Excerpt: Northeast India; A Political History by Samrat Choudhury - Hindustan Times

Excerpt: Northeast India; A Political History by Samrat Choudhury

BySamrat Choudhury
Aug 03, 2023 10:52 PM IST

This extract from a book on the varied cultural, religious, social and political histories of the states of the northeast looks at how Partition changed Tripura

In 1948, when a section of the Communist Party of India decided to embark on the path of armed revolution to capture power, this organisation morphed into the Gana Mukti Parishad (People’s Liberation Council), an underground Communist outfit that undertook armed action against the royalist administration to establish “liberated zones”. The GMP filled a political void left by the ban of a more moderate political organisation with Jana Siksha Samiti links, the Tripura Rajya Praja Mandal, established in 1946 under the leadership of Jogesh Chandra Debbarma and Birchandra Debbarma. This group had called for the introduction of popular elected government in Tripura. By then, independence for India was a certainty.

Neer Mahal, once the summer palace of the king of Tripura. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Neer Mahal, once the summer palace of the king of Tripura. (Shutterstock)

The question that remained was whether Pakistan would be created — and until the start of July 1946, the answer was that it would not. That month, Jawaharlal Nehru took over from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the Congress president, and immediately proceeded to make statements at a press conference in Bombay negating plans to prevent partition under the terms of the Cabinet Mission Plan that Jinnah and the Muslim League, as well as the Congress itself, apart from the British government, had all agreed to. Jinnah saw this as a betrayal and responded by calling for the marking of 16 August 1946 as “Direct Action Day”. While this was meant to be a day of public protests and shutdowns, in Calcutta it rapidly turned into a massive communal riot, as the Muslim League, with the blessing of the premier, Husayn Shaheed Suhrawardy, tried to enforce a shutdown of the city, which the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha tried to prevent. At least 4,000 people were killed in the rioting, and no less than 40,000 were injured.

385pp, ₹699; HarperCollins
385pp, ₹699; HarperCollins

Further riots followed. The biggest was in Noakhali and adjacent Cumilla, both in the Tripura king’s estate of Chakla Roshanabad. The population there was more than 80 per cent Muslim, but in the hierarchical society of the place, upper-caste Hindus constituted the local elite under the British and the Tripura king. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims had been running high since the Calcutta riots, and finally exploded in October. Private militias of local Muslim strongmen attacked and killed local Hindu leaders, looted their houses and, in many instances, abducted and raped the women. The rioting continued sporadically for a month before Mahatma Gandhi arrived there. For the next four months, as India hurtled towards partition and independence, Gandhi remained in Noakhali. He was there until 3 March 1947, exactly three months to the day before Mountbatten announced his plan to partition India.

Gandhi in Noakhali during the Partition riots in 1947. (HT Photo)
Gandhi in Noakhali during the Partition riots in 1947. (HT Photo)

It was a crucial time in the history of India. Unfortunately for Tripura, its Maharaja, Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, died a sudden and untimely death in May 1947, of a suspected massive heart attack. He was not even 40 years old. His death paved the way for Hill Tripura’s accession to India on terms quite different from those he had intended. The state had signed no treaty with British India. There was only the sanad of 1904, clarifying the matter of royal succession to the Tripura throne. Although the British authorities had done more or less as they pleased in deciding important matters, such as the state’s borders and who would be king, technically, Hill Tripura (marked as “Independent Tipperah” in British maps until 1866) was at least as independent as far larger princely states such as Jammu and Kashmir. When the Government of India Act was passed by the British parliament in 1935, Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya had written a letter accepting an Instrument of Accession to a Federation of India under the British Crown. Dated 29 March 1937, and addressed to “The Agent to the Governor General, Eastern States”, the letter says:

I have the honour to state that on consideration of all the facts and circumstances relating to the new constitution for India as embodied in the Government of India Act, 1935, I have come to the conclusion that Tripura State may accede to the proposed Federation of India, subject, however, to the safeguards and limitations indicated in this letter and its annexures.

