It may be the end of the road for the red revolution that never happened. Heaven forbid but it may also mean a revival of the horrendous ethnic bloodshed that convulsed Tripura in 1980. Amit Shah sidestepped that core conflict on the eve of the election when he urged all his “brothers and sisters of Tripura to come out and vote in large numbers”, saying their “vote will lay the foundation of a prosperous and developed Tripura”. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s state unit president, Biplab Kumar Deb, was closer to the truth. The election results would be “historic”, he declared. No wonder he gloated that both Narendra Modi and Mr Shah had called him with their “good wishes”.
The results of the February 18 voting for the 60 seats in the Tripura assembly will not be known till March 3. But the opinion polls suggest the outcome may mean the end of 25 years of CPI(M)-dominated Left Front rule. The Left Front now holds 50 of the 60 legislative seats. The chief minister, Manik Sarkar, fighting for a fifth term, has been described as the “cleanest and poorest chief minister in the country”. Despite their goodness, neither he nor his saintly predecessor, Nripen Chakraborty, who was the chief minister from 1978 to 1988, was able to bring prosperity to the state. But they healed the ethnic wounds of 1980 and restored communal peace and stability to a ravaged society. That harmony may now be in danger if Tripura voters listen to Mr Modi’s exhortation to dump their “gem” (Manik) for the BJP’s promised “heera” (diamond).
Tripura is one of India’s smallest and poorest states. It is also the most literate with a high concentration of schools. There are 6,556 primary and senior basic schools and more than 4,000 high and higher secondary schools. Every sub-division has at least one English-medium school, and there are plans to set up an English-medium school in each block. Education makes for intense politicisation. In the 2008 and 2013 assembly polls, Tripura set a record with 91 and 92 per cent turnouts respectively. Last Sunday’s turnout was down to nearly 79 per cent which is still high. Despite this politicisation, Tripura has been relatively peaceful. Last September’s murder of Shantanu Bhowmik, a 28-year-old journalist, was an aberration attributed to a particular faction of the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura with which the BJP entered into an opportunistic pre-election alliance. About 30 per cent of the population is tribal. The majority is Bengali, people who have moved over the decades across the 856-km border with what is now Bangladesh.
In British times, the princely state of Tipperah (as it was spelt then and often referred to as Hill Tipperah) adjoined the British Indian district of Tipperah in East Bengal where the Maharajah of Tripura held extensive zamindari holdings. Tipperah district went to East Pakistan in 1947. When names there switched to the Bengali, rather than have a Tripura district next to India’s Tripura state, the East Pakistani government renamed the district Comilla. But the symbiotic relationship remained between Tripura and Comilla, and under pressure from Islamic Pakistan, more and more Comilla Hindus fled to the security of sparsely populated secular Tripura, not too mindful, perhaps, of the sensibilities of the indigenous tribal population.
The upshot was the 1980 massacre at Mandwi, an obscure village some 30 km north-east of the capital, Agartala, inhabited both by Tripuri tribespeople and Bengalis. Armed militants of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti and the National Volunteer Force, a Tripuri rebel group fighting to secede from India, launched a carefully planned attack against Bengalis, savagely butchering and mutilating hundreds of men, women and children. According to the Indian army’s Major R Rajamani, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was not half as gruesome as the Mandwi bloodletting. The TNV, which surrendered in 1988 and formed a political party, merged in 2000 with the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripurawas, to form the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, which contested a seat in last Sunday’s polls.
The IPFT is, however, the main tribal organisation. It is at loggerheads with the CPI(M)’s tribal branch, the Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad, and minor physical clashes between the two groups are frequently reported. The IPFT and the Twipraland State Party have also been agitating since 2009 to upgrade the existing Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) into a separate tribal state, Twipraland. The TTAADC now has jurisdiction over two-thirds of Tripura’s 10,491 sq kms, where nearly 13 lakh people, mostly tribals, live.
Almost all the major political parties – Tripura’s still ruling Left Front led by the CPI(M) which has contested all 60 assembly seats, Congress with 59 candidates in the field, and the BJP which also is fighting all 60 constituencies – have rejected the demand. They say Tripura is too small to be further split. But the BJP’s partner, the IPFT, which is contesting nine of the seats reserved for tribals, may demand its pound of flesh if the alliance captures between 31 and 37 legislature seats, as some opinion polls have predicted. The IPFT has in the recent past blocked National Highway-8, the lifeline of Tripura, and the lone railway line in the state for more than 10 days to press the Twipraland demand, unmindful of the hardship caused to the people by the resultant shortage of essential items. This snowballed into a major political issue in the run-up to the voting. Tribals play a crucial role in the state with 20 of the 60 Assembly seats reserved for them.
Although the BJP’s Vision Document 2018 focuses on development, the real aim is ideological and territorial. The Sangh Parivar is bent on demolishing this last perceived bastion of the Left. The BJP is determined to bring all eight north-eastern states under its control. It already rules Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur; its partners in the North-East Democratic Alliance govern Nagaland and Sikkim. The BJP is also making a strong bid for Meghalaya and Nagaland which go to the polls this month. A Congress-mukt Mizoram will be the next regional challenge for Mr Modi and Mr Shah.
Tripura is the last of India’s three red citadels. West Bengal and Kerala have turned their back on radical politics. If Tripura does the same and denies Mr Sarkar a fifth term, a major reason will be the highest unemployment rate in the country, with more than six lakh people registered as unemployed in a population of about 38 lakhs. It only goes to show that while man does not live by bread alone, to quote the popular adaptation of what Christ said in the Bible, man does not live at all without bread. Ideology doesn’t feed empty stomachs. Ethnic violence is one release for the hungry.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.