In the run-up to the elections to the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council, the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura steps up its campaign of violence, directed particularly against the Left parties.KALYAN CHAUDHURI
DESPITE counter-insurgency operations by a joint command comprising the Army, the paramilitary forces and the police, Tripura continues to be in the grip of militancy. In the run-up to the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) election s, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), a banned organisation of tribal militants, has unleashed terror, particularly by stepping up attacks on the Left parties.
Bent on depriving the ruling Left Front of victory in the elections to the 30-member TTAADC, which will be held on April 30 and May 3, NLFT militants have abducted relatives of candidates of Left parties, killed their supporters, burnt the houses of non- tribal people and threatened voters with dire consequences if they do not vote for the candidates of its political wing, the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT). Before the poll notification was issued, the NLFT had imposed a "ban" on other parti es contesting the polls.
The NLFT offensive began with the abduction of Parbati Reang, wife of Manindra Reang, the Communist Party of India's (CPI) candidate from Dharmapha Tilla village in South Tripura on April 10. The militants threatened to kill Parbati Reang if Manindra Rea ng did not withdraw his nomination. They raided the residence of Kalachand Jamatya, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) candidate, assaulted and drove out his family members, and threatened to kill them if Jamatya did not withdraw from the fray.
The rebels have so far taken relatives of seven Left Front candidates hostage. They include Swarna Debbarma, daughter of CPI candidate Kunja Debbarma; Shyam Dulal Debbarma, son-in-law of Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate Lalit Debbarma; Sarboj oy Reang, father of CPI(M) candidate Rajendra Reang; and Jayanti Debbarma, wife of CPI(M) candidate Mangal Debbarma. The militants have threatened to kill the hostages if their relatives refuse to withthdraw from the contest.
As part of their terror tactics, NLFT militants killed 12 non-tribal people at Khas Kalyanpur in West Tripura on April 15 before setting fire to 35 houses and the village market. (Insurgents had massacred on December 13, 1996, 25 non-tribal villagers at the same place, which falls in the area demarcated to be under the TTAADC.) The next day Tripura observed a bandh, which was called separately by the Left Front, the Congress(I) and the four-party alliance comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Trina mul Congress, the Janata Dal (United) and the Tripura Upjati Juba Samiti (TUJS).
The bandh compelled the Centre to send 30 additional companies of paramilitary forces to Tripura to ensure peaceful elections. The State government had approached the Centre for 55 additional companies. Besides nine Border Security Force (BSF) battalions engaged in guarding the State's 856-km international border, the State has 123 companies of Central paramilitary forces for counter-insurgency operations.
Unhappy with the security arrangements, the BJP-led four-party alliance and the Congress(I) wanted the elections deferred. Leaders of the alliance and the Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, met Union Home Minister L.K. Advani in Agartala during his three-day visit to the State in the last week of March and demanded Central intervention. Advani rejected the demand; he also turned down the Opposition's proposal to persuade the Left Front Government to dissolve the State-level Coordination Commit tee on Security Affairs in order to give the armed forces "a free hand" in tackling insurgency. The Congress(I) and other Opposition parties also requested Advani to advise the State government to defer the TTAADC elections as insurgents had forced thou sands of non-tribal people to flee the hill areas. Advani refused to intervene in the matter.
While the BJP-led alliance decided to boycott the elections in the wake of the spurt in violence, the Congress(I), after some initial reluctance, has agreed to participate in them. While the majority of State Congress(I) leaders wanted the elections post poned, the party's central leadership advised the State unit not to boycott the elections. Many people in the party, however, felt that it was impossible to hold the elections against the backdrop of the terror and panic and the senseless violence and ab ductions in the hill areas. A section in the Congress(I) was in favour of "reaching an adjustment" with the IPFT, but the majority of leaders vehemently opposed it. Since the Congress(I) forged an alliance with the TUJS in 1982, its organisational networ k in the hill areas has remained defunct. It has for long been dependent on the TUJS to harness tribal support. In all the elections held over the past 16 years, the Congress(I) put up its candidates only for seats in the plains, leaving the constituenci es in the hill regions to the TUJS. The Congress(I) found itself in an awkward situation after the TUJS preferred to enter into an alliance with the BJP before the Lok Sabha elections in October 1999.
