Elections and Tripura’s fraught identity politics
The killing of journalists usually doesn’t raise interest beyond media and the universe of human rights. But the killing of two journalists in Tripura, one in September and the other on 21 November, takes the development beyond these orbits.
Whatever the provocation for the killings, they ultimately reflect a fiery pit that brings together ethnicity, identity, development and politics in this state at the leading edge of India’s geo-economic play with Bangladesh. Elections to the state assembly are due by early 2018. With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Trinamool Congress and the Congress determined to jostle the Communists, in government since 1993, and the incumbent, four-term chief minister Manik Sarkar, things could get ugly.
There’s a history to it, and a part of it is reflected—without sensationalism—in the fact that the two journalists killed are Bengali, and those indicted for the killings are tribal: one an activist of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), and earlier this week a tribal paramilitary trooper and his superior. There is little love lost between the two communities.
There has been talk for several months that IPFT’s active profile is a proxy move by BJP, which has proved itself adept at hyper-local agitprop. Among other things, IPFT is demanding a separate Twipraland. In the local Kok-Borok language, it’s a conjoining of “tui”, water, and “pra”, near, essentially a call to a time before the deluge of Bengalis driven by partition, subsequent religious violence, and the Bangladesh War in 1971.
The Manikya dynasty ruled Tripura for several hundred years until 1949, when a Treaty of Accession to India took effect. The current titular king, Pradyot Manikya identifies himself as Tiprasa, as the province’s indigenous collective of peoples call themselves. The Tiprasa include Tripuri—largely the Borok—Reang, Noatia, Halam, besides other tribes, and some Meitei, or Manipuri.
Between 1941 and 1951, the percentage of tribal folk in Tripura dropped from a little over 53% to a little over 37%. By 1981 it had dropped below 30%. The census of 2011 showed the tribal population at a little above 30%. Today, Tripura is majority Bengali. They control politics, administration, trade, and discourse. That Kok-Borok is an official language alongside Bengali is mere form: Bengali rules. Land ownership is overwhelmingly skewed to Bengali inhabitants. Encroachment of tribal land is common. Autonomous tribal councils are run on a tight leash from the capital Agartala.
Protests by tribals in Tripura for restoration of their lands and rights under India’s Constitution dates back to 1967, to the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti. A half-baked effort, Tripura Sena, arrived in the early 1970s. It took till 1978 with the formation of the armed group, Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), for the government to pay attention. Large-scale violence soon broke out when the chauvinist group Amra Bangali protested what they perceived as pandering to TNV by the government. 1,800 people died, mostly Bengali. Homes were destroyed by the hundreds.
A peace accord with TNV rebels in 1988 brought scant reward by way of emancipation, proportional or otherwise, for Tripura’s tribals. Other rebel groups took wing. Indeed, the analyst Subir Bhaumik once described the deal as “ridiculous”, because it provided three more seats to tribals in Tripura’s assembly, “and little else”. Armed conflict has since continued in peaks and troughs, easing only in this decade.
As I have written earlier, the lessening of militancy and outright attacks against Bengali settlers has taken a mixture of governance in Tripura; change of geopolitical equations, which in Bangladesh meant the more India-friendly government of Sheikh Hasina for much of this millennium, reducing sanctuary for anti-India rebels against India; and, from what I gathered through insiders, some “surgical strikes” of Tripura’s own construct.
Tripura is today a trade and energy pivot in several ways. Natural gas, discovered in the 1970s, has provided a huge boost to energy availability, even leading some local proponents of dams to urge stalling hydropower. The state has a robust foreign policy thrust, as it were, aimed at Bangladesh—which borders it on three sides—and sees itself as a springboard to Myanmar and South-East Asia. A road and rail link is in progress to connect Tripura to Chittagong port, a little over 70km from Sabroom, the planned Indian border hub in southern Tripura. Bangladeshi businessmen frequently visit Tripura. Bilateral trade across the border near Agartala is already brisk, and increasing.
It’s a Bengali success story in many ways, while those not Bengali watch, and fret, and fume. Meanwhile, politics seeks to marry weakened identity and perceived indignities. These are fraught times.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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