Kashmir receives a lot of coverage in the Indian and international press for its insurgency and state action resulting in civilian casualties. Indeed, Kashmir’s sorrow is like an everlasting wound on the Indian psyche. And yet there is another corner of South Asia which is even more sad, violent, and neglected. The place is Tripura, in the Indian Northeast. Civilian casualties in Tripura from insurgency-related incidents far outnumber those in Kashmir. One senior Indian bureaucrat informed the national press late last year that over 900 civilians had been killed in as many as 87 militant attacks in Tripura over the last four years. During the same period, 477 civilians had died in 40 incidents in Kashmir. It comes as a startling bit of information — that this little state known for its rolling hills, orange crop and for being practically surrounded by Bangladesh — is really the most violent corner of India.
Innocent deaths, kidnappings and extortions are a regular part of life in Tripura and have been for many years now since an insurgency arose to unsettle this area more than two decades ago. These years of tribal insurgency demonstrate the depths to which a misguided and frustrated identity movement can sink in the absence of a guiding political ideology and firm and recognisable leadership.
In the Northeast, where militancies with various levels of commitment to violence as means to an end proliferate, the Tripura insurgents manage to shock and chill for the nonchalance with which they commit crimes against the innocent and unarmed. Nowhere in the entire region, from Assam to Nagaland, is there such a thin line which separates the insurgent from the criminal. And what makes the Tripura rebels far more dangerous is their access to sophisticated arms, fed by a cross-border gun-running network. Besides, they enjoy the patronage of the local political parties, which have developed a stake in the insurgency. Unlike lay criminals, the violence practiced by these militants is more indiscriminate and cold-blooded, and it is this raw brutality that makes Tripura’s experience stand apart from the other Northeast insurgencies. For all practical purposes, it can be said that the insurgents of Tripura have declared a war on the people — an unequal war in which no man, woman or child, whether ‘tribal’ or Bengali, is spared.
The fighting has by now affected nearly the entire rural hinterland of the tiny state, where some 30 odd militancies are active. However, two outfits carry out most of the attacks, abductions and killings. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), a tribal group, controls virtually all of the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) area, which covers almost two thirds of the state’s territory. Its rival, the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), has undisputed writ over a smaller patch in the state’s northeast area contiguous with Bangladesh. Several retaliatory rag-tag armies, such as the United Bengali Liberation Force (UBLF) and the Amra Bangali, had also managed to keep the levels of violence high, but they have by now petered out after much-hyped beginnings. However, other less organized but more criminal groups also operate in the state, sometimes kidnapping victims in order to ‘sell’ them to the more political outfits. There is a Left Front government in place in Tripura, of course, but its presence is felt only in the capital, Agartala. No one with a political identity or balance in the bank is keen to move out of Agartala for fear of being abducted or killed.
Ostensibly, the ATTF’s main political demand is the deportation of all non-tribals settled in Tripura since 1951, while the NLFT’s is a “free holy land of Tripura”, which is to be achieved after secession from India. On the ground, however, the two groups are locked in a schizophrenic contest involving money, political patronage and control over territory. While the NLFT and ATTF would thus seem to have complementary goals, however, it is fighting between these two groups that is one of the main reasons for the inordinantly high casualties in the war in Tripura. Innocents, as well as combatants, get caught in the crossfire.
A total of 1718 civilians and members of the security forces (not counting insurgents) died in militancy related violence between April 1993 and February 2001. During the same period, 1961 persons were kidnapped. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar told the State Assembly that, of the total kidnapping cases, more than 47 were untraced. Actually, the number of abductions is thought to be much larger, for most cases go unreported, with the families reluctant to approach the police. Thus, even the number of reported abductions does not indicate the true level of violence in the state.
