The killing of 33 persons in two days by two proscribed insurgent groups operating in the smallest North Eastern state of Tripura has once again demonstrated the lethality even of rag tag organizations that often indulge in extreme violence against civilians for little apparent purpose than to underline their existence and to intimidate local populations. In the first incident during the night of May 6, All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) terrorists killed 21 persons in an attack on non-tribals at Kalitilla, in Satcharri, a village of West Tripura district bordering Bangladesh.
The insurgents are believed to have come from the ATTF-headquarter located at Satcherri in Habiganj district of Bangladesh where they escaped after the incident. It was possibly as a prelude to such an attack that the ATTF had earlier decided, on April 10, to change its name to the Republican Peoples Army (RPA) - a tactic insurgent groups generally adopt after they have been proscribed or have attracted severe criticism from various quarters, including the populations they claim to 'represent'.
In a second incident on May 6, a group of National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) militants killed two
non-tribals at Radhanagar village under Kumarghat police station, in North Tripura district. The NLFT
insurgents struck again the following day, and killed 10 persons at the busy Moharcherra market area, under
Kalyanpur police station limits in the same district. The NLFT also maintains its headquarters at Sajak, in
the Khagrachari district of Bangladesh.
The massacre by the ATTF is the worst instance of insurgent violence by any group in Tripura this year. Between January 1, 2003, and May 9, 2003, a total of 29 fatalities have involved the ATTF, including 28 civilians and a security force (SF) personnel, while the outfit has lost just four of its cadres. The killings have occurred after the group maintained a relatively low profile through the year 2002, with 15 civilian killings through the year.
The latest incident also confirms that the striking capacity of the group has remained intact over the years, despite reports that the outfit "was a disintegrated force by 2000 following serious a leadership crisis and desertion of armed cadres who surrendered before the security forces". Further, it also belies the widely held perception that the ATTF would avoid such acts if its alleged partner in politics, the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) were in power.
The NLFT, on the other hand, has remained consistently violent. Between January 1, 2003, and May 9, 2003,
the group has killed 78 persons, including 65 civilians and 13 SF personnel, while it lost only six of its
cadres. Trends in the state appear to be taking a turn for the worse. The total number of casualties in
insurgency-related violence in the first five months in 2002 was 68. In 2003 however, till May 8, 2003, the
total fatalities were 117, including 93 civilians, 14 SF personnel and 10 terrorists. Between 1992 and 2002,
various insurgent outfits operating in Tripura have killed 2,176 civilians and 339 SF personnel, with just 293
fatalities among insurgent cadres.
The patterns of violence engaged in by these groups are also changing, with operations conflict against what was conventionally regarded as the political interests of their 'overground' political partners. Customarily, the ATTF would target supporters and leaders of the Congress party and its allies, while the NLFT directed its violence against those of the CPI-M. For instance, the six political activists/leaders killed between January 1 and May 9, 2003, by the ATTF belonged to the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), an ally of the Congress in the February 26 elections for the Tripura Assembly this year. Most of the 36 political activists killed by the NLFT and its offshoot, the Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT), during the same period belonged to the CPI-M. However, the May 6 killings by the ATTF occurred in an area under the Simna Assembly constituency in West Tripura district, which is currently represented by the CPI-M.
The Left Front and the Congress have remained in power since Tripura was declared a State in 1972, and both have been using insurgent groups either to dislodge their opponents or to capture or retain power. The Congress managed to capture power in 1988, allegedly using violence perpetrated by the erstwhile insurgent group, the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, who now leads its alliance partner, the INPT.
The CPI-M allegedly supported the formation of the ATTF in 1990, and its violent activities continued till
the Left Front re-captured power in 1993. Despite the greater violence inflicted by the NLFT ahead of the 2003
Assembly Elections, however, the INPT-Congress alliance was unable to secure victory, and the incumbent Left
Front rode back to power for its third consecutive term, though it has remained unable to take advantage of
this stability to curb militancy effectively.
It is increasingly apparent that insurgent groups such as the NLFT and the ATTF, once they have consolidated their power to use violence at will, evolve a dynamic of their own and become unaccountable to any group, including their political supporters or sponsors. An alternative 'underground economy of terrorism' supplants the resource flows from legitimate political parties or the general population that may have been necessary in the initial stages of their existence, and once they secure safe havens on foreign soil in neighboring countries, any accountability to external political authority or the local populations ceases to exist.
Support and shelter on foreign soil is critical to the survival and operation of these groups, and both the ATTF and the NLFT have base-camps and headquarters in Bangladesh, where they operate with the support of the Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
Tripura has 856 kilometres of common border with Bangladesh. India has brought to the notice of Bangladesh the existence of 51 training camps maintained by the ATTF and the NLFT on Bangladeshi soil more than once, and in January 2003 Bangladesh was also asked to hand over 88 criminals and terrorists, including some NLFT and ATTF leaders allegedly hiding there. Recent reports have also indicated that the ISI, through its embassy in Dhaka, has intensified anti-India activities.
Bangladesh has given repeated assurances that it would "not allow its territory to be used for any activities inimical to the interests of India", but no concrete action is yet visible. Indian responses to curb the movement of insurgent cadres across the border have also been poor, and though a decision in principal to fence the border with Bangladesh had been taken as far back as in 1987, barely seven kilometers have been fenced so far.
Evidently, the will or desire to bring an end to this violence is lacking at every level - in Dhaka , at Delhi, and in Agartala.
Praveen Kumar is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. This article appears here courtesy South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal