By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
On August 15, 2012, Tripura’s Chief Minister Manik Sarkar warned that a few militant cadres had made a ‘false surrender’ and had returned to the jungles after taking advantage of the various benefits allowed by the Government under its generous surrender schemes.
The Chief Minister’s statement came in the midst of reports indicating that the elements from the Biswamohan faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM) and the defunct All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) had joined with other militant groups outside the State to form a Northeastern ‘United Front’. On August 11, 2012, the United Front called for a boycott of Independence Day (August 15) across the Northeast.
The NLFT insurgency started in 1989, and sought Tripura’s secession from India. The group suffered multiple splits over the years, with most of its top leaders – including Nayanbashi Jamatia, Kamini Debbarma, Bidyasingh Jamatia, Bhuchuk Borok and Montu Koloi – surrendering under the Government’s rehabilitation schemes. Nevertheless, ‘chairman’ Biswamohan Debbarma aka D. Baithang remains at large.
Following a series of arrest and the surrender of some NLFT-BM militants this year, the efforts to regroup this moribund militant formation have become known. On July 14, 2012, for instance, NLFT-BM ‘commander’ Barnajay Tripura (32), who surrendered to the Special Branch (Intelligence Wing) of the State Police, at an unspecified date, disclosed that NLFT-BM was preparing to launch a ‘major offensive’ in the run-up to the Assembly Elections of 2013. Barnajay also revealed that the outfit was collecting large sums of money for the purchase of arms and ammunition and was conducting a recruitment drive.
Reports indicate that NLFT-BM is regrouping in Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian State of Mizoram. NLFT-BM commanders Atharababu Halam aka Babu, Chatrabhanga Jamatia and Sachin Debbarma have been placed in charge of the group’s ‘revival’. NLFT-BM’s set of target areas of operation includes Chawmanu, Manikpur, Raishyabari, and Nutanbazar, all in the Dhalai District of Central Tripura, which shares borders with Bangladesh both on its North West and its South East. Earlier, in January 2012, Halam had been tasked with the consolidation of NLFT’s position in the Khowai-Kamalpur, covering the Khowai District and the bordering Kamalpur area in Dhalai District.
Referring to revelations by NLFT-BM cadres, Dhanu Koloi, Bishu Koloi, Asitu Mog, Dolphin Koloi and Ratasree Koloi, who were arrested on June 17, 2012, the Tripura Police indicated that NLFT-BM had recently recruited some 70 new cadres into the outfit, and these were currently undergoing arms training in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Worryingly, Intelligence reports of June 18, 2012, noted that 27 former militants in the State, who had earlier surrendered to authorities, had gone ‘missing’. Police suspect they have rejoined their outfits, aided overground sympathizers.
This defection is, however, only of the total of 1,705 surrendered militants in Tripura. Chief Minister Sarkar, on March 6, 2012, giving details, noted, “During the past 14 years, 1,705 extremists of different outfits have surrendered to the Government. Of the 1,705 surrendered militants, 1,285 have been given economic rehabilitation and embarked on a new life with their families”.
In its effort to establish its dominance in the State, NLFT-BM has reportedly ‘tamed’ its rival ATTF. An April 22, 2012, report indicated that NLFT-BM, under the leadership of Sachin Debbarma, had captured the ATTF ‘base camp’ at Satcherri (in Bangladesh) after a small clash, and looted all arms, including a few rocket launchers, from this dormant formation. Following the incident, ATTF supremo Ranjit Debbarma is said to have met with Biswamohan Debbarma at a hotel in Chittagong where an agreement was arrived at, with each group promising not to attack the other. According to the NLFT-BM ‘foreign secretary’ Utpal Debbarma, who was arrested on July 12, 2011, a merger of the two groups had been attempted earlier, but had failed.
Biswamohan Debbarma has also reportedly toured several countries, including Thailand, Singapore and China, to secure help for the outfit.
The abrupt strengthening of the NLFT-BM appears also to have resulted in a significant slowdown in the surrender of cadres. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) the number of militants who surrendered had reduced to just five in 2012, (until September 2) as compared to 33 in 2011, 127 in 2010, 241 in 2009 and 114 in 2008. The surrender of militant cadres over the 2008-2010 period had, in fact, pushed the ATTF to the verge of collapse (its current strength is estimated at barely 10 to 12 cadres) and cut the NLFT down to a bare 150-odd cadres. Nevertheless, three top leaders of the NLFT-BM – Kashirai Reang, Debadanta Reang and Brikhu Reang – surrendered to Security personnel at Khedachara in North Tripura District on July 4, 2012.
The NLFT-BM has also begun to target displaced Bru tribals of Mizoram, living in refugee camps in Tripura, for recruitment. The displaced Bru tribals, also known as Reangs, are the second largest tribe in Tripura, and are being roped in with the assurance of training and arms to fight for their cause. Crucially, the Bru refugee issue remains unresolved after nearly a decade-and-a-half. According to a recent Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) statement in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament), out of 5,000, Bru families displaced from Mizoram to Tripura during the ethnic violence of 1997-98, only about 800 Bru families have returned to Mizoram. Significantly, the original (undivided) NLFT had helped in the formation of the Bru militant group, Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), in 1996. The recruitment of Bru tribals may also help the NLFT-BM develop the Mamit District of Mizoram, which borders Assam (Hailakandi District) and Tripura (North Tripura), as well as Bangladesh, as a base.
