Monday, July 17, 2017

Tipraland’s Genesis and Prognosis: Tribal militancy and politics in Tripura

(This article was first published on Firstpost, click on this link to go to the original article)

The protests in Tripura led by Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT) have entered the seventh day without any fruitful outcome. The Tripura government run by the CPM-led Left Front has not responded yet. All prominent parties have refused to support the demand for a separate state. But, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised the upgradation of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) to Autonomous State Council (ASC) which will be funded directly by the Centre without any interference from the state government, if it comes to power.

Tipraland or Twipraland is like the mythical phoenix. It emerges from its ashes every now and then, mostly when elections in Tripura are around the corner.

Tribal politics and militancy: early phase

The Communist Party of India (CPI) had emerged in Tripura as a mass literacy and tribal land rights movement against the Tripura Royal House. In the mid-20th century, when the Gana Mukti Parishad (Peoples’ Liberation Council) movement had started under Nirpen Chakraborty, Dasarath Deb and Biren Dutta, it was seen as the liberator of the hill people, the tribal. Deb was called the uncrowned king of the Borok people. Chakraborty, who was born in Bikrampur, Dhaka district (now part of Bangladesh), could speak fluent Kokborok. The Congress, on the other hand, can be seen as a patron of Bengali migration from East Pakistan after the Partition till Bangladesh was created in 1971.

After a long rule of Congress, the Leftists came to power by popular vote in 1978. One of the primary agendas of the CPM, which came overground after a brief period of armed class struggle, was the formation of the TTAADC. After coming to power under the leadership of Chakraborty, the Left administration started to work on the implementation of the TTAADC under the (present) sixth schedule of the Constitution. The communists had massive tribal support back then. The Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) also supported the cause of autonomous district council for the tribal areas.

But, things seemed out of order throughout the 1978-1988 Left rule. The seeds of separatism in Tripura were sown in 1978 with the emergence of Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), the first armed insurgent group in the state which asserted ethno-national claims of 'Tripura for Tribals'. It was led by the romantic idealist leader Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl who saw an opportunity to negotiate in the Mizo way. During 1979-80, when the TTAADC issue was at the centre of all events, TNV often declared bazar bandhs (market strikes) which led to violent communal riots. After a very bloody riot and amid heavy opposition from Congress and Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis), Chakraborty’s government was able to establish the TTAADC in 1982, one year before the Assembly election which he won comfortably for a second term.

In its active ten years, TNV fueled bloody riots killed thousands. Mandai — where more than 300 were killed in a single night — remained a shivering example for generations to come. The TNV almost ran a parallel government in the hills. In the riots of 1980, people died on both sides of the line. Ananda Marg backed Amra Bangali, a political party comprising Congress deserters that still exists, also committed one of the most atrocious crimes during the riots. Ironically, the TNV surrendered with the defeat of Left front in 1988. The demand for separation almost vanished as they negotiated for only three more Scheduled Tribe reserved seats in the state Assembly making it 20 out of the 60 seats. Hrangkhawl joined mainstream politics to form the famous 'jut' (coalition) with Congress.

Second Wave of militancy

With time, the 'jut amol' (coalition era) became a synonym of atrocity and misrule. And, in the hills, two more insurgent groups came up — the National Liberation Front of Tripura and All Tripura Tiger Force. If one were to believe the rumours, then NLFT was formed out of the rebels who didn't follow BKH into mainstream politics and continued their struggle for independence in the guerrilla style. While NLFT was an extreme subnational separatist group opposed to the CPM, the ATTF was a military outfit 'created' to counter NLFT. ATTF was more pro-CPM. But both had cadres from the disbanded TNV in its rank and file.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Tripura saw the worst form of gang wars vis-a-vis 'struggle for independence'. It was a civil war. ATTF launched a movement called ‘Operation Roukhala’ whose main aim was ethnic cleansing of the Bengalis. The NLFT later joined them. It continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The NLFT later gave a call for a ‘Christian Tripura’ with the backing of the Baptist church. It was chaos all around.

