Assessing Militancy in Tripura: Lessons in Counter-Insurgency Management

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    Tripura Assessment - Year 2010


    The dividends of a remarkable counter-insurgency success continue to accumulate in the northeastern State of Tripura, even as some of the other States continue to teeter on the brink of chaos. The year 2009 saw a further and drastic decline in insurgency-related activity, with only one fatality thus far, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, as compared to 17 in 2008. There have been only 47 militancy-related incidents in year 2009, less than half of what was recorded in 2008. This is, indeed, a dramatic recovery from the three-digit annual fatalities of the 2001-2004 period, and even the significant double-digit fatalities of the subsequent years.


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    During 2009, incidents were reported from all of Tripura’s four Districts in 2008. While the West District, in which capital Agartala is located, was the worst affected, with 18 militancy-related incidents, Dhalai, North and South Districts accounted for 11, 11 and 5 incidents, respectively. The single militant fatality occurred in the Haripara area under the Manikpur Police Station in Dhalai District on June 26, 2009.

    Replying to questions raised by the opposition Members of the Legislative Assembly, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar said, on March 12, 2009, that, over the last three years, as many as 871 militants belonging to the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT) had surrendered, of whom 367 deposited arms and ammunition. The Chief Minister also disclosed that approximately 180 to 200 NLFT militants and 80 to 90 ATTF cadres were still underground. He added, further, that the reduction of militancy could very well be gauged from the fact that while in 2007 there 133 attacks, in 2008 these came down to 80.

    According to the SATP database, a total of 215 militants surrendered in Tripura in 2009, including 119 from the BNCT, 53 from the NLFT, 41 from the ATTF and two from unidentified militant outfits. On February 14, 2009, 118 BNCT militants deserted their hideouts in Bangladesh and surrendered before the Police at Chawmanu Police Station in the Dhalai District. They also deposited a cache of arms and ammunition, including AK-56 rifles, pistols, Self Loading Rifles (SLRs) and grenades. Investigations revealed that the militants, led by Pabanjoy Reang, had fled Bangladesh due to a serious shortage of food and basic amenities at their camps. The militants disclosed that they had found it increasingly difficult to move freely in Bangladesh after the formation of the Awami League Government in January 2009.


    Among the notable surrenders in 2009 were:

    January 5: Two top ATTF ‘commanders’, identified as 'captain' Michael and 'lieutenant' Royal Debbarma, and their wives, surrendered before the Sub-Divisional Police Officer of Jirania in West Tripura District. Both militants carried cash rewards of INR 250,000 each and had red corner notices issued against them by the Interpol. Their wives were also ATTF cadres. "Our records say that they had perpetrated savageries on people by massacring 26 civilians at Kalyanpur in December 1996, 19 at Panchabati in November 1999, 21 at Simna Colony in May 2003 and 32 people in simultaneous attacks on Kamal Nagar and Bara Lunga villages under Teliamura subdivision in 2003, besides many others," Deputy Inspector General (Operations), Nepal Das, revealed.

    January 10: 22 NLFT cadres and two from the ATTF surrendered before Security Forces (SFs) in the West District after fleeing from their base camps in Bangladesh. A food crisis in the Bangladesh camps and non-payment of ‘dues’ to the rank and file, were given as reasons for the surrender. The NLFT cadres deposited three revolvers, two Chinese grenades, live cartridges and some documents, while the ATTF militants surrendered a Japanese wireless set.

    January 11: Six NLFT cadres surrendered at the headquarters of Assam Rifles in capital Agartala along with one SLR, two rifles and one revolver with live cartridges.

    August 10: Nine ATTF militants, including four women, surrendered before the SFs in the Khowai town of West District after fleeing from their Satchari camp in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh. They also deposited a cache of arms and ammunition, including AK series rifles, one mortar and foreign made ammunition.

    August 18: Five NLFT militants surrendered before Assam Rifles officials in three separate incidents in the South District.

    September 14: Four NLFT militants surrendered at three separate places in the Dhalai District.

    September 17: At least six militants, including a woman, surrendered before the SFs in two separate places in West District.

    The continuous stream of surrenders and the sense of entitlement the scheme has generated in surrendered cadres over the years, has led to some administrative problems, with surrendered militants complaining about delays in their promised resettlement. Surrendered militants have alleged that they have not been compensated and consequently threatened to pick up the gun again. On October 8, 2009, surrendered militants of the ATTF and the Tribal Liberation Army (TLA) threatened to launch a 72-hour hunger strike from October 12, after they failed to get proper rehabilitation. Sailen Kumar Reang, General Secretary of the surrendered ATTF militants, and Padhya Debbarma, the TLA General Secretary, informed Chief Minister Manik Sarkar of their agitation plans. They disclosed that over 100 surrendered militants were fully prepared to carry on the hunger strike if the State Government failed to take any meaningful steps to address their grievances. Both groups had been demanding allotment of residential quarters at the new Kunjaban Township, an upmarket area in capital Agartala, and a stipend of INR 4,000 per month until Government employment is provided. However, no subsequent action was taken by the surrendered militants on the hunger strike.

