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Tripura Bleeds ‘“ In The Crossfire Of Mainstream Political Parties And Virulent Ethnic Conflict

Tripura is a land-locked state with Mizoram in East, Assam in Northeast and 800 K.M. of porous international border with Bangladesh in North, West and South. With an area of 10,486 square kilometers covered by two third forest and one third of river valleys it is predominantly a hilly and often inaccessible area. It was traditionally the abode of about twenty tribes, who had their distinct traditions, customs and dialects. KOK-BARAK has been the main dialect for inter-tribe communication. It is spoken by about 80% of tribal population. Prominent tribes include Tripuris, who constitute majority followed by Reang, Noatia, Jamatya and smaller groups like Chakma, Mizo and Garos. In pre-Independence era it was a tribal dominated state but its aboriginal population got submerged in the growing waves of migration from erstwhile East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. The immigrants now constitute over sixty eight percent of state population and their mother tongue Bengali is the official state language against KOK-BARAK, which enjoys the status of second language.

If we look into the growth of population during last one hundred years in Tripura since 1901 shown below, the figure has increased about thirty times whereas the area of cultivable land, which is the only source of livelihood, remained the same:

1901- 1, 73, 325

1951- 6, 39, 029

1971- 15, 56, 342

1981- 20, 60, 169

2001- 31, 91, 168

The Indian Government ignored the demographic complexity while rehabilitating the unrestricted flow of non-tribal Bengali refugees in this smallest state of northeast. Transformed from a predominantly tribal State to a non-tribal majority state the population of the tribes was reduced from 64% in 1864 to 52% in 1901, 37 % in 1951 and 29% in 1971(Encyclopedia of North-East India, Volume VIII, -H.M. Bareh). By the end of twentieth century their population was reduced to 28%. The tragedy of partition therefore, not only disturbed the demographic balance but the progressive increase in state population and steady decline in the proportion of the natives also caused economic, sociological and political upheaval and turned it into a battle ground of ethnic turbulence.

Historically, Tripura was a princely state, which joined the Indian Union on 15th October 1949 as a ‘C’ State. It got the status of Union Territory in 1956 and full statehood in January 1972. In early twentieth century a sizeable number of non-tribal Hindu Bengali peasantry from East Bengal had migrated to this State at the instance of its ruler, who with a view to augment the revenue offered settlement of cultivable land in the valley at low rent. The king also employed the educated Bengalese in state administration and over the years, they accepted Tripura as their homeland. However, the natives always regarded them as aliens although the relation between the two was relatively stable till the former was in majority. The trouble started in 1940s with anti-Hindu riots in East Bengal followed by the turmoil of partition forcing the scared and hapless Hindu Bengalese to cross over to Tripura.

Since the days of Independence extreme tribalism has been the main focus of politics in all the tribal dominated regions of the country. In Tripura too organizations like Paharia Union and Tripura Rajya Adivasi Sangh came up in early nineteen fifties for championing the cause of the tribals. The ethnic diversity and personality clashes among the different tribes and sub-tribes were however, the greatest hurdle for political unity among them. Their disunity helped the mainstream political parties like Congress and Communist to play deceitful and scandalous politics and accordingly they ignored the demographic complexity in the rehabilitation of the large scale influx of non-tribal Bengali refugees in this prominently tribal State. Indian Parliament enacted Tripura Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act 1960 and put restriction on transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. But due to political power in the hand of Bengalis the Act remained in paper only as the immigrants manipulated the registration of tribal lands fraudulently.

By and large the tribes of Tripura were under the political hegemony of the Communists and the Congress. But when their rising discontent against the dubious politics of these parties reached beyond tolerance, they developed a feeling of alienation. Agitation for creation of new tribal states in Assam, and Mizo revolt in 1966 encouraged them to think independently. Rehabilitation of the Chakma tribe squeezed out of Chittagong Hills of Bangladesh in the tribal area added fuel to the fire and one Anant Riang, formed an underground militant group known as “SENGKRAK” (Clenched fist). Slogan that Bengalese should quit Tripura by 25th November 1967 or face death – was the first reflection of the secessionist mind of the aboriginal inhabitants.

