By Nijeesh N.*
Tripura once again remained as the most peaceful among the seven troubled States of India’s Northeastern region, in terms of insurgency-related violence, as the State Government continued the stabilization process through 2017. In 2017, the entire Northeastern region registered its lowest insurgency-linked fatalities since 1992 (103 – including 34 civilians, 13 Security Force (SF) personnel and 56 militants; SATP data available since 1992). Tripura and Mizoram did not account for a single such fatality in 2017.
This was the third consecutive year that the Tripura did not record a single insurgency-linked fatality. The last such fatality in the State was recorded on November 17, 2014, when a Border Security Force (BSF) trooper and a civilian driver were killed when cadres of the Biswamohan Debbarma faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM) ambushed their vehicle at Pusparam Para in North Tripura District. In 2014, Tripura recorded a total of four fatalities, including two civilians and two SF personnel, in three incidents. Since 2010, Tripura had consistently maintained a ‘peaceful’ status in this region, with insurgency-linked fatalities remained in single digits; three fatalities in 2010, one in 2011, two in 2012, no such fatalities in 2013, four in 2014, and again zero fatalities in 2015 and 2016. Significantly, at the peak of militancy in 2000, Tripura recorded 514 fatalities, including 453 civilians, 45 militants and 16 SF personnel, an extraordinary number for a population of under 3.2 million at that time.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) alliance won a historic majority over the Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM)-led Left Front alliance in the Tripura State Assembly elections held on February 18, 2018, ending 25 years of uninterrupted Left Front rule in the State. No election-related violence was recorded during the entire process, and the polls registered an 89.8 per cent voter turnout. Out of a total of 60 constituencies (including the Charilam constituency where elections were held on March 12), BJP won 36 seats; IPFT won eight and the CPM won 16. BJP’s legislative party leader Biplab Kumar Deb took the oath as Chief Minister of the first BJP Government in Tripura on March 9, 2018.
A single incident of abduction was recorded in Tripura in 2017. On November 24, 2017, suspected militants abducted four employees of the Tripura Gramin Bank from the Khasiamangal area of Teliamura subdivision in Khowai District. The abducted persons were identified as the Bank’s Taidu Branch Manager Tanumoy Bhattacharjee (30), Sujit Chandra Dey (28) Raktim Bhowmik (31) and Subrata Debbarma (32). The abducted Bank employees were released on December 1, 2017, near Manik Bazar in the Teliamura sub-division of Khowai District. Police subsequently arrested nine persons in connection with the incident and recovered INR 38 lakh from them on December 2, 2017. According to Police the kidnappers had initially demanded a ransom of INR 65 lakh but set all four of the abductees free after receiving INR 50 lakh. According to partial data on the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), no extortion or abduction incident was recorded through 2016. Five persons were abducted in three incidents in 2015.
SFs continued to maintain pressure on the degraded militancy in the State. 22 militants were arrested in 2017, including three cadres of the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO); one of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and one Islamist terrorist. No incident of arrest was reported through 2016. Nine militants were arrested in 2015.
Feeling the pressure, five militants (all of NLFT-BM) surrendered in 2017. In one incident, a group of four NLFT-BM militants, identified as Milan Mohan Tripura, Hiranjay Tripura, Danta Kumar Tripura and Raiakumar Tripura fled their hideout in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh and surrendered to India’s Border Security Force (BSF) at Gandacherra in Dhalai District on August 26, 2017. The surrendered cadre disclosed to the Police that NLFT was reeling under a severe financial crisis and even food and other basic necessities were not available in the camps in Bangladesh. During 2016, a total of 27 militants, all from NLFT-BM, surrendered in the State. One NLFT militant has surrendered so far in 2018 (data till March 18, 2018).
Residual threats, nevertheless, persist. On February 14, 2018, the then Chief Minister of the State, Manik Sarkar, stated that the banned insurgent group, NLFT was still active across the international border in Bangladesh, and were trying to “divide the State”. According to a July 27, 2017, report, the number of NLFT cadres sheltered across the border had reduced to about 90 from an estimated strength of 800 cadres in 2005. The report further said that though the NLFT had lost its striking power a long time back, its leadership was on a mission to recruit new cadres, particularly in order to remain relevant in an election year (2018). Earlier, in May 2017, it was reported that the NLFT-BM had selected Subir Debbarma aka Yamorok (45), as the new ‘president’ of the outfit; Biswamohan Debbarma, who had led the militant group for long years, had been made ‘advisor’ of the outfit. The report further added that the new leader extended support to those political parties who were ‘waging war’ for ‘Twipraland’.
Though the other major militant outfit that operated in the State, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), is now largely inactive, there are some indications that it is trying to regroup in 2017. On November 11, 2017, Police arrested ATTF ‘chief’ Ranjit Debbarma from his house at Sidhai under the Mohanpur Sub-Division of Khowai District on sedition charges. According to reports, Ranjit Debbarma, who has been out on bail since 2015, recently initiated steps to reorganize all former insurgents around a demand of their proper rehabilitation, and threatened to launch a large-scale agitation if an assurance given during their surrender was not fulfilled. At a meeting at Dushki near Teliamura on November 9, 2017, he reportedly challenged the merger of princely Tripura with the Indian Union in 1949. The Police promptly registered a sedition case against him.
