By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Tripura recorded just one militancy-related fatality in 2011, as against three in 2010, a remarkable contrast with the 514 fatalities recorded in 2000, when terrorism was at its peak in the State. The extremists have failed to recover from a sustained and well-crafted counter-insurgency campaign mounted over the early years of the new millennium, which had already decimated the State’s twin insurgencies by 2006. An unflagging focus, both of the State’s Police and its political leadership, has ensured a continuing erosion of the limited surviving capacities of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), the principal insurgent formation in the State. On June 15, 2011, the then Director General of Police (DGP) K. Salim Ali, noted further, in a media interview, “Development, largely coupled with the Bangladesh Government’s crackdown against Northeast India’s rebels, helped Tripura to persuade tribal guerrillas to give up the path of violence… Of the 66 Police Stations in Tripura, only three Police Station areas in the northern part – Kanchanpur, Chawmanu and Gandachara – have some militant presence. We will soon flush them out permanently.”
Clearly, the strike capabilities of the extremists have been crippled. Tripura is among the very few Indian States that has successfully dealt with a major insurgency. Nevertheless, remnants of extremist formations continue to engage in extortion and abduction for extortion. An October 21, 2011, report, citing Police data, disclosed that 74 persons, mostly tribals, had been abducted by NLFT and ATTF militants in the State in 2011, as against 114 and 121 persons in 2010 and 2009, respectively. The South Asia Terrorism Portal database, based on open media sources, recorded six prominent incidents of abduction, in which 30 persons were abducted, in 2011, as against four such incidents in 2010 in which number of abducted persons stood at 18. [These numbers are evident underestimates, as an overwhelming proportion of incidents, particularly in the more remote areas of the State, go unreported].
NLFT remains the most active militant group in the State. Apart from the several incidents of abduction, the group was involved in all the five incidents of firing recorded in 2011. On January 5, 2011, a five-member NLFT team, issued subscription receipts against the names of all Government employees of the Raisyabari area. The receipts demanded three percent of the salary from each Government employee as ‘subscription’ to the NLFT. Failure to comply, the notes declared, would result in death. There was, however, no further action in this regard.
Meanwhile, reports in August 2011 suggested that about 300 NLFT militants, including some 25 women, were undergoing training in the Sajek Hills and Tawolakantai areas of Bangladesh, and the Shan Province of Myanmar. The report also said that the outfit had procured 350 sophisticated Chinese weapons. There are at least three NLFT clusters present in Bangladesh, across the border from Dhalai District, and they regularly sneak into Indian Territory and move around in the deep interiors of the District. One group is led by Athara Babu, another by Bomtong aka Ananda Hari Jamatia, and the third by Lakshilung Halam.
A 15-member splinter group of the ATTF, headed by Sachin Debberma, has reportedly joined hands with NLFT. The NLFT has also reportedly taken over the ATTF ‘headquarters’ at Satcherri in Bangladesh.
On October 20, 2011, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) noted that the NLFT, ATTF, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Meitei extremist outfits of Manipur maintained close linkages to engage in subversive and violent activities in the Indian Northeast.
Meanwhile, despite suffering a vertical split on December 26, 2010, the ATTF remains marginally active in the State.
Not surprisingly, the Government continues the ban on these groups. An unnamed Tripura Home Department official was cited in media reports, stating, “Though the four-decade-old insurgency in Tripura has been largely tamed, the Tripura Government remains cautious and continues the ban on NLFT and ATTF.” He added, further, that the State Government had apprehensions that both NLFT and ATTF could increase their violent activities in the State ahead of the 2013 Assembly Elections. In September 2011, the State Government extended the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for another six months, to apply fully in 34 and partially in six of the 70 Police Station jurisdictions in the State.
Security Forces (SFs) arrested three militants in 2011, the same number of arrests that were made in 2010. Under pressure, the militants continued to surrender. As many as 31 militants, all belonging to NLFT, surrendered in five incidents in 2011. In 2010, the number of surrendered militants stood at 127. According to official records, over 8,075 tribal guerrillas of the ATTF, NLFT and other separatist outfits, have fled from Bangladeshi camps and surrendered before the Tripura Government since 1993.
