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Mourning The Independence

Wasbir Hussain

Monday 18 August 2003, by HUSSAIN*Wasbir

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition du 18 ao?t 2003.

The shocking cold-blooded murder of 30 innocent non-tribal Bengalis in Tripura once again underlines New Delhi’s apathy, for political considerations, in tightening security on the border with Bangladesh, resulting in such massacres with sickening regularity.

Separatist rebel groups in India, which exist by the dozen, have always been targeting symbols of governmental authority, attacking men of the security forces, people in authority or vital installations. In recent memory, rebels belonging to these militia groups have been particularly active during or after important days in the country’s national calendar - Republic Day on January 26 and Independence Day on August 15 being of particularly symbolic significance.

This has been the case whether it is in Jammu & Kashmir or any of the seven insurgency-wracked States in the Northeast, including Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland. This Independence Day, it was Tripura’s turn to bear the brunt of a sudden spurt in insurgent violence on the eve of Independence Day, although the rebels struck with ease in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh as well.

That insurgents hold sway in large parts of Northeast India despite a sustained counter-insurgency offensive in several States in the region, was proved once again on the night of August 14, when two hit-squads of the outlawed All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) woke up sleeping villagers in two different hamlets in West Tripura district and shot 30 of them dead, besides inflicting injuries on at least a dozen others. The attacks at village Borolunga, under Teliamura police station, and Daspara, near Tutabari, both located about 50 kilometres north-east of the State capital, Agartala, took place between 9.30 and 10 pm.

D. Gautam, Superintendent of Police (Operations), told this writer on telephone from Agartala that all those massacred were non-tribal Bengalis, and that both the attacks were a clear case of selective killings by the ATTF. "Both the ATTF groups comprised between 10 to 15 men each, and they indiscriminately fired from automatic weapons as soon as they descended on the villages, killing men and women who woke up from their sleep and didn’t know what was happening," Gautam said.

The cold-blooded murder of innocent civilians in Tripura might be shocking, but it certainly was not exceptional, as anyone familiar with insurgent politics in India’s Northeast would vouch. With as many as 11 separatist rebel groups (the ATTF included) in the region calling upon the people to boycott Independence Day celebrations and announcing general strikes in the States where they are active, violence was widely expected.

As a matter of routine during such important events, the authorities across the Northeast had deployed troops, besides putting the police and the paramilitary on a high state of alert. If it is humanly not possible to man every inch of a generally rugged and treacherous territory, extending across State boundaries and international borders, as in the case of Tripura (it shares an 856 kilometer long porous and largely unfenced border with Bangladesh), it is certainly difficult to contain, or even tackle, insurgencies - especially where these have deep political linkages.

Tripura has two main insurgent groups, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the ATTF. Formed in December 1989 with the rather unclear demand for a ’free holy land of Tripura’ cleansed of the Bengali settlers from the plains, the NLFT is an offshoot of the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), the State’s first rebel outfit led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl.

The TNV signed a deal with the Government on August 12, 1988, during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister, and Hrangkhawl with his men ’gave up arms.’ But, a sizeable chunk of the surrendered TNV cadres once again decided to turn to the gun and floated the NLFT. The NLFT is accused of directly backing the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) - which is headed by Hrangkhawl - an ally of the opposition Congress in the State.

If we look at the main grievance of the NLFT and compare it with the objectives for which the INPT claims to fight for, we find a commonality of interest - both seek to restore the ’rights and privileges of the tribals’ in Tripura, who have been reduced to a minority by waves of migration from present-day Bangladesh. The NLFT has always been seen as a group soft towards the Congress and its one-time tribal ally, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS), which has since merged with the INPT.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) that has been ruling Tripura for years now, alarmed by the emergence of the NLFT, is said to have supported the creation of the ATTF in May 1990, to protect the tribal-compact areas. Targeting Congress-TUJS members and supporters, the ATTF was fast turned into a rebel outfit. After the fourth Marxist-led Left Front Government came to power in Tripura in April 1993, the ATTF cadres surrendered en masse. However, just as some TNV cadres chose to stick to arms, a section of ATTF rebels under Ranjit Debbarma remained underground and re-christened their group as the All Tripura Tiger Force. Thus, if the NLFT shares its political objectives with the INPT-Congress combine, the ATTF is out to protect the CPI (M)’s tribal base, with both claiming to protect the interests of the State’s minority tribal population.