According to the latest official figures, the nine months from January to September 2000 saw 422 persons kidnapped in Tripura by various armed insurgent groups. Ten of those abducted were killed in rebel custody and 199 released on payment of huge ransoms. The remaining kidnapping victims are still missing. During the same period, 159 civilians were killed by insurgents and there were another 359 ‘extremist-related’ incidents. In addition, 22 militants and 15 security personnel were killed in 61 encounters. Altogether 466 villagers were taken into custody for interrogation by the security forces and 637 people thought to be rebel collaborators were arrested. Educational establishments have suffered much of the violence. There have been many school closures following the abducting and killing of staff. The last couple of years alone saw the slaying of 20 teachers in the state, and the abduction of 58 staff members of schools. According to reliable media and political party sources, 80 percent of the 1284 schools in the Autonomous District Council have remained closed for the past five years. All this in a state that already has one of the highest school dropout rates in all of India.
There has also been a dramatic drop in development work in Tripura, with bureaucrats and other government officials unable to visit the interior areas for fear of being kidnapped for ransom and whisked away to hideouts in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, there is a huge population displacement in progress as non-tribals from the hills descend to the plains, and as tribals from the plains move up to the interior highland. Sharp ethnic polarisation is now a tragic reality in Tripura, accompanied with total collapse of the authority of the state government in Agartala. The rule of the gun is almost uncontested.
The people of Tripura are no strangers to political violence or to popular grassroots protest movements, having experienced their first organised insurgency back in the late 1940s. Organised by a leftist leadership, that movement was promoted as an “armed struggle against class enemies”, meaning the Indian ruling class. What is noteworthy of the current situation, however, is the aimlessness of the insurgency. Tripura’s insurgents have evolved into nothing more than gun-toting criminals targeting their own people, while enjoying immunity because of highly placed patrons and sympathisers. When the going gets tough, they are able to quietly evacuate across the porous border.
For these failed revolutionaries of Tripura, the shift from ethnic insurgency to criminality was fast, easy and lucrative. The money has rolled in, particularly from ransom demands, and this has assured lavish lifestyles for the leaders and a steady supply of arms from Southeast Asia for the cadres. Ironically, it is the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTADC) area where most of Tripura’s tribal jhumiya (shifting cultivation) population lives, that is worst hit by militancy, and which also helps support the criminals masquerading as militants. Today’s Tripura fighters have nowhere to go, no lofty battles to fight, no visions to sell. They live for the moment, given to things material, with a craving for the gun and a deep contempt for the rule of law.
The fact that Tripura is not visible in the Indian, South Asian or global indices of political violence merely points to media and scholarly neglect, and it is possible that this oversight itself has fueled the bloodshed.
Way to self-destruction
On the map, Tripura is the stubborn little thumb of territory that juts sharply into Bangladesh, nestled uneasily between the Chittagong Hills Tracts to the south, Comilla to the west and Sylhet to the north. A princely state that acceded to the Indian Union on 15 October 1949, Tripura became a Union Territory in November 14 1956 and a full-fledged state in January 1972.
The reason Tripura entered its violent societal tailspin, so dramatic even against the backdrop of the generally insurgency-ridden Northeast, is its particular mix of history, demography and modern-day political evolution.
The origins of ethnic insurgency can be traced to the influx of Bengali settlers from East Pakistan immediately following Partition in 1947. The 1901 census of Tripura recorded tribals constituting 43 percent of the population, and by 1947 they constituted the majority. The census of 1951, however, indicated a major shift in the demographic balance, with the tribal population having fallen dramatically to 37 percent (from 51 percent a decade previously). With the continuing inflow of Bengali migrants over the years, and with an additional surge recorded after the 1971 Bangladesh war, the tribal population of the state is now down to less than 30 percent.
