ISSN 2330-717X

India: Ethnic Tensions Revive In Tripura – Analysis

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By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*

On August 3, 2021, suspected militants from the National Liberation Front of Tripura-Biswamohan Debbarma faction (NLFT-BM) killed two Border Security Force (BSF) personnel in an ambush, in an area under Chamanu Police Station in Dhalai District.

This is the first insurgency-linked incident targeting Security Force (SF) personnel reported in the State since 2014. On November 17, 2014, a BSF trooper, identified as Adil Abbas, and a civilian driver, identified as Himari Rangtor, were killed when suspected NLFT (faction not identified) militants ambushed their vehicle in a remote area bordering Pusparam Para under the Vangmoon Police station in North Tripura District.

On January 15, 2021, based on the confession of NLFT-BM militant Sangaram Reang, Police recovered the decomposing body of Litan Nath from the Ranir Para area of Khedachera Police Station in the North Tripura District. Litan Nath, a trader, was abducted from his home at Joyrampara in the Panisagar area of North Tripura District on November 28, 2020.

The last insurgency-linked civilian fatality in the State was reported on December 14, 2017, when the body of a former NLFT militant was recovered from Tuikrama Lake in Sepahijala District. According to the Police, he was killed following a dispute over sharing of money from the sale of several sophisticated arms stolen from the ‘armory’ of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), to a drug smuggling gang in Nagaland.

The last terrorist killing was reported on July 23, 2012, when an NLFT militant was killed at Majimonipur, 15 kilometers from the Raishyabari Police Station in Dhalai District.

At the peak of the insurgency, militancy claimed as many as 514 lives in Tripura in 2000 alone, including 453 civilians, 16 SFs personnel and 45 terrorists. Fatalities remained in triple digits till 2004 and in double digit till 2009. However, only 14 fatalities (four civilians, six SFs personnel and four terrorists) have been recorded since 2010.

A gradual improvement in the security situation of the State has been evident as most militant groups were grounded due to successful Counter-Insurgency operations led by the Tripura Police. Out of the five factions of NLFT, one of the two major Tripura-based terrorist groups, three factions – one jointly commanded by Montu Koloi and Kamini Debbarma, one led by Nayanbashi Jamatiya aka Nakbar, and another by Subir Debbarma – were disbanded in 2004, 2006, and 2019, respectively. A fourth faction, formed in 2014, under ‘commander’ Prabhat Jamatya is dormant. The NLFT-BM has also weakened considerably. The other Tripura-based terrorist outfit, ATTF is largely dormant. The last incident of killing that ATTF was involved in was on August 6, 2007, when ATTF militants killed three civilians under Khowai police station in the West Tripura District.

Worryingly, however, a ‘confidential report’ prepared on inputs from State and central security agencies, based on the discussions during the 52nd Directional-level Lead Intelligence Agency held on June 15, 2021, states that NLFT-BM is trying to revive its activities in Tripura, especially in the Khowai and Dhalai Districts. The report asserts,

A small group led by Dilip Debbarma has influence in Baramura Ranges, Khowai, Champahour, Mugiakami, Teliamura Police Stations under Khowai District and subsequently, the movement of this group is observed in Ganganagar, Raishyabari, Gandachera and Chawmanu under district Dhalai.

Other leaders of the outfit are scattered across the Northeast region and beyond. ‘Advisor’ Biswa Mohan Debbarma is suspected to be in Mizoram; ‘commander’ Jacob Hrawngkhal in Myanmar; ‘secretary-general’ Utpal Debbarma, ‘finance secretary’ Sonadhan Debbarma and ‘youth affairs, culture, agriculture secretary’ Sachin Debbarma in Bangladesh. The present cadre strength is estimated at 40.

Further, reports indicate that surrendered militants may rejoin militancy. A July 9, 2021, report, quoting security sources, asserted,

As per available inputs, the insurgents, who have surrendered in the recent past, are not satisfied with the rehabilitation policy being implemented in the State. So, many surrendered militants may again opt to rejoin the insurgent groups.

The surrender-cum-rehabilitation policy for northeast insurgents, last revised in 2018, is funded 90:10 by the Union and respective State Governments. The policy gives benefits such as an immediate grant of INR 400,000 to each surrendered militant and a stipend of INR 6,000 per month to each for a period of three years; besides additional incentives for weapons/ammunition surrendered and vocational training to the cadres for self-employment.