Formation of an umbrella organization namely ‘Tripura Upjatiya Juba Samiti’ (TUJS) in June 1967 as an independent political party for championing the cause of the natives was a new chapter in the political history of Tripura. Its students’ front namely Tripura Students Federation emerged as an effective force in mobilizing the youths. The main focus of the TUJS centered round the demand for Autonomy, language and land that were:

Autonomous District Council under Sixth schedule of Indian Constitution

Extension of inner-line permits system for Tripura

Introduction of Koroborak in Roman script as medium of instructions for the tribal students

Restoration of the ownership over traditional land to the tribals.

Initially the CPM tried to adopt the TUJS as its tribal front but failed to convince its leaders. Thus the new political outfit was the beginning of the politics of tribal extremism, which furthered the widening divide between the tribals and non-tribals. Anant Reang got killed in an army operation but one Bijoy Harankhwal, a leader of TUJS contacted the hard core cadres of “SENGKRAK” and formed another militant organization ‘Tripura Sena’ to fight against the Bengali immigrants. Creation of Bangladesh reopened the floodgates for exodus of Bengali refugees, which further increased the population load on Tripura. A large number of refugees, who had taken shelter in Tripura during Indo-Pak war in 1970 stayed back and thus turned the situation from bad to worse.

Tripura got full-fledged statehood in January 1972 after the enactment of North -Eastern Areas (Reorganization) Act, 1971. The number of Assembly seats was increased from 30 to 60 with 17 seats reserved for scheduled Tribe and 7 for Schedule Caste. However, the change from Union territory to full statehood hardly made any difference in the socio-economic condition of the natives. Progressively losing control over their traditional land and witnessing the visible signs of relatively better prosperity to the immigrants made them more and more restive.

In 1972 Assembly election the Congress won 41 seats in the house of 60. This comfortable majority could be possible due to wide range of support from the immigrants and therefore, the party was under political compulsion to safeguard their interest. In 1974 the Government amended Tripura Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act 1960, which made a provision for regularization of the illegal transfer of tribal lands to the non-tribals till 1968. In stead of restoring the traditional lands to the native claimants, the Government gave another blow to them. Enraged with this callous attitude of the political rulers, the TUJS gave Tripura Bandh call against the amendment.

In 1977 Assembly election, while the Congress was completely washed out, the TUJS emerged as a third political force in the state by winning four seats. The Left Front led by CPM came to power with a thumping majority. While justifying the demand for Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TAADC), the CPM Government initiated a move for its creation. Reacting against this pro tribal gesture of the CPM, the Bengali immigrants settled in hills formed a militant organization called ‘Amra Bengali’ in September 1978 and launched an agitation to counter the demands of the TUJS.

Caught in the whirlpool of political chauvinism of the Congress, the Communists and ‘Amra Bengali, the restive militant cadres of Tripura Sena led by Bijoy Harankhwal, the then Assistant General Secretary of the TUJS formed Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) alias Tripura National Volunteer Force (TNVF) in December 1978. It was an organized beginning of insurgency in the State. It declared liberation of Tripura from Indian Union. Meanwhile Tripura Legislative Assembly passed Tripura Autonomous District Council Act 1979 for the tribal areas, which cover 68% of the total state area. Although, the Act provided opportunity to the 3o % of state population for a self -government under 5th Schedule of the Constitution, it failed to calm down the rising tide of insurgency in the state.

The TUJS expelled Harankhwal from the party though it was simply an eyewash. In fact it too adopted a resolution in March 1980 for expulsion of foreigners (meaning Bengali immigrants) who came to Tripura after 1949. With ideological inspiration from Assam agitation against the Bangladeshi foreigners, full support from the natives and logistic support from Mizo National Front for training its cadres in the Chittagong hill tract of Bangladesh the TNV targeted the security forces. They killed two Border Security Force personnel in an encounter and emerged as a violent force. Killing over a thousand Bengali immigrants, torching nearly 20000 of their houses, looting properties, the insurgents served ‘Quit Tripura’ notice to them. Traumatized Tripura witnessed the worst ethnic riots in 1980.

The Government banned the TNV and arrested Harankhwal in early eighties but it is said that due to his comfortable relation with the then CPM Government, he managed his release on bail and dissolved the TNV. But some of the militant cadres did not like this opportunistic move of Harankhwal and formed another insurgent group namely Army of Tripura Peoples Liberation Organization (ATPLO) in December 1980. The CPM leaders however won over its cadres and made the organization defunct.

