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Meet the 80-year-old radio man behind statehood movement in Tripura

Narendra Chandra Debbarma, a retired AIR servicement, revived the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) in 2009. The party is spearheading the statehood movement.

india Updated: Aug 05, 2017 11:42 IST
Priyanka Deb Barman
Priyanka Deb Barman
Hindustan Times, Agartala
Tripura,Tiprland,Tripura statehood
Narendra Chandra Debbarma revived the party which is leading the Tipraland movement.(HT Photo/Priyanka Deb Barman)

From Fidel Castro in Cuba to Prafulla K Mahanta in Assam, the young have invariably fuelled history-changing movements. But in Tripura, a calm octogenarian is the source of energy for a statehood stir.

The struggle for Tipraland – a state envisaged for the indigenous tribes – has been irregular since 1978, peaking almost a decade ago only to bottom out in a few months. The bid of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to end the Left Front’s 24-year rule in Tripura has given the movement a fresh lease of life.

And the man behind this revival is 80-year-old Narendra Chandra Debbarma.

The frail, mild-mannered Debbarma is poles apart from the firebrand Bimal Gurung of Gorkha Janamukti Morcha spearheading the Gorkhaland demand in West Bengal. But it is his communication skills acquired from working with the state-run All India Radio (AIR) for 27 years that is drawing the tribal youth toward the Tipraland movement.

He revived the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) in 2009, seven years after retiring as the director of AIR’s Tripura centre. A different set of leaders formed the IPFT in 1997, but it faded away in 2001.

“We had only about 200 people when we started out. The youth began joining us in 2012. Now, thousands of youth are ready to sacrifice their lives for Tiprland,” Debbarma told the Hindustan Times at his residence in state capital Agartala.

The IPFT has organised a series of protests in Tripura and New Delhi during the past few years to press for their statehood demand.

Their indefinite blockade of railway and National Highway 8 since July 10 attracted the attention of the BJP, which appealed for a joint movement to eject the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front government in Tripura in the 2018 assembly polls.

Son of poor jhum or slash-and-burn farmers from Maharanipur village in Khowai district, Debbarma pushed for statehood in 2009 but the movement then was short-lived because of the inability of mainstream parties to break the communist stranglehold in Tripura.

This time, the IPFT sees in the BJP’s strategy of using tribal votes to dislodge the Left Front an opportunity to make Tipraland a reality. The BJP wants IPFT on its side to take on the Marxists but wants the tribal party to shelve its statehood demand.

A third of Tripura’s 60-seat assembly is reserved for the tribes, who form 30.95% of the state’s total population of 3,673,917 according to the 2011 census.

“Statehood is IPFT’s main agenda and we will continue our movement till we breathe in Tipraland,” Debbarma said, adding that the BJP-led government at the Centre might hold talks with IPFT on the statehood issue.

Long-drawn movement

Much of present-day Tripura and beyond was ruled by the state’s tribal Manikya dynasty. The kingdom lost the plains of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) after India’s partition but gained non-tribal refugees from across the border.

The influx saw the tribal population dip from 52.89% in 1901 to 28.44% in 1981. Alarmed, communist leader and former chief minister Dasarath Deb sought reservation for indigenous peoples in 1952.

In 1978, when the communist reign began, an extremist group headed by Bijoy Hrangkhawl first raised the voice for Swadhin Tripura (Liberated Tripura). Hrangkhawl is now the chief of Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), which was formed in 2002 after the merger of IPFT and Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti.

An ideological conflict within the INPT made a section of leaders leave to help Debbarma revive 1PFT in 2009. Debbarma, who worked in the state food and civil supplies department before moving to AIR, joined INPT soon after his retirement in 2002.

Debbarma put his communication skills to test by associating with the Tripura Upajati Karmachari Samiti to fight for the rights of indigenous employees.

“Migration from East Pakistan had led to the deprivation of the indigenous community on their own soil. Creation of a new state comprising the Tribal Autonomous District Council areas has become a necessity for the survival of around 12.5 lakh indigenous people,” he said.

First Published: Aug 04, 2017 17:40 IST