Why it is the ATTF, and not the NLFT, that has suddenly become active is perplexing. Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, during a telephone conversation with this writer on Sunday night, disputed this perception, pointing out that the NLFT was ’equally active.’ He said:

"On the eve of Independence Day, there was a massive gun-battle between the NLFT and troops belonging to the Border Security Force (BSF) on the Tripura-Mizoram border. It was not widely reported because the casualties, unlike the ATTF massacre, were not high. Five BSF troopers were wounded."

There is, however, evidence of increasing ATTF activities in recent weeks. A little-noticed political development is attributed to be one of the reasons for the ATTF stepping up its ’domination drive.’ The INPT-Congress combine that was in power at the 30-member Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) suffered a jolt in July 2003, when seven INPT members defected and formed a new group called the Nationalist Socialist Party of Tripura to capture power in the Council with the backing of the 10 CPI(M) members.

This means that, once again, the CPI (M) is back in the direct administration of Tripura’s tribal areas through the TTAADC. For the CPI (M), holding the 20 State Assembly seats (out of the total 60) located in tribal dominated areas under its sway is crucial from the point of view of winning State elections. And, if one is to accept that there is indeed a nexus between the CPI (M) and the ATTF, it is only natural to see a spurt in the ATTF’s activities as the local district council has once again come to be ruled by the Marxists.

Besides, the suddenly stepped-up violence by the ATTF is very much a part of the ongoing turf war between it and the NLFT. As things stand today, it is advantage ATTF, as the NLFT suffered a split last year with a faction led by Nayanbashi Jamatia said to have reached an understanding with the ATTF. However, the main NLFT faction headed by Biswamohan Debbarma is still active and has a strength of up to 700 hardcore fighters. The NLFT, too, has targeted non-tribals directly, but the extent of selective killings of non-tribals by the ATTF has, indeed, been high.

In November 1996, the ATTF mowed down 28 Bengalis during a massacre at Bazar Colony in West District. Again, in early 1997, ATTF rebels killed more than 60 non-tribals, mostly Bengalis, in five different strikes. This had led to an exodus of Bengalis from the Khowai sub-division in West District, besides a feeble retaliation by the non-tribals. Earlier this year, on the night of Republic Day (January 26), ATTF militants killed 11 Bengalis near Mandai Chowmani, once again in its stronghold of the West Tripura district.

If there is some sort of bonhomie between the rebels and political forces in Tripura, that only makes things all the more murky. Political considerations appear to be the key reason for New Delhi’s failure to heed Chief Minister Sarkar’s persistent pleas for deployment of the Army to combat the rebels, or to increase the strength of the BSF to man the border with Bangladesh more effectively. The Chief Minister emphasized the crucial significance of the Bangladesh border in this context:

"The ATTF seems to have acted at the behest of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence. The ATTF, as also other groups, are being nurtured and guided by the ISI from across the border. It is not just J&K, the ISI seems bent on setting the Northeast ablaze by aiding the insurgent groups in the area".

Some statistics provided by the beleaguered Chief Minister are interesting. He disclosed that, by the BSF’s own estimate, a total of 22 battalions are required to properly patrol the border with Bangladesh, while the force currently has to make do with just nine battalions. "The border fence is not complete yet and there is no Army presence whatsoever in my State," the Chief Minister said, almost helplessly, during his telephonic conversation with this writer.

Under the circumstances, what is certain is that Tripura is bound to remain in the rebels’ firing line, and it is difficult is to guess for how long.

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