Rahul Sinha

On 27 May 2015, Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar announced that the state Cabinet had decided to withdraw Section 3 of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) from the state. The act was in force in 24 police station areas and in partially in six police station areas. In view of the severe extremist problem sec. 3 of the act was brought into force in the state on 16 February 1997 and was operational in two third of the police stations of the state. As the security situation improved, the number of police stations where the Act was operational was reduced over time. Now it will be no longer applicable anywhere in Tripura.

Manik Sarkar said that the decision was taken after a thorough review of the law and order situation of the state by the state home department which concluded that the Act is no longer needed in the state. There has been a tremendous and qualitative change in the situation and the extremist problem has been largely contained.

“This is surely an important decision and will be widely welcomed by the people. The Union Home Ministry will be informed about the decision,” Manik Sarkar said.

Subsequently, the state government issued a gazette notification about the withdrawal of the act and a portion of the central para military forces are leaving the state for Manipur and other states where their services are called for.

Where does Tripura differ?

This decision has been widely lauded both within and outside the state by informed quarters who said that the decision has proved once again that Tripura is the model for the entire country in curbing insurgency. But at the same time, some questions are being raised from other quarters, mainly in the social media. The question is largely as follows: why was the Act brought into force in a state headed by a CPI(M) government even though the party has been consistently demanding withdrawal of this act from J&K, Manipur and other parts of the country?

The answer has to be sought in the form and extent of the Act that was in force in the state, how it was implemented and the nature and extent of the extremist problem in the state and the strategy adopted to tackle it.

Let us first consider the Act itself. The AFSPA was passed by the Parliament in 1958 initially to deal with the secessionist, extremist activities in Assam and Manipur. The territorial scope of the Act was later expanded to the other five states of the North East viz. Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. The act is still in force in Manipur, Nagaland and J&K. The Act in its comprehensive form gives the armed force a number of special powers like arrest without warrant, search without warrant, open fire after giving due warning that may even cause death under various sub sections of the sec. 4 and exempts a member of the security forces from prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding for anything done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act. While in other states the Act is in force in its entirety, the government of Tripura had only used sec. 3 of the Act that empowers the state government to declare whole or any part of the state as ‘disturbed area’ by a notification in the official gazette. Other sections of the act, whose misuse is often alleged elsewhere in the country, were never put into force in the state. Most importantly, during these 18 years when this act was in force in the state, not a single incident of human rights violation or fake encounter has been reported as it has been in other states like Manipur or J&K.

Nature and extent of extremist activities

It will be worthwhile to recall the nature and extent of the extremist activities in the state as this will be help understand why this act had to be used in the state. Tripura has witnessed extremist activities since the early 1980s. The extremist outfit TNV and its overground political organisation TUJS were instrumental in fuelling the ethnic riot in 1980 with a slogan of pushing back the Bengali population which had come to Tripura after 1949 as a result of Partition. Similarly, Amra Bangali, an organisation floated by Anandamargis was trying to fuel Bengali chauvinist emotions. Both of them tried to create a feeling of hatred between the tribal and non tribal masses so that their unity would be destroyed. The ulterior motive of this conspiracy was weakening the Left and democratic movement in the state whose strength lay in this unity.

The extremist outfits, initially the TNV and later in the post 1993 period the ATTF and the NLFT had raised the secessionist slogan of ‘Independent Tripura’ and had indulged in merciless killings of hundreds of innocent civilians both tribal and non tribal. They had unleashed a reign of terror, loot, arson, kidnapping in the name of their so called movement for ‘Independent Tripura’. This extremist menace led to killing of thousands of innocent civilians and members of the security forces and created an atmosphere of terror that halted the entire range of developmental activities in the tribal areas. The slogan itself explains how these extremist outfits were against the unity and integrity of India which justifies the use of this act. These forces were acting as underground armed gangs, often taking shelter in the neighboring country.

Operation Bramhaputra: The CIA hand

It will be wrong to conclude that the secessionist and extremist activities that plagued Tripura and the North East were just the outcome of some local maneuvers. On the contrary, the whole range of extremist activities in the North East was, and still remains, the brain child of the US intelligence agency CIA. The formation of Left Front government in West Bengal and Tripura in 1977 and 1978, and the increased strength of the Left parties in Assam had created panic with both US imperialism and the reactionary forces in India. The CIA had apprehensions that this might lead to strengthening of the Left movement in Bangladesh which would be too detrimental for the geo-political interests of the US to be allowed to happen. These apprehensions are reflected in some documents of the US State Department. So the infamous Operation Bramhaputrawas launched – it was a blue print for the secession of various North East states from the Indian union. The CIA misguided a section of the students and youth to start the ‘deportation of foreigners’ movement in Assam which encouraged the TUJS in Tripura and other tribal chauvinist organisations in Mizoram, Manipur to raise the secessionist slogans of ‘Swadhin Tripura’, ‘Swadhin Manipur’ etc. TUJS called a 7-day market boycott in June 1980 from its 12th conference in March 1980 which resulted in the ethnic riot of 1980 in Tripura. The riot was aimed at stalling the 1st elections to the TTAADC and overthrow of the elected Left Front government.

