Tripura: Niggling Concerns
By Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
Counterinsurgency (CI) in Tripura is a model of the most extraordinary success, bringing some of the country’s most virulent and bloody movements to a near complete end in an exemplary, Police-led campaign that began to record major successes in 2004, and had brought the State to peace by late 2006. The steady process of normalisation continued through 2012. However, with State Assembly elections around the corner, in February 2013, concerns are being raised over the possible revival of terrorism due to the mischief of established political parties – a factor that was crucial in provoking and sustaining the insurgencies of the past. The political class – essentially the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the opposition combine of the Congress Party and the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) – are once again accusing each other of attempts to revive terrorism to secure political and electoral advantage.
On November 27, 2012, Chief Minister (CM) Manik Sarkar, thus noted, “The leaders of Congress and INPT are in touch with the militants based in Bangladesh for helping them to falsify the election. Arrested NLFT-BM [Biswamohan faction of National Liberation front of Tripura] ‘commander’ Dhanu Koloi has confessed to the Police in the course of interrogation, how Congress leader Debabrata Koloi had helped him to extort Rs. 25 lakh [INR 2.5 million] for handing over to the NLFT-BM bosses in Bangladesh (sic). No more proof is required.”
Prior to that, on August 15, 2012, while disclosing that a few militants had made a ‘false surrender’ and had returned to the jungle after taking all advantage of the various benefits allowed by Government under its generous surrender scheme, Sarkar had remarked, “Though terrorism has been tamed in Tripura, a section of political leaders are trying to revive it to get political mileage. These political forces are also using surrendered terrorists."
On the other hand, Tripura State Congress President Sudip Roy Barman, on June 26, 2012, claimed that the CPI-M had withdrawn 1,300 criminal cases against 736 surrendered guerrillas and claimed, "The CPI-M and Chief Minister Manik Sarkar are patronising banned militant outfits for political interests.” Further, the Leader of the Opposition, Congress leader Ratan Lal Nath, alleged, "Outlawed ATTF (All Tripura Tiger Force) 'supremo' Ranjit Debbarma and NLFT leader Utpal Reang belong to CPI-M leaders' families. A senior CPI-M leader met them in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka several times to get their support."
While the possibility of political adventurism creates renewed risks, the State recorded just two militancy-related fatalities, both of militant cadres, in 2012, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database. 2011 had witnessed a single death (that of a civilian), a remarkable contrast to the 514 fatalities recorded in 2000, when terrorism was at its peak in the State. Nevertheless, Tripura continues to record incidents of extortion and abduction for extortion, primarily by the NLFT-BM, raising the danger of a revival of this group.
Media reports in June 2012, citing sources in the State Home Department, indicated that NLFT-BM had abducted more than 30 people from remote tribal villages in the first five months of 2012 alone, and had extorted at least INR nine million from different individuals and institutions by taking the help of a section of surrendered militants. Arrested NLFT-BM militant, Pushparam Reang, had confessed that the militant outfit collected over INR 1.7 million from the Kanchanpur sub-division of North Tripura District in September-October 2012, and added that INR 1.5 million was sent over to the group’s 'headquarters' [at the Sajak camp in the Khagrachari District of Bangladesh]. In a further and daring development, the NLFT-BM is reportedly demanding a portion of the funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) from poor tribal residents, as ‘donation’, in remote tribal villages located in the North Tripura and Dhalai Districts.
Meanwhile, in its effort to establish complete dominance in the State, the NLFT-BM has reportedly ‘tamed’ its rival ATTF, which is now virtually defunct. An April 22, 2012, report indicated that NLFT-BM, under the leadership of Sachin Debbarma, had captured the ATTF ‘base camp’ at Satcherri (in Bangladesh) after a small clash, and looted all arms, including a few rocket launchers, from this dormant formation. Following the incident, ATTF 'supremo' Ranjit Debbarma is said to have met with Biswamohan Debbarma at a hotel in Chittagong, where an agreement was arrived at, with each group promising not to attack the other. According to the NLFT-BM ‘foreign secretary’ Utpal Debbarma, who was arrested on July 12, 2011, a merger of the two groups had been attempted earlier, but had failed.
The apparent strengthening of the NLFT-BM has resulted in a significant slowdown in the surrender of its cadres. According to partial data compiled by the SATP, the number of NLFT-BM militants who surrendered in 2012 (until November 29 ) had reduced to just 10, as compared to 28 in 2011, 78 in 2010 and 77 in 2009. The surrender of militant cadres over the 2008-2010 period had, in fact, pushed the ATTF to the verge of collapse (its current strength is estimated at barely 10 to 12 cadres) and had reduced the NLFT-BM strength to 150-odd cadres. On March 6, 2012, Chief Minister Sarkar disclosed, “During the past 14 years, 1,705 extremists of different outfits have surrendered to the Government. Of the 1,705 surrendered militants, 1,285 have been given economic rehabilitation and embarked on a new life with their families”. However, intelligence report of June 18, 2012, had noted that 27 former militants in the State, who had earlier surrendered to authorities, had gone ‘missing’.
