Cross-border challenges

Print edition : July 16, 2004

The militant menace in the northeastern States, especially Tripura and Manipur which share borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar, can be met effectively only through a combined operation by the two neighbouring countries against the militant camps on their territory.

in Guwahati

An Army patrol at Khowai, northeast of Agartala, on April 21.-SHRABANI DEB/AP

A MASSIVE operation by the Army currently on in Manipur, to secure a zone "liberated" by militants along the India-Myanmar border and the measures taken to contain a fresh spurt of insurgent activities in areas along the India-Bangladesh border in Tripura have once again served to highlight the anti-India activities carried out by rebels of the northeastern region from two neighbouring countries. In Manipur, after a heavy gun battle with militant outfits, the 44th Brigade secured Sajik Tampak, a strategic area in the State's most backward district of Chandel, which was used by militant outfits as a transit point for access to the "liberated zone". Sajik Tampak is one of the main bases of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the Kangleipak Communist Party are the other groups that have bases in the area.

In Tripura, the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), after lying low for some time, struck in a big way by abducting 24 non-tribal people, mostly small traders, on June 14 in North Tripura district, which borders Bangladesh. The NLFT has taken the hostages to its bases in Bangladesh and demanded a ransom of Rs.55 lakhs. It has threatened to kill the hostages if the ransom is not paid by June end. Security forces are at a major disadvantage in both the landlocked States in the absence of coordinated action by Myanmar and Bangladesh to prevent the militants from operating out of their territories.

Although the security forces have cut off the supply lines to 3,000-odd militants holed up in camps along the border in Manipur, the latter continue to control the interior hill areas along the international border beyond Sajik Tampak. A large contingent of the Army was sent to Sajik Tampak to "neutralise the militants and secure the area" before Lok Sabha polls were held in the Outer Manipur constituency on April 20. Militants created havoc during the elections by calling for a ban on political parties and a boycott of the elections. The polls witnessed a series of violent incidents, with militants targeting political workers and security forces.

It takes about three hours on foot from Sajik Tampak to the border and about an hour and half on the bumpy hill road that connects Sajik Tampak and Chakpikarong, where the Army brigade is now based. Army units had also been posted at Sugnu, Serou, Sangaikhong and other nearby areas to intercept militant groups before launching a flush-out operation in the interior regions.

However, a full-scale operation would require not only more troops but also a simultaneous operation by the Myanmar Army if not a joint operation. A 14-member delegation of the Myanmar Army led by its vice-chief Lt Gen. Ye Myint met officials of the Indian Army's 3 Corps at Dimpaur in Nagaland on June 20. However, Army officials described it as a routine coordination meeting and denied that there was any discussion on a joint operation.

Residents of Molnomi village arriving at Sajik Tampak after the fear of a shootout between the Army and militants forced them to flee their homes.-

There have been claims and counter-claims by the Army and the militant outfits about the casualties suffered in Sajik Tampak. The operation led to the displacement of hundreds of villagers who, despite the Army's appeal, are reluctant to return home as shooting goes on.

The Army has initiated development activities such as the holding of medical camps, the construction of bridges and the drilling of borewells. Under the Civic Action Programme, a medical camp was conducted in Serou under the aegis of 7 Sikh Light Infantry. About 700 persons attended it, and medicines were provided free of cost. Army personnel constructed two waiting sheds for buses and levelled a playing field in Serou. Army engineers are constructing a heavy load bridge over the Chakpi river to improve Serou's connectivity with other places.

The militants have enjoyed a Robin Hood image among the villagers. They ran a parallel government and were engaged in developmental activities such as running schools and constructing roads. In January last year, advancing Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers had to retreat from Sajik Tampak after a three-day battle with UNLF militants. Most of the police stations and outposts in areas controlled by militants are understaffed and ill-equipped as armed policemen are more often than not overpowered by militants and their weapons looted.

Governance seems to be absent in most areas - public health centres do not have doctors and paramedics, sub-divisional offices do not have the required staff. As a temporary measure, security personnel have begun to move out of school buildings previously occupied by them to allow the resumption of classes. Village chiefs of Sajik Tampak and Chakpikarong told a visiting media team in the second week of June that villagers could now move about freely without being intimidated. They also said that they were allowed to accompany security personnel for rounding up suspected militants. However, they maintained that owing to the fear of being caught in a crossfire between the security forces and underground elements, villagers were afraid to carry out agricultural operations.

