A victory at gun-point

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

The political front of the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura wins the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council elections in an atmosphere of terror.

ALTHOUGH the reign of terror unleashed by the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), backed by the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), has ensured the IPFT's victory in the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections, the people of Tripura are yet to get a respite from the terror. NLFT-IPFT members have now started targeting tribal and non-tribal people who voted for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front.

The elections, which were held in two phases on April 30 and May 3, saw large-scale rigging and intimidation of voters by these groups. The 420 polling booths spread across 15 of the total 28 constituencies in Dhalai and West Tripura districts were packe d with security personnel, but this did not make any difference to the IPFT whose activists virtually took charge of the polling process. NLFT insurgents also chipped in, preventing many of the supporters of rival parties from exercising their franchise. As reports of large-scale rigging poured in from Dhalai and West Tripura constituencies, anger turned into despair at the CPI(M) headquarters in Agartala. "Elections in nine of the 11 constituencies in West Tripura were reduced to a farce by the IPFT an d NLFT activists," alleged CPI(M) State Secretariat member Bijan Dhar. Gautam Das, editor of the party organ Dainik Desherkatha, told Frontline that in several constituencies members of the IPFT and the NLFT went from house to house and thr eatened voters with dire consequences if they voted for Left Front candidates. Das said that the level of rigging would have been less had security personnel escorted voters to the polling booths.

In the run-up to the elections to the 30-member TTAADC, the militants stepped up organised attacks on Left Front candidates. The NLFT allegedly abducted relatives of the candidates of the Left parties, killed their supporters and burnt the houses of non- tribal people (Frontline, May 12, 2000).

Even before the election notification was issued, the NLFT had imposed a "ban" on other parties contesting the polls. According to official reports, 11 relatives of Left Front candidates, including Parbati Reang, wife of Communist Party of India (CPI) ca ndidate Manindra Reang, Swarna Debbarma, daughter of CPI candidate Kunja Debbarma, Sarbojoy Reang, father of CPI(M) candidate Rajendra Reang, and Jayanti Debbarma, wife of CPI(M) candidate Mangal Debbarma, were abducted. The militants had threatened to k ill the hostages if these candidates refused to withdraw from the contest.

Violence continued even after the elections. On May 4, NLFT militants gunned down three members of a tribal family owing allegiance to the CPI(M). On May 7, they hacked to death Nandalal Debbarma, a CPI(M) activist belonging to a tribal community at Goya ngfang village under Kalyanpur police station limits in West Tripura. Debbarma had defied their diktat that he should not help any CPI(M) candidate in the elections.

The CPI(M) organised a 12-hour bandh on May 17 at Mirza and adjacent areas in South Tripura's Udaypur sub-division in protest against the murder of party leaders Nirmal Debbarma, Ajit Dey and Sanjoy Das on May 15 by NLFT extremists. On May 18, a group of NLFT militants shot dead three members of a non-tribal family and abducted five persons including two tribal people. Police sources said that NLFT rebels had stormed the house of Sajal Sarkar at Haripur village and shot dead his wife and two of his brot hers. Sarkar's five-month-old son sustained bullet injuries. Sarkar was not at home at the time of the attack.

In all, 144 persons have been killed by militants this year. Of them, 78 were killed after the elections were notified on March 31. The number of persons abducted since then is 98.

THE IPFT, comprising the Tripura Hills People's Party (THPP), the Tripura Tribal National Conference (TTNC), the Tripura Tribal Students Federation (TTSF) and the Tripura Upjati Karmachari Samity (TUKS), has gained an absolute majority in the TTAADC, win ning 18 of the 28 seats. The Left Front won 10 seats - the CPI(M) eight, and the CPI and the Forward Bloc one each. The Governor can nominate two members to the Council. Barring a five-year tenure of the Congress(I)-Tripura Upjati Juba Samity (TUJS) alli ance from 1988, the autonomous council has been ruled by the CPI(M)-led Left Front since 1982. The Front's performance in the 1995 elections to the Council was by far the most emphatic, when it won all but one of the 24 seats to which elections were held . (Elections to four constituencies were kept in abeyance following a court order on the issue of delimitation of constituencies.) The TUJS got one seat.

The State Congress(I), which initially decided not to contest the elections this time, however succumbed to pressure from the party high command to participate in the elections. It fielded 18 candidates but failed to win any seat. The Bharatiya Janata Pa rty and its ally the TUJS, which had moved away from the Congress(I), boycotted the elections on the plea that the situation in the State was not conducive to the holding of elections. The BJP has been campaigning for the imposition of President's Rule i n Tripura, accusing the ruling Left Front of failure to deal with rising insurgency.

Regarding the TTAADC election results, a Left Front press statement said: "The people's preference has not been reflected in the results as the IPFT, backed by armed insurgents of the NLFT, forced voters at gun-point to opt for its candidates." The state ment also expressed concern over the manner in which the "external agency-backed insurgents snatched power in a democratic institution".

The results have heightened the sense of panic and uncertainty among people in the hill regions. The fact that leaders and activists of the ruling coalition themselves are victims of the insurgency has added to their fears. The opinion in political circl es is that it will now be quite difficult for non-tribal people to live in the autonomous region. According to the State unit of the BJP, around two lakh non-tribal village residents deserted the region under threat from the rebels.

The complexion of the State's politics is expected to change following the Left Front's defeat in the Council elections and the emergence of the IPFT as a force to reckon with. Control over the TTAADC - which has jurisdiction over 70 per cent of the Stat e's geographical area and 30 per cent of the population - is crucial factor in the State's politics.

It was clear all along that the outlawed NLFT would intervene in the electoral process in an attempt to ensure the victory of the IPFT. After forcing the people to boycott the elections last year, NLFT militants had launched a terror campaign in the Stat e and warned voters against supporting any party other than the IPFT in the elections. The TTAADC elections, which were due in August, were advanced by three months despite the fact that there was no let-up in the violence.

The CPI(M) State Committee blamed the Manik Sarkar Government for the Left Front's poor performance in the elections. It also criticised the government for its failure to contain the outlawed NLFT and for advancing the elections when the law and order si tuation was bad. The State Committee meeting was preceded by a meeting of the State Secretariat on May 8, which was presided over by CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat.

HAVING achieved its objectives, the NLFT has started releasing the hostages it took before the elections. Police sources said that Parbati Reang returned home on May 8, after nearly a month in captivity. Her husband Manindra Reang contested and won the B irchandranagar-Kalsi seat in South Tripura. On May 7, 68-year-old Sarbojoy Reang, father of Rajendra Reang, who contested from the Damcherra-Jampui seat, also returned.

Shortly after winning the TTAADC elections, the IPFT demanded that the Tripura State Rifles (TSR) be disbanded, as the hill people did not trust the force because of its "anti-tribal nature". Debobrata Koloi, IPFT general secretary and leader of the foru m in the newly-elected council, told Frontline that the IPFT will not allow the TSR to tackle law and order problems in the autonomous region. Koloi denied that the IPFT was being backed by the NLFT. "The IPFT believes in parliamentary democracy a nd it wants peace in the TTAADC region, which is a vital precondition for the development of backward hill areas," Koloi said.

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