Migration and Ethnic
Violence in Tripura
The present ethnic conflict in Tripura began in 1980 and reached its lowest ebb in 2009. However, its origins go back well before India’s Independence and are virtually inseparable from the issue of Bengali migration into the State. A detailed analysis of conflict theories namely; Enemy System Theory, Ethnic Conflict Theory, Protracted Conflict Theory, Walker Connor’s Ethno-nationalism Theory and Donald Horowitz’s and Terrill Northup’s theses, brings out a clear theoretical explanation for the violence in Tripura. This explanation centres on issues of identity, ethnicity, migration, territory, politics and other socio- psychological factors responsible for violence.
The paper will examine each of these issues, over the course of one theoretical, one descriptive and three chronologically ordered sections. The first section will provide the reader with an orientation in ethnic conflict theories. The second will provide a brief outline of the main geographical and demographic features of Tripura. The third section will deal with the gradual political transformation of Tripura from Monarchy to Democracy during the period from 1400-1948. The fourth section will throw light on the cyclic violence that dominated the period 1948-2006 and the fifth section will deal with the relatively successful counterinsurgency campaign of 2005 – 2009.
The role of identity in conflict is adequately highlighted in the Enemy Systems theory1 and Edward Azhar’s2 analysis. A synthesis of these two views brings out a persuasive concept: divergence of basic identity manifests itself in an ‘us and them’ syndrome, wherein identity and negative identity play an important role in the conflict. When a group is denied physical and economic security, political participation and recognition leading to loss of identity, such a group will do whatever possible to regain it. In Tripura, there was, and still is, a divergence in the basic identity between the tribal way of life and the non tribal way of life. Due to this divergence, the ‘us and them’ syndrome started manifesting itself with the settlement of a large number of non-tribals in the State. Meanwhile, a negative identity started emerging, when tribals lost land and reserve forests to non-tribals, coupled with the insensitivity of non-tribals to the local language and culture. This set the tone for ethnic conflict in Tripura.
Donald L. Horowitz3 and the Enemy System Theory, in combination, posit that ethnicity spills over into conflict, as evident from the fact that conflict ensues when the security of an ethnic group is continuously shattered by violence and aggression leading to a fear of being annihilated; an ethnic group cannot trust the guarantee offered by a majority that it will not abuse power; indigenous groups are forced to abide by the entry of ethnic strangers for economic reasons, they later tend to regard them as strangers. When such conflict occurs, a group aims at the exclusion of parallel ethnic groups from the share of power. In Tripura when riots broke out in 1980 and shattered the tribals’ sense of security, armed groups took advantage of the heightened tensions and started an insurgency, projecting non-tribals as ‘foreigners’ and asserting their own identity as ‘sons of the soil’.
Territory also plays an important role in the conflict as pointed out by Vasquez’s4 Territoriality Theory. It is his view that the territorial nature of human beings is intertwined with the sense of self and group and hence, if these needs are frustrated, conflict ensures. This thesis underlines the loss of tribal land to projects, subsequent forest acts and non-tribal settlements in Tripura as some of the salient factors responsible for conflict.
The pivotal role of politics in conflict, particularly emphasized by Horowitz and Walker Connor,5 suggests that ‘primordial attachments’ are utilized by political leaders in ethnic conflict to achieve their ends, such as control of the State. Control of a State and exemption from the control of others are the principal goals in ethnic conflicts, which are mass driven. Thus, in a severely divided society, normal administrative issues, which are routine in nature, assume a central place as political agenda. In Tripura, when the tribals lost out to non-tribals, their leaders started spearheading the tribal cause, fully aware that this was mass driven. The formation of pro-tribal parties like the Gana Mukti Parishad and Tripura Upajati Juba Samity brought unity and focus among their people. Their success in mobilizing the masses corroborates this thesis.
Another psychological aspect of conflict highlighted in the Enemy System Theory is the role of one’s inability to mourn during the conflict. This theory notes that when a group is under threat and cannot let go of their losses, they suffer from the inability to mourn and tend to perpetuate conflict, as they do not want to come to terms with their loss. It is obvious from the conflict in Tripura that tribals in the State, led by pro-tribal political parties and pro-tribal insurgent groups, are yet to come to terms with the loss of land and the threat of loss of identity due to in-migration of non-tribals. Even though the Autonomous District Council (ADC) under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution has been enacted and implemented, their demand today is for even more financial powers and administrative autonomy, suggesting a refusal to accept their losses. As a result, ethnic violence is often perpetuated in the State in a cyclic manner.
The psychological process of demonization and dehumanization of a group also plays an important role. Within the Enemy System Theory, it is noted that demonization is a mechanism for projecting negative images of enemies to justify violence against them. This generally leads to the next step of dehumanization, when the group regards the other as demons or enemies who are less than human, rationalizing the use of extreme violence. The activity of tribal insurgents in Tripura (as shown in Annexure-III), clearly indicates the extreme brutality employed in killing non-tribals. Throughout their struggle, non-tribals were the sole target of tribal formations, and were systematically demonized. Insurgent campaigns sought the eviction of non-tribals from ‘their’ territory. The violence perpetuated was so brutal that even children were not spared, something that has been confirmed by most of interrogation reports of the arrested and surrendered extremists.
