The BJP Makes Forays Into Tripura, Where Demands for a Separate Tribal State Have Reemerged

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. ARINDAM DEY/AFP/Getty Images
23 August, 2017

“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.”

Ethnic tensions between the tribal and non-tribal population and the demand for autonomy of tribal regions have been deciding factors in the political history of Tripura since the 1940s. Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 led to the migration of a large number of displaced persons into the state. This altered the demography of the state drastically and transformed its population from predominantly tribal to predominantly non-tribal. The state government’s website says that in 1901, the tribal demographic comprised nearly 53 percent of the population, whereas the 2001 census of India notes that it comprised 31 percent of the state’s population. According to data quoted in the state government’s Tripura Human Development Report of 2007, as many as 13,80,000 people took refuge in Tripura after the 1971 war—almost equal to the population of the state, which was 15,50,000 at the time.

The report goes on to state that “although the majority of the refugees returned within a year to Bangladesh under the largest repatriation programme since the Second World War, the episode left a deep imprint on the local economy and society.” In 1965, Bengali was recognised as an official language of the then union territory—Tripura was one of the last princely states to accede to India, as a union territory, in 1949. It was reconstituted as a state in 1971, after the enactment of the North-Eastern Areas (Reorganisation) Act. Kokborok, the predominant language among the state’s tribal communities, was only formally recognised in 1979.

The arrival of displaced persons after Partition and the 1971 war also resulted in the alienation of the tribal communities from their traditional rights on land and natural resources, and the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal farmers. The 2007 human-development report notes that a large number of tribal people were displaced from forest areas when, after Partition and the war, areas that were formerly set aside as tribal reserves were converted to refugee camps. It notes further that in 1978, the Left government initiated attempts to restore the land to the tribal communities. However the tribal communities began to feel threatened with the growing influence of the Bengali migrants in different spheres of life. “Most of the migrants are farmers, they are land-hungry people because that is their livelihood,” Debbarma told me. “In the state land act”—the Tripura Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960—“there are prohibitions on transfer of land owned by the tribal population. This is grossly violated.”

According to Amarjeet Singh, a professor at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Milia Islamia University, “The discontent among indigenous communities arises out of the economic and political insecurities as they were gradually reduced to a minority.” Singh said that, since the 1950s, the political representatives in the state have been primarily Bengalis, and have included a significant number of displaced persons. Althoughone-third of the 60 assembly seats and one of two Lok Sabha seats are reserved for candidates from Scheduled Tribe communities, these are currently occupied by the tribal members of the national parties. Debbarma and Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, the current president of Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), both said that the tribal representatives from national parties are ineffective, as they often toe their party line instead of prioritising tribal issues.

The social and political alienation of the tribal communities led to the formation of several tribal militant groups during the 1960s and 70s. In the face of rising insurgency, the state assembly established the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in 1979. However, members of the state’s Bengali population opposed the creation of the TTAADC. In June 1980, ethnic riots broke out between a tribal militant group called the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) and a Bengali militant group called the Amra Bengali. According to the 2007 human-development report, nearly 1,800 persons lost their lives in the violence.

In 1984, the parliament enacted the 49th constitutional amendment, which granted tribal regions in Tripura an autonomous status under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The schedule empowers an elected council, in this case the TTAADC, with limited administrative, legislative and judicial authority. The autonomous council covers 7,132 square kilometres—about 68 percent of the area in the state inhabited by tribal communities, and almost two-thirds of the entire state.

Hrangkhawl, a former leader of the TNV and the current president of the INPT, told me the tribal parties were unhappy about the state’s control over the TTAADC. The INPT is an influential tribal party that did not support the blockade or the demand for separate statehood. “We ask for 100 percent direct funding [for the autonomous council]” Hrangkhawl said. The INPT is also demanding a fifty-percent reservation for tribal communities in the state assembly. The IPFT president Debbarma echoed the position that the TTAADC in its current form is not effective. While some members of IPFT, including its general secretary Mevar Jamatia, are not willing to reconsider the demand for separate statehood, Debbarma told me that he would consider alternatives to bifurcation if the government proposed an effective working plan. According to Singh, “In such a situation, the strengthening of ADCs is possible only by making the Sixth Schedule more effective.”