The CIA used a small section of the Christian missionaries to implement its heinous plans in Tripura. R. R. Cunville a missionary from New Zealand and a leading figure of the Tribal Society of India whose headquarters is in the US, met the TUJS leaders in 1978.  Cunville in his paper ‘The church grows through people’s movement’ has openly instigated separatist sentiment as he writes “The Tripuris suddenly became foreigners in their own country. They saw in Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, their neighbors enjoying freedom, enjoying power. Naturally, they want to go the same way.”

Role of the Congress

It was the Congress which orchestrated the birth of TUJS in 1967 to weaken the traditional grip of CPI(M) and GMP among the tribal masses. The 29-year long Congress rule before 1978 was marked by a sheer apathy towards the legitimate rights of the tribal people including formation of TTAADC, recognition of Kokborokas one the state languages, restoration of illegally transferred tribal land and protection of their constitutional right of reservation in jobs and education. The hatred for Congress among the tribal people was reflected in the results of the 1978 assembly election where the Congress could not win even a single seat. It opposed the formation of ADC and hid behind the Amra Bangali during the riot. Before the assembly election of 1988, TNV president Bijay Hrankhwal made a secret pact to overthrow the Left Front government with the then PM Rajiv Gandhi. According to the plan, just before the elections a spree of massacres was carried out, killing 91 innocent people. This became the pretext for the Centre to term CPI(M) as the mentor of terrorists, impose Disturbed Areas Act in the state, send in massive numbers of central forces, capture the entire state machinery and rig the counting process to install a Congress-TUJS coalition government. The letters between BK Hrankhwal and Mr. Gandhi were published in the Zoeing, a weekly from Mizoram. Such was the role of Congress in aiding and abetting the extremists and till the last assembly elections they continued their alliance with INPT, an offshoot of the TUJS and the overground political front of the extremist outfits.

Glorious Role of the CPI(M) and the Left

Extremist activity in Tripura is distinct in its political orientation. While the tribal chauvinist parties like TUJS, INPT and IPFT had been the direct political front of the extremists, the main opposition Congress has not only always roped in these parties as their electoral ally but also engaged in aiding them financially and otherwise. The CPI(M) and Left has remained the prime target for the extremists. In the last three decades 1179 workers and sympathisers of CPI(M), including state cabinet minister Bimal Sinha,  MLAs Kalidas Debbarma and Ananda Roaja, ADC member Sachindra Debbarma, party leaders Bhim Debbarma, Suramani Koloi, Kshirod Debbarma, Anil Baidya and a host of other brave hearts have sacrificed their lives. No other political party in India has a comparable record of sacrifice to fight against the extremist and secessionist forces.

Strategy of tackling the insurgency: the humane approach

The success of Tripura in containing the 3-decade long problem of insurgency is now a known story. The Left Front government adopted a three pronged strategy.  Firstly, the futility of the political ideological questions raised by the extremist movement like “Independent Tripura” or deportation of the foreigners was addressed. The government organised a number of peace meetings, talked to the family members of the misguided youth to persuade them to shun this barren path. The Party and the mass organisations like GMP too took this initiative on their own. Massive and relentless ideological-political campaign was organized in defence of peace and peoples’ unity. Secondly, the strength and capacity of the security forces were increased, number battalions of state’s own paramilitary force TSR was enhanced, local boys conversant with the local language and topography were inducted. The forces were asked to befriend the local people and win their confidence. While they were asked to be tough against the armed militants, there were strict orders from the highest level of the government that no innocent civilians should be harassed and no incident of human rights violation should take place. Thirdly, as and when peace started returning, developmental work in the tribal areas started in full swing, as much funds as possible were invested in speedy development of basic infrastructure of the tribal areas and cluster programmes were implemented for their socio economic development. Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council is a unique political and developmental institution that strengthened and decentralized political power of the tribal people. All these have resulted in a situation where the problem of insurgency is largely contained. The supremo of ATTF is behind the bars, the NLFT has joined the peace process. What is of importance here is the mobilization of tribal people in fighting the extremist forces. Though it will be incorrect to conclude that the extremist problem is over for good as the US imperialism and other reactionary forces shall never sit idle and let a Left led government function smoothly, but it can be said that it has been contained to a large extent.

Use of sec. 3 of the AFSPA was but a small part of the much larger and comprehensive strategy which created this success story. Now, such legal provisions that flow from the top are not needed. The people of Tripura have time and again voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Left Front, showing their confidence in this people-centric   process of development which isolated and defeated separatist terrorism.