Armed with rods, sticks, wooden clubs and heavy-duty torches, a group of people have been patrolling streets of Agartala and its suburbs at night for the past three weeks or so. The vigil starts at 11pm and continues till 4.30-5.00am.
Even as police claim success in checking crimes, these people don’t feel safe at their homes, especially after two dacoities and over 11 thefts rocked parts of Tripura’s capital, most of them not far from police stations. The few arrests made over the thefts started with the capture by locals, not police, of a thief.
Armed robbers broke into two households, held families hostage and made away with valuables at Aralia and Baldakhal in West Tripura district on August 22 and 24.
Part of these night vigil parties are businessmen, teachers, students and daily-wage workers, who find the whooshing police patrols unequal to the task.
Prabir Sharma, who runs a small medical store at the North Jogendranagar Naboday para, said there were 6-7 teams of 10-12 people each in his neighbourhood in the suburb just outside Agartala, effectively meaning that over 80 people are taking turns to maintain vigil on the streets.
Twenty-three-year-old Aniket Chakraborty, a graduate, has joined his dada and kakus (elder brothers and uncles) in the night vigil. Armed with a metal rod, the well-built young man might seem intimidating. But Aniket said it’s the unity that gave him the strength.
Dr Ashim Shil, a research associate and teacher at Tripura University, took lead in the second team at the Shiv Mandir para, barely 10 minutes from the first locality.
“We can’t really help..setting up local night patrol teams in every para is the only option. Police are patrolling the area but on vehicles that whoosh past these narrow alleys. What we need is a steady watch by foot patrols. We asked the police so many times for it but to no avail. There is a fear psychosis in the locality. We had to come down on the streets, leaving our mothers and wives at home alone,” he said.
As they spoke, Shil and his team came across a van entering their para. The team was prompt enough to stop it and check the driver’s credentials and the boot of the van. The driver, who turned out to live close by, was happy to oblige. “We do night vigils in our area as well. It’s absolutely fine. With thieves and dacoits going around, one can’t be too cautious,” he said.
Divided over politics and local issues, these unlikely colleagues have been united by a band of dacoits. “We have asked police to provide foot patrols… Police are doing their job. Yes, but sadly we have to burn the midnight oil while it’s not our job,” a night-patrol volunteer said.
Kishor Debnath, the secretary of a local club in Aralia, said, “Dacoits had hit Aralia–literally at an arm’s length from our para. We can’t sit back home hoping dacoits would be kind enough to let us be.”
However, the volunteers are fast getting exhausted, he said, since most of them have 10-5 jobs.
“It’s hard for us to keep doing this. I am a private tutor. Our club secretary is a university employee. All of us need to stay 100 per cent active throughout the day. Patrolling the streets at night takes a heavy toll on our health,” said Subrata Kar, a volunteer.
Nevertheless, the patrol teams said they were ready to face any threat. “We don’t know how we will combat dacoits but are confident that if they come here again, kaure chartam na (won’t let anyone go),” said a volunteer.
Thefts have occurred in different parts of Agartala in the past one month or so, but Aralia, Champamura and Baldakhal were the worst hit areas. Posh residential areas of the city like Ramnagar weren’t spared either.
Police say routine checks and patrols were going on. But four days ago it was locals who caught a man who broke into a flat at Ramnagar, a posh residential area. Two others were later arrested and some loot was recovered.
West Tripura superintendent of police Sankar Debnath told reporters recently that Bangladeshi infiltrators could be behind the rise in thefts.
“There is a rise in such cases… We might have had some weakness somewhere… There are also a large number of drug addicts in the city. We are working on all these aspects. We shall increase patrols and night officers in the police stations. A toll-free helpline will be available 24×7. Anyone can call and inform us about suspicious activity,”he said.
He also said some jewellery was recovered along with other valuables from the arrested men. And a local broker was arrested for buying loot from thieves.
The border city is the nearest target of illegal immigrants coming from Bangladesh in search of work or with ulterior motives. The Border Security Force has been alerted to maintain tight vigil on the international border.
Twenty-seven Bangladeshi nationals who had crossed the Indo-Bangla border illegally were arrested in Agartala and surrounding areas till September 6, the police officer said.
Chief Minister Manik Saha, who holds the home portfolio as well, said he had discussed the matter with director-general of police Amitabh Ranjan. “I spoke to the DGP… We have gathered some information and action will be taken accordingly,” he said.
The Opposition CPM, meanwhile, said the Bangladeshi angle was eyewash meant to cover up police failure. “The morale of Tripura police was damaged during the tenure of former DGPs Akhilesh Shukla and V S Yadav. The current DGP seems to be trying his best, but we apprehend that a section of police are hand in gloves with criminals. The DGP has to break this caucus,” CPM state secretary Jitendra Chaudhury told indianexpress.com.
He also said police blamed Bangladeshis, Naxals or “imaginary entities” when their investigations failed to make headway.
The ruling BJP, however, questioned Chaudhury’s allegations and said police should take cognisance of his remarks.
Meanwhile, assistant inspector-general Jyotishman Das Chowdhury said a special investigation team had been formed to deal with issues of illegal immigration. His statement also said that six cases relating to the arrest of illegal Bangladeshi nationals from the city were handed over to the SIT set up three days ago.
Stories of how armed thieves broke into homes in Aralia and Baldakhal are still whispered everywhere.