Interestingly, on March 25, 2012, NLFT-BM rebels abducted six workers of an Assam-based firm, who were working in a fencing site on the Mizoram-Bangladesh border. NLFT-BM had demanded a ransom of INR 10.25 million and released the workers on April 30, 2012, after the firm reportedly paid INR 6 million. This is the first time NLFT-BM carried out such an operation outside Tripura. The abduction may also have been intended to block or delay the construction of the border fence, especially since the presently unfenced segment between Khantalong in Kanchapur Sub-division [North Tripura District] and Boalkhali in Gandacherra Sub-division, [Dhalai District], is reportedly used by NLFT-BM for its transborder movements.
Although the fencing of Tripura’s border with Bangladesh is almost complete, with just 125.5 kilometers out of 856 kilometers currently unfenced, the installation of floodlights, which is to be completed within 2012, appears to be well behind schedule, with only seven per cent of the work presently finished. The militants use the unfenced stretches on the hilly eastern border of the State with the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh for their movements. The unguarded boundary also helps illegal Bangladeshis to cross over. According to an unnamed official document cited by the media on June 23, 2012, an estimated 186,500 Bangladeshis have been deported after their detention in Tripura, since 1974. Further, between July 2011 and March 2012, 95 Myanmerese, including Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist tribals, were detained after they sneaked into the state through Bangladesh.
In 2011, Tripura witnessed five incidents of firing by militants, targeting fencing work. In one such incident, on January 31, 2011, NLFT-BM militants shot dead an official of the National Building Construction Corporation (NBCC), identified as C.N. Muni, and injured his driver, at a remote tribal settlement near the Indo-Bangladesh border in the North Tripura District. Muni was in-charge of the Shewapara border-fencing site of NBCC.
NLFT-BM has also been demanding a portion of the funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) from poor tribal residents, as ‘donation’, in remote tribal villages located in the North Tripura and Dhalai Districts. The group’s involvement in the Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) business, drug peddling, cannabis cultivation, smuggling to Bangladesh and the Middle East, and the production of pornographic films, has also been documented. According to sources in the State Home Department, NLFT has abducted more than 30 people from remote tribal villages in 2012 alone, and has extorted INR 9 million from different individuals and institutions by mobilizing a section of surrendered militants.
The group has also suffered significant losses, including the arrest of NLFT-BM ‘vice president’ Subir Debbarma from Dhalai District on July 28, 2012, and the killing of one cadre at Majimonipur under Raishyabari Police Station in Dhalai District on July 22, 2012.
The NLFT-BM, moreover, has severe limitations of leadership. Reports suggest a power struggle between the group’s supremo Biswamohan Debbarma and Sachin Debbarma, who had defected from the ATTF with over a dozen cadres in 2010, and then joined the NLFT-BM in February 2011. Sachin was said to be close to Biswamohan, and the reasons for the fallout remain unknown, though there is speculation that the former may take over the group in the foreseeable future.
NLFT-BM is also coming under increasing pressure in Bangladesh, and reports indicate that ‘chairman’ Biswamohan had gone to Myanmar after the arrest of Utpal Debbarma, the group’s ‘foreign secretary’, to negotiate with United Liberation Front of Asom Anti-Talks Faction (ULFA-ATF) and Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) leaders to allow him to establish a permanent base there. The establishment of a base in Myanmar has become crucial to the group’s survival as Indo-Bangladesh relations have improved greatly in recent years, making operations increasingly difficult. NLFT-BM presently has an estimated 20 hideouts (eight to nine permanent camps and eleven transit camps) in Bangladesh. These include permanent hideouts located at Khagrachari, Segunbagan, Boalchari, and Sajak (with the last reportedly gaining prominence as it is along Mizoram-Myanmar border). On June 22, 2012, U.K. Bansal, Director-General (DG) of the Border Security Force (BSF), stated that the makeshift nature of camps of several militant outfits of the Northeast in Bangladesh made it difficult for the authorities to take action against them.
Both ULFA-ATF and NSCN-K leaders had reportedly agreed to provide space to the NLFT-BM for setting up a base in Myanmar, but on conditions, which included cadre strength, money, arms and ammunition. Biswamohan Debbarma had, however, reportedly failed to fulfill these terms even eight months after meeting with the ULFA-ATF and NSCN-K leaders, and has, consequently, been unable to set up base in Myanmar.
As the Assembly Elections approach, political mischief also appears to be afoot. Bijon Dhar, State Secretary of the ruling Communist Party of India – Marxist(CPI-M), on June 25, 2012, alleged that the militants who were arrested on June 17, 2012, along with INR 2.5 million, had informed the Police that the opposition Congress Party and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of India (INPT) were helping insurgent groups find fresh recruits among tribal youth, with the intention of destabilizing the State’s Left Front Government before the elections, as was the case in the 1988 polls. Around the February 1988 Assembly Elections, the then-militant Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) had killed an estimated 100 non-tribal people, and the CPI-M – led Left Front had been voted out of power. Meanwhile, on June 26, 2012, the Congress party accused the State Government of withdrawing cases of serious crimes against surrendered militants. State Congress leader Sudip Barman claimed that the CPI-M has withdrawn 1,300 criminal cases against 736 surrendered guerrillas. It is significant that the two rival parties had a significant role in raising and sustaining the original NLFT, which was backed by the Congress, and ATTF, backed by the CPI-M.
The Tripura Police has engineered one of the most dramatic victories against vicious and persistent insurgencies in the State. However, as Chief Minister Sarkar noted in February 2011, “Despite remarkable improvements, we believe there is no scope for complacency in dealing with insurgency.” This is particularly the case in the lunacy of the election season, where establishment political parties are tempted into unprincipled and disastrous alliances with lawless armed groups. The utmost caution is, at present, necessary, if the State is not to be drawn, once again, into the misfortune of widespread armed violence.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management