The top players

The TTAADC has been always controlled by CPM except for two brief terms — 1990-95 when a coalition of Congress-TUJS controlled the council and 2000-05 when the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT) controlled it. In the Autonomous District Council elections of 2000, the NLFT declared that only IPFT can contest. In a highly tensed election CPM and IPFT were the only two parties who contested for 28 seats in the ADC. The IPFT got a majority assuming power for the first and only time in the council.

The TUJS had been the overground political wing of the TNV during its heyday. When Hrangkhawl quit militancy, and returned to constitutional politics, he joined the ranks of TUJS and became its leader. The IPFT was founded in 1997 with the primary objective of securing tribal rights. In 2002, the two parties were merged to form Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) as pressure came from NLFT to unite all tribal fronts under one umbrella.

The IPFT took a rebirth in the backdrop of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections under the leadership of NC Debbarma with the sole objective of Tipraland — a separate state comprising the ADC area. n 2010 ADC elections they got a little over 2,000 votes altogether. But gradually they hijacked the tribal vote base from INPT. In the 2015 ADC elections they came in the second position securing over a lakh votes among the four lakh odd voters. But they fell short of winning even a single seat and the Left Front white washed the elections.

After the 2003 Assembly election, CPM was the majority party throughout the state and was in a position to track down the militants. The Tripura State Rifles was empowered and massive combing operations were started. The Indo-Bangla border was sealed as well. The militants, who by now forgot their original freedom struggle, and were being cut off from supplies took to cheap businesses like pornography.

The Future

By 2010, insurgency-related incidents in Tripura were almost negligible. The state returned to peace even though the draconian law AFSPA continued till as late as 2015. But, in these times of peace, we can at least say that the ADC area has one-degree college and several schools.

Now, if we take a close look at the map of the ADC even though the tribal areas have a large portion of landmass full of flora and fauna, the major centres of economic and social activities are out of it — in the urban spaces. Most of the sub-divisional headquarters are out of it. The two universities, medical colleges, NIT, and all important educational and other institutions like district hospitals are out of the TTAADC. The area is totally incapable to function as a federal state of the Indian union as it doesn’t even have the basic infrastructure to sustain the lives of twelve lakh people residing in it.

Above all, even if a separate state is created, the CPM is still going to rule over it as it enjoys an absolute majority in the TTAADC. So, practically a separate statehood makes no sense in democratic terms. If one considers the electoral performance of the IPFT in the recent past. They have improved exponentially in the last few years and are mobilising a large number of crowd in their public meetings.

So, instead of going on 'naked' protests, the right course of action would have been to follow the electoral path and win the ADC elections, which doesn’t seem impossible given the rise of BJP and the bad phase of CPM in the state. The IPFT can actually follow the TUJS of 1990s and join hands with BJP, a national party which is in power at the Centre and is also eyeing the state Assembly. If the objective is to gain tribal rights and develop the ADC area, then capturing power at the state Assembly is more feasible and wiser.

The Author is doing his post-graduation in modern and contemporary history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Delhi government may soon ban carpooling services offered by cab aggregators.

(This multimedia article was first published at please click on the link to find it)

Ola Share and Uberpool, popular features of the two app-based cab aggregators which allow users to share rides at a cheaper rate with other commuters could soon be banned by the Delhi government.

The Delhi government’s City Taxi Scheme, 2017 is currently being scrutinised by senior officials and will soon be finalised. "The scheme, which is a regulatory framework for cab services in the city, will ban shared cab rides as it is not compatible with the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988”, an unnamed AAP official was quoted as saying by Mint. Currently, Karnataka is the only state where these services are banned.

Taxis in the city run on contract carriage permits, which allow them to be hired from one point to another. This means taxis cannot pick up or drop multiple passengers on a single route. Only vehicles with a stage carriage permit, such as public buses, are allowed to pick and drop passengers at multiple points (on a fixed route).