Tripura’s indigenous population, divided among 19 distinct tribes, forms a socially and economically deprived community which has traditionally depended on jhum (shifting) cultivation in the forest tracts. Following Partition, most hill-based tribes found themselves rapidly marginalised as a result of the homesteading by the culturally dominant Bengali-speakers. The indigenous people lost their unquestioned traditional entitlement to land as aggressive settlers moved in. With the locals unable to make quick adjustments in lifestyle or adapt to the evolving institutional circumstances, the latter were also quick to take advantage of modern-day occupations in civil service and commerce. The ‘establishment’ in Agartala thus rapidly became Bengali-ised, including the state administration, academia, and business, all of this fueling a deep feeling of alienation among the tribal population. [LS] fact, the leaders of the Assam Movement of 1979-85 use the example of the marginalisation of the indigenous people of Tripura to justify their own campaign against Bengali ‘outsiders’.
Recognising this process of marginalisation, the tribal leadership began to apply pressure on the Indian state through the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS), a committee formed in June 1967. The charter of the TUJS, set out in the face of strident protests by the Bengalis, sought tribal autonomy through a series of demands which included an autonomous district council for the tribal people; restoration of alienated tribal lands; extension of the “Inner Line” regulations to Tripura to discourage access to all and sundry from the Indian ‘mainland’; and introduction of Kokborok, the indigenous language, with the use of Roman script as the medium of instruction for tribal students.
Feeling that their demands were going unfilled, and with the continuing arrival of settlers, in the late 1970s the tribal groups began to engage in violent guerilla attacks against the Bengali settlers and the government they believed to be abetting the in-migration. A disturbing element of the tribal reaction, however, was that in parts it took the form of ethnic cleansing. Altogether over 2000 persons were killed and more than 20,000 houses burnt to the ground in the May Riots of 1979 and the June Riots of 1980. Almost all the victims were Bengali. To the insurgents, ethnically targeted violence seemed to hold the promise of changing the demographic facts on the ground which stood in the way of the formation of an autonomous district council in Tripura, a state within a state.
There were others, besides the Bengalis, who fell victim once the riots of 1979 and 1980 had released the genie of violence out of the bottle. A number of tribal leaders themselves fell prey to internal feuds and conspiracies. Security personnel, including those from the army, police and the Border Security Force, also died in large numbers. Before long, the non-tribal Bengalis also organised to carry out retaliatory killings. Frequent engagements between the tribal guerrillas and the Bengali fighters became common.
In 1979, in an attempt to take the edge off tribal insurgency, the state government proposed an autonomous district council in accordance with the relevant provisions in the Indian Constitution. The Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council Act, envisaged under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, was meant to give the tribal population of Tripura more political and economic powers at the grassroots level. However, this move elicited loud protests from the ethnic Bengalis, some of whom had already floated armed groups such as the UBLF and Amra Bangali. It was not until 1985 that the TTADC Act came into force, with a few modifications.
Volunteers to tigers
The Assam Movement’s twin themes of indigenous people’s rights and the need to oust ‘foreigners’ seemed to have touched a chord in Tripura. The indigenous leadership was dissatisfied with the offer of an autonomous district, and the first demand for a separate state for tribals in Tripura was made by the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), the armed wing of the TUJS. The exclusionist ideologues demanded the deportation of all post-1951 settlers – after which Tripura could become a truly ‘tribal’ state – and began to successfully mobilise followers.
Under the leadership of Bijoy Kumar Hrankhwal, the TNV remained the prime sponsor of this sons-of the- soil campaign in its early years. Its target was the Agartala government’s cultural and employment policies, seen to flagrantly favour ethnic Bengalis. As the state government groped to tackle the problem, the TNV widened its contacts across the region, streamlined its supply routes, and established itself in forest sanctuaries to continue the fight. Links were made with the Mizo National Front, which was fighting the Indian ‘occupational government’ in nearby Mizoram. In fact the MNF was active in helping set up the TNV’s small guerilla army with training and armaments.
