Militancy a past, former rebels eager to cast their first vote
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"It took almost 15 years for me to realise that I was on the wrong path. By that time I had lost valuable time by moving around in the jungles holding an AK-47, taking part in ambushes and sneaking out to Bangladesh where we had hideouts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts," Jamatiya said, packing his bag in the dormitory of Lachi Vocational Training Centre set up near here for former rebels.
The centre currently has the seventh batch of trainees comprising 70 former rebels, including two women, undergoing training in driving, motor repairing, tailoring, with the state's Tribal Welfare department looking after them. CRPF personnel guard the centre to ensure that the former rebels are safe and secure.
"All of us had taken part in some incident or the other during our underground days," said Palakbati Reang (43), a former NLFT cadre whose husband Birchandra Reang was killed in an encounter with security forces in 2007. Hailing from Tuisama village in Unakoti district in eastern Tripura, she is learning tailoring. She has two daughters — one married and the other studying in Class X and staying with her maternal uncles.
Like Dhanhari and Palakbati, others in this residential rehabilitation centre had also taken part in various "operations" against the security forces, often killing people. "Now we want to forget those things and settle down in life. We want to tell others not to go that way," said Hiramoy Debbarma (37), hailing from Joynagar in Khowai district, who regrets — "it was a grave mistake" — joining the underground groups. "In the hideouts at Chittagong, I was trained to operate weapons, including AK-47, M-16, semi-automatic rifles and SLRs, as also to make IEDs and lob grenades," said Buddhiraja Jamatiya (33), who hails from Malbassa in Gomati district. Buddhiraj spent more than a decade — 2000 to 2010 — in the jungles.
While all but three of these former rebels are going home to cast votes for the first time, they are not sure whom to support. "It is still difficult to differentiate good from bad," said Pijush Debbarma (22) of Lambucherra village in Khowai district, who was with the All Tripura Tiger Force from 2003 to 2011 when he surrendered.
Over 1,700 rebels belonging to different armed insurgent groups of Tripura have surrendered since 1998, and so far 1,285 have been covered under various rehabilitation schemes.
The NLFT, ATTF and a few splinter groups were together responsible for 3,479 insurgency-related fatalities between 1992 and 2010, official figures say.
Though insurgency has faded away, with the NLFT left with about 150 cadres and ATTF about 20, all holed up in Bangladesh, political parties continue to trade charges on the patronage of these rebel groups. "Beware, the Congress is in league with the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipera that was founded by former TNV rebels," warns the CPM. The Congress hits back, saying the birth of terrorism in Tripura is directly linked to the rise of the Left Front. For Dhanhari Jamatiya, Palakbati Reang, Pijush Debbarma and Kantamoni Tripura and others, all that they know is that someone misguided them.