Monday, February 19, 2018

Tripura 'Maharaja' needs to get over the history of the royal house and take India's Constitution seriously

We live in the Republic of India and all law-abiding citizens agree to the Constitution adopted in 1950, which states that ‘we, the people of India’ secure ‘equality of status and opportunity’. Here, in our nation, no one is superior to another and we reject any kind of social hierarchy in the form of caste, creed or heritage for that matter. We resolved to abolish all titles except the ones we earn with our merit, ie educational and military titles. The whole point of abolishing titles was to bring in an era of equality.

After the transfer of power, the post-colonial Indian state under the leadership of Sardar Patel decided to grant the princes a privy purse. The privy purse was basically a payment made to the princes for giving up their ruling rights. Or we can say that they gave up their sovereignty for a compensation. Now the question remains whether they were actually sovereign. At the time of Partition, more than 600 odd princely states existed under the British paramountcy.

British paramountcy needs a brief explanation here. It used to work under the subsidiary alliance policy, ie a king, like the Manikya kings of Tripura, could rule independently inside his territory and the colonial state would not interfere in his internal affairs. But that was not all, the states could not keep a standing army as the British army was supposed to defend their borders from ‘external’ threats. Also, they had to pay a heavy sum to the colonial coffers as a payment for the maintenance of that army. And a British agent (from the Civil Services) would be in the royal court, further checking the ruler’s autonomy. Thus, a ruler was only left with the dirty job of maintaining law and order and providing justice in his territory while the colonial state enjoyed a military dominance and extracted heavy taxes from those states. So, naturally, those states were not sovereign in its classic terms.

The privy purse was issued to such rulers who had accepted the subsidiary alliance policy. Now, the other aspect is that the monarch is just the state, a ruler, a manger of the people – not their patriarch or God. The divine theory of kingship is a medieval concept. In modern times, it doesn’t count. So, if the post-colonial Indian state is giving a payment in the form of privy purse, it has to be to the people but not to the manager. Going by the theory of social contract, the king has no moral authority to gulp down a heavy amount of money as privy purse just because of his heredity. Thus, the Republic of India decided to stop it in 1971.

On 12 January, Pradyot Manikya Deb Barman, who is the heir to the Tripura Royal House, posted a group of photos on his Facebook profile. The photos are of an archival document of a land transfer from the royal house to the Indian state for the construction of the Gobinda Vallab Pant Hospital in Agartala, which is presently the largest state-sponsored hospital in the state.

This was an act of charity and we should not question the motives of the royal house or the ‘king’ Kirit Bikram Kishore Manikya (Pradyot’s father) who donated the land. However, at an ideological level, the act as well as its public glorification raises larger questions of historical discourse and popular narratives.

The land was donated in 1959, in the Republic of India. A time when we were done with colonial zamindari; also, the land ceiling legislation was already in action in many parts of the nation. In such a time, a private individual donated an unwanted land for charity. It makes sense, but it is in no way a favour to the nation or its people. The land anyway belonged to the people, the royal house was just being the state before the post-colonial Indian state started functioning. It just gave back the people their own land, which they would have taken anyway, if needed by force.

The Manikya dynasty is the only ruling house in Tripura. Even though the local mythology validates the dynasty as an offspring of the Chandravanshi clan and claims their lineage back to the Mahabharata, the historicity of the dynasty can be found somewhere in the 13th century with Ratna Fa or Ratna Manikya as the first ruler. Since then, 183 kings have ruled the region, ending with Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur, the last but the most visionary king of Tripura. In fact, the last few kings, who, having been exposed to the western ideas after British intervention, did a lot to modernise the region. A number of schools came up, a college was set up in 1947. Victoria Memorial Hospital (presently Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital) came up in the heart of Agartala city in 1903. An all-girls Maharani Tulshi Bati School was also set up by the Royal House.