A dramatic change came with the signing of the Mizo Accord between the Indian government and the MNF leader Laldenga, in 1985. This robbed the TNV of its chief patron and by August 1988 the TNV too had signed a tripartite memorandum of settlement with the Union Government and the State Government. The centerpiece of the agreement, on the basis of which the TNV, including its leader Hrangkhwal, came above ground, was the restoration of alienated tribal lands. However the Agartala government did not fulfil its obligations under the agreement, and return of tribal lands became the tinder which continued to feed the flames of insurgency in the state.
With an unsatisfactory accord that did not tackle the roots of the tribal dissatisfaction, and with the TNV being perceived to have been bought over, before long there was a mushrooming of other militant outfits, most significant among them being the All Tripura Tiger Force. What was most notable about the growing militancy was the absence of an all-encompassing vision or convergence of political goals, and there was little coordination between the groups operating. The only common element became the scramble for money and material gain, plus the easy access to sophisticated arms flowing easily across the borders of a state nearly completely surrounded by a porous international frontier.
The availability of lethal small arms, in fact, became the deciding factor for the ease with which various small ethnic groups turned to militancy. Over the years, political strength came to be equated with the ability to incite violence, and unhindered gun-running only aided Tripura’s decline into the abyss.
The level of violence, the targeting of civilians as well as the internecine fighting, were all fueled in part because the many different tribal groups did not have an umbrella organisation or unified programme. “The political aim of Tripura’s insurgency is hazy and confusing,” wrote noted Tripura scholar Mahadev Chakravarty of Tripura University in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly. “Some groups aimed at establishing swadhin or independent Tripura with sovereign power or a group of tribal states of North East confederacy with Tripura as one of the so-called Seven Sisters; others to dislodge by any means the so-called ‘Refugee Government’ or ‘Colonial Government’ of the state or to divide the state between tribals and non tribals with the TTADC as the main center of the tribal state.”
Unable to force the Indian State to take their political agenda seriously, and with the political establishment’s reluctance to promote tribal advance, coupled with the lack of support from their own tribal populations, the insurgents had only the gun to turn to. Assault rifles in hand, they turned to banditry. Without a leadership to give a political spin to their depredations, the Tripura militants soon took on the appearance of IS mere thugs. In a region with widespread deprivation and unemployment, even among the educated, the lure of the gun and easy money led Tripura to mass criminalisation.
Underclass and economy
Violence against civilians has now become an almost daily occurrence in Tripura, and is carried out without even the fig leaf of political cover. While in Agartala town there is some semblance of law and order, out in the hinterland it is the gun that rules. Civil society has been desensitised to such an extent by the course of events that it tacitly accepts the killings and kidnappings as routine. With law and order completely outside anyone’s control and extortions and abductions becoming the order of the day, there is hardly any flow of economic investment into Tripura today. The insurgency feeds the vicious cycle in which economic deprivation creates a sullen political underclass, which in turn feeds the non-ideological militancy, creating a mutually-reinforcing roadblock to economic advance.
And so it goes in a state that ab initio faced enormous economic hardship because of its distance from the Indian mainland and after 1947 the additional burden of the closure of land routes all around into East Pakistan. The natural direction and nature of trade as well as communication had always been into what became East Pakistan, and the closure hit Tripura even harder than the other states of the Indian Northeast. In one stroke, the Northeast became a cul de sac without access to the sea, with all road and rail links having to go through the ‘chicken’s neck’ of the Dooars at Siliguri.
While for Assam, or Arunachal, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the land route to the port and cultural and communications hub of Calcutta made some economic sense, the situation for Tripura (and neighbouring Mizoram) was economically ludicrous. Goods unloaded at Calcutta port now had to travel by road through West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya to finally reach Tripura after completing a circular carriage that took up to 20 days. Moreover, all major roads, including the national highway from Siliguri to Agartala, were vulnerable to attacks by different militant outfits.
The enormous costs of transport and carriage constitute the greatest hindrance to Tripura’s economic development, for it makes the state non-competitive in the development of products and services. This is the main reason why Tripura has developed no viable industry other than tea. Complicating matters, a recent spate of kidnappings has led to a slow down in the work of the Rubber Board and the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) because the areas containing potentially rich natural gas reserves are those where the insurgents are most likely to strike.
