On August 19, a gunfight broke out between suspected militants and a Border Security Force team patrolling the boundary between Tripura and Bangladesh. Fifty three-year-old Havildar Girish Kumar Yadav, part of the patrolling party, died after being hit by four bullets.
The police suspect the militants involved in the skirmish belong to a faction of the National Liberation Front of Twipra, a group that has been nearly dormant in Tripura for years.
The incident took place at Damcherra, where the inter-state borders of Mizoram and Tripura meet the international boundary with Bangladesh, from where police officials believe the attack was launched.
“There is no activity inside the state [of Tripura] now but they have their hideouts in the neighbouring Bangladesh,” said a senior police official. “The suspected NLFT members fired on the BSF from the Bangladesh side.”
He added that the group was deprived of funds and “terribly short on manpower” – the attack was a means to register their presence. “They are trying to motivate the cadres and recruit some more members in order to revive themselves,” he said.
The attack has also taken place at a time when the state is preparing for assembly elections, slated to take place early next year. Village council elections are also set to take place in tribal areas this November.
Police officials as well as political parties across the spectrum – from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the TIPRA Motha – believe the attack took place with an eye on the elections. While some feel the group might step up efforts to extort money before elections, others feel acts of violence are aimed to divide the tribal and non-tribal population in the state.
A waning militancy
Militancy gained ground in Tripura in the 1980s, as tribal communities felt increasingly outnumbered by non-tribal communities, mainly Bengalis. Newly formed militant groups demanded a sovereign tribal state carved out of India.
The National Liberation Front of Twipra started life in 1989 and later split into factions. Last month’s attack is believed to have been carried out by the faction led by Biswamohan Debbarma, who reportedly operates from Bangladesh, especially the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The state saw decades of violence and was placed under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act – a law which gives executive powers to the military – in 1997.
But Union home ministry figures show that over the last decade, the violence has tapered off. In 2014, there were eight incidents of violence, killing three. There were no casualties for years after that, until an attack in 2020 killed one. Last month’s attack was the first in two years. With armed incidents petering out, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was lifted from Tripura in 2015.
Hundreds of militants have surrendered since 2014. In 2019, the faction of the National Liberation Front of Twipra led by Shabir Kumar Debbarma signed a settlement with the Centre, surrendering with 88 cadres. The remaining faction is a shadow of its former self. According to the senior state police official, their numbers are now in the double digits.
According to Manas Paul, editor of the Tripura Times and author of Eyewitness: Tales from Tripura’s Ethnic Conflict, the ambush was a reaction to the surrender of four cadres on August 5.
“The Tripura Police had forced them to surrender with AK 47 and pistols,” said Paul. “The NLFT group, which is already facing a serious crisis of weapons and manpower, lost [more] weapons and cadres. They had planned to extort money from villagers in border areas.”
CPI(M) vs BJP
In several North Eastern states, armed groups have played a covert, or sometimes overt, role in elections. In states like Manipur and Nagaland, for instance, armed groups have been known to openly back certain parties and issue diktats to the electorates about how to vote. Arms and money have often been part of these electoral negotiations.
In Tripura, this has led to finger pointing between parties.
Leaders from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – which headed the state government for decades until it lost the assembly elections in 2018 – pointed fingers at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
“It is an alliance in disguise,” claimed Jitendra Chaudhary, the party’s state unit secretary, a former minister and a veteran tribal leader. “All the subversive forces have an underhand [link] with the mainland party BJP. As the elections are approaching, the NLFT wants to bargain with the ruling party.”
Choudhary also suggested that in the tribal areas of Tripura, armed groups may have found fertile ground in the growing frustration among the youth and a discontent with the BJP.
BJP spokesperson Nabendu Bhattacharya shot back that militancy saw its heyday under the Left’s rule in Tripura. “Thousands of people were killed during CPI(M)’s rule and many CPI(M) leaders have the same ideology as the banned outfits,” he said. “The BJP government will do everything for the protection of citizens.”
‘Don’t believe in violence’
Tripuri tribal nationalism will be an election plank for more than one party in the state, although their demands are restricted to a separate tribal state within India.
The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura demands Twipraland, a separate state carved out of Tripura and comprising the areas under the autonomous tribal council. The party has been in a stormy alliance with the BJP-led state government since 2018.
More importantly, the TIPRA (Tipraha Indigenous Progresive Regional Alliance) Motha, which has become a significant opposition force in the state, demands Greater Tipraland, a separate state comprising the autonomous council areas as well as other areas inhabited by tribal communities.
However, these parties distanced themselves from groups like the National Liberation Front of Twipra. “I don’t think there is much support for the NLFT on the ground,” said TIPRA Motha spokesperson Anthony Debbarma. “The state government is responsible for maintaining law and order. The government must answer why the BSF jawan was killed by the miscreants. The government should be accountable as it has failed to protect.”
He alleged that the attack was an attempt to drive a wedge between tribal and non-tribal populations, which would polarise the vote. “Our agenda is that we want a constitutional solution,” Debbarma said. “We have been deprived of our rights. Our rights, culture and lands have been taken away. We have been demanding a constitutional solution where we can live peacefully without the disturbance of outsiders. We don’t believe in violence, hatred and killing.”