In December 2015, Vincent H Pala, a member of parliament of the Congress party from Shillong, had introduced the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (Amendment) Bill in order to strengthen the ADCs. The bill, which is still awaiting discussion, seeks to increase the number of members in the district councils, bring traditional occupation of tribals under the legislative competence of the district councils, and protect customary practice and interests of tribals. Jitendra Choudhury, a CPI (M) MP from Tripura brought attention to the bill in parliament twice during this year’s budget session, and raised the demand for amending the schedule again in the monsoon session. Deodhar, the BJP’s Tripura in-charge, also said that he had requested the PM and other ministers to pass the bill soon. However, the bill is still pending in parliament, with the last discussion on the bill in this year’s monsoon session.

Dhar and Debbarma told me that, at present, there is no platform for the TTAADC to discuss the budget with the central government. Dhar added that the CPI (M)’s position on the demand was that the ADCs should be given the scope to hold discussions regarding its budgetary requirements with the NITI Ayog, the North Eastern Council—the nodal planning agency of the central government for the northeastern region—and the finance commission.

The continuing migration from Bangladesh is another concern for the IPFT and INPT. According to Debbarma, the political parties are trying to appease the Bengalis in the state because they “want to enlarge their vote bank.” The parties “legalise citizenship and land deals for illegal migrants,” he added. Debbarma also alleged that many among the security forces took bribes and helped people enter India. “This has been continuing since Independence,” he continued. Hrangkhawl told me that it was not easy to control migration because many people from Bangladesh travel to Tripura for work every day. One of their demands is the introduction of inner-line permits for outsiders to travel to Tripura, which already exist in states such as Mizoram and Nagaland. Debarmma alleged that many settlers had dual citizenship and that “anybody could get an Aadhaar card here by paying a mere Rs 200.”

In July 2016, the central government introduced a bill to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. The bill provided that persons belonging to six religions—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians—from three countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—would no longer be described as illegal migrants, and would be eligible for fast-tracked citizenship. Since the bill, if passed, would make a large number of Bengali Hindus eligible for citizenship, protests were conducted against it in states that received an influx of Bengali migrants, such as Assam and Tripura. In January, non-Left tribal parties of the state, including IPFT and INPT, came together to form a common body—the All Tripura Indigenous Regional Parties Forum (ATIRPF)—to oppose the bill. Ironically, the BJP, which is likely banking on the anti-incumbency sentiments in the state, welcomed the formation of ATIRPF even as the member parties announced plans to organise protests against the central government’s bill.

While several tribal-based parties believe that greater autonomy and direct funding from the centre would help address their problems, the BJP and the CPI (M) accuse each other for the problems faced by the tribal communities in the state. The BJP’s Tripura in-charge Deodhar accused the state government of neglecting TTAADC, where the CPI (M) is also in power. “The state government siphons off the money [allocated to the TTAADC] and do not do anything,” he said. However, Radha Charan Debbarma, the chief executive member of the council, has stated that the NITI Aayog was not releasing funds for the council on time. “In the last financial year, NITI Aayog released Rs 176 crore to TTAADC, but this year it has released only Rs 73 crore against the Rs 200 crore to be released for the council.”

During a two-day visit to Tripura in May 2017, Amit Shah announced the BJP’s aim to dislodge the CPI (M) from power. He claimed that the state’s share of central taxes had seen multiplied three-and-a-half times since the BJP government came to power in the centre. The next day, the state’s finance minister Bhanu Lal Saha accused the central government of not releasing funds to the state. Saha said that the state government had demanded Rs 64,215 crore from the Fourteenth Finance Commission, but was allocated only Rs 31,309 crore, which covered only 58 percent of the state’s requirements. He added that the chief minister Manik Sarkar had requested Modi to release Rs 18,000 crore to the state as special grants, which remained unaddressed.

