By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On March 4, 2022, Uttar Bihar Tripura aka Wathai, a militant of the Parimal Debbrama faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-PD), surrendered before the Assam Rifles and Military Intelligence. Uttar Bihar joined NLFT-PD in March 2021 and received two months basic training at the New Zupui Camp, Bangladesh, to operate a M16 Rifle, 9mm Pistol and AK-47.
On January 1, 2022, two militants of the Biswamohan Debbrama faction of the NLFT (NLFT-BM) surrendered before the Border Security Force (BSF).
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a total of 10 militants have surrendered in 2022 thus far (data till March 13). 23 militants had surrendered in 2021 and seven in 2020. Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on insurgencies in the Northeast, a total of 3,791 militants have surrendered in the State.
Though no militant has been arrested in 2022 thus far, SFs arrested 14 militants in 2021, in addition to 12 in 2020. On March 12, 2021, Parimal Debbarma, the chief of NLFT-PD, was arrested in Aizawl District (Mizoram). A total of 1,090 militants have bene arrested since March 6, 2000.
The last militant fatality in the state was recorded way back on July 23, 2012, when one National Liberation Front of Tripura (faction not identified) militant was killed at Majimonipur, 15 kilometers from the Raishyabari Police Station in Dhalai District.
Worryingly, however, the State recorded two Security Force (SF) fatalities in 2021. On August 3, 2021, suspected militants from the NLFT-BM killed two BSF personnel in an ambush in an area under the Chamanu Police Station in Dhalai District. The previous fatal incident targeting the SFs was on November 17, 2014, when 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.
The last civilian fatality in the State was recorded 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.
At peak, Tripura had recorded a total of 514 fatalities, including 453 civilians, 16 SF personnel and 45 militants, in 2000. A maximum of 50 SF personnel were killed in 1997, while a high 74 militant deaths was recorded in 2004. For 12 consecutive years (1993 to 2004) the State registered three-digit fatalities. In the subsequent five years (2005 to 2009), fatalities dropped into the double digits: 70 (2005), 70 (2006), 35 (2007), 28 (2008) and 12 (2009). Of the 12 years since 2010 (2010 and 2021), no fatality was recorded in six (2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2020), while the remaining six recorded single digit fatalities: three (2010), one (2011), three (2012), four (2014), one (2017) and two (2021).
Meanwhile, Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections were successfully held on April 6, 2021. No militant linked violence was reported during the polls. TTAADC covers 7,132.56 square kilometers of the total 10,300 square kilometers area of the State, nearly 70 per cent.
Further, the first phase of Bru settlement in Tripura has been completed. According to a February 10, 2022, report, 1,454 Bru families were settled permanently in Tripura. The work on the next two phases is under process. Manas Dev, Officer on Special Duty for Tripura Bru Rehabilitation and Relief Project disclosed,
The first phase is almost over and we have already started the second phase of the resettlement process. At present, first and second phase are running parallel and shoulder to shoulder. Measures have been initiated for the resettlement process in third phase.
Over 30,000 Bru tribesmen from nearly 5,000 families were displaced from Mizoram to Tripura in 1997 following the killing of a Mizo Forest guard, allegedly by Brus, and subsequent violence.
After numerous failed efforts to resettle them in Mizoram, a three-phase process to permanently settle them in Tripura commenced on April 19, 2021, after the signing of the January 16, 2020, Bru-Reang agreement, between the Governments of India, Tripura and Mizoram, and Bru-Reang representatives. In the agreement it was decided to settle the families permanently in Tripura.
While there are clear indications of the consolidation of a peaceful milieu in the State, grave dangers are emerging as a result of rising ethnic identity-based political mobilization.
Significantly, the Tipra Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) emerged victorious in the 2021 TTAADC election fought on polarizing issues such as the creation of ‘Greater Tipraland.’ On June 25, 2021, the TIPRA-led Council passed a resolution calling for the creation of ‘Greater Tipraland’. TIPRA chairman Pradyot Bikram Kishore Debbarman declared, “Our existence is in danger today. Greater Tipraland is needed to survive. Even after long years of independence we are deprived…”
The issues raised by TIPRA have negative ethnic connotations, potentially pitting indigenous tribals against Bengalis. Amra Bengali, an organisation that claims to represent Bengali interests in the State, is a vocal opponent of the ‘Greater Tipraland’ idea, and on December 3, 2021, its leadership warned ‘Greater Tipraland’ agitators of ‘consequences’ in case Bengalis were ‘deliberately provoked.’
The genesis of the insurgencies in Tripura can be traced back to the massive influx of Bengali refugees from the then-East Pakistan following Partition, which reduced the indigenous people of the State to a minority status. The ST population which was at 50.09 per cent in the 1941 census came down to 30.09 per cent in the census of 1951. A second wave of mass migration followed the War of Independence in East Pakistan, and the creation of Bangladesh, which brought the tribal population in the State down to just over 28 per cent in 1981 census. The implications of this demographic change manifested themselves in the control over land, control of trade and business, and government jobs in the State. Increasing tribal resentment led to armed ethno-nationalist mobilization against the Bengalis. The insecurity and perceived threat to the tribal identity is now being articulated in terms of the ‘Greater Tipraland’ movement.
Amidst these concerns, the BSF continues to maintain vigil along the Indo-Bangladesh international boundary. BSF has leveraged technology to introduce what it calls the ‘smart surveillance system to enhance border domination in most smuggling- and infiltration-prone areas’ at 24 physical locations. Also, as part of strengthening border management, 95 smart surveillance cameras have been installed. Of the 856-kilometer international boundary with Bangladesh in the state, 67 kilometers, stretching across South Tripura, Sipahijala and Dhalai Districts, remain unfenced. In 2021, the BSF arrested at least 221 persons (97 Bangladeshi nationals, 118 Indian Nationals and six from other countries), while illegally crossing the border to enter India. BSF also recovered 88,417 Yaba tablets and 48,200 bottles of Phensedyl, besides other contraband, in 2021.
The peace established in the State now being undermined by the rising politics of ethnic polarization and the un-ending question of political and economic privileges revolving around the vexed ‘insider-outsider’ question. For the moment militancy remains subdued. However, the mishandling of the current situation could easily combine with divisive politics, potentially leading to the revival of the largely discredited militant groups.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management