“For the last 70 years, somebody else has been deciding everything for us,” Naresh Chandra Debbarma, the 80-year-old president of Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), told me. I met at Debbarma at his modest house, tucked away in one of the alleys of Old Kalibari road in the Krishna Nagar locality of Agartala. His political party, the IPFT, represents several tribal communities in Tripura and has been leading a movement demanding separate statehood for the region’s tribal communities since 2009. On 10 July, the party launched a blockade in the state that continued for 11 days. “The constitutional rights of tribal communities are ignored. This cannot be allowed anymore,” Debbarma said. “The tribal regions are neglected, while other areas get more resources and better infrastructure facilities. There is no other way out except to provide total autonomy for tribal communities to decide their affairs.”
The IPFT carried out the blockade on the National Highway 44 and a railway line, which is the only road and railway line that connect the state to the rest of the country. As a result, Tripura, which is bound by Bangladesh on three sides, was cut off from the rest of the country for the duration of the blockade. Trucks carrying essential commodities were strandedat the Assam-Tripura border, and the North East Frontier Railway cancelled all train services to the state. According to Debbarma, the IPFT withdrew the blockade on 20 July because the union home ministry agreed to hold discussionsto resolve the issue.
Tripura is witnessing a significant political churning ahead of the assembly elections to be held in February 2018. Decades-old demands for statehood by several tribal groups have reemerged—apart from the IPFT, other tribal-based political parties such as the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura have also raised demands for greater autonomy, and are in negotiations with the central government regarding these. The negotiations are aided by an alliance with the IPFT—the tribal-based party was one of 11 major regional parties that formed an alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, under the banner of the North East Regional Parties Forum, in March 2014. In addition to the separatist demands, the ruling CPI (M) government also faces the challenge presented by the rise of the BJP in the state, which has displaced the Congress and the Trinamool Congress to emerge as the main opposition.
“Ever since the Left government came to power in 1993, we have been focusing on uniting the tribal and non-tribal population,” Bijan Dhar, the state secretary of the CPI(M) in Tripura, told me. “The BJP is trying to divide people on ethnic lines. In the tribal areas, they say that they support the demand for separate state, while in the Bengali areas they are opposing this demand.” In one of its pamphlets dated 27 June, the IPFT stated that the central government had given them a positive response to the demand for Tipraland—the proposed name for the new state. According to the pamphlet, Jitendra Singh—the minister of state with independent charge in the ministry of development of the North East, and a member of the prime minister’s office— had invited the IPFT to discuss the demands. It added that a ten-member IPFT delegation met Singh on 17 May and submitted a memorandum seeking a tripartite meeting with the state government to resolve the issue.
However, Sunil Deodhar, the BJP’s member in-charge of Tripura, told me that the IPFT’s claim about the positive response from the centre was “baseless.” “We do not support the demand for a separate state. We had conveyed this to the IPFT,” he said. Deodhar, in turn, accused the Left parties of dividing tribal and non-tribal communities. The tribal communities are deprived “not because of the Bengali people, but because of the CPI (M) rule,” he said. A former pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Deodhar was the campaign manager for Narendra Modi in Varanasi, and was given charge of Tripura after the BJP came to power in 2014. “At that time, Amit Shah told me: ‘I am giving you the responsibility of Marxist-mukt Bharat,’” he said, “because at that time it was the only state ruled by the Marxists.”