Dinesh Singh Committee Report on Tripura violence submitted in 1980 stated:

“Prolonged agitation in Assam on foreigners issue had its fall out in Tripura. Representatives of TUJS participated in the North-eastern Regional Students Union held at Dibrugarh and in the session of the executive council of the forum of the Hill Regional Parties of the North-eastern Region at Shillong earlier this year. They started a demand for deportation of foreigners who had come to Tripura after 1949 when Tripura joined the Indian Union” (Tribal Insurgency in Tripura – S.R.Bhattacharjee, Inter India Publication, New Delhi 1989, Page 151).

Some reports suggest that the Christian Missionaries with the help of underground Mizo evangelical teachers of Baptist Missions exploited this growing unrest and converted some of the boys and girls with a move to politicize their culture and make them indifferent from the mainstream of national life. “All the top leaders of insurgency initiated either by ATPLO or TNV in Tripura are committed to Christianity” (Tribal Insurgency in Tripura – S.R.Bhattacharjee, Inter India Publication, New Delhi 1989, Page 151). “According to official sources the insurgents ranks included a large number of young boys and girls who had been converted to Christianity, although, they were of Hindu parenthood by underground Mizo rebels working in Baptist missions as evangelical teachers” (Ibid. Page 152-Quote from The Statesman dated June 20, 1980).

In 1982 Bijoy Harankhwal revived the TNV and its violent activities. He wrote to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983, “if question of immigration is not resolved then ethnic violence will continue to lay waste to Tripura” (Rites of Passage by Sajoy Hazarika, Penguin Books, 2000, Page 177-78).

After a long period of intermittent racial and ethnic riots and pressure from the security forces, Bijoy Harankhwal sent feelers in 1987 to the then Union Home Minister Buta Singh for an ‘honorable settlement’. The Home Minister reportedly said, “unless a Congress led Government was in power in the State, such a solution could not be implemented”(Survey of Conflicts and Resolution in India’s Northeast, 12.2. 2004). The TNV then increased its bloody campaign till 1988 when it signed a Tripartite Accord with the Union and the State governments. In 1988 Assembly election, Congress-TUJS coalition came to power. Against 26 seats won by the CPM, the Congress secured 25 and its alliance partner TUJS got 8 seats.

Even though the accord was hailed by all the political parties in general and the people of the state in particular, normalcy did not last for long. Some of the hardcore militants whose personal ambitions were not fulfilled after the accord formed faction-ridden rebel groups. While Dhananjoy Reang, a disgruntled leader from the TNV formed National Liberation Force of Tripura (NLFT), another dissenting TNV leader, Ranjit Debbarma, formed All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF) in July 1990, which was later named as All Tripura Tiger Force. Both the groups are alleged to be having the patronage of the Congress and the CPM. “The ATTF is alleged to be the underground outfit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was set up with the aim of removing all tribal political outfits from the area” (Executive Intelligence Review, October 13, 1995). The NLFT on the other hand is known to be having link with Congress leaders. Both the groups are responsible for many of the worst terror campaigns in Tripura.

While targeting the TUJS as well as the Congress and establishing links with other insurgent outfits in Northeast like NSCN in Nagaland and ULFA in Assam, ATTF indulged in murder, rampage, kidnapping people with impunity and emerged as the most dreaded insurgent group in Tripura. With a view to counter the attack of the ATTF, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was set up allegedly with the support of the TUJS and Congress combine. The Mizo rebels associated with Baptist missionaries also gave them support. “The NLFT has a strong Christian fundamentalist orientation and there have been some reports of forced conversion by the organization”. Both the insurgent groups with their hideouts in Bangladesh and support of the ISI of Pakistan are causing turmoil in their own land.

