Terror in Tripura

Print edition : June 10, 2000

Ethnic violence escalates in Tripura, but the Centre refuses to send adequate security forces to the State to contain the insurgency.

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

TRIPURA is bleeding again. With tribal militants belonging to the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) taking a vow to annihilate non-tribal people, large-scale violence has broken out in the hilly regions of the State. Attacks on non-tribal people in South and West Tripura have become more frequent after the victory of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT), the political wing of the NLFT, in the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections held in early May.

Houses that were burnt down by NLFT militants in Bagber village.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

In its bid to drive out non-tribal people from areas under the district council, the NLFT on May 20 carried out simultaneous attacks at Bagber, Ratiya and Chakmaghat in Khowai subdivision of West Tripura district, killing 45 of them. While NLFT insurgents massacred 25 non-tribal inmates of a refugee camp at Bagber, 20 others were killed in ethnic violence across the State between May 20 and 23.

Police sources said that about 60 armed NLFT militants raided Bagber village. Even as they attacked local CPI(M) leader Ajoy Ghose's house with grenades, non-tribal refugees sheltered in a school nearby began fleeing to Kanchanpur. The militants trained their guns on them. An informed source in Khowai said that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel deployed near the village did not venture out of their camp when the militants struck.

With the United Bengali Liberation Front (UBLF), another outlawed militant organisation of Bengali youth, preparing itself for a counter-operation against the tribal people, the hilly areas of South and West Tripura seem dangerously close to a riot-like situation. The UBLF has already undertaken a number of armed operations against the tribal people.

The latest attacks on non-tribal people have forced Bengalis to flee from autonomous district council areas. Official sources said that more than 30,000 non-tribal people had so far moved out of the area and that the exodus was continuing. The Left Front government has set up 15 camps to accommodate the refugees.

A family fleeing the violence in Khowai subdivision.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

The Left Front observed a 12-hour Tripura bandh on May 23 in protest against the Khowai massacre and to pressure the Centre to send the Army immediately to the State. The State unit of the Congress(I) also called a bandh on the same day demanding "Central intervention" in view of the intensified insurgency.

Both the Left Front government and the Opposition agree that nothing short of joint Centre-State action can stop the bloodbath. In less than three weeks after the TTAADC elections, 111 people have been killed. The 28 additional CRPF companies and two helicopters deployed during the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 have been withdrawn. The Centre has fallen back on its promise of sending back the two Army units that were pulled out during the Kargil conflict. The State government has opposed the Centre's stance on this issue. "Though the Centre admits that the situation in Tripura has been a cause for concern owing to the steady rise of insurgency-related violence over the last few years compared to the declining trend in other northeastern States such as Assam and Nagaland, it refuses to accept that Tripura has inadequate forces to combat insurgency," said a Left Front statement. According to statistics compiled by the Union Home Ministry, insurgency-related incidents in Tripura grew from 568 in 1998 to 614 in 1999. Until May 3 this year, 286 incidents of violence were reported in the State.

The decision to despatch four companies of Assam Rifles and six companies of the CRPF immediate was taken at a meeting between Union Home Secretary Kamal Pande and State Chief Secretary V. Thulidas on May 22. The meeting coincided with Chief Minister Manik Sarkar's briefing of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee about the law and order situation in the State. Sarkar specifically sought the deployment of the Army to combat the stepped-up violence.

The Centre, informed sources said, was unlikely to concede the Chief Minister's demand. As it is, the existing level of deployment for counter-insurgency operations, is considerable - 15 battalions of the CRPF and four battalions of the Assam Rifles. Besides, nine battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) are guarding the international border in Tripura.

Meanwhile, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau warned Vajpayee that any attempt to evade the issue of sending back the Army will be seen as a dereliction of responsibility on the part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. "The violence in Tripura is not just a local affair. The NLFT operates from across the border where it has shelter and arms training. With external forces intervening to destabilise the situation in Tripura, it is incumbent upon the Central government to send forces sufficient to tackle the situation. It is for this purpose that the Disturbed Areas Act was promulgated in parts of Tripura," it said.

Manik Sarkar told Frontline that his government had no objection to giving to the Army the responsibility of fighting insurgency. The Opposition had always blamed the Front saying that it was reluctant to seek the help of the Army in the State's hill areas "for political reasons," he said, and added that such motivated campaign was meaningless. Although areas under Tripura's 27 police stations had already been brought under the Disturbed Areas Act, the State had no Army deployment, he said.

A senior CPI(M) leader said: "The Centre appears to be firm on not fulfilling Tripura's security requirements simply for political reasons even after the loss of so many lives." Many political leaders of the State believe that Tripura may get a rap on the knuckles from the Centre for failing to curb militancy. While agreeing to despatch additional companies of paramilitary forces and not the Army to the State, the Centre is reported to have instructed the Tripura government to utilise the existing forces more effectively and make the administration more efficient in the militancy-affected areas. Informed sources say the Centre is contemplating unilateral action in Tripura under relevant provisions of the Constitution, without imposing Article 356.

The tenure of Governor Siddheswar Prasad would end on June 16 and the Centre will act after the appointment of a new Governor. The sources also said that the Centre was unhappy with State government's handling of the situation which, it thought, had led to a "near-total collapse of the State administration".

The visit to Tripura of Lt. Gen. R K Nanavati, Chief of the Army's 3 Corps based at Dimapur in Nagaland, following the Khowai massacre is seen by political circles as a prelude to Central intervention in the State. They suspect that the whole State may be brought under the Disturbed Areas Act followed by induction of the Army with independent powers - an arrangement which is unacceptable to the State government.

At the Thapidayal relief camp in Kalyanpur, West Tripura district, which is one of the 15 camps set up by the State government to shelter refugees.-ASHISH K. BHOWMIK

Meanwhile, Chief Ministers of the seven northeastern States have asked the Centre to consider the region's insurgency as a national problem and find a solution as a matter of national priority. The Chief Ministers, at their meeting in Shillong on May 12, decided on floating a forum comprising them to discuss issues of common interest and place their demands before the Centre unitedly. Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has been included in the forum. In pursuance of the decision approved at the meeting, the Chief Ministers met on May 21 in New Delhi and decided to submit a memorandum to the Prime Minister regarding the problems of the northeastern states in the third week of June. They also decided to put pressure on the Centre to take effective measures to deal with the escalating insurgency.

Aided by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, insurgents in the northeastern States, especially Tripura, use Bangladesh as their "soft hideouts". Tripura's Finance Minister Badal Chowdhury told Frontline that the militant outfits had been exploiting the porous border with Bangladesh.

"Outfits such as the NLFT are buying arms, ammunition and modern communication gadgets from South-east Asian countries such as Singapore and Thailand and collecting them in Bangkok before bringing them to Chittagong in Bangladesh. Cox's Bazaar is one of the major illegal arms centres in Bangladesh," he said. Identifying the route through which these illegal consignments are sent to Tripura, Badal Chowdhury said: "The consignments are loaded into either ships or trawlers in Chittagong, a border district of Bangladesh, and transported to Tripura. These consignments are offloaded in the districts of Dholai, South Tripura and North Tripura and they reach various parts of the North-East via land routes through dense ravines. Tripura is the corridor for pushing arms into the northeast."

Chowdhury submitted to the Union Home Ministry an exhaustive report detailing the operations of the outlawed organisations. It contains specific details about the militant outfits that are based in Bangladesh, a list of 45 hideouts across the border, and how arms are purchased and supplied to separatist organisations the northeast. Most of the 45 hideouts are situated in Sylhet and Chittagong districts of Bangladesh.

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