India: Entrenched Faultlines In Tripura – Analysis
By Mutum Kenedy Singh*
On February 25, 2023, a National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) cadre, identified as Bidhu Debbarma, was handed over to the Tripura Police through Assam’s Sutarkandi Border Observation Post (BOP), by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB).
On January 4, 2023, the cadres of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) shot dead a local tribal leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in the Sadar (East) subdivision of Tripura.
The January 4, 2023, civilian fatality was recorded in Tripura after a hiatus of five years. The last insurgency-linked civilian fatality in the state was 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 the sharing of money from the sale of several sophisticated arms stolen from the ATTF ‘armory’, to a drug smuggling gang in Nagaland.
NLFT and ATTF remain active in the state, although their capacity to carry out mobilization and terrorist operations has declined over the years. The insurgencies had been effectively suppressed by 2006-08, though occasional activities persisted, prompting the Union Ministry of Home Affairs’ (UMHA) to reimpose a five-year ban on the two militant groups on October 3, 2018. The groups were first proscribed in 1997, and the ban has since been periodically extended.
Three out of the five factions of the NLFT have given up violent activities. Two factions of the NLFT, one jointly led by Montu Koloi and Kamini Debbarma, and the other led by Nayanbashi Jamatiya aka Nakbar, were disbanded in 2004 and 2006, respectively. The last to join the negotiation process was the Subir Debbarma faction (NLFT-SD). On August 10, 2019, a tripartite agreement was signed between NLFT-SD, the Union Government, and the Tripura Government. Another minor faction, led by ‘commander’ Prabhat Jamatya, went dormant in 2014. The fifth, the National Liberation Front of Tripura-Biswamohan (NLFT-BM), though, remains active, but has weakened considerably.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), one militant has surrendered in 2023 (data till March 16). 16 militants surrendered to join the mainstream in 2022 and 23 in 2021.
Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on insurgencies in the Northeast, a total of 3,798 militants have surrendered in the state. So far, no militants have been arrested in 2023; while SFs arrested three militants in 2022, and 14 in 2021. A total of 1,093 militants have been arrested since March 6, 2000.
In 2023, so far, there have been no SFs fatalities in the state (data till March 16). The last such fatality was recorded on August 19, 2022, when suspected NLFT-BM militants killed a Border Security Force (BSF) trooper, Head Constable Girjesh Kumar Uddey, in Kanchanpur sub-division in North Tripura District. Since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on insurgencies in the state, there have been 214 SFs, fatalities till date.
The last militant fatality in the state was recorded way back on July 23, 2012, when one NLFT militant was killed at Majimonipur under the Raishyabari Police Station in Dhalai District.
When militancy was at its peak, Tripura recorded a total of 514 fatalities in 2000, including 453 civilians, 16 SFs personnel, and 45 militants. A maximum of 50 SF personnel were killed in 1997, while 2004 recorded the highest militant fatalities, with 74 killed.
For 12 consecutive years (1993–2004), the state registered three-digit fatalities. In the subsequent five years (2005–2009), 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 low single-digit fatalities: three (2010), one (2011), three (2012), four (2014), one (2017), and two (2021).
The insurgency emerged in Tripura during the 1980s due to friction between the indigenous tribal population and the massive influx of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) following Partition in 1947, and in waves thereafter. This influx reduced the indigenous people of the state, who were predominantly tribal, to a minority status. The Scheduled Tribe (ST) population, which was at 50.09% in the 1941 Census, was reduced to 30.09% in the 1951 Census.
The second major wave of mass migration in Tripura was occasioned by the War of Independence in East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. This brought the tribal population in the state down to just over 28% in the 1981 census. The implications of this demographic change manifested themselves in the state’s control over land, trade, business, and government jobs. Bengalis, who were in the majority, were seen as dominating these sectors, leading to growing tribal resentment.
This resentment ultimately led to the emergence of the armed ethno-nationalist mobilization against the Bengalis. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, various tribal insurgent groups were formed, including the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV). These groups aimed to establish an independent state for the indigenous people of Tripura, free from Bengali dominance.
In recent years, the insecurity and perceived threat to the tribal identity have been articulated in terms of the ‘Greater Tipraland’ movement, which seeks to create a separate state for the indigenous people of Tripura.