The process of ‘chosen trauma’ is another aspect of conflict, reflecting an event through which, when a group is badly victimized, it becomes obsessive about the trauma and often feels a sense of entitlement as a result of the experienced wrong, leading to conflict. The facts regarding population inversion and loss of territory in Tripura were projected as the victimization of tribals, making this progressive marginalization the ‘chosen trauma’ in Tripura, a grievance that has, in no measure, been mitigated by the creation of the ADCs.
Peter A. Olson6 outlines another set of psychological factors in the conflict dynamic, emphasizing early socialization in a violent environment, narcissist injuries such as negative identity, escalatory events like conversion experience and personal contact with terrorist groups. It was after twenty years of the major ethnic violence of 1980 that insurgent activity in the State once again peaked in 2000, and a majority of those who joined the tribal insurgent groups were found to be from families affected by the ethnic violence, or from the families who lost their land to non-tribals as a result of deceit or deception. About 10 to 15 per cent were those who had converted to a non-tribal religion. Interrogation reports of most of the surrendered and arrested extremists confirmed that many suffered from narcissistic injuries, provoking them to join insurgent groups when approached, to avenge their cause.
Terrell Northrop’s escalation model7 emphasizes that identity operates in conflict-escalation in stages. The first stage is threat which can be real or imaginary. The second stage is distortion which is the response to threat and aggression. The third stage is rigidification which is a process of hardening of one’s attitude against the threat. The final stage is collision of party identities, which manifests in conflict. This pattern of escalation corresponds closely with the stages noticed in Tripura.
A Long and Continuing Political Metamorphosis
The State of Tripura is believed to have been one of the oldest Kingdoms in Ancient India. It was ruled by a monarchy thought to have descended from King Yayati, belonging to the lunar dynasty in the Mahabharata era.8 There are many differing opinions as to its specific origin, based on mythology and references made in the Sanskrit Rajmala, the Royal chronicle of the Kings of Tripura, and other scriptures. However, the metamorphosis of this monarchy into the present democratic State as part of the Union of India ushered in substantial and unsettling social, economic and political changes, embedding comprehensive infirmities in society, and leading to cyclic ethnic violence.
Geographic Proximity and Clashing Cultures
Tripura is a small land locked north eastern State of the Union of India, which covers an area of 10,477 square kilometers. It is bounded on the north-west, south and south-east by Bangladesh, and on the north-east by the Indian States of Mizoram and Assam. The topography of the western part of Tripura is almost the same as the eastern part of Bangladesh, with five hill ranges of varying heights, ranging from 1000 feet to 3000 feet, emerging from Bangladesh and traversing through Tripura in a north-south direction, till they converge in the dense forest areas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. The valleys between these picturesque ranges have fertile plains and seasonal rivers that get flooded during monsoons. 60 per cent of the land is a vast expanse of lush green rain forests, of which 5.7 per cent has been cleared by jhoom or ‘shifting cultivation’.9 The topography does not offer any natural barrier to migration, movement, attack, annexation and insurgency, and consequently becomes an important factor in the ethnic conflict.
The demography of this State is a diverse mix of various ethnic stocks. The distinct Austro-Asian race of Europoid man are settled in the plains, and the Mongoloid featured Tibeto-Burman language groups are evident in the hills. A heterogeneous mixture of Aryan, non Aryan and Dravidian types are also found in the plains. The Mongoloid tribes, speaking the Tibeto-Burman language, originate from one of the three Indo-Chinese linguistic families, which migrated from the head waters of Yangtzekiang and Hoangho River in China in 2000 BC and settled in the fertile Brahmaputra valley. During the 7th and 8th Centuries AD, these Mongoloid tribes migrated to the hills of Tripura from the east, north east and south east of the Arakan Yoma hill tracts bordering this Hill State.10 Subsequently, when the tribes extended their settlement towards the fertile plains of western Tripura, they came in contact with the non-tribal inhabitants living in the plains bordering Tripura, now called Bangladesh. These hill people were nature lovers, slightly primitive, with animistic leanings. In stark contrast, the inhabitants of the plains had wider exposure and were ritualistic in nature. The convergence of two such diametrically opposite cultures obviously provided a perfect backdrop to conflict, since no effort was ever made to bring about proper accommodation and trust between the communities. The first recorded effort to resolve this conflict was brought about by the British political agent posted in Tripura, who pointed out that "hill people were very simple, truthful and honest till corrupted by evil influences arising from closer intercourse with the inhabitants of the plains".11
During both the days of Monarchy and its subsequent transition to democracy, the socio-economic and political polices adopted by the rulers of Tripura further aggravated problems, as many policies were implemented without giving thought to ground realities. Some polices even led to the complete inversion of the demography of the State, whereby the non-tribals replaced the tribals as the majority, producing one of the principal causes of ethnic polarization and violence. Today, the total population of Tripura is 3,199,023, of which 51.58 per cent are non-tribal, while a meager 31.05 per cent constitute tribals belonging to 18 distinct tribes.