    Among the 47 militancy-related incidents reported in 2009, seven involved arrests, in which 35 militants of different outfits were apprehended, seven of the NLFT, 11 of the ATTF, 7 of the People’s United Liberation Front (PULF) of Manipur, five National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) militants from Nagaland, three Bru National Liberration Front (BNLF) militants and two BNCT militants.

    The NLFT was involved in 22 incidents in 2009, and, after two decades of existence, appears to be on its last lap, with large scale surrenders of its cadres. According to information gathered from surrendered militants of the group, almost all of the 23 camps run by the NLFT in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh have been closed down, with leaders, including its chief Biswamohan Debbarma, now staying in posh flats in Chittagong town and Dhaka. The militants got into trouble shortly after the new Bangladesh Government headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed assumed power and initiated some action to curb the Northeast militants. Reports indicate that the NLFT was unable to secure official patronage within Bangladesh and their earlier freedom of movement was substantially curtailed, even as facilities available in the camps dried up, rapidly demoralizing cadres.

    At peak, the NLFT had more than 800 cadres, but current strength, according to official sources, has been whittled down to "two dozen". Realising that growing marginalisation was clouding their future, the NLFT leadership, still in Bangladesh, has reportedly started a fresh recruitment drive in an attempt to launch a new offensive in the run-up to the Autonomous District Council elections slated for April 2010. Sources in the Special Branch (intelligence wing) of the Tripura Police indicate that, as the first step towards strengthening the organisation, the NLFT recruited 40 tribal youth and sent them to the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh for training in guerrilla warfare. The sources said that, in October 2009, this group, hailing from poor households in the Sadar, Khowai, Gandacherra, Amarpur and Kanchanpur sub-divisions, had crossed over to the Chittagong Hill Tracts through the hilly and unfenced eastern border of Tripura, in six clusters. Utpal Debbarma, an unemployed tribal engineer, who had passed out of Tripura Engineering College and joined the NLFT after trouble with the Police in 2001, was leading the recruitment drive.

    The ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the major constituent of the ruling Left Front in Tripura, has accused the regional Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) of working as an "overground front" for the banned militants. The CPI-M spokesman, Gautam Das, stated on November 1, 2009: "The NLFT and the ATTF are aided and abetted by the leaders of the regional parties, who hope to use them in elections against the Left Front." Das alleged that the INPT leaders’ recent visit to Delhi had been sponsored by the NLFT. Das claimed, further, "The INPT leaders are trying to blunt the edge of Security Forces’ operations by making false allegations, so that the NLFT can launch fresh offensive before the Autonomous District Council polls to rig the elections as they did in the April 2000 polls but they will not succeed."

    Addressing the Chief Ministers' Conference on Internal Security at New Delhi on August 18, 2009, Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar had said that insurgent groups had been using Bangladesh as a safe haven to carry out militant activities in the Northeast: "We have been giving definite information about the existence of terror infrastructure in Bangladesh, details of cross border movement of these groups and their training with the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]… Sealing of the border effectively is of prime importance to prevent cross border movement of insurgents. Arrangements like flood lighting, speedy completion of barbed wire fencing and strengthening of BSF [Border Security Force] along the border should be accorded highest priority." Sarkar, who also holds the Home Minister’s portfolio, has demanded increasing of the strength of the Border Security Force for effective management of the 856-kilometre porous border with Bangladesh. "For effective guarding of the borders, there is a need to set up additional 40 border outposts in Tripura for which five additional battalions of BSF would be required," he added. He also asked the Union Government to enter into an extradition treaty with Bangladesh to get hold of the militants hiding in the neighbouring country: "I feel that the time is now ripe for entering into an extradition treaty with Bangladesh for which the Union Government may like to take necessary steps." Stressing that Bangladesh continued to be a safe haven for militants active in India’s North East, he reiterated that Tripura was being used as a corridor for their movement into and from other States in the region. Meanwhile, the Tripura Director General of Police, Pranay Sahaya, disclosed, on November 5, 2009, that the rate of infiltration from Bangladesh into Tripura was decreasing. "Altogether 2,000 Bangladeshi infiltrators were pushed back from Tripura in 2007. The number declined to 1,000 last year and this year, it is slightly more than 600," he added.

    Successful counter-insurgency operations over the years have led to peace in Tripura. The model of response in the State, where the Tripura Police was the lead agency in the counter-insurgency grid, can provide valuable lessons to security agencies fighting insurgencies elsewhere in the Northeast and across the country.


    The South Asia Terrorism Portal
     
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