“In principle, we are in favour of cab sharing as it not only provides an affordable commuting option to passengers but also reduces the number of vehicles on roads. However, such operations don’t come under the present legal framework as taxis are only allowed to be hired from one point to another and cannot pick and drop passengers,” a government official was quoted as saying by the Economic Times.

Newslaundry went around Delhi to find out what citizens who use these carpool services think about this.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#TripuraAssemblyElections2018: With the Left Front in crisis and tribal politics on the rise, the final battleground for CPI(M) and BJP is getting set.

Communist Party of India (Marxist), which came to power in 1993, has been ruling Tripura for a generation now. It is led by Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, known for his clean Gandhian-Marxist image, since 1998. But as it seems, the saffron forces led by BJP have been hijacking not only the opposition space from Congress and Trinamool Congress but also making their way to capture power in the upcoming 2018 assembly elections. Apart from a shaky Kerala, Tripura is the last unfallen fort of the Left Front in India led by the CPM.

A huge amount of money has been injected to hijack the popular rhetoric of working-class politics and blend it with regional sub-nationalism. BJP has in a very short time made its presence felt in the interior tribal areas which have remained the Left base for decades. Most of the regional parties, except Indigenous Peoples’ Front of Tripura (IPFT), which is an extreme sub-national party demanding a separate state called Twipraland for tribals, have aligned themselves with the BJP.

The Opposition has been very weak for the last 20 years in the state. The Left Front came to power after a very weak coalition government led by Congress that lost in 1993. They knew they were going to stay for long. After a brief five-year term by veteran tribal leader Dasarath Deb as chief minister, Sarkar took over as the head of the government in 1998. His first challenge was to stop statewide insurgency and restore law and order. His government in order to decimate the armed groups and fronts militarised the state. One of the outcomes of this militarization has been the construction of good roads in the interiors, which helped the state propaganda as indicators of development.

In order to obliterate the ideological basis of ethnonationalism, Sarkar’s government expended enormous energy in reinventing the narrative of Tripura’s immutable connection to Bengal, visible in the vigorous attempts to rename places and historical sites. The renaming of the Agartala airport after Rabindranath Tagore has been resisted time and again by the indigenous people led by royal scion Pradyot Bikram Kishore Debbarman who want it to be renamed after Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, the last king of Tripura who built the airport in 1942. Sarkar is now seen more as a Bengali nationalist than as a communist leader. Now, his government has sought to campaign, successfully, to brand itself as the government which has been able to usher Tripura towards development, create communal harmony and project itself as a model government. It can now boast of achievements, such as putting Tripura on the literacy map, influencing tribal minds to shun militancy and return to the mainstream and building the modern jail in Bishalgarh.

Outside Tripura, people speak of the purest and poorest chief minister of India, but not of the poor population. Today in Tripura, Tripura State Rifles camps are strategically located between Bengali habitations and tribal villages to keep peace. The Left Front in its self-proclaimed “golden era” of Tripura is also in its weakest position. It is holding power while crushing any form of ethno-nationalist assertion. This has given space to not only BJP but also regional right-wing parties to mobilise people in their own terms.

The politics of victimhood played by IPFT, a regional tribal based party, has mobilised the tribal population like never before. In regards to their long-standing demand of a separate state Twipraland they have called a blockade of National Highway-8 and the railway link to Agartala on 10 July, 2017. Banned insurgent group National Liberation Front of Tripura is also supporting the blockade, according to some reports.

Even CPM ground level cadres are shifting bases citing betrayal by the party. They allege that the party practices democratic centralism only on paper, while in practice it’s a totalitarian monopoly of power. Sarkar is at the helm of affairs. Being the only politburo member, he is virtually the party chief in the state. When faced with criticism at the party level, he deals it with the governmental machinery, and when someone points finger at him as a chief minister, he kicks the person out saying that they are drifting away from class struggle. The present cabinet is two decades old and has hardly any new or young face in years. Thus, the youth have time and again deserted the party.