From Prosperity to Subjugation: 1400 AD to 1948 AD
During the 1400-1948 period, the Kingdom of Tripura was ruled by 35 Kings of the Manikya dynasty.12 The period from 1400 to 1563 was the golden phase, often referred to as the ‘era of expansion’. The period between 1563 and 1793 was thought of as an ‘era of decline’, while the age between 1793 and 1948 emerged as the ‘era of change’. In all these three phases of its history, the Kingdom was at constant loggerheads and war with its neighboring Kingdoms. It was only in 1563 that it reached its pinnacle of glory, though momentarily, as a contemporary and supporter of Akbar, with a very vast empire.13 This great expansion of the Kingdom was a result of frequent and active conflict with the neighboring Kings of Kamarup, Cachar, Arakan and Rangamati, as also the rulers of Gaur across the Brahmaputra.14 Over time, the Kingdom came to be distinctively demarcated, with the plains inhabited by the Bengalis and Hill tracts by the tribals, which remains the principal faultline even now. This polarization was further aggravated when three successive Kings settled thousands of Bengali-Hindu families in the region, starting in the early 15th century and till 1515. This era also saw royal patronage for Bengali literature. Brahmins were also settled in different parts of the State, and the people embraced Hinduism, built temples and adopted Vaishnavism in 1470. Even today, the tribal belief and practices are a synthesis of indigenous animism and the ritualism of Bengali Hindus.15
Between 1563 and 1783 – the ‘era of decline’ – saw the advent of the Mughals, who finally found a foothold both in Chittagong and Commila after a century of struggle, resulting in the shrinking of the Manikya Kingdom.16 The Kingdom lost a substantial expanse of its plains to the Mughals and was left with a meager 600 square miles of plain land known as Chakla Rushnabad and 300 square miles of hilly terrain.17 Looking back, it is obvious that the Kingdom was badly neglected and remained under developed, to the extent that the sole means of communication, even in the 19th Century, was the waterways. The size of the Kingdom was small and manageable, but the constant wars with the Mughals and consequent loss of territory, meant a loss of revenue. It was, therefore, logical for the King to mitigate this loss by reclaiming marshland in the hilly areas and to start taxing the tribals. He encouraged Muslim cultivators in large numbers during the end of 17th century, increased the tax on tribals and established Bengali as the official language of the Court.18 It was during this period that the Mogs also migrated to Tripura from Chittagong and, with the Kingdom shrinking, this only added to the woes of the tribes.19 The adoption of Bengali as the official Court language, increase of taxation on the tribals, settlement of Muslim cultivators, and migration of the Mog tribals from Chittagong at this crucial juncture of their struggle, compounded pressures on the tribals.
In the 18th Century, the situation with regard to land became more acute, as the ruler lost the south western portion of his Kingdom, Chakla Rushnabad, to the Nawab of Bengal, due to an internal family feud. Ultimately, the royal family agreed to hold Chakla Rushnabad as a zamindari (a feudatory arrangement) under the Nawab, on payment of Rupees 5,000 as tax, per year.20 Thus, in the year 1732, the Kingdom was reduced to the paltry hill areas of Tripura and the zamindari of Rushnabad. In 1755, after the Burmese invasion, another migration of Manipuri tribal refugees took place,21 and the availability of land in the Kingdom buckled even further. These Manipuri migrants were readily accepted and even encouraged to settle in Tripura by the ruler, who had a marital accord with the ruler of Manipur, further aggravating conditions for the native tribals of the state.
Another important historic land mark during this century was establishment of contact with the East India Company in 1761, when the Nawab of Bengal took the help of the Company, to settle the payment due from the Tripura King, arising out of the zamindari.22 Subsequently, the Company got the right of dewani (similar to a zamindari, involving direct administration by the dewan in lieu of feudal allegiance and levy) over Bengal and also started collecting revenues from the Tripura plains, which became an issue between the Tripura King and the Company. This was finally settled in 1793, when the zamindari was awarded to the King for the plain area, while the hill tract was administered by the King as an independent territory. Contact with the Company brought in a new concept of administration, alien to the tribal culture, embedding one more faultline in Tripura.
It was but natural that the advent of the East India Company and its policy towards the King created revolt among the tribals of Tripura on the issue of revenue collection. During the period from 1761 to 1765, the East India Company increased the collection of rent payable by the Zamindar from Rupees 66,695 to 1, 05,000, which was a very heavy burden on the King, who in turn passed it on to the peasants, many of whom could not pay tax and lost their land rights. When the peasant and Mog community revolted against this subjugation, they were brutally suppressed by the King.23 The second half of the eighteenth century was traumatic for the tribals, and especially so when the King’s property was shrinking even as the East India Company’s demands for tax increased.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Kingdom grew politically close to the British Empire, assisting the English in the 1824 Burma campaign, and later, during the 1857 ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of Chittagong.24 However, the frequent unrest among the tribes, particularly in 1826 and between 1836 and 1844, invited adverse notice of the British on the state of affairs in the Kingdom. Under the circumstances, in the second half of the century, the King committed a major mistake in appointing his Guru (teacher and guide), Bipin Bihari Goswami, a Hindu Brahmin, to oversee the affairs of the State, and Balaram Hazari as Dewan to improve collection of revenue.25 This was done by the King to please the British Government and prove his credentials on the collection of revenue. Coercive actions taken by the Dewan to raise tax revenues, however, ended in a revolt in 1857.26 Subsequently, Goswami’s ruthlessness in collecting increased taxes from the Reang tribals in spite of two successive droughts, led to a revolt by the Reangs, supported by the Kukis, in 1860. Both these revolts, which took place due to the oppression and injustice of authority, were put down with an iron hand.