The Tripura Royal House led by present patriarch Pradyot Deb Barman projects the Manikya dynasty as the savior of the people during the princely rule. According to him, it was the post-colonial state, which was controlled for most part of the 20th century by socialist Congress from the Centre and the CPM in Tripura, that has destroyed this land of peace and prosperity. But, there is a problem to such a narrative of history which drifts away from certain concrete facts. With the present crisis of ethnic identity, Pradyot is claiming to take sides with ‘his people’ ie the native hill tribes. But, how can he wash away a history left behind by his ancestors?

It was the Manikya kings who encouraged Bengali immigration into Tripura before partition was even thought of. They granted plain land to the Bengali settlers from East Bengal at a very low price and encouraged wet rice cultivation in an attempt to make the tribes shun jhum cultivation (shifting cultivation) which is harmful for environment and ecology and take up wet rice cultivation. In fact, the language of the royal house was Bengali and Rabindranath Tagore was a state guest for seven times. The Ujjayanta Palace was named by the poet himself.

Further, if we see the actual modernising process of the royal house, it has a striking pattern. Be it Radha Kishore Institution, Umakanta Academy, Maharaja Bir Bikram College or the VM Hospital, all have been constructed in Bengali majority areas. The king saw both the community as his subjects but amazingly promoted one over the other.

And finally, I would just ask one question to the present prince. If the royal house was so kind, why did different native tribes – Tripuris in 1850s, Jamatias in 1860s and Reangs under Ratanmani Reang in as late as 1940s – revolt against the Royal House? The Kukis also made of lot of disturbance, but they were a headhunting tribe, so we should not take their mischiefs into account. Pradyot questions the renaming of historical monuments and installing of Bengali memorials but has he ever asked to install even one statue of Ratanmani Reang as a mark of respect for the Reang rebellion and their aspirations?

Further, just like Shashi Tharoor has asked the British nation for an apology, if not compensation to the Indian people for looting our money, isn’t the Royal House of Tripura supposed to apologise for wasting money on luxury monuments like Neer Mahal with the people’s tax money?

(Pinak Pani Datta is born and brought up in Agartala and is doing his post-graduation studies at the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU. He is an independent political commentator on the politics of Tripura)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tripura Election 2018: BJP vows change, but overcoming Left Front's accomplishments won't be easy task

(This article was first published on It can be found here)

In less than a week Tripura goes into polls for an election that is probably going to be the most important one since 1988. The fight is clearly between the left and the right of the political spectrum, constituting the CPM-led Left Front and the nationalist BJP and its ally IPFT, respectively.

The streets of Agartala this time have a different aura altogether. Earlier it used to be a fight between CPM and Congress. The rhetoric used to be manifested in the slogans like 'Inquilab Zindabad' and 'Vande Mataram', but this time 'Vande Mataram' has been replaced by ‘Jai Shree Ram’. For Tripurites, Ram has never been a God, rather a mythical figure incorporated into public memory by Ramananda Sagar’s 1990s TV show.

The BJP has sold itself very well. From the Agartala airport till the city, saffron flags have overshadowed the red ones. Added to that, the RSS-backed party has deployed a galaxy of political stars including BJP president Amit Shah, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Cabinet ministers Nitin Gadkari and Smriti Irani, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch a ruthless campaign ahead of the elections.

Unlike the previous Congress' efforts, BJP's strategy is more action bound than a formal show. Congress leaders have always rallied in the heart of the capital Agartala while BJP leaders have hardly done any meeting in the city. The meetings are conducted mostly in moffusil (rural) areas where BJP is trying to capture the voter base from the ruling Left Front. Another reason is that the Agartala seats have traditionally remained anti-Left and have been won by former Congress leaders who are presently in BJP.

During a road show featuring Rajnath Singh, the author met with few BJP supporters. Most of them have joined "the RSS" only a year back due to the frustration of misrule. Some are retired government employees while some own businesses. On being asked about the ideology of BJP, they said that they did not care about the national scene or Hindutva for that matter, for them BJP meant susashan (good governance).

