Trouble can begin in innocuous ways. And that’s why I read with interest an article in Mint on 7 March about Tripura, electorally wrested in early March from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) by a surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The choice of Biplab Kumar Deb, a Bengali, as chief minister, is to be balanced by the appointment of Jishnu Debbarma, an indigenous Tiprasa, as his deputy. Both are from BJP.
I’m not sure that outreach without real development will work, in particular to placate BJP’s electoral ally, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), and the not-Bengali population of Tripura in general. The point is not so much that, with 35 seats BJP can on its own rule the 60-member house. Or, that there are several indigenous candidates among its roster of winners. Playing fast and loose with tribal politics cost Tripura in the past, and can do so again (See, Elections and Tripura’s fraught identity politics, 22 November 2017).
On account of massive migration driven by Partition and subsequent religious discord in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bengalis flooded Tripura. Bengalis now comprise a little shy of 70% of the population. The remainder are Tiprasa, who comprise the Tripuri—largely the Borok—Reang, Noatia, Halam, besides other tribes.
Mainstream Tripura is mainstream Bengali. Bengalis control politics, administration, trade, political and sociocultural discourse, even the language of office and official communication and education. In reservation-like areas, tribal-administered autonomous councils with short strings to the Bengali-heavy polity run limited functions.
In the late 1970s, an article in India Today magazine estimated that a staggering 90% of land that did not belong to government was owned or controlled by non-tribals. Some land that was deeded to Tripuri communities by their former kings, the Manikyas—a prescient intervention—was given over to settle refugees; and more was encroached upon.
Protest was a given. As early as 1967, an indigenous youths’ organization, Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti, was formed, with the intention of official recognition for Kokborok and autonomous tribal councils as encouraged by the Constitution of India. As importantly, perhaps, there was demand for the restoration of traditional tribal lands that successive non-monarchical governments had either given to non-tribal settlers or kept silent about as these were appropriated. In the early 1970s, an angry but half-hearted effort of Tripuri reclamation took root with the Tripura Sena. It took until 1978 with the formation of the armed group, Tripura National Volunteers, or TNV, for the largely Bengali government to pay attention.
Some observers maintain trouble could have been averted had the incoming Left Front communist government nominated a tribal person as chief minister instead of Nripen Chakraborty, a Bengali. At any rate, the communists did try to make amends. In early 1979, they moved to restore to tribals land grabbed by non-tribals, and moved the Tripura Autonomous District Council Bill in the state assembly.
It had the opposite effect. Several hundred Bengalis, grouped under the radical Amra Bangali, or We are Bengalis, which many felt was a front for another radical Bengali-dominated sect, the secretive Ananda Marga—a prominent Bengali journalist termed it “its own variation of the Ku Klux Klan"—ran riot. By mid-1979, 19 people had died in altercations with Amra Bangali members. Matters escalated when this so-called Bengali KKK barged into the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s regional headquarters in Kolkata to protest what they interpreted as the party and the government it led going up against Bengalis in Tripura. And then violence followed in Tripura: 1,800 people died, mostly Bengalis.
Peace deals brought little beyond adding three seats for indigenous people in the assembly. Indigenous peoples’ enclaves continue to be the most undeveloped in Tripura. The state’s recent push for prosperity with reserves of natural gas, and trade with Bangladesh, largely benefits the majority community. That remains the problem. Tiprasa anger simmers—an anger the BJP and IPFT leveraged as hope. The urgent need is to assuage that anger. Or else.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun and Highway 39. This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, and runs on Thursdays.