In the shadow of fear

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

Extremist organisations in the northeastern States stepped up their attacks as polling day approached.

THE spectre of violence loomed large over the northeastern States during the run-up to the February 16 elections. Forty people, including 24 jawans of the paramilitary forces, were killed in Tripura, Manipur and Assam in the week preceding the elections. Extremist organisations were involved in all these incidents.

All the extremist organisations that operate in the region - the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), the People's Liberation Army of Manipur (PLAM) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah) - went to work as the day of polling approached. They killed members of the security forces, candidates and even voters. There were instances in which campaigners were kidnapped.

In Assam, the candidate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) for the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha seat, Anil Baruah, was shot dead on February 11 by ULFA militants at Neharani where he had gone to campaign. The same evening, Municipal Administration Minister Biraj Sarma was shot at and seriously injured by ULFA activists in Guwahati. The motorcycle-borne assassins sprayed bullets on Biraj Sarma as he was driving out of the Asom Gana Parishad's office. One of his three bodyguards, who were also injured in the attack, died in hospital.

The group created further electoral uncertainty by gunning down on February 13 Prabin Kalita, a campaign manager of the Assam Chief Minister's wife, Jayoshree Mahanta, who contested in the Nagaon constituency. Kalita, general secretary of the Senchowa Anchalik Unit, was attacked when he was returning from an election meeting.

Earlier, on February 6, an attempt was made on the life of Jayoshree Mahanta herself at Nagaon. Acting on a tip-off, the Army busted the plot to blow up her motorcade using plastic explosives. An explosive device was recovered from the spot where Jayoshree's car was parked.

On February 3, the day after they imposed a ban on election campaigning in Assam, ULFA militants attacked a police outpost in Bongaigaon district and killed three police personnel - an assistant sub-inspector and two constables.

Militants kept up their offensive on the eve of polling by blowing up a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) vehicle near Nagaon, snatching ballot boxes, and kidnapping workers of the ruling AGP. The outlaws set ablaze about 100 campaign offices of the AGP. The Army, as a confidence-building measure, staged flag-marches in several parts of Assam. It killed six armed extremists in two encounters.

Arabindra Rajkhowa, ULFA chairman, sent on February 13 by facsimile a statement to the offices of the State's newspapers warning of bloodshed if people heeded the Governor's appeal to vote. The statement said: "Elections would not give sovereignty to Assam. Instead, it will only re-establish colonial rule in the State."

IN a major outbreak of pre-election violence in Tripura, 21 people, including seven Tripura State Rifles (TSR) personnel, were gunned down by NLFT extremists. On February 12, NLFT activists ambushed a security patrol at Champraipara in Dhalai district, killing six TSR personnel. The ambush was carried out from a hilltop.

In separate incidents, militants mowed down 14 non-tribal people at Urabari and three other villages in west Tripura on February 11. In the first incident, heavily armed NLFT activists attacked Urabari and shot dead six people, including two women. They set ablaze several houses. The same day, another group of militants attacked Purbaganki, Naliabari and Kalabagan villages in Khowai subdivision,which are populated mostly by Bengali settlers from Bangladesh. Eight persons were killed, several persons were injured and 50 houses were burned.

On February 9, five members of two non-tribal families were killed by militants of the ATTF at Padmabil, a village in the Ramchandraghat area of West Tripura. Ramchandraghat is the home constituency of Chief Minister Dasarath Deb. He was elected from there in 1978, 1983, 1988 and 1993. Dasarath Deb opted out of the race this time because of poor health.

A senior police official said that the militants had adopted the 1989 pre-election tactics of the erstwhile militant organisation, the Tribal National Volunteers (TNV). The TNV is now a political group and it fought the elections this time in alliance with the Congress(I). It had gunned down 100 non-tribal people in 1989.

A week before the elections, NLFT militants kidnapped Bikram Sinha, brother of Tripura's Health Minister Bimal Sinha. Bikram Sinha was abducted while he was supervising the construction of a bridge at the Bamuncherra area.

ON the eve of polling, 10 CRPF jawans were killed and 17 others were seriously injured in an attack by members of the PLAM at Keirao-Wangkhem, about 15 km from Imphal. One insurgent and one civilian were also killed. The CRPF personnel, accompanied by election officials, were on an inspection tour of the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency. The ambush was carried out by about 40 extremists who were hiding in a paddy field.

The call to boycott the elections and the threat to candidates that came from Naga insurgents were a blessing in disguise to the ruling Congress(I) in Nagaland. The Congress(I) got more than three-fourths of the 60 Assembly seats without a contest. Candidates of other parties and independents did not file their nomination papers in view of the threat. Army sources estimate that 3,000 well-armed NSCN(I-M) militants are active in the State.

Defence sources in Imphal said that a cache of arms seized from trans-border gun-runners on the high seas off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were meant for militants in the northeastern States. Members of the PLAM and the ULFA and Naga insurgents are suspected to be involved in this. Over 100 Chinese-made AK-47 rifles, 40,000 rounds of ammunition and a few motorboats were seized in the joint operation conducted by the Army, the Navy and the Air Force and the Coast Guard, which followed an intelligence alert.

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