Between the 1860 and 1863, the issue of Bir Chandra Manikya’s succession to the throne came to the fore, sending confusing signals to the citizenry and leading to a revolt by the Jamatia tribes. The Jamatias, apprehending that they may have to pay twice the quantum of tax due to the succession problem, bluntly refused. They also revolted against the forced labour system adopted by the tax collectors during their tours to the tribal areas. The King, with the support of the Kukis, brutally subdued the Jamatia rebels, but subsequently let their leader, Parishit, go free, after converting him to Vaishnavism.27 During the same period there were a series of raids by the Kukis into the British territory bordering Tripura. The British, suspecting the complicity of the King, appointed a political agent to assist him in improving his administration.28 British agents were appointed from1871-1878, while from 1878-1890, U.K. Das, a Bengali from Bengal, was appointed as an ex-officio British agent. Perusal of the annual administrative report clearly throws light on issues which were relevant to the socioeconomic, psychological and political dynamics in the state, particularly financial management, the partisan attitude of Bengali administrators, the lack of development among tribals, the pressure on tribals for tax, lack of communication, lack of education and inadequate medical facilities. Along with these came the British criminal and civil procedure code, which was deeply alien to the tribal culture.29 The emerging scenario created a perfect setting for conflict between the poor and deprived hill people and the privileged lot living in the plains.
The penultimate phase of the ninetieth century saw the enactment of the Tenancy Act in 1885-86, where the British gave their Bengali subjects tenancy rights at a very low cost to attract cultivation and boost revenue. A total of 30,000 hectares of additional plain land30 was settled. Thus, the pressure on the land continued, and was further aggravated by the King’s liberal donation of land to high caste Brahmins, Muslims and Government officials. The banning of jhoom (shifting cultivation) in the forest areas in 1887 and the Jhoomia Rehabilitation Scheme of 1889 attracted more non-tribals than tribals,31 taking more land away from the tribals. The various economic measures taken by the King (based on an impractical British model) to increase his revenue, thus enormously aggravated the problem of land scarcity for the tribals by the end of the 19th Century.
The first half of 20th Century saw further agitation due to the massive influx of non-tribals into Tripura, which was made possible through a settlement policy of the King. This heavy influx of migrants worsened the ethnic conflict in the State. During the first half of the century, the King attracted more plainsmen to reclaim marshy land and boost his revenues. Thus, between 1911 and 1921,32 a large number of plains dwellers, mostly Muslim farmers from what is now Bangladesh, were made to settle in Tripura. The Forest Rule of 1903, declared 3,861 square miles as reserve forest in 1908-07, further diminishing land availability for the tribals in the interior,33 who were dependent on forest land for their livelihood. Considering the plight of the tribals, orders were issued in 1913 allowing tribals to use forest produce, but this in no way helped to alleviate their problems. The Administration sensed the rising tensions, and, in 1939, 28,490 hectares of land, and in 1941, 505,053 hectares, were reserved for the six tribes of Tripura. However, this left nothing for the remaining 12 tribal34 communities, once again confirming the infirmity of the King’s policies. At this crucial juncture, the first batch of non-tribal refugees entered Tripura in 1941, after widespread communal riots. The King formulated a proper plan for their rehabilitation, constituting a 41 Member Committee to oversee their rehabilitation and settled them in his territories,35 worsening the land crisis among the tribals.
Within a short span of six years, between 1943 and 1949, there were three major tribal revolts, each ruthlessly crushed. The first revolt was by the Reang tribe under the leadership of Ratanmani Reang, who refused to provide manpower for the Second World War and also to pay tax, which was the highest among the tribes.36 He was eventually defeated in 1943. The second revolt was by the Debbarma and Jamatia tribals of Golaghati village,37 who could not pay tax and were suffering from acute shortage of food due to a two-year drought. This was also ruthlessly suppressed. The third upsurge occurred at Padmabil in 1949, in the transition period of the Kingdom,38 when tribals revolted against the King’s suppression of protests against the lack of education, among other demands. This ended in the killing of three young girls from the Debbarma tribe, who are even today treated as legendary figures and martyrs for their cause.
Intriguingly, while the entire country was in turmoil and reeling under the pressures of the freedom struggle, Tripura did not witness much of this spirit or its impact. This may have been due to the Maharaja’s popularity with the Bengalis, who were settled by him and who did not wish to antagonize the British on whom he was dependent. The impoverished and isolated tribals, whose sole contact with the plains was through rivers, were of no consequence. Nevertheless, the consequences of an autocratic monarch who suppressed all socio-political dissent became increasingly after Tripura’s accession to the Union of India on October 15, 1949.
At the tail-end of the Maharaja’s regime, the Communist Party which was active in Bengal could not organize itself well due to the ban against the party from 1934 to 1942. Two parties, the Tripura Rajya Jan Mongol Samity and Tripura Rajya Gana Parishad were formed in 1937, and advanced their own social and political agendas, including, divergently, demands for the formation of a responsible government under the King, various political and socio-economic programmes, the abolition of tax on tribals, etc. To curb the popularity of these parties, the King passed the Praja Mandel Act, 1938, in accordance with the Government of India Act, 1930, a move that proved counter-productive, generating resistance from both these parties.39 Eventually, both these parties were banned in 1940 and their leaders detained until the end of the Second World War (1939-45).
