From Tipraland to Greater Tipraland: Tripura’s tribal politics sees a churn

Feb 10, 2023 04:18 PM IST

Tripura goes to vote for its assembly elections on February 16 while the counting will take place on March 2

Five years ago, Srikanta Kaloi was clear in his voting choices for the Tripura assembly elections. The 67-year-old man from Ambassa backed the BJP-IPFT alliance. He was also clear why he was voting for them. He had hoped that the demand for Tipraland, a separate state for Tripura’s indigenous people and a key IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) would be fulfilled.

Young supporters of Tipra Motha holding a calendar distributed by the party at a poll rally in Kanchanpur. (HT photo | Utpal Parashar)
Young supporters of Tipra Motha holding a calendar distributed by the party at a poll rally in Kanchanpur. (HT photo | Utpal Parashar)

This time, in 2023, Kaloi’s choices are equally clear.

“IPFT got our support, but after they came to power, they forgot about Tipraland. This is the final fight for Greater Tipraland in order to secure our rights and future. Most Tripuris are rooting for Tipra Motha this time,” he said.

Kaloi is of course one lone voter, but his is a sentiment that does seem to have some resonance among the state’s indigenous tribal population as Tripura goes to vote on February 16.

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The fight for power, at least in the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, of the 60 in total, appears to be one between Tipraland, which IPFT espoused, and Greater Tipraland, as promised by Tipra Motha.

The tribal population in Tripura, with 19 different communities, account for 31% of the state’s total population according to the 2011 census, and their influence is particularly strong in the 20 reserved seats. In 2018, the BJP-IPFT combine won 18 of these seats with the IPFT winning eight of the nine seats it contested.

Tipraland and Greater Tipraland

The demand for greater autonomy and powers to the tribal population in Tripura, who feel marginalized by the majority Bengali-speaking non-tribal population, began in Tripura soon after the state’s formation in 1972.

Large scale migration of Hindus from Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) to Tripura after independence in 1947 and after Bangladesh’s creation in 1971 meant that the proportion of the tribal population in the state shrunk. Therefore, in order to protect the social, economic and cultural interests of Tripura’s tribal population, the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) was formed in 1979.

“The demand for Greater Tipraland isn’t a mystery. Our objective is to get some provisions constitutionally which will give TTAADC legislative powers. At present, the autonomous council isn’t equipped with any such powers. We need that to determine development of the state especially in the tribal areas,” said president of Tipra Motha, Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl.

“For the last 70 years, we are only at the mercy of the majority who determine our future. We feel that we should also have the power to plan our own development,” he added.

Though jurisdiction of TTAADC is over two-thirds of the state’s total area, the call for a separate Tipraland state within the council’s boundaries was given in 2009 by IPFT ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. But the party failed to make any mark in the Lok Sabha polls, the 2010 and 2015 TTADC polls and in the 2013 assembly polls.

The issue found traction in 2018 ahead of the assembly polls. But before BJP formed an alliance with the regional outfit, IPFT dropped its Tipraland demand as the Centre promised to form a committee to look into the socio-economic, cultural and linguistic problems faced by Tripura’s tribal people.

The Tipraland issue being sidelined has led to constant friction between BJP and IPFT over the past five years.

“We have not given up on the Tipraland demand. It’s a political and ideological issue for us. The alliance with BJP is for elections alone with the aim of improving the lives of tribal people in Tripura. We have seen lot of development targeting tribals in past years, and if we come to power this time more of that will happen,” said Prem Kumar Reang, working president of IPFT.

Meanwhile, in September 2019, Tripura royal scion Pradyot Debbarma left the Congress and within two months, formed a “social organisation” called Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance (TIPRA) to work for the cause of the state’s tribal populations.

In February 2021, Debbarma, popularly known as ‘bubagra’ (king) or ‘maharaj’, transformed it to a party and three other outfits representing tribal people merged with it.

Two months later, the party created a flutter by bagging 18 of the 28 seats in the TTAADC polls while ruling BJP secured nine seats.

Within months of that victory, Tipra Motha raised the demand for Greater Tipraland. But unlike Tipraland, which espouses the formation of a new state within the boundaries of TTAADC, the new party demanded that Greater Tipraland should also include areas outside the autonomous council where Tripuri people reside even in parts of Assam, Mizoram and neighbouring Bangladesh.

Tipra Motha’s emergence led to many indigenous leaders and legislators leaving BJP and IPFT and joining the new outfit. There were efforts made by Congress-CPM alliance as well as the BJP to woo the new party, but Debbarma decided to go alone, alleging that he received no concrete assurances on Greater Tipraland.

Leaders from IPFT said they were aware of the decrease in the party’s sphere of influence in Tripura’s tribal politics with emergence of Tipra Motha.

“With Debbarma launching a new party demanding Greater Tipraland, many workers and leaders of IPFT have joined him. This has reduced our importance this time around and it’s reflective in decrease in the number of seats we are contesting in this election than in 2018,” said Reang.

Fight for tribal votes

While Tipra Motha is contesting on 42 of the 60 seats, the IPFT is fighting in only 5 seats with the BJP contesting the other 55. In 2018, the IPFT contested 9 seats, winning 8.

But despite a continuance of their alliance, problems continue to come to light between BJP and IPFT.

The regional party claims BJP has propped up independent candidates in at least two (Kanchanpur and Ramchandarghat) of the five seats allotted to IPFT.

Reang refused to comment on the Greater Tipraland demand.

“India is a free country and everyone is free to form parties and raise their issues. It is for the voters to decide what issues they will support.

On the other hand, Tipra Motha, which is trying to corner tribal votes, is being accused of trying to divide the state and create divisions between the Bengali-speaking and tribal populations.

Hrangkhawl rejected those allegations.

“We have 13 non-tribal Bengali-speaking candidates contesting these elections. We don’t want differences, but we need administrative powers through legislation. Nobody will be able to stop it. It may take some time, but someday we will have it,” he said.

There is much conjecture about the outcome of the assembly elections, fast turning three cornered between the BJP-IPFT, the Tipra Motha, and the foes-turned-friends Congress-CPI(M). But come March 2, the day the results are announced, Motha may be in a position to decide who the next government will be.

“We can’t predict how many seats we will win. If we get majority on our own, we will definitely form government. But if we don’t get the figures and there’s no party which gets majority, we will support a national party to form government and remain outside,” said Hrangkhawl.


    Utpal is a Senior Assistant Editor based in Guwahati. He covers seven states of North-East India and heads the editorial team for the region. He was previously based in Kathmandu, Dehradun and Delhi with Hindustan Times.

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