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The Secret of mutual admiration
Subir Bhaumik
The Secret of mutual admiration
PHOTO : TIWN File Photo : CM Manik Sarkar welcoming Prime Minister Modi at Agartala airport

Walking the Talk with Shekhar Gupta in NDTV, Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar described L K Advani as the most succesful Indian Home Minister he has worked with. But he did not quite clearly spell out why.

Let us look at how Sarkar got to make this comment.

Shekhar Gupta:  Mr Advani was a great fan of yours; in fact he said so in public.

Manik Sarkar: He was the most successful Home Minister.
 
Shekhar Gupta: Mr Advani, you rate him high also?
 
Manik Sarkar: Yes, I must tell because I have got the opportunity to work with the 4-5 Home Ministers, among them I think he is successful.
 
Shekhar Gupta: Advani, Chidambram, Shinde, Patil and now Rajnath Singh, so what was it that led to a great chemistry between you and Advani?
 
Manik Sarkar:
 Actually, I think he must have seen that we are sincerely trying our level best to tackle this situation, and whatever demands I used to raise before him, he found the merit in it. He tried his level best to help and cooperate with us.

Now if you objectively look back at the northeast during Mr Advani's time as Home Minister , it was his ministry that took the decision to extend the Naga ceasefire to other states. That sparked off hugely violent protests in Manipur and Advani was forced to take back his decision.

Advani also authiorised what turned out to be a suicidal move when he asked the BSF to strike across the border at the BDR which had occupied some Indian enclaves at Pyrdiwah in Meghalaya. 14 BSF jawans were killed when they attacked the BDR outpost at Boroibari inside Bangladesh.

Advani had hoped that a succesful trans-border attack would help the BJP win the 2001 state polls in Assam where it ha struck an alliance with the AGP through the good offices of governor S K Sinha . It all recoiled very badly on the BJP and the Congress came to power led by Tarun Gogoi , who is still at the helm after 14 years.

Advani also failed to force a tough line on the Kandahar hijacking , though he might have wanted to , if RAW chief Dulat's memoirs are any indication.

So why Manik Sarkar found him so sucessful ! I think I know why.

Hugely upset with what he believed to be an abject surrender at Kandahar ( where the Vajpayee government decided to free three top terrorists including Jaish a Mohammed chief Masood Azhar) , Advani was looking for an opportunity to prove his credentials as 'Loh Purush' (Iron Man). Like Modi after him, Advani was keen to don the mantle of Sardar Patel and step into his shoes as the one tough right-wing politician who could get respect for India by act-tough measures.

When Manik Sarkar listened to the advice of his police chief G M Srivastava and decided to initiate hostile covert trans-border actions to strike at insurgent bases, he needed at least an informal clearence from Delhi. Smarting under the humiliation of having to withdraw the Naga ceasefire and the BDR riposte at Boroibari, Advani gave Sarkar the clearence.

The rest is history. Srivastava motivated surrendered militants and even Bangladeshi mafialords to strike at rebel targets . He was helped closely by a MI officer Major (later Colonel) G Srikumar and BSF IG Suresh Dutta.  In two years, in more than twenty such attacks, the ATTF and the NLFT were left gasping , desperate for oxygen. 

In my forthcoming book, Agartala doctrine : a Proactive Northeast in Indian foreign policy ( published by Oxford University Press), some details of these attacks have been provided. The success attained by these covert operations broke the back of tribal insurgency in Tripura and earned for Sarkar the admiration of Advani . Needless to say, the admiration became mutual as Sarkar remained grateful to Advani for okaying the trans-border raids .

There is no way Manik Sarkar could have allowed G M Srivastava to execute his bold plan for a series of trans-border raids on rebel locations -- from jungle camps like the ATTF base at Satcherri to safehouses in Dhaka and Chittagong -- unless he had the green light from Delhi. It was real smart of Manik Sarkar to raise this with Advani and not Vajpayee , who would have surely , under his influence of NSA Brajesh Mishra, put the brakes on the trans-border raids .

In fact, Mishra played the spoiler when the military intelligence sougth clearence for sending in a small team to hit  the huge consignment of weapons that the ULFA and NSCN was bringing into the Karnafhuli docks at Chittagong port. The idea was to infiltrate a small team through Sabroom via Sitakundo which could fire rockets from shoulder-held launchers so that the whole consignment loaded on trucks could be blown off.

When Mishra put the brakes raising the spectre of huge collateral damage , the MI changed plans and went for a psyops . The Chittagong police, not taken into confidence by Paresh Barua and the DGFI/NSI , was given to believe that weapons for India meant for Awami League had arrived at Chittagong. They rushed in to seize the entire consignment loaded in ten trucks and even the intervention of Khaleda Zia's junior minister Lutfor Zaman Babar did not help.

Now Babar and Barua face death penalty in the 2004 Chittagong arms case along two top Bangladesh intelligence officials, generals Abdur Rahim and Rezakul Haider Chowdhury. 

Cleared by Advani , Manik Sarkar gave the go-ahead to Srivastava to unleash what has proved to be most devastating and successful trans-border covert operations in indepedent India. The smart thing about Sarkar ( which some of Modi's braggart ministers must learn) is he never owns up to initiating these trans-border raids which enjhoyed total deniability because those used were militants or Bangladesh mafia. No Indian special forces crossed the border, unlike the 21Paras going into Myanmar in July this year . Neither has Sarjkar bragged about the operations -- unlike the Rathores and Parikars who upset the Burmese by their uncalled for braggadicio ad forced NSA Ajit Doval and foreign secretary Jaishankar to rush to control the damage.

Chief secretary Thulsidas exercised the civilian control over the police-military operations. Without a formal unified command, Tripura smashed the rebels by attacking them in their Bangladesh bases. The trans-border attacks ensured that the rebels were hit where it hurt them most and the heavy CI operations that normally alienates the tribals were avoided inside Tripura.

Having succeeded in smashing the rebels , Sarkar slowly started reviewing the AFSPA and rolled it back in a phased manner. If the insurgency is finished, why do you need the AFSPA is a sound logic often forgotten by leaders in Northeast and Delhi. Sarkar's step helps them brought back to commonsense.

The Tripura counter-insurgency line follows targetted action and not looking for a needle in a haystack. And it is the Tripura State Rifles, a very tough CI force, that implemented the line and not the army, except for brief phases. Sarkar learnt from the mistakes of his mentor Nripen Chakrabarty -- he allowed the army to operate . 

But now the question that neither Shekhar Gupta nor Chaitanya Kalbagh , two of India's top journalists who have recently interviewed Manik Sarkar, asked the chief minister is what are his plans to take Tripura to the next stage of industrialisation and development.  The same group of well wishers who planned and executed the successful counter-insurgency strategy have a plan to bring high value manufacturing and IT industries to Tripura.  An exposition of that plan was unveiled at the last Tripura Conclave and the Taiwan experience was showcased for tiny Tripura to emulate.

The trouble with Sarkar is he starts late. It took him four years and a humilating defeat in the TTADC elections in 2000 to opt for the hard choice of hitting the insurgents across the border. Now that the submarbine Internet cable has arrived in Agartala from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh and turned the city  into India's third Internet gateway , Sarkar and his bureaucracy should not waste time and turn the pace and pitch of development to take the state that Kalbagh describes as a 'silver lining ' in the Northeast  He has to be a Tendulkar or Sehwag and not a Gavaskar in an era when Indian states are involved in mutual cut throat competition to attract investments.

(Mr. Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist, former BBC correspondant and author of  two well acclaimed books ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’ )
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