Legacy of violence

Terror in the hills ... a soldier stands guard over a gutted house.

Terror in the hills ... a soldier stands guard over a gutted house.  

FORTY years of armed militancy has left Tripura bleeding. As it wages a long battle against militancy, the north eastern State has seen its resources dwindling, its development process retarded and its people devastated. The traumatised people have been leaving their homes for safer places leading to a demographic imbalance.

Neer Mahal, a stately castle, rises out of the still waters of the green-fringed Rudrasagar Lake. A state-run ferry takes you across to the royal edifice, the summer retreat of the tribal Maharaja of Tripura. The state highway from the capital, Agartala, lazily winds through the Adorini Tea Gardens and hills clad in bamboo and rubber, on way to the temple-city of Udaipur.

A casual visitor to Tripura would wonder why these destinations were not highlighted in tourist maps. Tripura is the scene of an ethnic strife that began with tribal believing that an immigrant group had displaced it from its land and occupation. The resultant discord, fanned by years of neglect by successive governments and dearth of opportunities, has snowballed into an armed conflict between the two groups — the tribals and the non-tribals, predominantly Bengalis. What resounds in these verdant valleys and lush hills is a deafening, uneasy calm; punctuated only by an occasional rattle of gunfire, destruction and loss. For four decades now, life in Tripura has been laced with blood and violence. According to official statistics, more than 1,400 civilians have been killed in extremist violence since 1993, at least 40 per cent of them women and children. Ethnic violence has also injured more than 700. To compensate, the State Government has devised several programmes providing employment to about 1,200 people. But the burden is increasing.

The first documented instance of a tribal uprising was Sengkrak (literally meaning "clenched fist" in "Kokborok", a language spoken by majority of the tribals) in 1967 as a reaction to the government's policy to settle Bengali refugees in tribal reserve forest areas. Although the movement was curbed, a decade later, Tripura National Volunteers, led by Bijoy Kumar Hrankhawl, took up the cause of the tribals. The Mizo National Front, a militant outfit in Mizoram, aided this group. The TNV was disbanded in 1988 after the members surrendered but many more groups sprang up in the subsequent years with the agenda of secession from the State and putting an end to Bengali domination. The TNV today is part of a mainstream political outfit, the Indigenous National Party of Tripura, and Hrankhawl is a sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly.

Bengali resistance became an armed movement with the formation of Amra Bangali in the 1970s. The group later joined mainstream politics and faded away. The United Bengali Liberation Front is the only remaining Bengali militant group. According to police records, the group has been dormant since the recent arrest of its key leaders. Today, the most active militant groups are the All Tripura Tiger Force and the National Liberation Front of Tripura. Modern firearms, aid from across the border and the hilly terrain has given them the edge and confidence they need.

The terror in the hills has forced several thousand villagers leave their dwellings in search of safer homes. Deserted and run down houses are common all along the Agartala-Udaipur highway near Bagma, about 30 kilometres south of Agartala. Similarly, several families have moved closer to urban centres from the remote villages.

Early last month, Bengali inhabitants displaced from Takarjala, Jampuijala, Kendraicherra, Prabhapur and Jugalkishore Nagar in West Tripura district due to extremist-related violence, approached the Government for rehabilitation in cluster villages with adequate security. Farmers, small traders and agricultural labourers form a major chunk of these displaced people.

The Revenue Minister, Keshab Majumdar, said in the Assembly session last month that 20,494 persons were displaced from seven sub-divisions largely due to extremist activities. Bishalgarh sub-division in West Tripura district bore the brunt of it with a little over 13,000 persons leaving their habitats.

Official figures indicate that 4,340 families have been affected in Longtarai sub-division, 1,196 in Kanchanpur sub-division, 504 in Gandacherra sub-division and 509 in Sadar sub-division.

The State Government has been providing a relief of eight rupees for a person every day, but not exceeding Rs. 45 for a family.

Loss of habitat, and hence, the source of livelihood, has pushed most of these predominantly agrarian families to poverty. Many have virtually turned wanderers taking houses on rent wherever they can or living with relatives. Those who prefer to stay back are left to buy peace from extremist groups by paying "taxes".

Though most of the State is under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the militant groups operate at will. More than 300 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force, Border Security Force, Assam Rifles and local police have died in ambushes. The militants have also kidnapped over 2,500 persons; many are still untraced even after payment of hefty ransoms. Last month, a group of NLFT militants swooped down on a convoy of public transport vehicles on the Assam-Agartala Highway and kidnapped 25 traders who are yet to be traced.

The State administration, led by the Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar, has taken several steps to empower the local bodies so that the benefits of development reach every village, however remote. This would deter the youth from joining hands with the militants.

In this tussle between the State and the secessionist forces, the innocent, as usual, are the victims. Just like the old adage come true: When two elephants fight — no matter who wins — those crushed are the blades of grass underneath their feet.

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Abala Sarkar ... coming to terms with her loss

Abala Sarkar ... coming to terms with her loss  

"WE were just having supper," said 60-year-old Abala, recalling the night when extremists of the banned All Tripura Tiger Force shot dead 30 villagers, including seven of her family, on the eve of Independence Day last year.

Abala is still trying to cope with the loss. "We heard gunshots. By the time we hid, they had broken the doors and begun firing indiscriminately."

Through a small opening, she saw four of her grandchildren gunned down. "They were playing on the bed," she recalled, tears trickling down her wrinkled cheeks. Both her sons were gunned down in the next hut in the same compound.

The late-evening attack on the small hamlet of Kamalnagar Nath Para near Kalyanpur, about 50 km north of Agartala, left the State administration shaken. Sixteen villagers died and four were injured. In a simultaneous operation, the militants descended on another nearby hamlet, Baralunga near Teliamura, and shot dead 14 persons, injuring seven. Mostly agricultural labourers inhabited the hamlets.

Abala's sons Narendra Sarkar (25 years) and Harendra Sarkar (19), daughter-in-law Ratna Sarkar, and her four grandchildren, Basanta (6), Sushanta (3), Bapi (9) and Manik (6) were all killed. "Harendra had just completed his college. His result was to be declared the next day," she wept.

Abala is just one of many women who have lost their family to the mindless legacy of blood and destruction. With two young sons falling victim to the bullet, another having moved out of the house sometime ago, Abala and her 80-year-old husband, Haradhan, are now left to fend for themselves. Government aid was prompt to arrive, but most of the cash relief was spent for treatment. Now, they till their small backyard growing brinjals and greens for a living.

Abala's neighbour, Swapna Debnath, lost her husband in the same attack. She suffered bullet injuries on her left arm. Lying in hospital, she said she had nowhere to go. Her 14-year-old daughter, Shipra, has been taken to Kolkata for treatment.

The State Police noticed a pattern in the attacks. In both the incidents, the targets were the firebrand Bengali communities — the Nath and the Das — who had had taken over large portions of tribal lands. At 60, Abala and Swapna labour to make ends meet. This struggle for sustenance may dry their tears, but the scars are deeply etched.

(This article has been facilitated by a fellowship offered by the National Foundation for India under its North East Media Exchange Programme.)

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