In Tripura, the fragile peace was shattered once again when militants of the banned NLFT-Biswamohan Debbarma faction abducted 25 persons who were going to the weekly market. The militants released one person and took the others hostage. Apart from money, the militants have demanded five tonnes of rice, medicines and various other items such as jungle boots as ransom. Earlier, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) militants had kidnapped five jackfruit traders from Kachubari Chowmuhani in Khowai subdivision. The market is famous for jackfruit trading, most of which is smuggled into Bangladesh. The rescue of the hostages is now beyond the reach of the Tripura government as the NLFT whisked them away across the Tripura-Bangladesh border into the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Commuters and traders travel on the roofs of overcrowded buses in the remote region of Gandacherra, east of Agartala, on June 14. The same day the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura abducted 24 people, mostly small traders, in North Tripura district, bordering Bangladesh.-REUTERS

The incident has brought centre stage the twin issues of the shortage of forces available for counter-insurgency operations in Tripura and the existence of support structures for the militants of the NLFT, the ATTF and other outfits from the northeastern region in Bangladesh. Tripura's ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front has been urging the Centre to rush in more troops to deal with the insurgency effectively and to mount pressure on Bangladesh to demolish the camps run by militant outfits. After two camps of the Assam Rifles located in the area were withdrawn recently, NLFT militants, led by the Biswamohan faction of the NLFT, made a major strike.

The disintegration of the NLFT started in 2001 after a few senior leaders like Joshua Debbarma and Nayanbashi Jamatia were expelled from it because of their differences with Biswamohan and his followers. Bickerings within the NLFT and its political wing led to a spate of violent clashes in Bangladesh and Tripura. The split was mainly because of the reluctance of the central executive committee (CEC) of the NLFT, led by Biswamohan, to nominate Joshua as the King of `Tripura Kingdom', misappropriation of funds by some leaders, the lavish lifestyles of senior leaders and the forcing of Christianity on the tribal people.

Members of the NLFT lined up to lay down their arms at a paramilitary headquarters in Agartala. A file picture.-REUTERS

The NLFT (Nayanbashi Jamatia faction), with a strength of about 125 hardcore rebels, entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre and State government on the eve of the recent Lok Sabha elections. Close on the heels of the ceasefire agreement, 71 militants of another faction of the outfit, led by Montu Koloi, surrendered.

During a meeting between personnel of the BSF and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) held in Dhaka in April, the BSF handed over a fresh list of 210 militant camps in Bangladesh and urged the BDR to initiate operations against them. Replying to a question in the State Legislative Assembly on June 15, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar disclosed that over the past five years terrorists had killed more than 952 people and abducted over 1,200 persons in Tripura. He said that in the same period more than 633 people were injured because of militant activity and 111 houses were set ablaze by militants. A total of 179 terrorists belonging to different outfits were killed, 836 had surrendered, and 858 were arrested. Describing the abduction of traders by NLFT militants as "an act of frustration due to disillusionment among its cadre leading to surrender", Sarkar reiterated the State government's view that the solution to the menace lay in New Delhi putting pressure on Dhaka to launch a Bhutan-like operation to destroy the militant camps on its soil.

On February 20, Governors and Chief Ministers of the northeastern States unanimously adopted a resolution, at the 49th meeting of the North Eastern Council (NEC) held in Shillong, urging the Centre to exert pressure on Bangladesh and Myanmar to follow Bhutan's lead and dismantle the militant camps on their soil. The resolution was adopted after a presentation on the security scenario by the then Director-General, Assam Rifles, Lt. Gen. H.S. Kanwar, during which he disclosed facts about militant groups in Manipur "liberating" areas in Chandel district and about the northeast militants carrying out hit-and-run operations from their camps in both the neighbouring countries. The situation prevailing in Manipur and Tripura is such that the heads of northeastern States will have to remind the United Progressive Alliance government about the urgency of implementing the resolution adopted at the NEC meeting.

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