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A violent agenda

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

A series of massacres in the northeastern States of Assam and Tripura indicate a fresh attempt by separatist organisations to divide the people of the States on ethnic lines.

ETHNIC violence in the northeastern States of Tripura and Assam claimed 56 lives within a span of 10 days in mid-January. The victims were Bengalis and Hindi-speaking Biharis and the killers were tribal extremists belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB).

The incident in Tripura came as a warning to the State administration and its intelligence machinery that the extremists have regrouped after a lull. On January 13, two groups of NLFT militants surrounded a crowded marketplace in Singichara in the Khowai sub division of West Tripura and opened fire, killing 16 people and injuring nine. The victims included two women and a seven-year-old girl.

According to a statement issued by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), the massacre was aimed at creating a sense of insecurity among the people as the militants were completely isolated owing to people's resistance and effective action by the security forces. It also alleged that the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), which took control of the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) two years ago with the assistance of the NLFT, also had a hand in the massacre. It was carried out to keep non-tribal people, mostly Bengalis, away from the February 21 parliamentary byelection in West Tripura, the statement said.

On January 15, heavily armed NDFB cadre surrounded Sikajhar, a remote hamlet close to the India-Bhutan border, in the Bongaigaon district of Assam, around 11-30 p.m. and opened fire on a crowd watching the performance of a theatre group. The militants then moved to another locality nearby and shot dead 13 people.

In another incident on January 21, a group of 15 to 20 NDFB militants gunned down 17 Hindi-speaking Bihari labourers, including nine women and two children, in Jangalbari village near the India-Bhutan border, 16 km from Udalguri town in Assam's Darrang district.

Ethnic killings have long been the most deplorable aspect of militancy in Tripura and Assam. Less than three months ago, extremists shot dead 11 Bengalis in northern Tripura. Frequent attacks on Bengalis, Hindi-speaking people and Santhals working in tea gardens by the NDFB and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), another extremist group, demanding a 'sovereign Assam' have created a sense of insecurity among the non-Assamese people in the State.

The renewed acts of violence indicated either a resumption of the NDFB's ''ethnic cleansing'' programme, or division among Bodos and non-Bodos, which could jeopardise the creation of the Bodo Territorial Council (BTC). The NDFB had recently asked non-Bodos to leave the area. Also, it has been under pressure to make its presence felt in Lower Assam, as its rival, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT), was close to striking a deal with the Union government for the creation of the BTC.

Observers feel that the January 15 incident in Assam will only strengthen the case against the creation of the BTC. The NDFB is opposed to the idea as it believes that such a development will render its armed struggle for an independent Bodoland redundant. The BLT and the NDFB have targeted each other's cadres over the years and the latter considers the BLT a "puppet" of the Indian government. The ongoing talks between the BLT and the Centre have made good progress, but the Bodo tribal people fear that the Congress(I) government in Assam might derail it. After 14 rounds of talks in the past three years, the BLT and the Centre agreed to form a drafting sub-committee to prepare proposals for the formation of the BTC, for consideration by the Centre and the Assam government. The BLT seems impatient and has reportedly told the Centre that it wanted a decision before the term of its unilateral ceasefire expired on January 21. The present mood is reminiscent of the situation that prevailed before the signing of the Bodo Accord on February 20, 1993 between the Centre and the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU), which is also demanding a quick decision on the BTC.

It was at the initiative of the former Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, the late Rajesh Pilot, that the Bodo Accord was signed. The accord, a faulty one signed in haste, left many questions unanswered. Under the accord it was proposed that at least five districts with a majority population of non-Bodos would be included in the BTC. But 21 non-Bodo organisations, under the banner of the Sanmilito Janagosthiya Sangram Samity (SJSS), opposed the move to create the BTC, claiming that it would turn non-Bodos into "second class citizens".

The latest attack coincided with a statement by the ABSU and the Bodo People's Movement Committee (BPMC), which accused the State government of employing "divide and rule" tactics to instil fear in the minds of non-Bodos. The NDFB has been engaged in ethnic cleansing in the Bodo heartland by targeting non-Bodos, especially Bengali settlers from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and ethnic Adivasis.

The situation in Tripura is no less alarming. The tribal militants of Tripura, who belong to either the NLFT or the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), have persistently followed a policy of ethnic cleansing. They want Bengalis to move out of the State where the tribal people once formed the majority community. Militant tribal leaders know that they cannot achieve this objective as Bengalis now constitute over 60 per cent of the State's population. However, they continue to terrorise the Bengali people through violence and organised killings.

Many schools in far-flung areas of the State have closed down as teachers stay away for fear of the militants. Vehicular traffic along the Assam-Agartala highway, the lifeline of the State, is under threat of ambushes. Commercial establishments are often forced to pay protection money to escape the militants' bullets. Kidnappings for ransom are a daily occurrence. Worse still, the militants strike with the objective of forcing Bengalis to leave their homes and farms and sowing the seeds of hatred between Bengalis and the tribal people.

The growth of extremism in the highly sensitive State has a long and bitter history. The emergence of the CPI(M) as a major political force had acted as a dampener. The situation has evidently changed yet again, and the manner in which ethnic and parochial sentiments were being whipped up against "outsiders" signifies a return to the vicious situation that prevailed during the 1980s. Some of the tribal groups have aligned themselves with established political parties and this has given the groups a kind of legitimacy that they do not deserve. The IPFT, a front organisation of the NLFT, is one such: it has donned the political garb even when its agenda is to establish its dominance through violence. The IPFT, which has been looking for a possible tie-up with the Congress(I) for the Lok Sabha byelection on February 21, is using every possible means to determine the course of politics in the State.

Extremists in Tripura enjoy an operational advantage as the State is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh. They have their hideouts in Bangladesh where they find easy shelter when under pressure from the security forces. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar told Frontline that his government had sent to the Union Home Ministry a list of militant camps in Bangladesh, with maps and other relevant details, but the matter was yet to be taken up with the Bangladesh government. The NLFT and the ATTF together have as many as 51 hideouts in Bangladesh. The NLFT's Biswamohan group has 32 hideouts, the NLFT's Nayanbasi faction has three and the outlawed ATTF has 16 camps spread across Sylhet, Habigunj and Laulavi Bazar districts and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

Describing the insurgency in northeastern India as a problem of "national security", Manik Sarkar said that a delegation of Chief Ministers from the region had met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last year in this connection. "We requested the Prime Minister as well as Union Home Minister L.K. Advani to mount pressure on the Bangladesh government to dismantle the bases of the banned militant outfits. But no serious efforts have been take by the Centre in this regard. The State government on its own cannot fight militants, who receive regular assistance from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)," he said.

Two successive massacres by the NDFB have forced the Assam government to send an SOS to the Centre asking it to pressure the Bhutan government to dismantle camps of Bodo militants in that country. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told Frontline that his government has also asked for the fencing of the Assam-Bhutan border and the deployment of Border Security Force personnel to guard the international border effectively.