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