In the recently concluded State Assembly elections in Tripura, held on February 16, 2023, the Tipra Motha Party (TMP) rearticulated the demand for ‘Greater Tipraland’ in its election manifesto, along with a one-time package for militants who surrendered. On the strength of these emotive issues, it was able to win 13 seats in the 60-member Assembly. On the other hand, the BJP’s strength in the Assembly has come down from 36 in 2018 to 32 in 2023, with its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), winning one seat. While it has a clear majority, the alliance is on shaky ground. In a last-ditch attempt, Home Minister Amit Shah held a meeting with the TMP leader and former royal scion of the Tripura royal family, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Deb Barman, on March 8, 2023, to discuss his demands and convince him to join the Government. However, Pradyot declined the BJP’s request, declaring:
Unless we get a written assurance from the government about the constitutional solutions to our ‘Greater Tipraland State’ demand, we will not join the government, and rather sit in the opposition, maintaining an equal distance from all the parties.
On March 8, 2023, TMP announced that the Union Government will soon appoint an interlocutor to study and resolve the TMP’s demands within three months after the meeting with Amit Shah. However, on March 9, 2023, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Saha rejected the ‘Greater Tipraland State’ demand raised by the TMP. These ingrained faultlines will persist, and a resolution seems unlikely between the tribals and the Bengali population in the State. Amra Bengali, an organization that claims to represent Bengali interests in the State, is a vocal opponent of the ‘Greater Tipraland’ idea, and its leadership warned ‘Greater Tipraland’ agitators of ‘consequences’ in case Bengalis were ‘deliberately provoked.’
The TMP captured the politically important Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in April 2021, and has been demanding the elevation of the areas under the autonomous body to the ‘Greater Tipraland State’ under Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.
The Bru issue continues to affect the State of Tripura since many of the displaced Brus from Mizoram after clashes with the majority Mizo community in 1995, took shelter in refugee camps in the Kanchanpur sub-division of the State. To tackle the issue of resettlement of the Brus, an agreement was signed on January 16, 2020, between the Government of India, the Government of Tripura, the Government of Mizoram, and Bru representatives to permanently resettle 6,959 Bru displaced families in various locations in Tripura.
Additionally, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs disclosed that the timeline for resettlement of Bru displaced families in re-settlement locations under the Bru agreement of January 16, 2020, had been extended to February 28, 2023.
According to a Tripura State Government report of December 15, 2022, a total of 2,583 families have shifted to re-settlement locations after the construction of houses. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs also stated that a total of twelve resettlement locations in four Districts had been identified. They are Bongaphapara, Haduklaupara and Ultacherra in the Dhalai District; Kaskaupara, Wainbukcherra-Ranipara, Bhandarima-Pushporampara, Hamsapara, Gachirampara and Ashapara in North Tripura; West Kalajhari and Silachara in Gomti District; and Kala Lawlang in the South District. The Government of Tripura highlighted that the selection for all these permanent resettlement locations was made in consultation with the representatives of Bru organizations, followed by a joint site visit with public representatives, District administration officials, and other officials.
Meanwhile, the porous international border with Bangladesh is yet to be fully fenced, as efforts to finish fencing and floodlight installation work on a 31-kilometre porous stretch between India and Bangladesh in Tripura is still ongoing. In addition to tribal insurgents such as NLFT and ATTF, many Rohingya ‘refugees’ from the troubled Rakhine State in Myanmar have tried to exploit these porous borders to enter India illegally. Since the beginning of the Myanmar Army’s crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in August 2017, there have been 11 incidents of arrest, in which 110 Rohingya refugees have been arrested in the State. Some of the recent incidents of arrest include,
On February 19, 2023, 10 Rohingyas were arrested at Agartala Railway Station in the Dukli Block of West Tripura District.
On January 25, 2023, six Rohingyas were arrested by the Tripura Police from the Matinagar area under the Kamalasagar Assembly segment of Sepahijala District.
On December 25, 2022, nine Rohingyas, including five females and four males were arrested from Agartala Railway Station in the Dukli Block of West Tripura District.
On May 24, 2019, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) sounded an alert about plans by the Bangladesh-based terrorist outfit Jamat-ul Mujahideen-Bangladesh (JMB), to make permanent bases within 10 kilometers of the portion of the India-Bangladesh international border in Tripura, adding to India’s security concerns. On March 2, 2022, three youth were arrested for their suspected links with the JMB at Khadyokhola village under the Bishalgarh Police Station (PS) in Sepahijala District.
Although the insurgency in the state has been successfully neutralized, the rising politics of ethnic polarization and the unending question of political and economic privileges revolving around the vexed ‘insider-outsider’ question between the Bengalis and the Tripuris continue to present a significant challenge to authorities. Entrenched faultlines, such as the issue of ‘Greater Tipraland’ could ignite another phase of conflict in the state, if not handled tactfully.
*Mutum Kenedy Singh
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management