February 16, 2020
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Ethnic Flashpoint

Tribal militants warn non-tribals—leave the state or face death

Ethnic Flashpoint

THE Tripura government is under siege again—the insurgent All-Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) has served a notice to all non-tribals to leave the state by July 10 or face death. For a state reeling under militancy of various hues, this is not an extraordinary situation but the police are gearing up for an emergency. Says one police officer: "At one level, the notice is absurd because 75 per cent of the state's 28,00,000 population is non-tribal. But we cannot take any chances in view of the escalated ATTF activities this year."

The border state has witnessed violent tribal versus non-tribal (read Bengali settlers) clashes over the past few years—it accounted for around 3,000 lives in June 1980. As always, this latest militant threat has divided the various political parties. The Opposition, barring the Congress, has lashed out against the Left government for taking things too seriously. "Some people in west Tripura have even started leaving their lands because of the extremists' threat—official measures and announcements have done little to dispel their fears. This makes it easier for the ATTF and similar forces to perpetuate the tribal-non tribal divide," argue Opposition leaders.

State chief minister and veteran tribal leader Dasarath Deb is caught in a squeeze between hardliners in his party, the CPI(M), and others who feel the Government is overreacting to the ATTF threat. At a recent all-party meeting, Deb maintained: "We thoroughly condemn the ATTF programme and will take all measures to prevent clashes between tribals and non-tribals. What the ATTF proposes is against the process of history which we can't reverse." The militant outfit is fighting for tribal autonomy in a state where native Tripuri tribals have become a minority.

Unlike other states in the North-east, the erstwhile rulers of Tripura, whose contribution to the propagation of Bengali culture is second to none, actually invited migration from East Pakistan in a bid to open up Tripura to rapid socio-economic development. Unfortunately, the more educated Bengalis cornered the gains from the social progress that came to Tripura. The tribals were forced to take a backseat, and now, the wounded tribal psyche is seeking to rebel against its marginalisation in its own homeland—its reassertion often taking explosive forms.

According to an observer, "in 1980, the tribal organisation, the Tripura Upajati Juba Sangha (TUJS), spearheaded widespread violence. In 1988, the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) killed over 200 Bengalis. Neither the TUJS nor the TNV has survived, but the new ATTF, an offshoot of the parent organisation—All-Tripura Tribal Force—carries on the same militant tribal tradition, exposing the hollowness of the ceremonial surrenders of extremists both during the Congress and, later, the Left rule."

To complicate matters for the administration, a rival militant organisation, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), which seeks an independent state for tribals, publicly opposed the ATTF programme and threatened to counter the latter's bandh call from July 1 to July 10.

Says state Director General of Police Sujit Chatterjee: "While the NLFT opposition may divide the militants, there is also a possibility of clashes between them, as both sides have modern weapons. Interestingly, both these groups are guided by more heavyweight insurgent outfits in the region—the NLFT is close to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Muivah) and the ATTF to the United Liberation Front of Assam. "

The ULFA'S supreme military commander Paresh Barua has, however, decried the ATTF call. "We have provided them with arms and training in the past, and they do listen to us. I've told them not to go in for such ethnic attacks because they divide the common people and it makes it easier for New Delhi to intervene in the North-east and exploit us. The infiltration from Bangladesh is only one of the problems of the region," Barua told the BBC in Calcutta a few days ago. In a rare interview recently, NSCN chief T. Muivah, too, expressed his opposition to such programmes.

The DGP is aware of training camps in the area: "There are training camps for insurgents along the Indo-Bangla border, which in the case of Tripura is 938 km long, surrounding the state on three sides. We know that elements of the Pakistan-based ISI visit these camps regularly. I do not rule out ISI instigation behind the ATTF call."

For the moment, the state government is not in a position to ponder over a long-term economic strategy to combat insurgency. The DGP, who visited Delhi, is hopeful that 57 paramilitary companies will be in position by July to tackle law and order problems—the state had asked for 73. With effective coordination with the BSF and the CRPF, Chatterjee hopes to meet the most severe challenge yet to the state administration. But non-tribals seem unwilling to wait and see how the administration tackles the crisis. A new front, called the Bengali Sena, has already threatened to match the tribal outfit—blow for blow. 

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