this achievement must primarily go to the state government’s inventiveness, not just for the counter-insurgency operations but also for rehabilitation measures undertaken for surrendered militants, peace initiatives and the like, the contribution of Jamatiya Hodo, the Supreme Council of the Jamatiya Tribe, the third largest tribe of Tripura, through its concerted opposition to terrorism, cannot be taken lightly. A Hoda resolution of December 2000 to not pay ‘taxes’ to the insurgents was a brave gesture that curbed the terrorist activity considerably and similar opposition to the forced conversion drive of NLFT helped keep the outfit in check.
Tripura’s determined efforts to contain terrorism continue unabated. With a record 661 policemen for every 100,000 people or 231.3 policemen per 100 kilometres – against the national average of 137 and 52.4 respectively – in 2011, law and order is effectively being taken care of. The fencing of the porous border with Bangladesh is almost complete, with only 125 kilometres out of the 856 remaining to be fenced, though the installation of floodlights that was to be completed by 2012 has fallen behind schedule with only 7 percent work completed. Tripura’s success in tackling terrorism using the army only in a supporting role, if emulated in all insurgency- struck regions, could avoid a lot of unwanted controversy which the involvement of the army – and the AFSPA in turn – invariably invites.
[To be continued. Next: Meghalaya – Testing the Waters]