The power, though Stalinist in nature now, is at its all-time lowest self-confidence due to a goof-up in the recruitment of 10,323 teachers in government schools which were declared null and void by the Tripura High Court. All the 10,323 teachers, some even married with a family lost their jobs. The state has provided them no alternative as the order came from the high court. It is important to note that Tripura has no indigenous industrial economy of its own. The agrarian sector also is a poorly sustainable one with relatively no growth. Thus, the working-class politics largely revolves around the 2.9 lakh government sector employees and pensioners. Unlike other states, Tripura has a largely homogenous but bi-polar vote bank comprising only Hindu Bengalis and tribes. Thus, the political strategy is designed centered around the government sector working class mostly.

The Tripura state government pay structure is still stuck in the 4th Pay Commission of the 1980s. There has been a lot of criticism about the government for not implementing the 7th Pay Commission recommended pay structure in the state. The state BJP in a memorandum before the governor said that Tripura government constituted a Pay Review Committee in 2008 and a Pay and Pension Revision Committee in the present year against all norms. The BJP alleged that the recommendations of such committee have led to a huge gap between the pay and allowances drawn by the state and Central employees, officers and pensioners. While most states have decided to accept the recommendations of the 7th Central Pay Commission, the Left Front government of Tripura refuses to do so.

According to this report by Tripura Infoway, former finance minister Badal Chowdhury had raised the employees issue several times in the cabinet meetings in the last three years. But, it was Sarkar, at his Stalinist best, who had not allowed the then finance minister to pass the ‘increased salary structure’ of the state employees in the cabinet. The idea is to keep the poor as they are, as it works best for the class party to function, alleges many.

Earlier, BJP president Amit Shah and Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal had promised to implement the 7th Central Pay Commission at the earliest if BJP is voted to power scheduled to be held next year.

The state government as always blames the Centre for not providing enough funds to provide an increment.

On 13 June, in an attempt to checkmate the BJP, which has already promised a salary hike, finance minister Bhanulal Saha announced a massive 19.68 percent increase in all sectors of state government. Saha told reporters that the average increase for Group D employees will be Rs 4,000, for Group C employees it will be Rs 5,500, for Group B officials the average increase will be Rs 9,500 and for Group A officials, it will be Rs 15,000 per month. There were some other incentives as well like holidays on every fourth Saturday along with the present second Saturday holiday. "Although we cannot offer pay package on par with the 7th Pay Commission, the government has given its best keeping in mind of its financial constraints,” he said.

According to a press note issued by the state government, the upgradation in pay structure comes into effect from 1 April, 2017. There have been mixed reactions following the decision. Many, including opposition BJP and TMC have called it a publicity stunt to recapture the voter emotions months before the election. While state Congress chief Birajit Sinha welcomed the move by saying “something is better than nothing”.

Trinamool Congress is being seen as the third force in the upcoming elections as it comprises most of the veteran leaders of the former opposition Congress party. But a section of the leaders led by Sudip Roy Barman is trying lobby with the BJP and may even end up voting for NDA candidate Ram Nath Kovind in the upcoming presidential election on 17 July. The internal turmoil in the party has been such of late that according to some reports six top leaders of the party were shown the door. The bickering within the TMC, which has been seen as a pro-Bengali party since its inception in the state, now looks weaker than the Congress.

Despite the salary hike, the government employees are not quite happy with how things have turned out during this long Left Front rule, making the government vulnerable to anti-incumbency. The tribals have remained a concrete voter base of the communists since the 1960s but this bastion is too under threat. In these circumstances, it is not surprising at all to see that the BJP with its winning spree all over the country of late has sniffed a possibility of overthrowing the Left rule in the state. But before the state poll, it is the magnitude of the 10 July protests of the IPFT demanding Twipraland that might add another dimension to the whole political scenario in Tripura.