In a significant development, on April 28, 2011, the State Government declared that all the promises offered at the time of signing a tripartite peace accord with the Nayanbanshi faction of the NLFT (NLFT-NB) on December 17, 2004, had been fulfilled. Bhuchuk Borok, ‘vice president’ of the NLFT-NB praised the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and State Government for their sincerity in fulfilling the terms of the peace accord. However, the process of rehabilitation of former rebels is yet to be completed.
2011 also witnessed peaceful elections for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), on February 24, 2011, with an 85 per cent voter turnout. The TTAADC consists of about 527 village committees at the grass roots. The Council was first constituted on January 15, 1982, and elected members were sworn in on January 18 in that year.
Settling another outstanding issue, as many as 3,341 Bru (also known as Reang) tribals, including 914 children below the age of 12, belonging to 648 families, were repatriated to Mizoram between November 2010 and May 2011. Thousands of Bru tribals had fled Mizoram in 1997, following ethnic clashes, which were triggered by the murder of Lalzawmliana, a Mizo game watcher working at Dampa Tiger Reserve near Persang village in Mamit District. Till November 30, 2011, a total of 785 families had been repatriated, and the process is still on.
Amidst all these developments, the infiltration/exfiltration of terrorists across the State’s porous borders, remained a major concern. The unguarded international border facilitates the easy movement of militants, foreign nationals as well as Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agents in the State. Reports suggest that a part of the State under the Gandacherra Sub-division of Dhalai District along the Tripura-Bangladesh international border had been transformed into a ‘free area’. The Government’s attempts to fence and light the borders have been blocked by the militants. 2011 witnessed as many as five incidents of firing by the militants, targeting fencing work. In one such incident on January 31, 2011, NLFT 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 hamlet near the Indo-Bangladesh border in the North Tripura District. Muni, in-charge of the Shewapara border fencing site of NBCC, was traveling in a vehicle when he was attacked.
On January 2, 2012, State Chief Secretary S.K. Panda acknowledged the hindrance in the border fencing exercise due to militant activities in some tribal hamlets. He referred to incidents of firing and extortion in tribal hamlets in Ambassa, Gandacherra and the newly formed Mohanpur Sub-division. For instance, fencing work was stalled for 48 hours in the Simna-II Sector from December 27, 2011, after militants opened fire on fencing workers. On November 25, 2011, Panda disclosed that work on the barbed wire fencing on the remaining 180 kilometers of the border had stopped after the MHA delayed payment. 676 kilometers of the 856 kilometer-long border has already been fenced, and 100 kilometers have been provided with the flood lighting. The problem of infiltration/exfiltration is, consequently, limited to the remaining 180 kilometers.
Despite dramatic improvements, the terrorist infrastructure continues to exist across the border, though the number of militant camps has diminished significantly. On September 1, 2011, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar disclosed that about 14 camps belonging to militants operating in Tripura remained active in Bangladesh. The number has come down appreciably as Sarkar, on March 15, 2003, had put the number of such camps at 51. On September 25, 2011, however, then DGP Salim Ali put the figure at around 20 hideouts in Bangladesh. Ali also mentioned reports of some militant leaders procuring Bangladesh ration cards and ‘settling’ there with their families.
The decision, according to a January 7, 2012, report, to deploy two battalions of Border Security Force (BSF), in addition to the existing 16 battalions, is another measure towards sustaining the pressure on the insurgents.
Tribal militancy in Tripura is rapidly losing ground and is now engaged in a struggle for bare survival. Nevertheless, as Chief Minister Manik Sarkar rightly noted during the Chief Ministers’ Conference on Internal Security on February 1, 2011, “Despite remarkable improvement in the situation, we believe there is no scope for complacency in dealing with insurgency.”
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management