Tripura: A Turgid Tinderbox
The Singrabil Airport at Agartala is perhaps the only civilian airport in the world whose perimeter boundary is just 150 meters away from an International border. Every landing or takeoff entails flying into Bangladeshi airspace. Indian pilots have to take mandatory permission from the Bangladeshi Air Traffic Control for every flight.
The State of Tripura is among one of the oldest kingdoms in ancient India. It was ruled by a monarchy that descended from King Yayati, belonging to the lunar dynasty in the Mahabharata era. The Sanskrit “Rajmala” or the Royal Chronicles of the Kings of Tripura are replete with myths and folklore of the kingdom. There is a very rich cultural and religious history of the state, with many temples and archaeological sites.
However, the metamorphosis of this monarchy into the present democratic state as part of the Union of India ushered in substantial and unsettling social, economic and political changes, embedding comprehensive infirmities in society, and leading to cyclic ethnic violence. Moreover, bulk of the problems that Tripura now faces can be traced to the Partition of the country in 1947. Due to the Partition, Tripura faced a disadvantage of location as three fourths of her sides were surrounded by Bangladesh. The entire critical infrastructure like roads, railways and trading centres fell on Bangladesh’s side. The state was landlocked with no access to any port, making connectivity a vital issue.
In fact, Tripura shares 856 kilometres of its borders with Bangladesh, which touches each of its four districts. The fenced-up area, as per latest reports is around 750 kilometres. Work is still underway in may places. Border disputes have resulted in obstructions in the continuity of the fence. It is a futile exercise, as infiltration cannot be stopped and checked until each and every metre of the border has been fenced.
The 9th COY of the Border Security Force has been deployed at the Akhuara checkpoint, just outside Agartala. The Jawan on duty took me to a Gazebo, which he called the hawamahal. Over a cup of tea, the officer present there informed me about the construction work going on in the Ground Zero area. The work has been on since the last decade, and only 80 per cent of the border has been fenced. There is still so much to be done. Yes, the fencing has helped, earlier there was rampant rustling of cattle, motorcycles thefts, smuggling and household dacoities, which has been checked to some extent, but the crossings go on. A bustling illegal trade of arms, narcotics, counterfeit currency etc. in the border area is not just simply fuelling the local economy of the state, but is posing a real threat to the security of the people.
The officer told me that on the Pakistan Border, the concertina fences had razor edges and were also electrified. He termed it as Cobra fence. “Yahan par to sirf taar laga di hai, sale kat kar aa jate hain. Mines bichani chaihiye”.
It was a Friday and there was sparse traffic at the checkpost, it being a holiday in the Islamic State of Bangladesh. Still, there were quite a few families crossing over, eager relative waiting on both sides of the border.
The BSF on the Indian side was checking every passport, and recording details. Both outgoing and incoming luggage was screened. I zoomed in my camera lens at the other end, the Bangladesh Border Guards were just nonchalantly waiving people through. They couldn’t care less. I saw this later at the Dharmanagar and the Kailashnagar Border points too. The Bangladeshi Border Guards just do not care who walks in or out.
There were small urchins loitering on the no man’s land stretch. For a few rupees they would offer their services to the persons, lifting their luggage and carrying it the hundred metres to the rickshaw stands on either side.
The fencing is all on the Indian side; Ground Zero a good 150 metres across the fence. A sizeable population in bordering villages has been displaced or fenced out as the total work plan is designed as per the Indo-Bangla Treaty of 1974 (popularly known as the Indira-Mujib Treaty), according to which, no country would allow any permanent construction within 150 yards of the borderline. As many as 55,000 people (belonging to about 13,123 families), who were living along the Tripura’s international border, have already been evicted from their homes due to the ongoing project and about 13,375 hectares of cultivable land has gone outside the fencing causing serious concern to the farmers.
The Indian villagers whose land falls in this zone have been issued identity cards. They cross the fence and till their land, at times they take their cattle for grazing and have to be back by 4 P.M.