There is no business quite like the kidnapping business in Tripura, where fabulous returns are almost guaranteed amidst the statewide anarchy. The official figures bear this out: between January 1997 and December 2000, there were some 1394 abductions reported, 96 hostages confirmed dead, and 444 hostages missing to this day. The ransom amounts usually range from INR 20, 000 to INR 50, 000, but can run to lakhs if the victim is thought to be affluent enough. However, given the non-ideological nature of the insurgency, the payment of ransom does not necessarily mean freedom, and there are many cases of death in captivity.
Yugabrata Chakrabarty was a prominent tea planter who was abducted by the ATTF in 1996. Thirty lakh rupees were paid for his release, but earlier this year after the payment of ransom the group announced that he had died of renal failure. Chakravarty’s family members have said that the ATTF demanded additional lakhs of rupees for returning the body. In another instance, the son of businessman Mrinal Chowdhury was shot dead by ATTF gunmen while trying to resist his father’s abduction.
Chowdhury himself was later killed and his body thrown into a remote well.
The NLFT, fighting for the “ free holy land of Tripura”, was responsible for abducting
two boys aged three and four in South Tripura on 15 BANGLADESH November, 2000. Both were later shot dead, even though their parents had paid a ransom of INR 25,000 for their release.
Tea production is the only commercial activity that has achieved any kind of scale in the state, but the industry has been grievously wounded by the kidnappings and killings. Many of Tripura’s 57 tea gardens are located along the length of the border with Bangladesh, and the high and mid-level tea-executive is a prized catch for the abductors. The tea industry is thought to be able to afford hefty ransom demands, and it is relatively easy to whisk off victims from isolated tea gardens to rebel hideouts in Bangladesh.
As a result of the surge in abductions of tea executives in recent years, a large number of tea gardens lie abandoned while others function at half-steam in the absence of planters. In many of the 20-odd tea gardens of South Tripura, which too have fallen victim to extremist violence, the bushes remain unattended and the crop unplucked as the proprietors themselves stay away. Even though the owners are desperate for a truce with the militants, they have been unable to establish any trust between themselves and the fractured groups that roam the countryside. This is in sharp contrast to the relationship developed by tea gardens in Assam and elsewhere in the Northeast with the various rebel groups, perhaps due to the unified command of the better organised insurgents elsewhere.
While the abduction of tea planters make news, the larger impact on Tripura society is in the numerous cases of kidnappings, random killings and extortion targeted at those less privileged. Almost every other person walking the streets of Agartala has been a direct or indirect participant in a violent drama, and there are few families that have been spared the horror of one violent action or another.
All of the Indian Northeast is marked by identity-related insurgencies, targeted against the ‘Centre’ in New ! Delhi, or the state government, or against neighbouring or cohabiting communities with whom there is either historical or newfound ire. With only Mizoram today serving as a newfound haven of peace in a progressively violent Northeast, it would have been surprising if Tripura had not been dragged into this cauldron of violence. And so it has been, the only difference being that the state’s peculiar situation has made it easy for the insurgents to convert themselves quickly into bandits.
Besides the obvious dissatisfactions within the states of the region, insurgency finds fertile ground in the Northeast of India because of the long, winding and porous frontiers, the presence of elements hostile to the Central Government across these frontiers, an inhospitable and forested terrain, and the region’s proximity to Southeast Asia. The fact that neighbouring Burma itself has a number of powerful insurgent groups only helps sustain those of the Indian Northeast. Most of the contraband weapons that flow into the Northeast originate in Cambodia, with its surplus of small arms. The underground route to South Asia is said to begin in the Rangong Islands off the Thai coast from where the arms are shipped through the Andaman Sea to Cox’s Bazaar along the Bangladesh coast. From here, the weapons are carried in smaller consignments to various destinations in Burma and the Indian Northeast through different routes.
