This State demonstrated that insurgency was not an insurmountable phenomenon. What were needed to tackle it were a well-crafted, multidimensional strategy and a positive mindset.
While some north-eastern States still grapple with insurgency, Tripura has overcome it. How did it do that? As in the case of the other States of the region, Tripura was, at different points of time, caught in the wave of insurgency that arose from Nagaland in the 1950s. What brought the region in its sweep was the geographical trap, the abysmal socio-economic-physical deficits in contrast to the mainland, dysfunctional governance in the region in general, rampant corruption at both the administrative and political levels, demographic changes and the alienation of tribal land.
The evolution of insurgency in Tripura can be traced to the formation of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) in 1971, followed by the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) in 1981. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) was formed on March 2, 1989 and its armed wing, the National Holy Army and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), in July 1990, queering the pitch. The two outfits came up with a secessionist agenda, disputed the merger of the kingdom of Tripura with the Indian Union, demanded sovereignty for Tripura, deportation of “illegal migrants,” the implementation of the Tripura merger agreement and the restoration of land to the tribal people under the Tripura Land Reform Act, 1960.
Between 1990 and 1995, the insurgency remained low-key. But it grew in extent and magnitude between 1996 and 2004 — and then started melting. What gave punch to the insurgency was striking logistic and monetary prowess acquired from the rough, rugged terrain, and the porous and extensive trans-border corridors with Bangladesh. Safe havens in Bangladesh, logistic support from the then solicitous Bangladesh establishment and the external intelligence agencies based there, and networking with potential insurgent outfits aided it. A build-up of weapons, explosives and wireless communication systems, and extortion and “levies,” went into the making of the volatile insurgency.
High voltage insurgency and an orgy of violence disrupted civic life and communications, and led to the closure of many educational and financial institutions, threatening the authority of the State. The State took on the problems in a strategic and resolute manner under the sagacious and visionary leadership of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar. It formulated a multi-dimensional and fine-tuned construct to respond creatively to the situation. The control mechanism was subsumed in counter-insurgency operations intent on swift area-domination and ascendancy, as well as psychological operations and confidence-building measures. An accelerated development thrust, management of the media, civic action programmes of the security forces, and the political process were additional factors.
Counter insurgency operations (C.I.Ops), a potent instrument in any fight against insurgency, formed the core of the interventions. These were not set as exclusive, hawkish, one-dimensional combat in the nature of conflict-management. The combat was invested with a broader meaning and constructive contents in the nature of a productive conflict-resolution aimed at defusing insurgency.
Remarkably, the counter-insurgency operations, intensive, extensive and covert as they were, did not take the Army on board — as had happened in other insurgency-bound States. Only the Central paramilitary forces and State police forces were drafted. Special Police Officers (tribals included) were inducted and channelled into the operations. This proved to be valuable in terms of gathering intelligence and keeping a tab on the activities and movements of the insurgents, collaborators and harbourers. The Central and State security forces were forged into a synergetic, coordinated and cohesive mode to derive optimal gains. Their conduct was under close observation at the highest level (including at the level of the Governor and the Chief Minister), in order to check personnel from going berserk and being ruthless, trigger-happy, oppressive and violative of human rights. This paid off: no complaint of human rights violation, except one or two and that too minor, came up in the course of operations. No antipathy against the security forces or the establishment surrounded the minds of citizens.
Oftentimes, an exclusively combative operation did not result in a sustained and abiding end to conflict. Therefore, here it was discreetly suffused with psychological elements, confidence-building measures and healing touches to achieve a sustained end to the conflict. Psychological interventions were focussed on correcting the tribal person's negative perception about the state and the mainland, and inducing confidence in and credibility about the State's intentions. Psychological operations were forged to work on the minds of the target group — for all conflicts, big or small, begin in the human mind. Brainstorming sessions centred on unwinding the deeds, misdeeds and subversive designs of insurgency and to unmask its hypocritical conduct, promotion of monetary interests, the lavish lifestyle of the leaders in contrast to the abject living conditions of the rank and file, sexual exploitation of women cadre, forced induction of adolescents into the outfits and a game plan to keep the region in perpetual backwardness. This strategy was carried through the media, both print and electronic, art groups, intellectuals, and interactive seminars and discussions. Confidence-building exercises and healing touches encompassed special recruitment to the security forces and other government services, especially in the insurgency-bound pockets. The provision of jobs to tribals in particular, and to the family members of victims, attractive rehabilitation packages comprising monetary benefits, and vocational training to induce insurgents to return to the mainstream and earn a peaceful living and decent livelihood, were other features. The Governor and the Chief Minister, in the course of their public programmes, sought to impress upon those misguided insurgents to see reason, return to the mainstream and be active stakeholders and participants in the well-being and prosperity of the State and the people. There was a good response to this. It brought back a number of them, including an entire group of the NLFT-NB in 2006 along with a cache of arms before the Governor, who was this writer.
Those strategic interventions paved the way for defusing militancy. These helped sooth the ruffled tempers of the tribal people, the pivotal support base of the insurgents. The fire of enmity against the state and the non-tribal population was doused.
As the security forces achieved success in area-domination, no time was lost in implementing governance and developmental interventions swiftly and vigorously. The government reached out to the tribal people with the delivery of basic services such as health care, rural connectivity, drinking water supply, employment generation and income accretion. Socio-economic advancement and a change in the quality of life were ushered in. The impressive gains from development were perceptible to the people in general and the tribal community in particular. They discovered a connect with the mainstream and the state. The outcomes were active community participation in the development process and in the fight against insurgency, the militants' return to the mainstream and consequential retreat from insurgency.
The security forces, both Central and State, spread all over the insurgency-bound pockets as the only visible face of the State, came up with civic action programmes, offered succour and basic services. The work included health care, medical aid and drinking water supply. The provision of study and sports material to students, repair of dilapidated school buildings, construction of community centres, vocational training in computer learning, tailoring, embroidery and so on, and close interaction with the local people, were ensured The security forces thus presented a human face, a pro-citizen, people-friendly, development-oriented face of the State, and earned the trust, admiration and gratitude of the people. Civic action programmes proved to be of tremendous significance in clearing doubts and apprehensions about the intentions of the security forces and the State. This brought forth community participation in the moves against insurgency.
The political process initiated by Chief Minister Sarkar went a long way in dissolving the malaise of insurgency. Peace marches were organised in far-flung insurgency pockets to instil confidence in the people and display the sincerity and commitment of the State towards accelerated development and prosperity for all segments of society. Micro-democratic institutions such as autonomous development councils, gram panchayats and village councils were strengthened, revitalised and legitimised. They turned vibrant and actively functional as local governance modules. This brought all the communities, notably the tribals in particular, into the development stream, bringing about substantial empowerment and a sense of fulfilment.
Tripura scripted a story of triumph over insurgency and conflict-resolution, and demonstrated that insurgency was not an insurmountable phenomenon. What was needed to tackle it was a well-crafted, multi-dimensional strategy, a positive mindset, resolute will, the right vision and direction, sagacious, honest and credible leadership, sincerity of intent, creative responses to the challenge, even socio-economic-infrastructure dispensation to all sections of society, and modulated and humane combat operations intertwined with psychological operations to set a change in the psyche of the turbulent mind.
(D.N. Sahaya was Governor of Tripura from June 2003 and October 2009, and then of Chhattisgarh.)
Keywords: Tripura insurgency, Tripura National Volunteers, All Tripura Tiger Force, National Liberation Front of Tripura, Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti, National Holy Army, Counter insurgency operations