The NLFT-BM, a remnant of the parent NLFT after multiple splits, is reportedly involved in the Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) business, drug peddling, cannabis cultivation, smuggling to Bangladesh and the Middle East, and the production of pornographic films, in addition to extortion and abduction for extortion.
NLFT-BM has also engaged in activities beyond Tripura’s borders. There are at least two cases of recorded abduction in Mamit District [Mizoram] in which the group is suspected to be involved. In one of these, on November 26, 2012, suspected NLFT-BM militants abducted three persons, Sapan Kumar Roy (52), his driver Govinda Nath (35) and Sankar Nath (35), from Rajiv Nagar village in Mamit District. No further report about the abducted persons is available in open media. Earlier, on March 25, 2012, NLFT-BM rebels abducted six workers of an Assam-based firm, who were working at a fencing site on the Mizoram-Bangladesh border. NLFT-BM had demanded a ransom of INR 10.25 million and released the workers on April 30, 2012, after the firm reportedly paid INR six million.
Not surprisingly, NLFT-BM is currently on a recruitment spree. Referring to revelations made by NLFT-BM cadres, Dhanu Koloi, Bishu Koloi, Asitu Mog, Dolphin Koloi and Ratasree Koloi, who were arrested on June 17, 2012, the Tripura Police disclosed that NLFT-BM had recently recruited some 70 new cadres into the outfit, and these were currently undergoing arms training in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sources in the Special Branch (Intelligence Wing of the State Police) have stated, “Besides extorting money from the impoverished indigenous people, the NLFT rebels have been recruiting youths, promising them that they would get handsome rehabilitation packages after the polls”.
The NLFT-BM has also started to target displaced Bru tribals of Mizoram, living in refugee camps in Tripura, for recruitment. The displaced Bru tribals, also known as Reangs, are the second largest tribe in Tripura and are also found in Mizoram and Assam. The Brus are being roped in with the assurance of training and arms to fight for their cause. Crucially, the Bru refugee issue remains unresolved after nearly a decade-and-a-half. Out of 5,000, Bru families displaced from Mizoram to Tripura during the ethnic violence of 1997-98, only about 800 families have returned to Mizoram. Significantly, the original (undivided) NLFT had helped in the formation of the Bru militant group, Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), in 1996. The recruitment of Bru tribals may also help the NLFT-BM develop the Mamit District of Mizoram, which borders Assam (Hailakandi District) and Tripura (North Tripura), as well as Bangladesh, as a base. Notably, North Tripura has a 53 kilometre border with Assam and 109 kilometres with Mizoram.
Moreover, signs are emerging that another outfit, United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA), has started establishing a presence in the State. In 2012, the SFs arrested six Reang/Bru militants, belonging to this Assam-based outfit, including UDLA’s Chairman, Dhanyaram Reang. Sub-Divisional Police Officer, Sudip Paul disclosed that UDLA had established links with the NLFT-BM. The principal militant formations of the State have also joined hands with other militant organisation of the northeast to form a North-eastern ‘United Front’.
In an apparent sign of rising uneasiness, the State Government, in September 2012, extended the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) for another six months. The Act is in force, fully, in 34 Police Stations, and partly, in six Police Station areas, out of the total of 70 Police Station Areas in the State. AFSPA was first introduced in Tripura in 1997.
The SFs have recorded continuing CI successes, arresting at least 30 militants, including 16 belonging to NLFT-BM (including NLFT-BM ‘vice president’ Subir Debbarma from the Dhalai District on July 28, 2012). Nevertheless, the reported existence of 23 NLFT-BM camps in Bangladesh remains a matter of serious concern. According to official sources, though the Bangladeshi authorities are willing to flush out the insurgents, they face various logistical and geographical difficulties, as most of the camps are located deep inside densely forested areas.
Although the fencing of Tripura’s border with Bangladesh is almost complete, with just 125.5 kilometres of 856 kilometres currently unfenced, the installation of floodlights, which was to be completed within 2012, is reportedly running behind schedule, with only seven per cent of the work presently finished. The militants use the unfenced stretches on the hilly eastern border of the State with the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh for their movements. The unguarded boundary also helps illegal Bangladeshis to cross over. According to an unnamed official document cited by the media on June 23, 2012, an estimated 186,500 Bangladeshis have been deported after their detention in Tripura, since 1974. Further, between July 2011 and March 2012, 95 Myanmarese, including Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist tribals, were detained after they sneaked into the State through Bangladesh. If the recent problem in Assam is any indicator, the authorities in Tripura and Delhi must remain vigilant.
State Police forces have achieved a dramatic victory after decades of terrorism in Tripura, but there is little room for complacence or error. The State has established significant Police capacities (661 Policemen per 100,000 population, and 231.3 Policemen per 100 Square kilometres in 2011, well above national averages of 137 and 52.4, respectively). Nevertheless, with surviving bases in Bangladesh and Myanmar, growing linkages with other insurgent formations in the Northeast, and elements of political mischief in the run-up to the Assembly elections, the state’s enforcement and intelligence apparatus will have to remain extremely vigilant to ensure that any efforts of revival are neutralized in their earliest stages.