Tripura Assessment - Year 2017
In their “eviction notice” sent on January 2, 2017, to media, the Biswamohan Debbarma faction of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT-BM), along with Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi-Longri (PDCK), set March 31, 2017, as their deadline for Bengalis and Hindi speakers to quit Tripura, parts of Assam and West Bengal. The notice declared, “We strongly oppose heinous killings by Indian Army and rehabilitation programme for Bangladeshi Bengalis…. We hereby would like to notify Indian citizens (Bengali and Hindi speaking people) to quit Kamatapur (consisting parts of Assam and West Bengal), Karbi-Longri (Karbi Anglong Hill District in Assam), and Tripura.” The notice was signed by KLO ‘chairman’ Jiban Singh Koch, NLFT-BM ‘organising secretary’ Sengphul Borok and PDCK ‘chairman’ J.K. Lijang. The trio is reported to be associated with the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA), a consortium of Northeast militant groups mentored by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) and the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I).
These threats notwithstanding, Tripura (along with Mizoram) remained the most peaceful State in the entire Northeastern region of India, in terms of insurgency-related fatalities. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), there were no such fatalities in 2016, a trend largely consistent since 2013; though 2014 was an exception with four fatalities [two civilians and two Security Force (SF) personnel]. At peak, 514 such fatalities were recorded in 2000, including 453 civilians, 16 SF personnel and 45 militants. The Northeast region as a whole registered 160 fatalities, including 61 civilians, 17 SF personals and 82 militants, in 2016.
Other indices also confirm that there was further consolidation of normalcy through 2016. Thus, according to SATP data, no extortion or abduction incident was recorded through 2016. Five persons had been abducted in three incidents in 2015.
As militant activities declined on ground, no incident of arrest was reported through 2016. Nine militants had been arrested in 2015.
Meanwhile, mounting pressure by SFs led to a spike in the surrender of militants in the State. 27 militants, all from NLFT-BM, surrendered in 2016, as compared to seven militants (also from NLFT-BM) in 2015. In one major incident, 12 NLFT-BM cadres accompanied by 19 family members, including eight children, surrendered to the Tripura Police along with their arms and ammunition on April 11, 2016.
Moreover, the border management infrastructure is being made robust in order to stop the ingress and outflow of militants and illegal immigrants. In this regard, UMHA Joint Secretary (Border Management) Susheel Kumar, during his visit to the State, on June 24, 2016, disclosed, "By December next year (2017), Tripura's 856 kilometers border with Bangladesh will be completely fenced." He stated that fencing along 775.26 kilometers had already been completed, while 63.43 kilometers was presently being fenced. Fencing along the remaining 17.31 kilometers “has to be created on the zero line for which permission from the Bangladesh government is required" and “all disputes would be resolved to mutual satisfaction and the work completed by December 2017.”
Insurgency is under definite control. But there are lingering threats. On January 4, 2017, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar observed, “Till a few years back the problems created by the militants has come down but still there is no room for self-complacency because we are aware that still across the border in Bangladesh a section of Tripura militants have its camp (sic). They may not be in huge number but are adequately powerful to harm us."
There are also several issues which have the potential to derail the progress towards further normalization.
One of these issues relates to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) along with two other tribal parties, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and National Conference of Tripura (NCT), formed a joint forum named the All Tripura Indigenous Regional Parties Forum (ATIRPFP) on January 15, 2017, to oppose the Bill. Announcing the formation of the joint forum, ‘convener’ N.C. Debbarma stated, “Three indigenous political parties have formed the forum to safeguard and protect the interests of the tribals in the State, who form one third of the population. We are of the clear opinion that the Bill is detrimental to the interest of the indigenous people... Bangladeshi migrants through this proposed law would be settled in eastern and northeastern India depriving the original people of the region of basic rights.” The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha (lower House of Parliament) on July 19, 2016, and now under the scrutiny of a parliamentary committee, seeks to enable Hindus, apart from Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who have fled to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh without valid travel documents or those whose valid documents have expired in recent years, to acquire Indian citizenship through the process of naturalization. In a clear demonstration that this issue is potentially dangerous for the prevailing peace in the State, during a 12-hour bandh (shutdown) called by ATIRPFP in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) region on February 8, 2017, at least 50 persons were injured in sporadic clashes.
Another such issue is the demand for separate tribal Tipraland State by the IPFT. Indeed, on August 23, 2016, at least 20 people were injured and 15 vehicles were set ablaze in State capital Agartala, in ethnic clashes between indigenous tribals and Bengalis, after a rally organized by IPFT to mark its eighth ‘Tipraland’ Statehood Demand Day.
Meanwhile, the third round of tripartite peace talks scheduled for July 7, 2016, and involving State Government, Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) and NLFT-BM, the lone active insurgent group in the State, could not take place. According to reports, Biswamohan Debbarma’s presence during the talks had been sought by the State Government and the matter had been communicated to the UMHA officials engaged in the talks with three representatives of NLFT-BM – ‘foreign secretary’ Utpal Debbarma, and ‘commanders’ Suron Debbarma and Tapan Koloi. As the outfit failed to commit to Debbarma's participation in the talks, the process stalled. In 2015, two rounds of peace talks were held with NLFT-BM. During the 2nd round, NLFT-BM delegates requested the presence of former militant leader and INPT ‘president’ Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawal in the peace talks. According to an unnamed senior Police official, privy to the matter, "the State Government officers and representatives of the Home Ministry did not agree to it and instead enquired about Biswamohan Debbarma. The NLFT [BM] delegates could not give any satisfactory reply."
The All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), which was the only other Tripura based active group earlier, is now largely defunct. Its ‘chairman’ Ranjit Debbarma, on May 18, 2016, had expressed his willingness to bring his one time rival group, NLFT-BM, to the negotiating table. No incident linked to ATTF was reported in 2016.
Another outstanding issue is the repatriation of displaced Bru (Reang) refugees housed in seven camps in Kanchanpur (North Tripura District) to Mizoram, which has not made much progress and has, in fact, reached a standstill. On February 21, 2017, the umbrella organisation of displaced Brus, the Mizoram Bru Displace People's Forum (MBDPF), stated that the Bru refugees had decided not to return to Mizoram as the Mizoram Government has ‘refused’ to meet their demands. The MBDPF said that a public meeting was held at all the seven relief camps on February 14 and 15, 2017, in which the refugees expressed their unwillingness to return to Mizoram by raising their hands. The public meeting was conducted as per the decision taken during the meeting of Joint Monitoring Group (JMG) in Guwahati on February 12, 2017, in which the MBDPF was entrusted to submit the public decision within three months. The JMG meeting, comprising representatives of the Home Department of Mizoram and Tripura and MBDPF, was inconclusive. MBDPF demands include the allotment of at least five hectare land to each repatriated Bru family, enhancement of the rehabilitation package, provision of free ration for two years, INR 5,000 per month to be given to each family, and the Brus be given the same status as the Kashmiri Pandits. Only about 5,407 Brus out of the total of 32,876, have returned to Mizoram thus far.
Peace in Tripura was restored after the extraordinary success of a prolonged Police-led counter insurgency campaign, backed by rare sagacity of the political executive of the State under the leadership of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. The residual issues of tribal discontent arising out of relentless demographic shifts need to be urgently addressed, both to bring a better quality of life to the tribal population, and to end the enduring friction between various population segments in the State.