After the War, when all the leaders were released, both parties again divided into two separate camps. The first had Leftist leanings and was not recognized by the King, while the second adopted a Right Wing ideology. The Left parties opposed the King’s proposal to form a ministry with his nominated members, and mustered all the tribes against the King. For the first time, between 1945 and 1948, they mobilized a large number of tribals under the banner of the Janasiksha Samity (People’s Education Committee), with a declared mission to provide education to the tribals, an issue completely neglected by the King. Indeed, literacy among the tribals had declined from from 18.5 per cent in 1907 to 7.9 per cent in 1940,40 a clear demonstration of the perversity of the King’s policies. The movement became popular, establishing 488 Primary Schools with voluntary teachers.41 They also encouraged the native Kokborak language and literature. While the movement was quickly stifled by a ban in 1948, and most of its leaders, who were Communists, went underground, it left an indelible mark in the minds of tribals regarding the importance of education and the role of its leaders.
The vacuum left by the banned Jana Shikshsa Samity was filled up by Tripura Rajya Mukti Parishad, which took up issues such as the protection of tribals against forced labour, exploitation by moneylenders and businessmen, family tax, grass tax, etc, in May 1948.42 Popular mobilization led to the two revolts – the Golaghati riots in 1948 and Padmabil uprising in 1949 – against the Dewani rule. The popular pro tribal movements were curbed by the King and subsequently by the Government of India through coercive means. The unprecedented violence against tribals by India’s Armed Forces in April 1949 lead the Leftists to support tribals in various litigations on criminal and civil matters, and to support the allotment of khas land to landless tribals. When the ban on the Communist Party was lifted, the Left leadership reverted from an armed struggle to the ballot box.
Counterinsurgency through Democracy, Civic Action and Policing: 1948 to 2008
The transition of the state from monarchy to democracy was a smooth process between April 1947 and October 15, 1949.43 This is contrary to some of the projections made by the parochial tribal parties which claim that the accession was achieved through dubious means. Closer perusal of the correspondence relevant to this period clearly brings out the fact that the King had taken a decision to merge with Union of India in April 1947 and appointed his Minister on April 28, 1947, to represent the State in the Constituent Assembly. The King’s sudden death on May 17, 1947, made the British in India appoint the Queen to head the Council of Regency on August 8, 1947. The Queen took active part in the process of merger, even representing to the Home Minister on the boundary question, including the Chittagong Hill tracts, and Noakhali and Sylhet Districts within Tripura, which was ignored by Radcliff Boundary Commission.44 Had the boundary question been settled as proposed by the Queen, the State would have had enough plain land and railways to make it more economically viable, avoiding one more embedded defect. The office of the Chief Minister, created by the monarchy, was subsequently abolished on December 20, 1947, by the Government of India and a Dewan was appointed to assist the Queen, till the accession of Tripura to India was completed. The Dewan continued after the accession, till Tripura was made a Part C State under the Constitution in 1951.
The transition of Tripura from a nominal democracy to a full-fledged parliamentary democracy took a very torturous route over the period of 1949 – 1972. This was principally due to the refugee influx which took place during this period, compounded by a lack of proper appreciation of public sentiment and of the economic difficulties faced by the landlocked State. When the Dewani system was opposed and demands for a popular elected government was made, the Government of India responded in 1951, declaring Tripura a Part C State with an Electoral College, but without legislative powers, administered by the Chief Commissioner. When the demand for popular government intensified further, the Government of India responded by appointing a Council of Advisors to the Chief Commissioner on December 1, 1952.45 When the appointment of the Advisors was opposed, a Tripura Territorial Council was formed in 1956, with a diarchic dispensation. Further, when this did not satisfy the people’s aspirations for Self Government, the State was declared a Union Territory in 1963, and the Tripura Territorial Council was converted into a Legislative Council under the Lieutenant Governor. Once again, when this system did not perform well, and the people demanded Statehood, this was eventually granted on January 21, 1972. It can thus be seen that the simple process of implementing Parliamentary democracy within a democratic country all of 23 years, highlighting the indifference of the national political executive to the aspirations of the people of a small North Eastern State.
Coinciding with this extended period of transition was the influx of refugees, commencing in 1950. By 1958, 374,000 refugees had entered Tripura and massive rehabilitation was carried out. By 1960, 70,000 families were rehabilitated, of whom 34,000 were settled in 75 colonies in Agartala and the rest in different places.46 By October 22, 1960, the rehabilitation was complete. But the influx continued till the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, worsening the shortage of land. The important issue that has to be noted here is the lack of equity in the rehabilitation programme, between people displaced from West Pakistan and East Pakistan, which added to the problems of Tripura.47 The entire population was settled in Tripura, leading to abnormal pressure on the land for tribals. The Dumber Hydro-electric project also added to their plight, since large numbers of tribal families were ousted from the catchment area,48 without proper rehabilitation. The Tripura Land Reform Act, 1960, also failed to not reduce the inequalities in the distribution of land, or to prevent illegal transfer of land from tribals to non-tribals.49 Thus, during the struggle for Statehood, the land question, economic backwardness and the political aspirations of the tribals, were systematically relegated to the background.
