| Victims of an unequal war
Premila Tripura and Anjali Pal did not know each other, but their deaths within days of each other were no coincidence. Premila was a young tribal woman, barely nineteen-years-old, living in the village of Jamircharra in the Dhaloi district of Tripura. Anjali, blind from birth, about the same age as Premila, lived in Phatikrai in north Tripura.
On January 12, Premila was kidnapped, raped and killed by a group of armed men belonging to a banned terrorist group called the National Liberation Front of Tripura. Two days later, Anjali’s house was attacked. Her father, a known supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was shot and killed. Anjali, hearing the gunshots, unable to see, ran out calling to her father. The terrorists trained their weapons on her and she, too, was shot dead.
The thread that connected these two young women, Premila, a tribal and Anjali, a Bengali, was their association with the local units of the Tripura Nari Samity, a constituent of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, and their participation in the activities of the organization. There are many such chilling examples of terrorist violence against women in Tripura.
The immediate context of the increased violence by terrorist groups is the forthcoming state assembly elections scheduled in February. The aim is to subvert the electoral process through the spread of terror and intimidation, a repeat of the cynical strategies adopted prior to the Tripura Tribal Autonomous District Council elections in 2000. In Kashmir, the agenda of groups backed by the Inter-Services Intelligence was to prevent free and fair elections. In Tripura, the terrorists with similar international contacts, have similar aims, but in addition — and this is the most significant difference — the major target is a political one, the annihilation of the left cadre and in particular, tribal activists.
The largest number of victims of terrorist violence are leaders and cadre of the CPI(M), the main left party in the state, as well as left-oriented mass organizations of different sections of the people like tribal communities, women and youth. Of the 23 people killed by terrorists since the announcement of the elections, 21 are CPI(M) cadre or members of left-oriented mass organizations, of whom one third are women.
For national women’s movements, the experience of women in Tripura adds a new dimension to the understanding of the way the politics of terrorism and violence has affected women and, in particular, the most marginalized sections such as the tribal women of Tripura. There is a fair amount of literature that documents women’s experience in, what is termed in United Nations language as, “conflict situations” such as war, ethnic strife, terrorist attacks, state terrorism and so on.
The term “conflict”, though widely used, could be quite inappropriate in many situations since it assumes an equally participative role of the two sides in creating the conflict. In any case, it is known that in such situations women often become targets of sexual assault; suffer long-lasting mental trauma with serious consequences on their health, including weight loss and insomnia; face homelessness, loss of work and income. In addition, as mothers, sisters, wives or daughters of those who have been killed or reported as “missing”, women have not only had to deal with their own grief at the loss of their loved ones but have also had to shoulder economic responsibilities of families.
In Tripura, the impact of violence on women means all this and much more. The added dimension is that in Tripura, which has a vibrant women’s movement, women become targets because of their activism and their courageous refusal to surrender to terrorist dictates. While in the rest of the country, women struggle for an increased role in public life, in Tripura, unlettered tribal women are showing, to those willing to listen and learn, a different aspect of that struggle.
In the name of preserving “tribal identity”, terrorists have dictated dress codes to tribal women — not to wear sindoor, sarees, to wear only the tribal dress, not to fraternize with women of non-tribal communities. Marriages between tribals and non-tribals have been banned by terrorist organizations. A circular was issued against family planning, promising Rs 1,000 to every tribal woman at the birth of a child. Tribal women have been forbidden to associate with any organization that has Bengali members.
In the name of “tradition”, the influence of ojhas or witchdoctors has been up- held and their right to identify witches is backed with the gun. An activist, Lakshmi Deb Barma, a tea-garden worker and member of a union who refused to accept the terrorist orders to disassociate from the union, was declared a witch by an ojha and killed in the dead of night by an NLFT squad.
Month after month, tribal women activists in the Tripura Nari Samity have been in confrontation at the village level, often paying a heavy price. They have been tortured and threatened, their children threatened with death if they did not leave their work with the Nari Samity. The women arrange their own meetings secretly, sometimes at the village wells, sometimes in the village markets, where, amid the crowd, their talk would go unnoticed.
After one such meet of women of different communities, an activist, Shanti of Tajarkala,was picked up by a terrorist squad and made to stand in cold water for several hours as punishment for talking to non-tribals. Today, she is active in the election campaign.
Among the Bengali community also, a Bengali terrorist group called the United Bengal Liberation Tigers has threatened Bengali women activists in the same way. What a different connotation the term “women’s unity” has for activists in Tripura who defend that unity at extremely high personal cost. It is because of their efforts, along with those of other organizations, that the terrorist offensive could be checked and unarmed poor tribal women and men could assert their opposition to the terrorists, isolating them and weakening them.
If there is any state in the country where there is political resistance to divisive politics and terrorist attacks at the grassroots level, from house to house, from hamlet to hamlet, from village to village in the most remote areas where it takes over a day to reach from one village to the next, it is in Tripura, under the leadership of the left. For all its tall claims about its fight against terrorism, the truth is that where the battles are being fought, the Bharatiya Janata Party is nowhere in the picture.
At the same time in Delhi, the BJP- led Central government is not providing sufficient forces on the border with Bangladesh, in spite of repeated requests from the state government. On the borders in Kashmir or in Assam, the number of battalions posted can ensure that one battalion covers from 15 to 28 kilometres of the border, whereas the lack of such forces on the 865 km unfenced Tripura border means that one battalion has to guard a distance of over 95 km. This enables the terrorists to easily move to their 50 or more bases across the border in Bangladesh after committing their ghastly crimes.
As far as the Congress is concerned, to its utter shame and in its desperation to grab power, it has openly allied itself in the elections with the political front of the banned NLFT, a recently formed outfit calling itself the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura. The grotesque nature of the alliance was seen in the recent massacre in Bikramnagar when terrorists attacked a hamlet predominantly of CPI(M) supporters, killing 11 people, four of whom were women and two of whom were children. Three houses which belonged to known Congress supporters were left untouched.
It would be entirely wrong to reduce or limit the issues in Tripura to an analysis of electoral battle between parties. Such an analysis would conceal how the current offensive of terrorist groups and the alliance of a mainstream national party like the Congress with them affects basic issues concerning democratic rights and governance, issues of national unity and integration, peoples participation in decision-making processes, how it affects the rights of deprived and exploited communities, how it affects struggles for gender equality and advance.