When asked about incumbent chief minister Manik Sarkar, they alleged that even though the CPM leader might be poor and honest he is giving sanctuary to a large number of corrupt people. And once BJP comes to power they will be eliminated from the system. They trust in the party high command and will accept whoever becomes BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.

The BJP is cashing in on the anti-incumbency factor against CPM. The election is driven neither by policy nor ideology. It is a straight fight for change in one side as evident from BJP’s election slogan-cum-hashtag #CholoPaltai while the other side is desperately trying to retain its losing ground. This can be seen from the language CPM has used in its election manifesto as well.

While the BJP Vision Document 2018 is listing ambitious and bold promises like setting up a multi-specialty hospital like AIIMS and instituting medical colleges in TTAADC area; the Left Front is just defending its administration. From public health sector to education, the manifesto seems to defend the Manik Sarkar regime. For example:

  • There are 12 blood-banks now in the state, up from 5 in 1998; there are eight blood preservation centers now, while there was none in the state in 1998; there are 25 vision centres now, while there were was in the state in 1998.
  • Tripura is at present highest in India in the rate of literacy which has risen from 73.20 percent in 1998 to 97.22 percent in March 2017.
  • The per-capita income has reached Rs 80,027 in 2015-16 from Rs 11,012 in 1998 (the fact is stated without a mention of the inflation rate in the same time period).
  • Paddy production has now risen to 8,21,000 MT, up from 5,36,000 MT in 1998.

The items mentioned in the Left Front manifesto prove that not only was it written casually, the administration has very little to offer in comparison to the challenger. The Left Front manifesto spends only a few lines on (un)employment in its final pages, an issue on which BJP is setting its sail.

In a neutral soil like Tripura, the BJP’s strategy has always been to enter on the rhetoric of development and not Hindutva. Thus, the BJP election manifesto was called ‘Vision Document 2018’ and was unveiled by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in Agartala on Sunday, a week ahead of polling day. The document lists big promises which the party is capable of delivering given its absolute power in Centre and Modi’s Act East mindset. Here is a detailed analysis of the BJP+ manifesto vis-à-vis the Left Front.

The highlighted promises are: giving one employment opportunity to every household; free education for women till graduation, immediate implementation of Seventh Pay Commission for state government employees, free health insurance to all Below Poverty Line (BPL) households and free smartphones for the youth.

The Left Front, in its manifesto, provided nothing new on agriculture and farmer welfare, whereas, BJP seems to have made it its first priority.

Apart from starting an agriculture university to establishing independent state directorates for tea, rubber, and bamboo, the party has also promised to implement all central schemes around the state with a special focus on starting a venture capital fund to boost agro-based industries.

Even though the Left Front manifesto has given high priority to education, it fails to offer anything new to the voters and has kept on beating the drums of its achievements, which, however, cannot be overlooked after all.

The number of degree colleges in Tripura has increased significantly over the last decade and the state for the first time has established a university without external help. Yet, the BJP has stolen the show by making a big promise of establishing a degree college in each and every constituency which means we can expect 60 colleges in the state if the party comes to power.

The BJP has also promised to fill the 50,000 plus vacant seats in the state government within a year through a transparent process.

In the energy and power generation sector, Tripura is in the limelight after the 750 MW Palatana project started in 2014. Together with this and other projects controlled by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), the state is capable of producing over 800 MW of energy out of which its own share is some 170 MW.

The Left Front proudly announces that 84 percent of the state’s population is covered under electricity distribution and that too even after selling a big share of power to Bangladesh. However, there have been allegations of corruption in the state-controlled Tripura State Electricity Corporation Ltd and  BJP has proposed to split it up into two independent entities viz Tripura State Electricity Generation Corporation and Tripura State Electricity Distribution Corporation for better management of power.

