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A toast to Tripura

Sushant SinghNo, this is not a toast to Tripura for the 93 per cent voting recorded in the state assembly elections last week. Not that the feat isn’t worthy of a toast but Tripura deserves a greater recognition, and emulation, for something even more significant: a successful end to insurgency. The roots of insurgency in Tripura lie in the partition of India in 1947. Tripura’s tribal majority demography changed as a result of migration from former East Bengal, dropping from 50.09 per cent in 1941 to 38.55 in 1951. By 1971, it had come down to 28.95 per cent. The tribals were pushed to the hills.

Insurgency originated as a protest movement against the domination of politics and government by Bengali speakers, both locals and migrants. It evolved into insurgency with the formation of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) in 1967, followed by the creation of the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV). In 1979, the anti-foreigners agitation started in Assam, which found resonance in Tripura.


Turning Point: After Sheikh Hasina came to power in 2008, things changed and an India-friendly government in Bangladesh denied the insurgents safe bases there

The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was formed in March 1989 and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), in July 1990. With secure bases in Bangladesh, the two outfits came up with a secessionist agenda, demanded sovereignty for Tripura, deportation of illegal migrants, and the restoration of land to the tribals under the Tripura Land Reform Act of 1960.

The insurgency simmered between 1990 and 1995. But it assumed dangerous proportions between 1996 and 2004: 514 fatalities were recorded in 2000, when insurgency was at its peak in the state. By 2011, the fatalities had come down to one. How did Tripura achieve this turn-around?

One, an India-friendly government in Bangladesh denied the insurgents their safe bases in that country. One of the lessons derived from 5,000 years of guerrilla warfare by Max Boot in his latest book, Invisible Armies is that an insurgency is more likely to succeed if it has outside support.

The American Revolution proved that, as did Vietnam and the Russian failure in Afghanistan. Tripura was no different. After Khaleda Zia formed the government in Dhaka in 2001 in coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami, NLFT and ATTF flourished, with safe havens in Chittagong Hill Tracts, weapons and training from the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence of Bangladesh and Pakistan’s ISI based there, and association with other north-eastern insurgent groups.

But this changed under Sheikh Hasina in 2008. In November 2009, her government arrested NLFT chief Biswamohan Debbarma from Dhaka. Moreover, the fencing of Tripura’s border with Bangladesh is almost complete, with only 125.5 kilometres of 856 kilometres currently unfenced, reducing illegal migration and hindering free movement of insurgents. Two, successful counterinsurgency operations were conducted in the state. Tripura Police adopted a multi-pronged strategy, taking upon itself the responsibility of being the main strike force against the insurgents.

The paramilitary forces acted in coordination with the police; the army was not taken on board. Special Police Officers proved valuable in gathering intelligence and keeping a tab on the activities of the insurgents, their collaborators and harbourers. Such was the pressure that between 2006 and 2008, as many as 871 insurgents belonging to the ATTF, NLFT and BNCT surrendered to the security forces. Even today, Tripura has 661 policemen per 1,00,000 population, and 231.3 policemen per 100 square kilometres, well above the national averages of 137 and 52.4 respectively.

Three, emphasis on greater economic opportunities as insurgency tapered down. Insurgencies thrive on the narrative of economic grievances. With limited opportunity for trade, the state took heavily to rubber plantation. Self-help groups (SHG) were started in villages to market rubber.

Today, there are more than 35,000 SHGs with 10 members each. Simultaneously, the state government also focused on bringing socio-economic development, particularly to tribal areas. Besides the approved railway line with Bangladesh, if India can secure an overland transit passage through Bangladesh, Tripura would attract more trade and investors.

Four, the reinvigoration of political process in the state. As a cadre-based party, the CPM was able to bring political process to far-flung areas, and empowered the tribals in particular. Grass root democratic institutions such as autonomous development councils and gram panchayats were strengthened in the process. The state then witnessed a 91.22 per cent turnout in the 2008 assembly polls.

The success in Tripura holds important lessons for other states in the country. Denial of outside support from neighbouring countries; ownership of counterinsurgency operations by the local police; simultaneous socio-economic development; and deepening of political process — the four-prongs of Tripura’s success will help defeat an insurgency. 

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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