The rise of strident regionalism and militancy among Tripura's tribal people seems to be pushing the TUJS, the State's main tribal party since the mid-1960s, to the sidelines. The TUJS, which has for long pursued a nationalist democratic and moderate po licy, has been weakened by several splits over the years. Now the IPFT threatens to drive the last nail into the TUJS coffin. The IPFT is staunchly regional and sees the interest of the hill people as being completely opposed to that of any "national" pa rty. The TUJS formed its alliance with the Congress(I) at a time when the latter ruled at the Centre with the objective of giving itself a "mainstream" image, after the ethnic riots of June 1980. The decision was opposed by several TUJS leaders, who iden tified the Congress(I) in Tripura with the State's Bengalis. This led to several splits, with the breakaway factions forming regional tribal units, such as the Tripura Hill People's Party (led by Debabrata Koloi) and the Tripura Tribal National Conferenc e (led by Harinath Debbarma, a former TUJS chief). Both have since merged in the IPFT.
Two front organisations of the TUJS, the Tripura Tribal Students' Federation (TTSF) and the Tripura Upjati Karmachari Samiti (TUKS), too have extended support to the IPFT. Former TUJS organising secretary Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl broke away from the party in the late 1970s to form a guerilla outfit known as the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) and went underground. After the October 1988 peace accord, the TNV surfaced to fight the elections. Before the peace accord was signed, the TNV was considered the most powerful underground organisation in Tripura, and its activities caused panic throughout the State. The TNV organised killings, kidnapping and lootings. In March 1983, Hrangkhawl said in a letter he wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: "Armed insu rgency was necessary to reach your heart. Either you deport all foreign nationals who infiltrated into Tripura after October 15, 1947 or settle them anywhere in India other than Tripura... We demand a free Tripura."
The IPFT has since January this year stepped up pressure on the TUJS and the TNV to dissolve their party units and join the Front, saying that it wants to unite all non-Left tribal organisations. But the TUJS, despite its exclusively tribal membership, i s keen to protect its moderate and democratic identity. It has rejected the IPFT request. The IPFT, which has given itself a Christian identity, had asked the TUJS to snap its ties with the BJP "because Tripura tribals have never been Hindus". To intensi fy the pressure on the TUJS, the NLFT, with which the IPFT has close ties, kidnapped Jagadish Debbarma, a senior TUJS leader and former chief of the Autonomous District Council. The NLFT has been pressuring the TUJS and the TNV not to split non-Left trib al votes by fielding candidates in the Council elections. Taking into account the safety of Jagadish Debbarma, the TUJS leaders announced a poll boycott. In all previous Council elections the TUJS had emerged the principal rival of the ruling Left Front. The TNV, on the other hand, announced that it was pulling out of the polls in support of the IPFT. At the party's central committee meeting in mid-April, several members criticised the leadership for the boycott. The leadership is reported to have expla ined that had the party decided to contest, its candidates might have been killed by the NLFT.
Many people in the Opposition wonder why the Left Front is so chary of a crackdown against the IPFT, which is virtually a political wing of the outlawed NLFT.
THE 30-member TTAADC was formed in January 1982 under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, bringing a hilly region of 7,132,56 sq km of Tripura's total area of 10,478,78 sq km under its jurisdiction. In April 1985, it was included in the Sixth Schedu le, granting ample powers for the self-governance of the tribal population, of course in cooperation with the State government.
Elections to the TTAADC were last held on July 26 and 29, 1995. While elections to 24 constituencies were last held through secret ballot, polls in four others were kept in abeyance under a court order as a result of a dispute over delimitation. Of the 3 0 members of the TTAADC, two are nominated by the Governor. In the last elections the ruling Left Front won 23 seats, and the TUJS got one seat.
Meanwhile, in order to check trans-border movement of underground militants, the Centre has decided to erect barbed wire fencing along the State's international frontier. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar told Frontline that the State government had lon g been demanding the fencing of vital stretches along Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts, which were regularly used as hideouts and training camps by different insurgent groups.
