Tripura tribal state demand has roots in a British-era literacy movement

The Left Front government in Tripura has sniffed a Trinamool Congress (TMC) plot in the revival of a demand for a tribal state that turned violent on Tuesday, injuring more than 100 people.
Supporters of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) vandalise a bus at a rally in Agartala on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
Supporters of Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) vandalise a bus at a rally in Agartala on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
Updated on Aug 26, 2016 08:39 AM IST
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Rahul Karmakar and Priyanka Deb Barman, Hindustan Times | By, Guwahati/agartala

The Left Front government in Tripura has sniffed a Trinamool Congress (TMC) plot in the revival of a demand for a tribal state that turned violent on Tuesday, injuring more than 100 people.

After West Bengal, the TMC wants to wipe out the communists from Tripura. Mamata Banerjee’s party received a shot in the arm when six of 10 Tripura Congress MLAs crossed over to Trinamool in June.

The TMC denied instigating Tuesday’s agitators who demanded that the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) be upgraded to Twipraland.

A lesser known group called Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) led the demonstration to mark the eighth Twipraland Statehood Demand Day. The day coincided with the by-election to Simna-Tamakari constituency, one of 30 in the council for 19 tribes who constitute a third of Tripura’s 3.7 million people.

“The violence was pre-planned. The IPFT tried to disturb peace in the state by triggering the clash, and it received direct or indirect support from Trinamool Congress,” Bijan Dhar, state secretary of CPI (Marxist), said.

The TMC countered the charge, saying Manik Sarkar’s Left Front government was trying to cover up the administration’s failure in preventing a peaceful demonstration from taking a communal turn. “The CPM is blaming us just to hide its shortcomings,” Ashish Kumar Saha, the party’s MLA, said.

Whatever was the trigger for Tuesday’s violence, the demand for a tribal state in Tripura lies in a British-era literacy movement, which turned political with communist overtones before militants hijacked it in the 1980s.

Literacy to militancy

Dasarath Deb, Tripura’s eighth chief minister (1993-1998), had in December 1945 launched the Jana Shiksha Samity, a “literary and resistance movement” in the areas ruled by the British-controlled king of Tripura.

Partition of India in 1947 saw much of the plains under Tripura’s Manikya dynasty go to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The Tripura royalty merged the kingdom with the Indian union in September 1949 but it wasn’t until January 1972 that Tripura became a state.

A steady influx of Hindu Bengalis from East Pakistan between 1947 and 1972 saw the Kokborok-speaking tribes being reduced to a minority in landlocked Tripura. The fear of being pushed out of their own land led to militancy and periodic communal clashes since the 1980s.

In 1948, Deb transformed the Samity into Gana Mukti Parishad, a political outfit engaged in an armed struggle after it merged with the CPI more than a year later. Deb’s communist resistance movement coincided with similar ones in Tebhaga (Bengal) and Telangana.

Deb joined CPI(M) after the CPI split in 1964. That year, he formed a pro-tribal Marxist frontal organisation.

The CPM has been ruling Tripura since 1978, except for the 1988-1993 period when Congress regained power. The TTAADC was set up in 1985 for the “socio-economic development of tribals” and it covered two-third of Tripura’s geographical area of 10,491.69 sq km.

Manoranjan Debbarma, an indigenous Marxist MLA, had in 2014 said the communists fought for tribal rights through the 1950s and 1960s when the indigenous population was being swamped by refugees from East Pakistan. Debbarma represents a constituency named after Mandaibazar, where more than 300 Bengali settlers were killed in June 1980.

The demographic change hurt the CPM and CPI during the 1967 assembly election. The Left parties were routed because, as Debbarma pointed out, they had demanded a district council for the indigenous people. “But Marxists continued to champion indigenous rights even after ethnocentric politics gripped Tripura in 1967,” he said.

The 1967 election coincided with the birth of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), a tribal political organisation that often clashed with Amra Bangali, a radical Bengali organisation.

The polarisation became sharper when militancy, allegedly backed by the church, crept into the state in the early 1980s. Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) came first, followed by National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force.

Communist control in tribal areas

The communists made inroads in Tripura’s tribal areas as militancy began waning in the mid-1990s. But the tribal movement gained some ground after two political parties from the 1980s – Tripura Hill People’s Party and Tripura Tribal National Conference – merged to form the IPFT.

The IPFT soon overtook TUJS and won the TTAADC polls in 2000. The two parties merged to form the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) two years later. A section broke away from INPT to form IPFT again in 2009 and push for Twipraland state.

The IPFT chose August 23 – the day when Parliament paved the way for the formation of the Tripura tribal council – as its Statehood Demand Day. The front had been observing the day quietly Tuesday, triggering political conspiracy theories.

The alignment of the tribal entities with non-Left parties is said to be behind these theories. The INPT had teamed with Congress during the 2003 assembly election but joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

Both BJP and TMC are believed to have backed IPFT in the tribal council by-poll on Tuesday. While BJP withdrew its candidate, TMC said it was game for strengthening anti-Left parties.

Like TMC, the state BJP criticised the Left Front government for letting things get out of control.

“The government had doubts about winning the by-poll. That’s why it timed the by-poll with IPFT’s Statehood Demand Day, knowing there could be trouble,” BJP spokesperson Mrinal Kanti Deb said.

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