It is thought that the bulk of the arms that enter the Northeast from Bangladesh do so through Tripura. According to the state’s Finance Minister, Badal Chowdhury, the weapon consignments arrive in the districts of Dholai, South Tripura and North Tripura, from where they are transported further inland. The NLFT and ATTF, with camps and hideouts in Bangladesh, clearly play a key role in this gun-running activity. Agartala’s authorities claim to have submitted a report to New Delhi some time ago documenting 21 NLFT and eight ATTF base camps in Bangladesh, most of them located in the Sylhet and Chittagong districts.
The quantity of weapons confiscated by the Border Security Force and other units does not reflect the actual volume of the contraband arms trade, but the seizures do clearly indicate the nature of weaponry in the possession of the militants in Tripura and elsewhere.Most of the arms are Chinese-manufactured pistols, revolvers, sten-guns, self-loading rifles (SLRs), as well as assault rifles such as the AK-47, 56 and 58, plus some .303 rifles. Unlike the smaller groups, the NLFT and ATTF both possess a formidable arsenal of such arms.
The power that comes from wielding an assault rifle keeps Tripura’s under-educated youth in thrall, which makes recruitment easy. Meanwhile, the weapons horde of the two main insurgent groups gives them an enormous clout in the pecking order of Northeast insurgencies. Their firepower also makes them formidable foes of the security forces. Most importantly, however, the NLFT and ATTF are able to use these guns against the people of Tripura, which they do, and postpone indefinitely the rise of a civil society based on representational democracy and the rule of law.
The politician’s insurgent
One of the high profile ministers of the ruling Left Front government in Agartala explained in an interview last August that the insurgency in his state was not all it was cracked up to be. The problem was being highlighted and exaggerated, he said, “by the Congress Party just in order to dislodge us from power.” The minister took great pains to explain the nexus between the NLFT and the State Congress Party and lamented the Congress’ cynical encouragement of insurgency in Tripura. “We (the Left Front) enjoy a considerable support from the tribals in Tripura, and this is nothing but dirty politics by the Congress,” he said.
The minister’s reference to NLFT is significant. For, while the NLFT is alleged to have close links with the Congress, the ATTF is said to be aligned with the ruling Left Front. Tribal militant outfits have been used by the major political parties in the state either to remain in power or to dethrone the ruling party. Both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI(M), which have ruled Tripura alternately since 1978, stand accused of employing underground outfits against each other. Thus, there is little doubt that what can be called ‘terrorism’ in the state is supported and sustained by political patronage. This may explain why Agartala’s authorities are unable to control insurgents, said to number, as a senior police officer himself admitted, no more than a thousand. So deep is the militant- politician nexus, it is said that the parties do not give the security forces a free hand in tackling the insurgents.
The state has abdicated its responsibility in Tripura. The democratic constitutional process has been subverted, and electoral outcomes are increasingly decided by the overt or covert support of the armed elements. Protected by political immunity and patronage, the insurgents enjoy untrammeled freedom to control territory, extort, loot, kidnap and rape. The politicians, meanwhile, look the other way.
A land-locked and Bangladesh-locked state that is far from even the Northeastern consciousness of the rest of India, Tripura and its people have been left to sort out their own problems. With a flick of a pencil, the border-demarcating Cyril Radcliffe managed to remove this region from its economic lifeline and make it the state that is the remotest from the centre of India. This might potentially even have been something of an advantage, but Tripura’s particular history of indigenousness and in-migration, as well as the fractured nature of its local identities, has nurtured a soil that is fertile for political violence. Without a strong intelligentsia and civil society of its own, and neglected by the rest of the Northeast and India, the political violence soon degenerated into banditry. And that is what the people of Tripura suffer today.
Kashmir is more visible. It is here that real terror has come to roost, practically unremarked.