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)