Welcome to India's very own "Wild Wild West"—the tiny northeastern state of Tripura, encircled on three sides by Bangladesh. In many ways, it's an old story being re-enacted here: an insurgency gone hollow, with plain love of the lucre overtaking any vestige of political motivation. Congress mla Ratanlal Nath has the right words for these killing fields: "Kidnapping is big business here". Official figures fully support this. In the four years between January '97 and December 2000, some 1,394 abductions were reported. Nearly half of them ended in tragedy—96 hostages have been confirmed dead and the police is clueless about 444 victims.
Tripura logs an average of one kidnapping a day and this is only the reported cases. In 2000 itself, 476 people were kidnapped. The ransom amount invariably ranges between Rs 20,000 and Rs 50,000. But the trouble is, in a state of such anarchy, for most victims the horrors don't necessarily end after paying the ransom.
Take the case of Gita Nath Sharma. Her husband Dilip Nath Sharma was an upcoming contractor in the Khowai subdivision of Tripura's west district. A philanthropist by nature, Sharma's work often took him deep into the tribal areas. On September 30, 1995, the young man was abducted during one such 'inspection'. Since that fateful day, Gita has coughed up Rs 7 lakh as ransom. But there's no news of Sharma yet. Distressed, Gita now yearns to at least see her husband's body.
Manjushree Chakraborty's experience is equally traumatic. Her husband Yogabrata, owner of five tea gardens in Tripura, was visiting his Meghliboundh tea estate when four heavily armed militants walked up to him and asked him to accompany them. Bijoy Bhattacharjee, his assistant manager, was also asked to come along. The duo was taken to a hideout in Bangladesh. The ransom—Rs 1 crore in cash. This was eventually brought down to Rs 30 lakh, and was promptly paid. But, in the interim, Chakraborty's health had deteriorated and he died even before the money reached the abductors. Recalls Bhattacharjee: "I saw him dying bit by bit and I could not do anything except plead with his abductors to get him medical attention. But all my requests were in vain."
At the other end of the social scale, the ransom gets more puny in comparison but the terrors hardly diminish in proportion. Jiban Saha, a daily wage labourer, was kidnapped on November 14, 1999. His family is still waiting, after arranging for the Rs 10,000 the kidnappers had demanded.
Now Gita and Manjushree are fighting a battle on another front.All their efforts to get a succession certificate have failed because of an archaic law governed by the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. This clause stipulates that the death certificate of a missing person can be issued only after seven years of his/her disappearance.
The wives of Manmohan Debnath and Ranjan Acharya, on the other hand, continue to wear their sindoor and perform all the rituals expected of a Bengali Hindu wife. Deep down, they are perhaps dimly aware that their husbands are no longer alive but in the absence of any proof, they are loath to relinquish all hope.
Thankfully, the authorities have woken up to the practical difficulties faced by victims' kin. A proposal to amend the Indian Evidence Act, allowing the issue of a death certificate after two years instead of the earlier seven-year wait, was unanimously passed by the assembly recently and now awaits presidential assent. In the meantime, survivor certificates are already being issued to the kith and kin (so that they can get inheritance and jobs) in all cases where victims are believed dead.
Tripura has been living with this menace since the early '90s. This was when two insurgent outfits—the National Liberation Front of Tripura (nlft) and the All Tripura Tigers' Force (attf), comprising mainly tribals who resented the overwhelming presence of Bengalis and other non-tribal groups in the state—were gaining ground. Their stated aim was to free Tripura from the clutches of "Indian colonial forces". At the time of independence, indigenous tribals and non-tribals shared a ratio of almost 50:50. Today, however, it is 70:30 in the Bengalis' favour—the tribals lagging behind in the economic and developmental stakes. This was the social schism the two militant outfits have been tapping into.
Both nlft and attf have modelled themselves on the older, bigger insurgent groups of the region. The nlft, taken under its wings by the Issac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (nscn-im) in the mid-'90s, carried on the tricks of the trade perfected by the Naga outfit. Says K. Saleem Ali, IG (police) in-charge of law and order: "After playing mentor, the nscn-im started demanding money in return for arms and training. It also taught nlft how to garner money. This was the beginning of the cult of kidnapping." Official records support this theory. Till 1993, the state had recorded only a handful of abductions; they shot up alarmingly in the years to come (see table).
The vast network of Left parties, especially the local cpi(m), took little time to acclimatise. A number of low and middle-level party workers began taking interest in abductions. Says a lawyer, requesting anonymity: "Often, a gram panchayat member or party leader decides and directs the abduction, pointing out to the militants whom to kidnap and how much ransom to demand." Concurs Nath: "It's a commission-driven business. The overground vested interests get a cut out of the ransom money." Says Ali: "Look at our strategy in the second half of 2000. The moment we smashed this overground network, the abductions came down." As against 339 kidnappings in the first six months of 2000, only 137 abductions took place in the next six while the number of harbourers arrested went up from 394 in the first six months to 482 in the second half.
Clearly, the cult of kidnappings and the prospect of easy money it offers, via the militants, is an entrenched phenomenon. Ransom, bluntly put, is a big source of income.Principles and ideologies are the unspoken casualties.As of now, no one in Tripura's countryside is safe—be it a tea garden boss, a petty trader or a daily wage labourer. Anyone will do, as long as the money keeps flowing in.