At the Dharmanagar checkpost I walked two kilometres along the fence. They were installing gensets for lighting the border fences. The electric floodlight masts were being put up. Many of the fields were divided by the fence; villagers had half their land on the other side. There were crossing points every three kilometres, most of which are not manned and remained shut. One could see the concrete pillars which actually marked Ground Zero a good distance away from the fence.
Ghana Mian had crossed over this morning and was returning. The BSF sentry called out to his superior, “Saabji, Char Gai, Saat Bhains aur teen Baans.” (Four cows, seven buffaloes and four bamboos), marking them in a big register.
“Saale, baans kyun laya hai?” It seems that Ghana Mian had cut three bamboos and had brought them back with him. The havildar muttered in clear terms where he would stuff the bamboos, while Ghana Mian whimpered.
“Sab, sale chor hain, us paar bhi—aur is paar bhi.” The fence is of no use.
A STATE WITHIN A STATE
The town of Khumulwng has to be seen to be believed. Situated 26 kms from Agartala it is a large complex which houses the Assembly and Council of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. The sprawling complex houses the offices and buildings of the ADC, with wide 100 feet roads and avenue plantation, art deco turnabouts and junctions, and beautiful parks. The complex would even put the Amby Valley and Lavasa project to shame.
This is the seat of power for about 80 per cent of Tripura’s population and administers nearly 68 per cent of the state’s land area, comprising all of its hills and forests. The TTAADC is an independent council administering the tribal areas of the state of Tripura. The council was formed to safeguard the tribals economically, politically and culturally. Despite this, the condition of the tribals remains abysmal. Official records reveal that about 80 per cent of tribal people live below the poverty line (BPL). According to government statistics, the literacy rate in the state is 73.20 per cent. But the literacy rate among tribals is 56.50 per cent with the female literacy rate being 44.60 per cent. The drop-out rate at the primary level is more than 50 per cent and only 17 per cent tribals reach college level.
The TTAADC Act 1979 was passed by the Indian Parliament after a series of democratic movements launched by the indigenous people of the state, under the provision of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. The principle objective behind setting up the Autonomous District Council is to empower the indigenous people to govern themselves and also to bring about all-round developments of the backward people so as to protect and preserve their culture, customs and traditions. But it actually came into being from January 18, 1982, and later it was upgraded under the provision of the 6th schedule to the Indian Constitution with effect from April 1, 1985, by the 49th amendment to the Constitution of India.
The TTAADC’s call for more autonomy is backed by most political parties. The National Conference of Tripura (NCT), a tribal-based party, has demanded application of Article 244A of the Indian Constitution for converting the TTAADC into a ‘state within a state’.
The 2011 Village Committee elections saw a sweep by the ruling Left Front. It won 473 of the 527 committees. In Tripura’s tribal areas, political parties are demanding greater autonomy for the tribal council. But for most people who have no clean drinking water, food stocks, and no employment, more development, not more autonomy, is a key requirement.
Most of the tribals are living on sustenance agriculture. Growing rice and vegetables, many of them are into shifting cultivation. Food security is non existent, hardly any tribal has stored grain for more then three months. Forest produce and hunting are now barred, collecting firewood hardly makes end meet. Malnutrition is rampant, and the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the country.
The General Secretary of the National Conference of Tripura, Animesh Debbarma says that development is not possible without more autonomy and financial empowerment of the Council. Application of Article 244A will mean direct funding by the central government, bypassing the state government.
In a way he is correct. The state governments is reluctant to release legitimate funds for the Council. Tripura’s annual budget is about Rs 4,000 crore, but the budget for the tribal Council is just Rs 200 crore, of which Rs 110 crore is spent on salaries of employees and elected representatives and for administrative purposes. What trickles downs is measly. Even the Congress wants more autonomy for the Council and will hit the next years poll with the promise of direct funding from the centre. The Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), another major tribal party and poll ally of the Congress, also demands more autonomy. The General Secretary of INPT, Rabindra Debbarma recently said that mere implementation of Article 244A would not provide succor, autonomy should be in line with that of the Bodo Land Territorial Council (BLTC) in Assam.