Strikingly, neither side has talked about decommissioning the now irrelevant 7 MW Dumboor Hydel Project which affects 30,000 tribal lives and may cause massive floods anytime.

Public health is another important sector in which the Left Front has made no effective promises but has talked about its achievements since 1998, which are no doubt remarkable. The BJP promises a number of multi-specialty hospitals with at least one AIIMS level high tech hospital in the state. It has further promised to collaborate with the Central government to open up a new RIMS level medical college in Tripura and at least one medical college in the TTAADC area.

The Left Front again proudly showed off its achievements in the Bojungnagar Industrial Park, which has been possible because of the eradication of insurgency. But, the park has not sufficiently met the industrial needs of the state. The state is geographically and resource-wise deprived. Thus, even the BJP manifesto talks little about an actual industrial development blueprint.

In an eye catcher, BJP has promised to give free smartphones to the youth under the Digital India drive. This seems like a vague promise at this point.

The BJP also promises zero tolerance towards crime and law and order and women security has been kept as a top agenda. An Anti-Corruption Bureau is also proposed. But, Tripura remains one of the first states to adopt and implement the Lokpal Bill and has a functioning Lokayukta.

Tripura, however, has a huge potential in two sectors which have been grossly overlooked by both sides – tourism and information technology. After Agartala became the third internet gateway to India, the state has a huge potential to bring in private stakeholders and IT companies to set up their bases in the state as this sector bypasses the geographical constraints for which industrial infrastructure has not been encouraged. In tourism, with so many hill river valleys and lush green mountain ranges, the state has a huge potential of becoming an eco-tourism hub with a special focus on adventure sports apart from the religious destinations. It only takes good vision to develop the state on the lines of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

The discourse of tribal welfare is also very elite and doesn’t actually take up the subaltern issues. Apart from a host of other promises, BJP has said that it will include stories of the Tripura’s dynasty rulers in school syllabus, which, in fact, is already present in the Tripura Board of Secondary Education curriculum.

What needs to be brought into the narrative are the tribal revolts against the royal house. If the kings were so kind then why would their subjects revolt against them?

One fact that remains intact is that the Communists have done a lot for the tribal cause starting from the 1940’s Gana Sikhsha Parishad (Mass Literacy Movement) led by leaders like Dasarath Deb and Biren Dutta to the implementation of the TTAADC during the first Left Front government in 1982. The BJP and IPFT want to overshadow the real progress by glorifying medieval stories of history.

Finally, BJP has settled an old controversy and declared to rename the Agartala Airport as Maharaja Bir Bikram Manikya Kishore International Airport after the king who built it in 1942. Also, the status of an international airport will be a boost to the state’s economy.

The Left Front manifesto attacks the BJP-RSS combine of being anti-people and pro-big businesses and appeals to the voters to vote for the common minimum programme proposed by them for the sake of peace, harmony, and stability of Tripura. The BJP, on the other hand, has made it clear that it wants to overhaul the existing administrative system in the state and bring in a new and better governance.

A total of 297 candidates of which only 20 are women will contest for the 60 seats in the state Assembly. BJP has fielded 51 candidates while its partner IPFT, a regional tribal party, is contesting the remaining nine seats. In the Left Front, CPM has fielded 57 candidates, leaving one each for its alliance partners CPI, Forward Bloc, and RSP. Like always, one-sixth of the Left Front candidates are new faces. Out of the 297 candidates, 35 are crorepatis, 18 from BJP, nine from Congress, four from CPM, two from INPT, one from IPFT and one from AITC. The average asset of the 59 Congress candidates is Rs 53.16 lakhs, the 57 CPM candidates have an average asset of Rs 39.91 lakhs while the average asset of the 51 BJP candidates is Rs 1.35 crores.

Now, it is up to the voters to decide who is a better alternative on 18 February.

The Author is doing his post-graduation studies in Modern and Contemporary History at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU and is an independent commentator on the politics of Tripura