Shah had also accusedthe state government for its failure to implement the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, and assured that BJP would implement it if voted to power. At the time, the state’s government employees were still being paid salaries and pensions as per the Fourth Pay Commission, even though it was revised in 2009. In his budget speech on 20 February 2017, Saha said that the state will not be able to implement the pay commission’s recommendations because the Finance Commision and the union budget did not make “any provision to overcome the financial constraints of the state.” However, one month after Shah’s visit, the state government announced a hike of 19.68 percent for government employees and pensioners.

According to Saha, the BJP government has also discontinued other central assistance programmes, such as the funds given to Special Category States by the erstwhile Planning Commission. Before the union budget of 2015–16, several states, including Tripura, were receiving central funds, with 90 percent of the funds in the nature of grants and ten percent as loans, under one component of the central assistance—the Normal Central Assistance. On the basis of the recommendations of the Fourteenth Finance Commission, this was discontinued in 2015. In April 2015, Sarkar, on behalf of the chief ministers of the seven North East states and Sikkim, submitted a joint request to Modiseeking his intervention to ensure the continuance of the financial assistance. An official statement from the state government claimed that the withdrawal of central funding to Special Category States  caused Tripura a net loss of Rs 1,356 crore, and that the funds under other major schemes were also reduced by Rs 314.72 crore during the 2015–16 fiscal year.

Bibek Debroy, a member of the NITI Aayog, dismissed these claims and stated that the centre was not releasing funds because the state government had not submitted utilisation certificates for central funds amounting to Rs 475 crore. In turn, the state government responded that it had submitted the utilisation certificates for Rs 174 crore and that the rest would be submitted after the completion of various projects. While Deodhar reiterated Debroy’s statement, according to Dhar, “The central government is centralising all powers, including financial powers. They are imposing several conditions.”

Sarkar intended to mention the conflict between the central government and the Tripura government in a speech he was due to give on Independence Day. Though the speech was recorded on 12 August, on the eve of Independence Day, Prasar Bharti—which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio—informed the chief minister that his speech would not be broadcasted unless Sarkar would “reshape the content.” The content of the speech later circulated widely by news publications. It stated that “In contrast to the anti-people policies of the government at the centre, the state government of Tripura despite its limitations has been pursuing policies for the welfare of people.”

With Sarkar currently serving his fourth consecutive term in office, Dhar claimed that the Left still retained its base among the tribal communities. During the last TTAADC elections, held on May 2015, the Left Front, comprising the CPI (M), the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc, won all the 28 seats. Deodhar told me that IPFT and INPT had shown interest in joining the BJP, while their leaders told me that there is no question of alliance with any party until their demands were accepted.

However, the BJP has been making inroads into the state. In early August this year, six Trinamool Congress MLAs from the state jointed the BJP. In November 2016, by-polls in two assembly constituencies had reflected a strong boost in support for the BJP. The party’s vote share in Barjala constituency saw an increase of 24 percent, from 511 votes in the 2013 assembly elections to 12,395 votes, and a ten-percent increase in vote share, from 232 to 2528 votes, in the Kowai constituency. With the Congress having pushed to a weak third position in the state and the TMC almost decimated, Dhar told me that the BJP would be Left’s main competitor in the upcoming assembly elections.

Soon after the TMC members joined, the BJP’s tribal wing Janjati Morcha organised a rallyin Agartala on August 9—the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. On 20 August, the party organised celebrations to mark the 110th birth anniversary of the last tribal ruler of the princely state of Tripura—Bir Bikram Kishore Deb Burman. In September last year, it had announced a decision to build a 184-feet tall statue of the ruler. The BJP’s focus on shaping party’s narrative to appropriate the legacy of the ruler became more apparent when Modi tweeted, “Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarma Manikya Bahadur’s rich contribution towards the development of Tripura can never be forgotten.”

The BJP’s focus on this narrative is indicative of it tapping into the discontent among the tribal communities and using it as a key plank of their election campaign, despite the fact that the BJP government has done very little to curb the steep rise in atrocities against Dalits and minorities across the country in the last three years. As the BJP tries to win over the tribal parties to its side, the political course of the state would depend on how further negotiations between the tribal parties and the centre on the autonomy of tribal areas unfold in the coming days.