Due to the peculiar geographical location of the different sub-divisional headquarters and the demographic pattern of the state, nine out of the 15 sub-divisional headquarters are located adjacent to the border. Towns like Kailashahar, Dharmanagar, Kamalpur, Khowai, Sabroom, Sonamura, Belonia and even the capital Agartala are sitting right on the border.
In the hill tracts, infiltration is rampant. The riparian sections too are porous. There are numerous rivers and streams which crisscross the boundary and these are easy entry points. Because of this, extremist groups that were operating in Tripura were able to function from camps and hideouts in Bangladesh. These extremists would infiltrate the border and create enormous problems by way of abduction, extortions and assaults. Coupled with this was the problem of illegal migrants. The strength of BSF personnel needs to be increased to enable effective border patrolling.
The Intelligence agencies are aware that the supply route for all the arms to the Northeast militants is through this porous border. The massive arms haul seizure at Chittagong Port of Bangladesh on April 2, 2004, which was shipped from China was believed to be for the militant outfits of the Northeast. On a hind note, Tripura is certainly the soft underbelly of the Indian republic.
However, there is a general belief that a lot of money is sanctioned for development for India’s North-Eastern states. At least, in Tripura it shows. The State Capital is in a makeover mode, with modern infrastructure being put in place. The new Legislative Building, the swanky Secretarial Complex, the sprawling Agartala University Campus are examples of the Centre’s largesse. Vis-à-vis the other N-E states, the governance in Tripura is known for its transparency and accountability. Funds that have come for the development of the state have gone into the generation of assets. Tripura’s success story in literacy and in achieving at par, or rather better performance with respect to human indicators and development of physical infrastructure is well documented and acknowledged.
Further, the state government has earned appreciation with regards to financial discipline. As of now, more than 94 per cent of the planned funds made available have been utilised. In the last 10 years of its functioning, the state government has not subscribed to the Over Draft facility even once. This goes on to show the commitment the state government has towards fiscal prudence.
THE POLITICS OF SURRENDER
In spite of being affected by a 25-year-old insurgency problem, Tripura is today showcased as a role model for its success in suppressing underground ultra activities, and is one of the most peaceful North-Eastern states. In fact the Union Home Ministry is seriously considering lifting the ban on the major underground group, the National Liberation Front of Tripura. It is another matter that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act keeps on being renewed every six months, amidst the howls of protest from the state government and the civil liberty groups.
Insurgency in Tripura has seen many changes through accords, mass surrenders of terrorists and revival of violence by factions. Today, there is an uneasy calm prevalent, but to many this is a lull before the storm.
The tribes were a majority just three decades ago, now they constitute just 30 per cent of Tripura’a population. The continuous flow of Bengali population from across the border was seen as a threat to the tribal traditions and culture. The militancy has its roots in domestic politics. In the late 1960, the ruling Congress in the state used militants to break the stranglehold of the CPI (M) in the tribal-dominated hills. The Frankenstein they created was soon out of their hands. The two major rebel groups—National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF)—soon had an agenda for an independent tribal homeland. They even joined hands along with the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO).
Although successive governments tried to solve the problem through both negotiations and use of force, they failed repeatedly. More than 15,000 people have lost their lives to insurgency in Tripura during the past two decades.
Some of the captured ATTF cadres revealed that they had received training at camps in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. But what disturbed and pained the youth the most was the double standards the outfit’s leadership was maintaining, giving training to the youth in harsh camps, while they themselves led a life of comfort in Bangladesh. They are more interested in terrorising the people and extracting ransom for their own survival. While the lower rung cadres indulge in petty crime the separatist leadership enjoys the hospitality and a life of luxury in foreign countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Unlike many other underground movements in the North-East, the present insurgents are devoid of any political content or ideological moorings. Like many of their kin, the tribal militants who initially took up arms to oppose the dominance of outsiders later wavered from their original paths. Insurgency in Tripura today has stooped to the level of running a racket for any sort of profitable business without investment. The insurgent groups, operating simply as criminals, are desperate in extending violence anywhere only for financial gains.
