In the shadow of violence

Print edition : February 28, 2003

The electoral battle in Tripura acquires an ominous edge as militants seemingly play a partisan role and strike terror among voters.

in Agartala

IT is a bloody run-up to the Assembly elections in Tripura with tribal militants attacking activists and supporters of the ruling Left Front. On January 27, in a bid to terrorise people and prevent them from casting their votes, militants belonging to the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) killed 11 supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) after picking them out from a non-tribal area. The attack took place in West Tripura's Bankim Nagar, 30 km from Agartala.

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has asked the Election Commission to step up security in the wake of the attacks. The E.C. has asked Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, which are going to the polls on February 26, to be on high alert. The outlawed NLFT has been allegedly campaigning against non-tribal people and targeting the CPI(M) cadre. The NLFT, intelligence sources said, is actively supporting the Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT), which is contesting the elections in alliance with the Congress(I). The INPT, an organisation led by Bijay Rankhal, who initiated the underground militant movement in Tripura, comprises three regional parties - the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS), the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) and the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT). Although Rankhal later surrendered and even participated in elections, his inclination towards militancy is not a secret.

Manik Sarkar told Frontline that immediately after the Bankim Nagar incident he met Union Home Minister L.K. Advani in New Delhi to apprise him of the situation in the State. Describing the Congress(I)-INPT combine as an "unholy and anti-people" alliance, he said that the INPT has been working as an agent of the NLFT. The Congress(I), he said, had teamed up with the INPT to capture power through the back door. Since the alliance feared that it cannot come to power through free and fair elections, it was terrorising CPI(M) workers and supporters, he alleged. "The fact that only CPI(M) supporters are being targeted shows that it is the handiwork of the Congress(I)-INPT with the NLFT's help." Sarkar said that CPI(M) leaders in New Delhi had drawn the attention of Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi to the situation in Tripura, but she also had approved of the party's plan in Tripura.

Birjit Singh, the State Congress(I) president, however refused to accept that his party and the INPT had any links with the NLFT. He told Frontline that the State Congress(I) had formed an electoral alliance with the INPT for the sake of creating amity among the tribal and non-tribal people, mainly Bengalis who had came from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after Partition. "The Congress(I) and the INPT held several rounds of talks before coming to an electoral understanding and we are committed to the development of Tripura. This is our only agenda. The CPI(M) has only widened the tribal-non-tribal division. Our objective is to remove it," he said.

Of the total 60 Assembly seats, the Congress(I) is contesting 42 seats, including two constituencies reserved for tribal candidates. The INPT is contesting 18 reserved seats. The Congress(I)'s calculation is simple: if the INPT is able to win 12 to 14 seats and the Congress(I) can increase its present tally of 13 to about 20, the alliance can form the government.

There is no reason to believe that the CPI(M) is losing its hold over the tribal people. Despite the terror tactics employed by the tribal militant groups, the tribal people feel that all the development work in the State has been done by the CPI(M)-led Left Front during the last 10 years.

IN Nagaland it is for the first time in the past 10 years that the Congress(I) Chief Minister S.C. Jamir faces a real challenge. The party had won quite comfortably in 1993. In 1998, it returned to power even before polling thanks to the election boycott call given by the Naga Hoho, the apex tribal body of Nagas, with the support of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah). In most of the 60 constituencies only Congress(I) candidates had filed their nomination papers and won uncontested.

One crucial factor will, however, be the role that the Naga leaders, Isaac Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, with whom the Centre had recently held several rounds of discussions in New Delhi, will choose to play in the elections. The role of the rival National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) faction is also crucial. The NSCN(I-M) has declared that it has nothing to do with the elections; similar is the stand of the NSCN(K). But it is believed that these groups will indirectly support some candidates. The rivalry between the two groups is threatening to spill into the electoral arena with the Khaplang group warning candidates not to seek patronage from or contest as "unofficial" candidates of the NSCN(I-M). Violators of this guideline would face "capital punishment", it warned.

The Opposition parties, barring the Nagaland Democratic Movement (NDM) led by former Chief Minister K.L. Chisi, are set to fight the elections together on the single-point agenda of ousting Jamir. Their front, the Nagaland Democratic Alliance(NDA), comprises the Nagaland People's Front, the Janata Dal (United), the Samata Party, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Bharatiya Janata party. It is led by Hokishe Sema, former Chief Minister and a member of the national executive committee of the BJP. Jamir is, however, confident of victory for his party, which is contesting all the 60 seats.

IN Meghalaya, the picture is clear with the split of the ruling Congress(I) and the NCP. Both parties have fielded candidates in all 60 seats. There is no pre-poll understanding among the parties. However, post-poll alliances are quite common in Meghalaya politics, which is marked by defections and splits.

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