Paying protection money in India's north-east

Vol 4, PW 8 (24 May 00) People & Policy

They call him the "soft face" of Tripura's two-decade-old tribal rebellion.

But 48-year old Debarata Koloi is "anything but soft". He does not carry an AK-47 rifle, but he bargains hard.

In April, Koloi's 'Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura' or IPFT (an anti-Bengali, anti-Communist) party toppled the state's ruling left wing alliance in elections to the state's tribal council, winning 18 of 30 seats. Koloi openly supports kidnapping and the terrorist tactics employed by rebels of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), who for the last seven years have waged a vicious bush war against central rule from Delhi.

This month Koloi assumed charge of the 'Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council' (AADC). Speaking to Petrowatch shortly after his appointment Koloi said most of Tripura's rich gasfields are located in the AADC area.

"We need a share of all royalties," said Koloi, "For gas, for forest produce, for any commercial activity that goes on within the council area." When told his demand was "unconstitutional" Koloi said: "The Indian constitution can change to economically empower the tribal population. Until now ONGC pays royalty only to the state government.

Koloi's unprecedented demand has caught the corporation by surprise. "How many authorities do we have to pay" complains a senior ONGC manager in Agartala.

A correspondent writes: "Koloi cannot be taken lightly. If his demands are not met, he has the power to unleash 600 guerrillas onto ONGC." Koloi wants Delhi to grant his council the status of an autonomous state under Article 244(A) of the Indian constitution.

If it happens, this will give him the power to collect taxes.

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