A terror campaign

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

Bodies of people killed in the insurgent attack in West Tripura district. - ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Bodies of people killed in the insurgent attack in West Tripura district. - ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Insurgents operating from their bases in Bangladesh strike terror in three non-tribal border villages of Tripura.

A ROUND of ruthless attacks in Tripura in early May claimed the lives of 32 people, including seven children and eight women. Militants belonging to the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) launched simultaneous attacks on three predominantly Bengali villages in West Tripura as part of their efforts to get all post-1949 non-tribal residents vacated from the hilly regions of the State. What is particularly disturbing is the fact that the assailants came from across the Bangladesh border and returned with impunity after carrying out the armed action. The banned insurgent groups were reported to have vowed to annihilate non-tribal people.

On May 7, a heavily armed group of the ATTF attacked the border village of Jogeswar Nagar at Simna in West Tripura and killed 20 Bengali village residents. The following night, NLFT insurgents raided the Mahurchar market in West Tripura and killed nine people. In yet another incident, Rasamala Devbarma, 53, a tribal woman and leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was hacked to death by NLFT rebels at Ashrambari in West Tripura. On May 7, NLFT insurgents gunned down CPI(M) activist Nilimesh Paul and his wife Alpana Paul at Fatik Ray in Kailashar subdivision of North Tripura.

The Jogeswar Nagar attack, the worst of its kind in the State in recent years, bordered on the macabre. The attack, which was part of a revived campaign of vendetta against the Bengali settlers in the area, was carried out by a joint team of ATTF militants and criminals from Satchari in Bangladesh, where the organisation has its headquarters. "The attackers did not come merely to kill; they were bent on killing in a brutal manner, sack the village and loot the houses,'' said Dhananjay Sarkar, the only survivor in a five-member family. He was not at home that day. Reliving the horror, Amalesh Sarkar, another resident of the village, said, "It was around midnight. An armed gang of nearly 100 insurgents and criminals swooped down on the village, set fire to huts and rained bullets on the residents who rushed out in panic. Those who survived the gunfire were hacked to death. Several children were hurled into the burning houses or shot from close range during the hour-long mayhem.''

After the massacre, the rebels and their henchmen are believed to have returned to their base at Satchari. The site of the carnage is 45 km from Agartala. The Indo-Bangladesh border and a Border Security Force (BSF) outpost are 500 metres away. Across the border is Habigunj district of Bangladesh where the ATTF has its base.

Although an all-party team of legislators visited Simna the day after the incident and assured the village residents of proper security arrangements, this hardly restored the people's confidence. The ATTF insurgents are running a training and operation camp at Satchari, which is visible from this side of the border. What is worrying the village residents most is the fact that the Bangladesh nationals, who are believed to be fundamentalists, are operating jointly with the insurgents. Local CPI(M) legislator and Forest Minister Pranab Devbarma, the first leader to visit Jogeswar Nagar after the carnage, said the massacre seemingly had the blessings of certain foreign agencies that were trying to create ethnic tension in the region.

A group of Jogeswar Nagar residents stated that they had rushed to the BSF outpost to inform the personnel there of the attack but that the personnel reached the spot only after one hour although the flames from the burning huts would have been visible from the BSF post and the gunshots were loud. According to this version, there was no attempt on the part of the BSF to intercept the attackers, and the killer gang returned to Bangladesh unchallenged.

Ever since the CPI(M)-led Left Front won the State Assembly elections for the fifth time in a row in February this year, the extremists have upped the ante. Even the constituents of their supposed support base - the tribal people - were not spared. They were attacked for supporting the Left Front and helping it attain a two-thirds majority in the 60-member Assembly. Clearly, the NLFT has become desperate ever since its political wing, the Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT), could manage to win only five of the 20 reserved seats in the elections.

Going by the nature of their armed action, it is clear that the ATTF and the NLFT are openly secessionist and are hell-bent on ousting the non-tribal people settled in the hills. This amounts to terrorism, and the Centre can least afford to ignore it. The Left Front government has repeatedly drawn the Centre's attention to this fact.

The situation is grave enough to warrant the return of Army units that were withdrawn from the State in the wake of the Kargil conflict. After the latest carnage, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar urged Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to deploy additional forces, including all Army battalions that were withdrawn. While apprising him of the brutal manner in which the ATTF militants had killed innocent people, Manik Sarkar urged Advani not to pull back the forces that were deployed during the Assembly elections on February 26. Advani did not make a commitment, but was reported to have promised "suitable action".

CPI(M) Members of Parliament raised the Tripura incident in both Houses of Parliament. In reply, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh assured them in the Rajya Sabha that the Home Ministry was seized of the issue and that it would "take suitable action".

The Chief Ministers of the seven northeastern States have repeatedly asked the Centre to consider the region's insurgency as a national problem and find a solution as a matter of national priority. They have already formed a forum to discuss issues of mutual interest and to place their demands before the Centre unitedly. The forum approved the decision to put pressure on the Centre to take effective measures to deal with the escalating insurgency in the region.

Aided by the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan, insurgents in the northeastern States, especially Tripura, are alleged to have been using Bangladesh, where they have their "soft hideouts", as their base. The government of Tripura has sent a report to the Centre on the basis of definite information that the militant outfits have been exploiting the porous border with Bangladesh to plan their activities and buy arms. According to the report, "outfits like ATTF and the NLFT buy arms, ammunition and modern communication gadgets from Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore and Thailand, and collect them in Bangkok..."

Identifying the route which these illegal consignments take before reaching Tripura, the report says: "The consignments are loaded into either ships or trawlers in Chittagong, which is the bordering district of Bangladesh, and transported into Tripura. These consignments are off-loaded in the districts of Dholai, South Tripura and North Tripura and they reach various parts of north-east via land route through dense ravines. Tripura is the corridor for pushing arms into the north-east."

The report contains specific details about the militant outfits that have their bases in Bangladesh, a list of 45 hideouts across the border, and how they purchase and supply arms to separatists in the region. Most of the 45 hideouts are situated in Sylhet and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh. "I have repeatedly requested the Centre to take up the matter with the Bangladesh government. I do not know why the Centre is not serious about the matter," Manik Sarkar said.

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