SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Two sides of a coin

ISSUES

Advocate for self determination ... Bijoy Hrangkhawl.

Advocate for self determination ... Bijoy Hrangkhawl.  

SWAPAN DEBBARMA (35), Nabakumar Debbarma (27) and Pathi Debbarma (26) are among the 250 undertrials in Agartala's Central Prison. They have been charged with conspiracy in the assassination of Bimal Sinha, Health Minister in Tripura's Left Front Government in 1998. The police have marked the three as "over-ground" workers of the banned militant outfit, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), which claimed responsibility for the assassination. Of the three, however, only Swapan Debbarma spoke of his days in the NLFT; the rest denied links with any outfit.

Swapan is just one of the 2,800-odd "collaborators", as workers and informers of the militant groups, are known in police parlance, arrested by the security forces in Tripura since 1999. "I surrendered to the Assam Rifles when the State made a call to the extremists to join the mainstream," he said. "I thought I could come back to my family," he looks down at the floor. After a few moments of silence, he speaks again: "My daughter now studies in Chhailangta (a village in Dhalai district, 108 km east of Agartala)."

Since 1998, when Swapan left home, his wife has struggled to bring up the children. From Salema (95 km from Agartala, in Kamalpur subdivision of Dhalai district), she shifted to Kochucherra (85 km from Agartala in the same subdivision) where her brother and sister-in-law's family supported her. Swapan wanted to bring up his children in a "civilised environment". He thought of starting a pork farm. However, the Additional Sessions Judge in Amarpur, South Tripura district, remanded him to custody. "For two years, I only acted as their (NLFT's) collection agent and passed on information as and when required," he said. He reported to Dalfil Koloi, a self-styled area commander (Biswamohan faction).

Swapan was one of the several youngsters used by the militants to collect money from villages and peri-urban colonies. In exchange, they were provided with clothes and food. He operated along the northern fringes of the State bordering Bangladesh, including Khowai in West Tripura district, Kailashahar in North district and certain parts of Dhalai district. Swapan was an active worker of the Congress party when political violence broke out in 1998. Peace and normal life seemed impossible. Many of his friends were killed and Swapan was forced to leave his home in Meshuria village, Dhalai district. After a few months, he joined the NLFT.

Swapan's story mirrors the plight of many tribal youth who join militant organisations for security, power and, above all, a source of livelihood. There is no easy way out, as the many "collaborators", now languishing in different jails in the State, have realised. Their families are often the actual victims. Swapan's family was, perhaps, just better off.

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HE was the chief of a militant group, Tripura National Volunteers, which was disbanded after he surrendered with most of the militants in 1988. After lying low for a decade, Bijoy Hrangkhawl entered mainstream politics, winning the Kulai Assembly seat as a candidate of the Indigenous People's Front of Tripura. He is now the MLA for the second successive term.

Since his entry into politics, controversy seems to be following him. A recent one was his speech at a chapter of the International Human Rights Organisation where he advocated the right for self-determination, even through extremist activities.

The Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT), a conglomerate of tribal parties of which he is the president, stood for ensuring constitutional safeguards for the tribes. The movement started democratically through the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity in the late 1960s. Futility of democratic means pushed some members to armed action; others, who were not originally so inclined, were later compelled to join, due to the Government's repressive acts. Hrangkhawl says the idea of an independent Tripura grew out of the privations of the people and a feeling of insecurity.

Is there a contradiction between his staunch support to self-determination, even through armed means, and his desire to work within the framework of Indian Constitution?

"The right of self-determination is enshrined in charters of International Human Rights and of the United Nations and it can never be against the spirit of any constitution."

He refers to the meeting of the working group of indigenous population in Geneva, where he had raised the question. "When the fight is for subsistence and survival; the means might not always be formal."

Hrangkhawl says militancy has always thrived in the State. There were even militant groups that worked secretly under royal patronage. The issue of militancy became public knowledge from the days of the Sengkrak (a militant group of the early 1950s). The Tripura National Volunteers had about 500 activists, but they surrendered in August 1988.

Hrangkhawl says that there should be no objection to the demand for the right for self-determination from the National Liberation Front of Tripura or the All Tripura Tiger Force, the most active militant groups.

But the claim for an independent Tripura is a different matter. "What we share with them is the issue of self-determination." And, for that, he suggests that a dialogue between them and the State.

He believes that in Tripura, interpretation of self-determination amounted to obtaining the right for the succeeding generations as well. This is the main issue today.

Resting now, after years of spearheading the battle in Tripura, Bijoy Hrangkhawl still says with conviction, "Unless we obtain it, through whatever means, our next generation will be walking into a bottomless pit."

This article was facilitated by a fellowship offered by the National Foundation for India under its Northeast Media Exchange Programme.