Interestingly, an appeal signed by over one lakh women from Tripura, mostly relatives of people killed by militants, has been sent to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, requesting her to ensure the disbanding of the militant camps in her country. T he appeal points out that it is difficult for the Tripura Government to tackle insurgency as long as the camps functioned in Bangladesh.A positive turnKALYAN CHAUDHURI
TO underground militants in the northeastern States, April 7 is the "raising day". On that day in 1979, six Assamese youth floated the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) at a secret ceremony at Rang Ghar in Sibsagar district of Upper Assam. Now, afte r 21 years, on the same day and at the same place, 532 militants laid down their arms to join what is called the "rehabilitation ceremony". Of them, 436 are ULFA activists, 77 belong to the Karbi National Volunteers (KNV), and 19 to the National Democrat ic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta described the April 7 event as the "mother of all surrenders", and expressed the hope that it would be the "last nail in the ULFA's coffin". With 436 ULFA militants giving up arms, the banned outfit's dream of achieving a Swadhin Asom (independent Assam) is almost shattered. It is Arabinda Rajkhowa, Pradip Gogoi, Bhimkanta Buragohain, Buddheswar Gogoi, Someswar Dihingia and Bhupen Gohain who founded the ULFA.
Led by self-styled 'lieutenant' Amrit Phukon, a training instructor at an ULFA camp in Myanmar, the militants surrendered to the Army in the presence of the Governor, Lt. Gen. (retd) S.K. Sinha, and Mahanta. Before laying down their arms, the militants s poke out against ULFA leaders, branding them dictators "leading a high-flying lifestyle in safe places outside the country". They deposited four AK-47 rifles, an AK-56 rifle, three carbines, six 9 mm pistols, 21 revolvers, two machine guns, 17 12-bore ri fles and five 303 rifles.
The April 7 event was the 14th of its kind in the State since the Unified Command - a three-tier formation comprising the Army, the paramilitary forces and the police - came into being. The first such event was organised at Thakurbari on July 24, 1998. F ifty-one ULFA rebels surrendered there and deposited 20-odd weapons, including two AK-47 rifles and two sten carbines. Subsequently, four major surrenders took place - at Mariani on August 14, 1998, when 133 rebels laid down their arms; at Tamulpur on Ja nuary 21, 1999, when 150 ULFA rebels surrendered; at Nagaon on May 25, when 60 extremists abjured violence; and on August 16, when 178 militants surfaced at nine different locations. In terms of the number of militants who surrendered, the latest event i s the most successful one.
"ULFA is no longer a revolutionary organisation. It has become a terrorist outfit," said Amrit Phukon, who joined the militant movement in 1992. Phukon, who trained ULFA activists in Myanmar in the past four years, said the outfit's leadership was not bo thered about the development of Assam. "The killing of social activist Sanjoy Ghosh, who was working for the uplift of the people of the flood-ravaged Majuli island, is a case in point," he said. Lakhi Saikia, another ULFA activist, said there was a feud between the leadership of the political and armed wings of the outfit. "It was becoming increasingly difficult for activists like us to survive. We had no idea whom to support," Saikia said. "We have shown the way and more are on their way to follow us, " said Sewali Neog, the lone woman who surrendered.
Welcoming the "misguided" youth back to the mainstream, the Governor said no effort would be spared to rehabilitate them. They would be provided the necessary help to become self-reliant.
Criticising the ULFA leadership, the Chief Minister asked: "If the underground National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah), and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) can come forward for talks, why cannot the ULFA?"
Meanwhile, the peace process initiated by the Centre in Nagaland has taken a positive turn with the most militant underground organisation, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), accepting the ceasefire agreement with the Centre. While th e Issac-Muivah faction has had several rounds of peace talks with the Centre, the Khaplang faction had so far refused to sit with its rival group and take any collective decision regarding a ceasefire. Now the Khaplang group's position may lead to the e nd of the inter-group rivarly that has stood in the way of the peace process and the creation of an atmosphere that is conducive to talks for a lasting peace in Nagaland.