As a consequence of the influx of a large number of refugees, a growing numbers of ethno-centric tribal parties mushroomed, with the Gana Muktiparishad, a Left Wing Tribal Party, dominating. The Debar Commission and Hanumanthiya Commission, which looked into the development of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) suggested a tribal compact area for development,50 which triggered the aspirations of the tribes, leading to a struggle for tribal self rule. At the same time, the Congress Party, which repeatedly came to power in 1957, 1963, and 1967, due to its popularity among the rehabilitated people, also made a token attempt to assuage the aspirations of the tribes. They enacted the Tripura Land Reforms and Restoration Act in 1960 to restore alienated tribal land. This Act was ineffective and hence an attempt was made to enlarge its scope through an amendment in 1964. This attempt also remained a nonstarter, as it was not implemented effectively, a deficiency that continues even today, as the statistics on land restoration (Annexure-2) demonstrate. The effort by the Government to prevent tribal land alienation failed to prevent continuing land alienation, creating a sense of mistrust and betrayal among the tribals. The Left Wing party, which was known for its pro-tribal policies, also could do little to satisfy the demands of the tribes, further aggravating frustrations on issues of equity in their own land, provoking violence and tension against the non-tribals from (then) East Pakistan. In this scenario, as most of the political parties failed to appreciate the demands of the tribals, and as the pro tribal Left party could not agree with the tribal demands, both in practice and spirit, the tribals felt an increasing need to have an alternative party which could sincerely further their cause. This lead to the formation of the pro-tribal Tripura Upajati Juba Samity in 1967.51 Being an exclusive tribal party, they had a pro tribal policy and demanded an autonomous council to achieve self rule, while the Left Party continued to pursue the demand for an Autonomous District Council (ADC) by taking non tribals into confidence.
In 1971, to add to the heightened frustration of the tribes, the Bangladesh war led to the influx of thousands of refugees. This brought tribal anxieties on the possible loss of identity to a peak, further renewing their resolve for self-rule and recovery of land.
During the General Election of 1977, the Left parties, by virtue of their inclusive policies, fought the election on the issue of creating an ADC under the 6th Schedule, and secured an overwhelming majority, while the TUJS failed to make a proper mark in the political arena. On coming to power, the Left passed the Bill for the ADC under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (provisions as to the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram) in the Assembly52 and sent it to Parliament for assent. The Government of India, however, gave consent for the ADC under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution (provisions as to the administration and control of scheduled areas and scheduled tribes) on January 18, 1982, instead of the Sixth Schedule. The delay of five years complicated the issue of tribal self rule and the State had to pay a very high price in the form of unprecedented ethnic riots in 1980.
During this period of delay, from 1977 to 1982, in its enthusiasm to spearhead the tribal cause, the TUJS started a systematic and aggressive campaign against the non-tribals, demanding the deportation of those who migrated after Partition, since the Inner Line Permit for nontribal and the ADC did not permit settlement of outsiders in the State. Simultaneously, some frustrated young tribal leaders also formed an underground militant wing by the name of Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), with an anti-establishment and anti-non-tribals agenda. The TUJS, on the one hand, started a political agitation demanding the right of tribal self-rule, while the underground TNV, on the other, started a violent anti-non-tribal campaign by attacking non-tribal bazaars, policemen and forest officials. This created a massive reaction within a section of non-tribals, who formed of a parochial party, Amara Bengali, which systematically opposed all political moves of the TUJS, creating a very serious rift between tribals and non-tribal in the State. This rift ultimately ended in a bloody carnage in 1980, during which 1,300 persons lost their lives, 3,77,048 were left homeless (of which 60 per cent were non-tribals and 40 per cent tribals), 34,661 houses were burnt (67 per cent non-tribals and 33 per cent tribals) and 1,89,919 persons were displaced.53
Thus from 1980 to 2001, Tripura was caught in an intractable cycle of violence, with a large number of innocent non-tribals and Leftist tribals, forest officials and Armed Forces personnel were killed in the State. This cyclic violence took place in two phases, from 1980 to 1991, and 1992 to 2008. In the first phase, two underground tribal outfits, the TNV, formed in 1977 and All Tripura Peoples Liberation Organization (ATPLO),54 formed in 1980, established camps across the border in Bangladesh, with the active support of the ISI, initiating an insurgency in Tripura by looting Police Stations for weapons, and ambushing the State’s unprepared and ill-equipped Armed Forces. The manpower for these militant groups readily came in the form of absconding accused of the 1980 riot cases and school dropouts from completely dysfunctional schools in the interior. Both the outfits highlighted the need for the ADC under the Sixth Schedule and deportation of nontribals settled after October15, 1949. Their depredations were concentrated along the demographic faultlines and against symbols of the Administration.
This problem was dealt with by slowly inducting paramilitary forces. Alongside, the Government carried out a systematic rehabilitation programme for the riot victims in a very effective manner and assuaged the ill-feelings among the tribals by withdrawing a large number of riot cases in which tribals were accused. By virtue of effective administration and the sensitivity of the political executive, the Left Front was elected to the ADC during the first election in 1983.This also ultimately paved way for the ADC under 6th schedule in 1985, and the surrender of one of the militant groups, ATPLO, in June 1983. TNV, however, continued with its insurgent activity.