The Governor General’s office had sent him, and rulers of other princely states, a standard template of the Instrument of Accession. The Maharaja sent back a “revised draft of the standard form of the Instrument of Accession”. Among amendments in his revised draft, Point 8 begins: “Nothing in this instrument affects the continuance of my sovereignty in and over this State.” Point 9 states: “Nothing in this Instrument shall be construed as authorising Parliament to legislate for or exercise jurisdiction over this State or its Ruler in any respect.” The Maharaja proposed to accept the Instrument under certain other limitations, of which he provided a long list as an annexure. After his sudden death, his wife, Kanchan Prava Devi, princess of Panna in Central India, took charge of the administration. She signed an Instrument of Accession on 13 August 1947 that accepted the power of the dominion legislature to make laws relating to only three areas: defence, external affairs and communication. The document she signed also reiterated the point on sovereignty that the Maharaja had earlier insisted on, saying, “Nothing in this Instrument affects the continuance of my sovereignty in and over this land.”

Tribal vegetable vendors at a market in Agartala, Tripura. (Manjit Kumar Sarma / Shutterstock)
Tribal vegetable vendors at a market in Agartala, Tripura. (Manjit Kumar Sarma / Shutterstock)

Partition hit Tripura hard. Technically, the state was not divided in 1947, but Chakla Roshanabad and other estates of the Tripura state, comprising an area of over 1,100 square kilometres, lay in East Bengal in the districts of Tipperah, Noakhali and Sylhet. “Most of the above properties are situated in an almost unbroken line contiguous to the western boundary of the Tripura State and having once been comprised in the kingdom of the ancient Rulers of Tripura. They form now an indivisible appanage of the State”, the Consolidated Administrative Report for 1940–43 said. Roughly one third of the state’s total annual income came from these zamindaris, although technically those territories were part of British India. At the moment of partition, along with the rest of East Bengal, they went, on the basis of their Muslim majority, to East Pakistan.

This sent a wave of mainly Hindu refugees into the state which had already seen a population explosion in the preceding decades. Tripura’s first census was in 1872. The Census of 1931 found that the population had increased a staggering eleven-fold from the 1872 figure. “In Tripura State and the Chittagong Hill Tracts the increase was more than 10 per cent in each decade, a rate not achieved in any other district of Bengal except Noakhali between 1911–21”, the census report said. In the preceding decade, however, this rate had been achieved by a dozen districts, a classification that included, apart from Tripura, the princely state of Sikkim. The increase of population between 1921 and 1931 in Tripura state was 25.6 per cent. In absolute numbers, the population had gone up from 173,325 in 1901 — the first census when enumerators were able to go to remote and far-flung areas — to 382,450 in 1931. The census commissioner, AE Porter, noted in his report that “The increase in the state… appears to be due actually less to immigration than to increase of the native-born population and possibly also to increased accuracy of the enumeration on the present occasion.”

The Tripura population in 1951 was 639,029. In the next decade up to 1961 the state’s population again shot up by a staggering 78 per cent. The reason was distress migration from East Pakistan, where the Hindus who had stayed back earlier faced increasing discrimination and violence. There had been those, including the Bengali Dalits led by Jogendranath Mandal, who had chosen Pakistan in 1947. Mandal, who was the first law minister of Pakistan, was forced to flee to India after raising his voice against horrific riots that broke out in Dhaka and other parts of East Bengal in 1950, in which the police and government machinery were, according to him, complicit. Thousands of men, women and children, most of them Hindu, were massacred, and the community’s leaders, including elected members of the Legislative Assembly, were arrested. “I would like to reiterate in this connection my firm conviction that the East Bengal Government is still following the well-planned policy of squeezing Hindus out of the province”, Mandal wrote in his resignation letter.

Author Samrat Choudhury (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Samrat Choudhury (Courtesy the publisher)

A further round of rioting followed in 1952, this time sparked by the efforts of the Pakistani state to impose Urdu as the sole official language — a mistake that would ultimately lead to the break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh. For those who were squeezed out, especially from the areas in Cumilla, Noakhali and Sylhet that had been part of Chakla Roshanabad, the natural place of refuge was adjoining Tripura. By 1958, when the official registration of refugees in the state was stopped, the total number of displaced persons who had registered themselves as refugees there was 374,000, comprising 83,000 families. It was against this backdrop of a huge refugee influx that democratic politics in Tripura developed. In 1941, tribals constituted 53 per cent of the population. In 1951, they had become a minority, at 37 per cent.

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