Significantly, on November 14, 2017, more than 120 surrendered cadres of the ATTF started an indefinite hunger strike in Agartala to press for the fulfilment of their demands. The former militants have been in talks with the State Government since 2007 for post-surrender support and rehabilitation. The ‘general secretary’ of the pre-1998 ATTF returnees Sailen Kumar Bru stated: “Of the 214 ATTF cadres who surrendered in 1995, 192 are still engaged in talks with the Government for pending rehabilitation support. Of these, 177 have been provided housing support.”
On February 7, 2018, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju informed the Rajya Sabha (the Upper House of Indian Parliament) that the ‘Scheme for Surrender-cum-Rehabilitation of Militants in the North-East’ has been modified to be more effective and will be operative from April 1, 2018. According to the revised scheme, the monthly allowance to surrendered militants would be increased from INR 3,000 to INR 6,000 and the militants will receive a lump sum relief of INR 400,000, up from INR 1, 50,000.
The long-standing issue relating to the repatriation of displaced Bru (Reang) refugees, housed in six camps in Kanchanpur of North Tripura District, to Mizoram, again reached a standstill as the refugees rejected a Government of India (GoI)’s proposal for financial assistance on February 23, 2018. The Mizoram Additional Secretary for Home Lalbiakzama on March 2, 2018 stated, “The GoI agreed to the 5,413 refugee families that each family would be provided with a package of INR 130,000 besides INR 5,000 per family per month and free ration for two years. However, the Bru refugees in the relief camps rejected the proposals of the Ministry during a meeting at Naisingpara Relief Camp on February 23, 2018. It is unlikely that the repatriation will begin according to schedule.” Earlier, the repatriation was scheduled to begin from first week of March 2018. In January 2018, the umbrella organisation of displaced Brus, the Mizoram Bru Displace People’s Forum (MBDPF) submitted a memorandum to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, in which they demanded a provision of INR 1.5 million to each repatriated Bru family and Government jobs for all able-bodied youths. Though the GoI had already released INR 79 million as the first instalment for repatriation expenditure, the State Government estimated that over INR 123 million would be required for the purpose.
Apart from militant infiltration, the problem of illegal migration from Bangladesh, especially Rohingya Muslims, also creates problems along the 856 kilometre-long Indo-Bangladesh International Border (IB) in Tripura. According to a October 18, 2017, report, BSF sounded an alert along the India-Bangladesh border in Tripura to check the influx of Rohingyas. On January 13, 2018, Police arrested six teenaged Rohingya Muslims from the Dharmanagar Railway Station in North Tripura District. According to Police, the youngsters, all from Myanmar and aged around 18 years, entered Tripura from Bangladesh on January 12, 2018, and were trying to get to Hyderabad (Telangana) by train. Earlier, on November 29, 2017, BSF Director-General K.K. Sharma disclosed that BSF troopers had arrested 87 Rohingya Muslims along the Indo-Bangladesh border between January 2017 and October 31, 2017, of whom 76 were sent back to Bangladesh.
The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) has set a deadline to complete the fencing of Indo-Bangladesh border by March 2019. An unnamed Government official reportedly stated, on October 11, 2017, that the Government had sanctioned the order to fence 3,326 Kilometres of the 4,096 Kilometres long India-Bangladesh border. “We have already completed 2,745.69 kilometres of fencing… the remaining portion will be completed by March, 2019.” Although, more than 90 per cent of the fencing along the Tripura border has been completed, the mountainous terrain, dense forests and other hindrances make the borders porous and vulnerable, enabling illegal immigrants and intruders to cross over.
The issue of the renewed demand for the formation of a separate State for the indigenous tribes of Tripura – ‘Twipraland’ – drew attention again when IPFT, the tribal party demanding a separate state, conducted a 10-day ‘blockade agitation’ by obstructing the State’s key National Highway (NH) and the lone railway line between July 10 and 20, 2017. Though IPFT did not receive much support from mainstream political parties, its President Narendra Chandra Debbarma, while announcing the withdrawal of the blockade on July 20, 2017, declared, “Governor Tathagata Roy communicated our demand to the Central Government. We have advanced one step to achieve the separate State for the tribals. We have to go a long way to achieve the desired goal.” Crucially, BJP allied with IPFT by sharing 10 tribal reserved seats in the Assembly election. After the election, two IPFT MLAs, including its president Narendra Chandra Debbarma, were appointed as Ministers in Biplab Kumar Deb’s new Government.
With extraordinary success in eliminating insurgency from its soil, Tripura has become a role model for other insurgency-afflicted States in India’s Northeast. It would be a challenge for the Biplab Kumar Deb led Government to maintain the gains his predecessor achieved and to sustain the multidimensional approach, to counter residual issues such as tribal discontent arising out of relentless demographic shifts in the State.
Research Assistant; Institute for Conflict Management