Frustrated by failure of the pro-tribal TUJS to win the ADC elections, TNV persisted with the systematic and ruthless killing of non-tribals in the periphery of the ADC areas, creating resentment among non-tribal populations against the ruling Left Front Government. This lead to the fall of the Left Front Government in the 1988 Assembly election, when a TUJS – Congress-I Coalition Government came to power in 1988.55 On August 17, 1988, within three months of the formation of the new Government, the TNV surrendered and signed an accord, which stipulated the rehabilitation of undergrounds activists, effective measures to prevent infiltration, the reservation of more seats for tribals in the Assembly, restoration of land to tribals, redrawing of the ADC boundary, an economic package for tribal development, and an increase in the number of Scheduled Tribe seats in the Legislative Assembly from 17 to 20.56 Eventually, a hard assessment of implementation of the MOUs with both the surrendered groups would demonstrate that many clauses were not implemented properly. The deportation of non-tribals, which was an impractical expectation, and the redrawing of the ADC areas to include the tribal compact areas left out in the previous demarcation, were particular cases in point. This, in turn, gave rise to further frustration, and the revival of militancy.
In the second phase from 1992– 2008, disgruntled elements once again formed two insurgent groups which operated in Tripura after establishing camps across the border in Bangladesh with the active support of the ISI and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI). The first group was formed just on the eve of the ADC election in the name of All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF) by a local Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPM) leader, on July 11, 1990.57 This group once again carried out a systematic campaign against non-tribals on the periphery of the ADC areas and terrorized them. After the Left Front came back to power in the general election in April 1993, however, the entire group surrendered in August, after signing an MOU with the Government. Their demands included the deportation of non-tribals who entered Tripura after March 25, 1971, without valid documents; land reform; inclusion of tribal majority areas in the ADC; village police forces; an increase in the number of State Assembly seats for tribal from 17 to 26; recognition and promotion of Kokborok as their native language.58 However, one splinter group which was not satisfied with the accord did not surrender and continued insurgent activities under a new name, All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), which focused its activity in the West Tripura District.
On April 14, 1989, some of the educated youth of the Tripura Students Federation (TSF), a tribal unit of TUJS, dissatisfied with the TNV accord, especially on the cut-off year for deportation of non-tribals, created a second underground militant outfit, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT).59 This group initiated insurgent activities across the entire State. The ATTF and the NLFT focused their activities along the periphery of the ADC areas; terrorized the non-tribals and managed to polarize the demography, driving out a substantial number of non-tribals from the ADC areas. This continued till the 2000 ADC elections, when the Indigenous Nationals Party of Tripura (INPT), a TUJS clone, came to power in the ADC.60
The reason for the change was the debacle of the Left Front in the ADC elections, even though they were in power in the Legislative Assembly. There had been a depletion of strength of the Front’s hard core tribal wing, Ganamukti Parishad (GMP) due to systematic killings, first by TNV and then by NLFT. Tribal votes were polarized due to the terror campaign of both extremist outfits in the interior tribal and peripheral non-tribal areas of the ADC. This turnaround of tribal sentiments was a watershed in the partial resolution of conflict in Tripura.
The ruling political leadership which had identified the core issue then carried out a major revamp of the party, especially in the interior tribal areas. They gave full support to the State executive for a silent development of the infrastructure in such areas, concentrating on the road network, regrouping of tribal villages, providing Government job to the dependents killed by the insurgents, reviving schools and renaming a large number of tribal villages. The Government increased tribal welfare programmes and provided exclusive security for development work, revived the school infrastructure in the tribal interior, and established security camps to ensure against a continuation of ethnic violence in the State.
These efforts were further reinforced by systematically increasing power and road projects, the strength of the Tripura Police, and by raising a large number of well-organized indigenous armed force battalions in the State in spite of major budgetary constraints. The India Reserve Battalion concept of the Government of India61 was a boon to the cash starved State to raise more Forces to tackle insurgency. Commensurate to these various developments, there was a deliberate attempt to increase the recruitment of tribals in the Police and other services, as well as proper rehabilitation and withdrawal of criminal cases against the surrendered extremists. A typical example of the political will of the State’s leadership was the withdrawal of cases against two surrendered extremists convicted for murdering the State’s Health Minister. Finally, to consolidate the constructive effort, the political as well as administrative executive encouraged the public, political parties, Police and Administration to participate in various peace initiatives of the State.
Analysis of economic statistics of the State for the period from 1995 to 2008 brings out the quantum jump in budgetary expenditure, leading to substantial improvements on the Human Development Index, increase in the road network, Gross Domestic Product, tribal welfare schemes, power generation, participation of the tribals in joint forest management programmes and rubber plantations, revival of school infrastructure in the interior areas, and increases in minor irrigation projects.62 [For ready reference some of these facts are given in Annexure-2].