There were splinter groups and factions who branched off. The state has also tried to win over the cadres of the insurgent groups by offering them various surrender schemes. There have been many surrenders, most of them stage managed, where the militants laid down arms and were inducted into the mainstream with many sops.
In Tripura, during the surrender of National Liberation Front of Tripura, militant leaders openly “recruited” youths to join the surrender ceremony, demanding Rs 15,000 from them to be included in the list. More surprisingly, leaders of militant groups often got the same set of people to surrender time and again. The-so called surrendered rebels return to jungle life in almost no time.
Out of the top six senior insurgent leaders, three—Kamini Debbarma, Binoy Debbarma and Dhanu Koloy—have themselves surrendered thrice each. Kamini Debbarma, the NLFT’s self-styled home secretary, got a jeep the first time he surrendered under a rehabilitation package. Unhappy with the reward, he returned to the jungles to form another outfit in 1991. Four years later he came walking to Agartala to surrender, got something and went underground again after a year. In 2004, he resurfaced and surrendered all over again. Presently, he is in Bangladesh, restructuring the NLFT under the chairmanship of Biswamoham Debbarama. Along with him are many of the surrendered rebels, many of whom were beneficiaries of government rehab packages.
The state goes to the polls next year. The ruling Left Front , which has had unstinted 19 years run, will face a challenge in the 2013 elections, it has always accused the NLFT of supporting the opposition forces during elections.
The NLFT is now part of the greater “United Front” of the North-Eastern underground groups. Intelligence Agencies have issued alerts on the United Front, formed under the leadership of Paresh Baruah and Khaplang. The Front comprises United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), Manipur’s United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) , Nationalist Social Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) , the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) besides a clutch of other smaller splinter organisations like the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK).
With increased activity from the security forces, this unholy nexus is mainly for supplying weapons, training and also providing safe haven to the cadres of various outfits.
There has been a recent spurt in fund raising activities by the NLFT. Kidnappings for ransom, extortion, looting etc are the methods adopted by the group to fund its training camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Till now they are confined to remote areas where they have issued diktats that every MNEGRA card-holder will have to give 10 per cent of his earnings to the outfit. It will not be long when they restart their guerrilla activities in the state sapital and the district headquarters.
It is understandable that a very thin brotherhood exists between these groups. Each will demand their pound of flesh, as weapons and training does not come without a huge price.
Basically, the Left party’s political vision is to improve the quality of life of people on a continuous basis and not as a one-time initiative, to remove poverty and alleviate the people living below the poverty line and ensure access to education and health to all. In principle at least, the developmental model adopted is holistic in its approach with a special focus on tribals and tribal concentrated areas.
The discovery of rich gas fields in the state by the Oil and Natural Gas Commission has come as a blessing as it resulted in ONGC’s biggest commercial thermal power project which is to be commissioned at Palatana, about 60 km from Agartala. The first unit is expected to be operational by the end of 2012. Tripura has the world’s highest success rate in natural gas exploration. Gas was struck in one out of every two wells drilled, while the average ratio worldwide is one out of every three wells. Chance discoveries of rich grade uranium recently heralds well for the state. ONGC has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Nuclear Corporation of India as it is looking forward to start a nuclear power project in the near future.
The economy of the state is primarily agrarian. Agriculture contributes about 64 per cent of total employment in the state and about 25 per cent of the State Domestic Product (SDP). There is a preponderance of food crop cultivation over cash crop cultivation in Tripura. At present about 62 per cent of the net sown area is under food crop cultivation. Rice is the principal crop, followed by oilseed, pulses, potato, and sugarcane. Tea and rubber are the important cash crops of the state. Tripura has achieved the envious record of being the second largest rubber-growing state in the country.