Formation of Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council (TTDAC) in 1988 under 6th schedule of the Constitution with reservation of 28 seats in 30 member Council had adversely affected the interest of the non-tribal Bengalese and they gradually got alienated from the Congress-TUJS coalition. In 1993 assembly election they supported the CPM, when the latter secured 44 seats against 10 won by Congress and TUJS only one seat. Coming back to power with thumping majority the CPM led Left Front managed the surrender of some ATTF militants through a negotiated bipartite settlement. But most of the hard core cadres remained unresponsive and were rigid on their under mentioned pre-conditions for any negotiation:

The immigrants who came to Tripura after 1949 and whose names are not listed in the voters’ list of 1951 must be declared foreigners.

Negotiation should be held in any third country under UN meditation.

Sovereignty of Tripura is not negotiable.

These pre-conditions were not acceptable to the government and the ATTF continued its menace in the state. In 1999 United Bengali Liberation Front (UBLF) was formed with an objective to counter the attack of tribal insurgents. They allegedly got the support of Anand Marg.

Defection, dissolution and emergence of new outfits created a chaotic situation. Some lumpen elements among the various tribes either joined ATTF or NLFT or formed separate groups like Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT), Nayanbasi Jamatiya and Biswamohan factions of the NLFT, Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) and Tripura National Security Force (TNSF). Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) and Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT) also came up as political fronts of the insurgent groups.

Gradually with land and identity as the focus point of their ideology, common acrimony against the non-tribals particularly the Bengalese and inter-ethnic rivalry led to the formation of over 30 insurgent outfits at different levels, though NLFT and ATTF remained the most active groups and continue their supremacy till today. They are mostly involved in criminal activities like smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, looting, rape and drug trafficking. Of late some of the insurgent groups have also taken up the business of pornography to raise funds and now insurgency more or less has become a business for them. The leaders of the mainstream political parties and other vested interests on the other hand use them for their self-seeking interest.

The central leadership always tried to handle the situation in a routine manner and allowed the insurgency to persist. Whenever the security forces put pressure, some of the Militants offered peace negotiation and surrendered but again they joined one or other group or floated new groups.

Of the various insurgent groups ATTF and NLFT are logistically better equipped. Majority of the NLFT members is devoutly Christians, who at the instance of their supporting Mizo rebels associated with some Christian missionaries are also known to be engaged in forceful conversion. This led to split in NLFT, when its members belonging to Jamatiya tribe revolted under the leadership of Nayanbasi Jamatiya and formed an independent faction of NLFT. The factional fight and intra-tribe feud further aggravated the ethnic turbulence.

Personal ambitions of the rebels and material comforts, which they are enjoying by sustaining militancy in the State, are the main obstacles for a long-term political solution to the problem. On the other hand both the CPM and the Congress leaders being political rivals continue their interests for their vote bank politics. While the CPM activists and supporters are the targets of the NLFT, the focus of attack of the ATTF is the supporters of the political outfits of its rival. Though, both the rebel groups are banned since late nineties, their spate of attacks on each other pushed the State to a stage of anarchy.

According to some newspaper report Agartala (Capital of Tripura) District Court awarded death sentence to Ashok Debbarma, an insurgent belonging to NLFT. He was an accused in 1997 massacre of 16 Bengali immigrants living in a village at a distance of about 12 kilometers. This is perhaps the fist instance since Independence when an insurgent in entire Northeast has been given a death sentence.

Tripura tribes, who were debarred from sharing political power befitting to their prominence before Independence, are now under apprehension that they would gradually lose their cultural identity. The Government on the other hand failed to remove such an apprehension as their increasing hate-Bengali sentiments compelled them to take up arms against the Government in general and Bengalese in particular. During last twenty-five years, thousands of people including the civilians, insurgents and security personnel lost their lives in insurgency related violence and Tripura is now the most ethnic violence-prone state of India.

For over half a century Tripura is bleeding in the crossfire of vote bank politics and virulent ethnic conflict. It is a rude reminder of the criminal misdeeds of Bangladesh, and scandalous approach of both the communists and the Congress, which allow the insurgency to flourish as a business. The chemistry of electoral politics does not permit the political rulers to undo the historical injustice and wrongs meted to the aboriginal Tripurites. Our social scientists have been organizing seminars, workshops and intellectual meets for conflict resolutions but they have failed to tame the rising tide of hate-Bengali sentiments among the tribal people.