In the meantime, ethnic relations amongst the communities – one of the principal reasons behind the rise in insurgency in the State – are again under strain. This is increasingly the case, after the January 16, 2020, agreement between the Bru organizations in Mizoram and Tripura, and the Union Government, regarding permanent settlement of 34,000 displaced Bru tribals from Mizoram in Tripura. The agreement allows the 34,000 Bru refugees to be settled in Tripura and with developmental aid from the Union Government.

Several clashes have since been reported between the displaced Bru tribals from Mizoram in Tripura and the locals. Most recently, on July 26, 2021, at least 13 people were injured in a clash over a piece of land,  that took place between the Bru and Chorai tribal communities in Damcherra village near the Kaskao Bru relief camp in North Tripura District, near the Tripura-Mizoram border. After the clashes, 640 people of the Chorai community reportedly fled to the neighboring State of Assam.

Meanwhile, according to a July 31, 2021, report, the Langkaih (Mamit District of Mizoram) branch of the Young Mizo Association (YMA), a Mamit-based influential civil society organization of Mizoram, urged the Tripura Government to arrest those responsible asserting,

On Monday [July 26], at around 11 am at Damcherra area, some Brus from Kaskao acted violently upon some Chorai people and burnt their houses and intimidated women and children. We find it extremely unfortunate and extend our sympathy towards the victims. The Indian Constitution prohibits communal violence and we call upon the Tripura Government to nab the culprits and punish them as per law. We also call upon the Tripura government to make sure that the Chorai tribal people are able to peacefully return to the Damcherra area.

The YMA has taken up the the Chorai community’s plight because the Chorai is a kindred tribe related to the Mizo-Kuki-Chin community.

Further, the issue of Chakma migrants, which had not been raised till recently either by locals or settlers in the State, is now gaining prominence. The Council of Tiprasa Hoda, an indigenous umbrella tribal organisation in Tripura, comprising six tribal cultural bodies, has written to Union Home Minister Amit Shah seeking his intervention to identify and deport the illegal Chakma migrants from the Dhalai District of the State. In the letter, the group warned,

In the recent past, some feud occurred between the locals and the illegal Chakma settlers. Henceforth, if no action is taken in due course of time, a massive communal disturbance may occur in near future.

Chakma’s, who inhabit neighboring Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHTs) area, had migrated to India after the construction of the Kaptai Dam in the Rangamati District in the 1960s under the East Pakistan administration, and subsequently during the insurgent uprising in CHTs in the 1980s.  Presently, the Chakma community has settled in Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Before recent developments, the issue of their origin was under question only in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.

Moreover, tribal identity-based politics has gained momentum since the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTADC) elections were fought on issues such as ‘greater Tipraland;’ Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); National Register for Citizens (NRC); Detection, Deletion and Deportation of illegal immigrants; and the implementation of the Inner Line Permit system. TTADC elections were successfully held on April 6, 2021. The Tipra Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) emerged victorious in the election.

On June 25, 2021, TTAADC passed a resolution for the creation of a Greater Tipraland. The structure of the proposed Tipraland is not clear. TTAADC member Runeil Debbarma, who moved the resolution in the Council, declared,

Under the Greater Tipraland concept, a powerful council would be constituted for the all-round socio-economic development of the indigenous tribals residing in the eight northeastern States and the neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh. Such councils exist in European countries. We want to resolve the tribals’ basic problems permanently.

Opposing the move, on June 28, 2021, the radical Bengali group Amra Bangali state secretary Gouranga Pal stated,

Tripura is a State inhabited by mixed communities… They are moving towards forming Tipraland with the whole of Tripura in the name of Greater Tipraland. This claim is unfair, unreasonable and unacceptable.

The confusion on the Greater Tipraland demand has the potential to fan unrest in the majority community of the State. Indeed, NLFT-BM reportedly tried to unsuccessfully influence the recent TTAADC election process.

The ethnic politics of competitive extremism received another flip when the State’s ruling Bharatiya Janta Party’s ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), demanded a separate Tribal state. On July 22, 2021, IPFT met Amit Shah in New Delhi and demanded a separate State of Tipraland, including the present TTADC areas. General Secretary of IPFT Mevar Kumar Jamatia asserted, “During our discussion, we had again raised the demand for a separate tribal state ‘Tipraland’.”

The peace achieved in the State is currently facing difficulties due to the rising politics of ethnic polarization and the ‘insider-outsider’ question. Insurgents formations that had lost their prominence are trying to exploit these issues and reports of insurgents rejoining militant ranks, though the numbers are minuscule at present, are certainly a matter of concern.

*Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

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SATP

SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).

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