The enigma of development in the North-East is evident from the fact that the Agartala Kumarghat Metre Guage line was commissioned just four years ago. Indian Railways, which had gone into an intensive gauge conversion all over the country since 1990, choose to lay metre gauge tracks on this section as late as 2008. Agartala is the first state capital in independent India to be connected with a rail network,
The Agartala Lumding Route is the only operating Metre Guage section in the country where there is an AC Coach in a slow passenger train. I traveled on the Agartala Dharmanagar Passenger, there was only one Ticket Checker for 11 coaches. The lights and airconditioning would only work when the train exceeded 25 kms per hour, which it rarely did on the stretch.
However, the ingenuity of the Rail babus was evident from the concrete railway sleepers that I saw at the Pencharthal Railway Station, they had an extra pair of studs in the BG measurements. When gauge conversion happens, the rails would just be unclipped and affixed on to the new studs.
The Agartala Railway Station is a replica of the domed Ujjayanta Palace. From afar, one would never know that it was a railway station. The behemoth structure lies vacant, only 10 per cent of the space is occupied as only four passenger trains run on the route. The train schedule at the railway station is a joke, each arrival and subsequent departure is a good three to four hours late.
Illegal immigration from Bangladesh has always been the bane of the state since independence. However, it has now become the easiest entry-point for illegal migrants from Bangladesh as well as Myanmar. The many stretches that are still unfenced make crossing-over easy. The Rohingiya Muslims and Buddhist tribals from Myanmar are now another headache for the state administration.
Due to the porous nature of border with Bangladesh, transnational crimes by the insurgents involve a diverse range of activities. There are big smuggling syndicates active all along the border. Anything and everything has a price this side or the other. Many of India’s top FMCGs and pharma firms have appointed extensive dealer networks all over the state, and the quantum of sales in Tripura exceeds that of many bigger states. It is an open secret that most of the goods go across, but with so many people laughing all the way to the banks, there are none who will spill the beans. Tractor spare parts, bicycles, liquor, PDS food grains and contraband of every sort makes it way across through a well-oiled and efficient system.
Even drugs like high-inducing, codeine-laced cough syrup Phensedyl (also consumed as an intoxicant) are hot in demand. The bazaars of Agartala are full of cheap Bangladeshi goods. The sweat shops in Bangladesh churn out products for Reebok, Adidas and Macy’s, and many of the rejects can be picked up for a song in Agartala. Melamine crockery is another hot item, which finds its way all across the country.
A very senior executive of one of the Telecom majors told me the strange case of the Indian authorities not allowing signals to be transmitted across the borders. The towers have to be fitted with a Time Access device and signals cannot cross the International Border. The authorities conduct checks and impose huge fines if any tower radiation is detected. However, no such restrictions are there from Bangladesh. The Gramin Telecom sim cards are freely available under the counter in Agartala, and are widely used because they are very cheap. Bangladeshi citizens use their cell phones when on the Indian side, but it is not the same for Indians who go over.
The fact remains that, without significant improvements in intelligence sharing, capability enhancement among civilians in the border areas and the police, and substantial achievements in the fencing of the porous border, the problems of Tripura would continue to haunt it for years to come.
The fact that Tripura, as part of the north-east, feels “neglected” by the Centre, cannot be denied. If one looks at the north-east from the perspective of its distance from the rest of country, the situation is that of disadvantage. However, with the perspective of the north-eastern states in respect to their geographical proximity to South East Asia, the situation is that of advantage. The Centre should implement the Look East policy with sincere vigour and zeal. Even though the Prime Ministers recent forays to Bangladesh and Myanmar have evoked hope for increased border trade, action in this regard from the Centre has not been up to the mark.
By Anil Dhir from Agartala