The author is pursuing his master's degree at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

#Report : Green Alliance formed under the leadership of Irom Sharmila

Manipuri rights activist Irom Sharmila Chanu was unanimously elected as the chairperson of the Green Alliance, a forum of various environmental organisations that came together to form a single national-level platform on Sunday.

The idea for an “eco-political party” was floated and the forum resolved to form a separate political front called “India Greens” which is to be headed by acting convener Suresh Nautiyal.

In a brainstorming conference at the Indian Social Institute over the weekend, ideologues and activists spoke on issues ranging from water scarcity, tribal rights, media and alternative politics.

Water and community activist Siraj Kesar spoke of the grave situation in rural areas and the problems faced by the extremely poor including issues of “water wives” and “water orphans”. “In Maharashtra, patriarchs marry twice or thrice just because someone from the family needs to go miles to fetch water. So, one wife goes to fetch water and the other stays at home doing daily chores. Apart from that, many people have committed suicide because of unavailability of water leaving behind orphans to suffer,” he said in his presentation.

Kashmiri activist and journalist Sahil Maqbool talked about a village in the valley called Begonada. He said, “The dwellers of that village were born speechless for a long time. Due to superstitions, the real problem was never found until recently, when, a government survey found that the people in the area suffered from iodine deficiency. With the coming of iodised salts, the people of the village have started to talk again.”

Academician and activist Bhupen Singh questioned the role of corporate media and politics and spoke about new media as a platform for alternative politics. He said the media is mostly corporatised and one cannot expect good journalism from these so-called media houses.

Speaking on the occasion, anthropologist Daniel Taghioff said, “We need to have effective politics around the natural resources, as the declining labour movement is to be substituted well by green politics.” He added that green was not a rightist or a monolithic idea.

Journalist and former Green Peace activist Prashant Tandon talked about the perceptual war in dominating the narrative, if a Green Party is formed.

He said, “When I told people I am going to this very interesting programme today organised by the Green Forum India, they replied intriguingly asking me ‘are you going to plant trees?’” He said that the party needs to set up a public discourse. “Issues of farmers, mob lynching, Dalits being beaten up, the kind of energy being produced in the country, all these are green issues and we must talk about them.” He reminded the house that the informal sector holds 93 percent of the jobs and contributes a massive 46 per cent to the GDP. He said these people are Green and they are the target population of a Green Party.

Suresh Nautiyal, the convener of the Green Forum India, said: “I have taken my inspiration from the Uttarakhand Andolan, which rejected offers from ULFA and other separatist groups to take up arms and took the path of non-violence to assert their demand for a separate state.” He also spoke about Paraguay, the first country in the world to give its natural resources the status of being ‘alive’. And according to him, this has inspired India and now we have a law which declared the Ganga as a living being. He further spoke about the role of corporates in degrading the environment mentioning the Adani Group which went to Australia to invest huge sums in mining there.

While speaking about the prospects of a party, he said that he along with activist Anandi Sharan formed the Green Party of India a few years ago, but the idea didn’t catch on. Now, he wants to form a pan-Indian political platform uniting all the ecological activists and thinkers of India.

Irom Sharmila Chanu addressed the gathering as the last speaker. She said, “Green politics is a fairly new concept in India. I am aware of the issues concerning Mother Earth and the atrocities she is being constantly subjected to through man-made disasters, global warming, and other such issues. I would like to get a better knowledge about them and spread awareness among the masses over the same.” She said, “If it is the will of God, then I agree with your souls”, and gave a heads-up to lead the alliance. However, she said she won’t be part of the political party as of now.

A 21-member steering committee of the Green Alliance was formed consisting members from all over India. Sharmila was elected the chairperson unanimously and activist Anita Nautiyal will be the acting convener of the committee. “The constitution, manifesto, and policies (of India Greens) will be drafted according to the Global Greens Charter, 2001,” said Nautiyal.

Note : This report was first published on Newslaundry.