The founding philosophy of all the insurgent groups suggests independence of all the tribal areas in Tripura and expulsion of Bengali immigrants who entered Tripura after 1949.They however, suffer from intra-organizational feuds between the factions led by the leaders of different tribes. All of them claim to be the real espousers for the cause of the indigenous tribal people and are fighting against the transformation of Tripura from a tribal Majority State into a non-tribal Majority State. Their hate-Bengali philosophy is primarily due to rehabilitation of large-scale Bengali refugees from Bangladesh. They however, don’t understand that the Government of India was under moral obligation to rehabilitate the Bengali Hindus of East Bengal, who were against the partition of the country and became the victims of persecution for none of their faults. Had Bangladesh or its preceding Government of Pakistan not persecuted its hapless Hindu citizens, the latter would not have crossed over to Tripura as refugees by leaving their motherland. The successive political establishments in India however cannot escape the error of judgment. In stead of dividing the burden of huge population in various states in the country, they continuously increased the load on Tripura, which caused demographic imbalance and transformed it into a non-tribal Majority State.

With Bangladesh as the main rendezvous of almost all the insurgent groups operating in Northeastern states it is now an open secret that all of them enjoy the patronage of the ISI of Pakistan. Some news paper reports also suggest that the corridor linking Tripura with Chittagong hills of Bangladesh is used by the international gangs of arm-smugglers under the patronage of the powerful political leaders of this country. They utilize the services of the Tripura insurgents as couriers for supplies of arms from one place to other.

The political wrongs of the successive leadership in ignoring the demographic imbalance, which is the root cause of the ongoing conflict, could be righted only through a strong political and administrative will. Strong political will is a scare commodity in India. The historical injustice meted to the people of Tripura needs to be resolved only through an honest political dialogue without ignoring the humanitarian consideration. Ironically, the political masters have legitimized the game of their divisive and deceitful politics in the name of containing insurgency and subjected the aboriginal masters of this land to political and economic humiliation.

Reacting over the earlier paper of this writer on Muslim infiltration, a Tripuri living outside Tripura for last fifteen years expressed his anguish that the media has failed to highlight the real problem of the aboriginal natives of this State. He is aggrieved to say that the media men and writers only discuss the Muslim immigrants and infiltrators from Bangladesh to Assam and other parts of India. “They never imagine that the Bengalis from Tripura are from Bangladesh instead they think that the tribes of Tripura don’t belong to India. The terrorists were born because the Bengalis in Tripura tried to suppress them both physically and morally”. He is afraid that if the corrective measures are not taken ‘the beautiful tribes of the small beautiful state may not exist in next 20 years”.

The remedy of the problem therefore, primarily lies in the hands of our political rulers. But since the emergence of TUJS in 1967 as a regional party, both the Congress and the CPM which are the major political parties in Tripura tried to win over its leaders for their respective political games. Their nexus with the militant cadres in pursuance of their deceitful and divisive politics for respective political hegemony in the State made the situation from bad to worse. They often blame each other for not looking into security requirements of the State. The CPM leaders even put such blame on the NDA, which hardly had any visible stake in Tripura. “The centre (NDA) appears to be firm on not fulfilling Tripura’s security requirements simply for political reasons” (Quote from a senior CPM leader in Frontline, June 23, 2000). Both the major political players in Tripura, are now constituents of the ruling UPA at centre since 2004. But none of them is ready to think beyond their respective political interest in this State. They never took up any tough stand in fighting against the squeezing out Hindu policy of erstwhile East Pakistan and the most ungrateful neighbor Bangladesh, which is sheltering the insurgents.

Territorial extension contiguous to Tripura across the border, re-organization of rehabilitation of refugees and stoppage of further migration to this State could be a viable solution. Since Bangladesh is the main villain of peace, both the tribals and non-tribals need a united mindset on this problem. Unfortunately, in stead of cooperating with their own Government to deal with the problem and to fight for their cause against Bangladesh, the insurgents are fighting against the refugee immigrants, security forces and their own leaders seeking the help of their real enemy. They must understand that only ethnic harmony can bring peace and prosperity in Tripura.

*The article was written by R.Upadhyay

* The author can be reached at ramashray60@rediffmail.com

*The article was originally published at www.saag.org

*The article has been published with due permission from South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG), a non-profit and non-commercial think tank.

*You may visit www.saag.org for further readings.

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