The recent withdrawal of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act ,1958 from altogether 27 police station areas of Tripura has hit headlines in the national media with most of the electronic news channels and activist NGOs heaping praises on the chief minister Manik Sarkar for the bold move. While the chief minister may legitimately claim for decline in insurgency and final withdrawal of the draconian AFSPA , one must take account of the ground realities of the state, specially in the hilly interiors before apportioning credit or discredit.
TRIPURA’S RELATIONSHIP WITH INSURGENCY
Tripura, third smallest state in the country after Goa and Sikkim had been witness to blood and gore on an unprecedented scale, considering the size of the state and its population, in two phases. In 1978 the state’s first insurgent group Tribal National Volunteers (TNV) had come into being under the leadership of Bijay Kumar Hrangkhawal,this outfit carried on blood-spilling attacks mostly against non-tribal civilians and occasionally against security forces till 1988 ,it was on August 10 1988 that the outfit had signed an “agreement” with Centre and Tripura government and returned to mainstream. All along this period conditions in the state were ripe for extending disturbed areas act and armed forces special power act to cope with the situation but the then chief minister Nripen Chakraborty’s doctrinaire approach to the issue of insurgency had stood in the way.
The second and deadlier phase of insurgency by two outfits, ATTF and NLFT, had commenced from 1992 on the same pattern-massacre of non-tribal civilians and attacks on security forces,scarcity of forces and the state government’s ideological predilections had stood in the way of the draconian acts being put in place even though killing of civilians continued on an unprecedented scale. It was in February 1997 that the situation seemed to be going out of hand with large-scale ethnic riots in Khowai subdivision with active participation of ATTF killer squads. On 16th February the state government had brought six police stations in Khowai and Sadar under disturbed areas act with deployment of army and paramilitary forces. Gradually the draconian acts had to be extended to altogether 27 police stations.
But by this time the ruling left front had learned an important lesson: in the election to ADC for tribals in February-March 2000 the banned NLFT militants had reduced the election to a farce at gun-point and captured the Council after killing, kidnapping and intimidating the CPI (M) leaders and candidates. It was the moment of truth for the ruling CPI (M) and police was given a free hand to combat the situation under the legal cover of disturbed areas act and armed forces special power act. Between 2000 and 2003 assembly polls two able police chiefs B.L.Vohra and G.M.Srivastava had not only blunted the military might of the militants but had also secured the surrender to police of a large number of militant commanders and cadres with arms and ammunition.
Since the end of 2003 assembly polls, insurgency in Tripura has been on decline and now it is virtually non-existent. There is no doubt that there were instances of the draconian acts, disturbed areas act and armed forces special power act being misused. In a number of incidents the security forces had resorted to needless firing and killing of tribal youths, but the situation never went out of control because of the restraint exercised by the upper echelons of the security establishments. It is therefore, reasonable to conclude that it was the stellar performance of security forces that had laid the foundation for withdrawing the draconian acts at the political level. The credit being attributed to the political leadership of the left front is not the actual due.
In this context, one can take up the background of AFSPA through a retrospective lens. Shortly after independence in 1951,the Naga National Council (NNC), independent India’s first insurgent force, had ostensibly conducted a survey that confirmed that 99% of the Nagas were keen to have independence outside Indian political control. The Loksabha polls in Nagaland were totally boycotted in 1952 and from the next year the Nagas had started boycotting Indian schools and government offices,this had necessitated drastic action by the state government of Assam of which Nagaland was a part till then. Manipur was also disturbed since the formerly princely state had a sizable Naga population. Facing multipronged attacks on newly independent India’s sovereignty, the government of India had passed in the parliament the draconian armed forces special power act on September 11 1958 to cope with the exigencies of the situation. This was followed by the disturbed areas act for area specific operations of the AFSPA and it is this act which has triggered so much controversy in many parts of the country, specially in Northeast, Kashmir and Punjab. But the time is not yet fully ripe for repeal of the act by parliament because it enables army and paramilitary forces to launch and continue untrammeled operations against fissiparous and anti-national forces. The law is yet to outlive its utility.
(By Tapas Dey)
The views reflected in this piece are that of the author and need not necessarily be that of TNT-The Northeast Today