Analysis of crime statistics relating to extremist activity during the period from 1995 to 2008 [see Annexure-3] also highlights the fact that the year 2000 was the turning point in controlling extremist activity. Between 1995 and 2000, the State’s Police Force was neither equipped with automatic weapons nor in a position to deal with the insurgents. The extraordinary commitment of the majority of available Forces to provide security cover to the non-tribal population made the residual Force available completely inadequate to dominate interior tribal areas and deal with the insurgents. The porous international border, active support of the DGFI-ISI complex in Bangladesh in providing training infrastructure, logistics and shelter to the insurgents groups, and lack of connectivity in interior areas for conducting effective operations was other major drawbacks for the State Police in dealing with the situation. These major operational drawbacks were further compounded by the lack of proper rehabilitation schemes for surrendered extremists. Yet the Tripura police succeeded in overcoming all these obstacles between 2000 and 2009.
The first and foremost action that had a major impact on the morale of the Police was the replacement of bolt action weapons with automatic weapons. This was started in the year 1999 and had visible impact by 2000-2001 itself. The second critical initiative was the decision to increase the number of Tripura State Rifles (TSR) battalions from 5 to 7, and the induction of the Force in counter-insurgency operations towards the end of 2000, followed by the induction of an additional two battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The additional CRPF strength increased the availability of TSR battalions for deployment in interior tribal areas, enormously improving the operational efficiency of the Police. Simultaneously, a proper mechanism for monitoring counter insurgency operations and coordination of intelligence at the State level as well as District levels was put in place.
The improvement of the road network in interior areas also played an important role in controlling the insurgents, as it facilitated operations against the extremists. The induction of a further two battalions of the Border Security Force for border management, as well as the erection of border fencing along the Bangladesh boundary, added to the operational effectiveness of the Police, as the free cross border movement of the insurgents was curtailed. Systematic psy ops were initiated in 1999, and started yielding result from 2000. These were so effective that, between 2000 and 2005, group rivalries and violence between the ATTF and NLFT increased, a split was engineered in the NLFT, and internecine violence between the groups resulted in more than 100 hardcore extremists being killed.
The induction of Armed Special Police Officer Camps, similar to those in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), an increase in the number of Police Stations to improve policing, and a further increase in the number of TSR battalions from 7 to 12, helped significantly improve operations against the insurgents. The revamping of the tribal wing of the ruling CPI-M, coupled with Police camps in interior, was a boon, improving the intelligence network which led to increasingly successful encounters. The wholehearted encouragement to the rehabilitation of surrendered militants in large numbers [evident from the data in Annexure-3] further sealed the fate of the insurgent movements.
One of the most significant factors in the overall approach of the State in dealing with the problem was maintenance of a humane approach, against all odds. Some of the salient features which glaringly stand out in this approach included the implementation of systematic development programmes under security cover, in spite of a serious financial crunch. Two significant endeavors to illustrate this are the efforts made by the Government to go ahead with rail connectivity to Agartala and road connectivity in interior areas; and allowing the ONGC to carry out its exploration programmes in interior tribal areas, both at the peak of insurgency. Sustained and continuous vigil in the Police camps in disturbed areas, to prevent complete migration of ethnic minorities, and ensuring a quantum jump in Police [Annexure 4] helped further. Providing proper security cover to all democratic political activities and public-political as well as party-police-executive participation in the maintenance of peace during the worst law and order crises, was yet another feature which was significant in reducing violence.
A small group of hard core leaders of both extremist groups, along with their weaponry and infrastructure, remains intact in Bangladesh, though without adequate manpower and finance. The surviving extremists are operationally weak, due to an extensive network of Police camps established over a period of time, which has given a sense of security to the citizens to resist maneuvers to revive the groups in the State. A residual possibility of the cyclic violence reemerging in the State does, of course, remain. The key to an enduring solution lies in India’s geopolitics and relations with Bangladesh, the sincerity and effectiveness of providing jobs to the young unemployed tribal youth in the State, and preventing operational fatigue in the Armed Forces who have been operating for a period of very long time.
The migration and settlement of non tribals caused a population inversion in Tripura, which became the crucial factor responsible for conflict. This inversion, coupled with a mismatch between the tribal and non-tribal ethos, as well as a history of bad experiences the tribals had to endure under monarchy and later the later phase of democratic changeover, reinforces the concept of migration as one of the factors for ethnic violence.
When the tribals of Tripura felt they were being denied economic security and equitable political participation, leading to the loss of their identity, pro-tribal parties emerged, leading to the 1980 riots. Among the outcomes of this conflict was the inclusion of the tribal language as an official language, an increase in the number of Legislative Assembly seats for tribals and the creation of the Autonomous District Council. The ADC under the Fifth Schedule did not secure the trust of the tribal leaderships, and the struggle for the ADC under the Sixth Schedule sustained the cycle of conflict in the State.
Cyclic ethnic violence in the State of Tripura is inevitable, if not intractable, in as much as the ethnic minority is not given the sense of equity in the social, psychological, economic and political space by the majority; political elites manipulate these sentiments for their own personal gains; and the political and administrative leadership chooses to ignore these factors.
ANNEXURE – I
SOCIO ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL EVENTS: MATRIX OF CONFLICT IN TRIPURA DURING MONARCHY.
ANNEXURE – II
STATISTICS ON DEVELOPMENT *
EXTREMIST RELATED CRIME FROM 1995 TO 2008 ***
TRIPURA POLICE STRENGTH
**** Courtesy: Tripura Police