Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | ‘Bangalistan’ may take Tripura back to its bloody past
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Opinion | ‘Bangalistan’ may take Tripura back to its bloody past

The state’s recent push for prosperity largely benefits the majority community

Bangalistan. In Tripura, that word underscores the joint impact of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or CAA, and a history of mass migration and bloodshed. Earlier this week, a radical fringe group of Bengalis in Tripura, Amra Bangali, or We are Bengali, reiterated an old demand for a territory for Bengalis but with a new twist. A guarantee that no Bengali in Tripura will be disenfranchised or displaced on account of NRC, a safety net under CAA, compensation for Bengalis displaced by past insurgencies, and land.

Such a demand, especially one of territory, can trigger violence of a sort that Tripura, indeed much of North-East India, thought it left behind several decades ago.

On account of migration driven by Partition and subsequent religious discord in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) from 1950 onwards, Bengalis flooded Tripura. Bengalis now comprise a little shy of 70% of the population. The remainder are Tripuri—largely the Borok—Reang, Noatia, Halam, and other tribes. These ethnic groups have been agitating against CAA in particular, as the Act seeks to legitimize any non-Muslim Bengali who has arrived from Bangladesh.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has listed for hearing an anti-CAA petition filed by Pradyot Manikya, the current titular king, and a Tripuri. Pradyot quit as the state’s Congress chief in September 2019 citing differences with the party’s stand over NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Tripura, which mirrors that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on account of vote-bank politics. Even the ruling BJP’s electoral ally in the state, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), is ranged against the BJP on this score.

There’s reason for this anti-Bengali angst. Bengalis control politics, administration, trade, discourse, even official communication and education. Tribal-administered autonomous councils are leashed by the political leadership in state capital Agartala.

Land lies at the heart of the issue. In the late 1970s, a media investigation discovered that 90% of land that did not belong to the government was owned or controlled by non-tribals. Even some land deeded to Tripuri communities by the Manikyas was given to settle refugees. More was encroached upon.

In 1967, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti demanded official recognition for the Kokborok language and autonomous tribal councils. There was a demand to restore tribal lands. It took until 1978 with the formation of the armed group, Tripura National Volunteers, or TNV, for the government to wake up. The newly-elected Left Front government of the time tried 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 assembly. It had the opposite effect. Several hundred Bengalis grouped under Amra Bangali initiated violence. By mid-1979, 19 people had died in altercations with Amra Bangali. Violence escalated: 1,800 people, mostly Bengalis, died.

Even after peace deals, indigenous peoples’ enclaves continue to be the most undeveloped. The state’s recent push for prosperity with reserves of natural gas, and trade with Bangladesh, largely benefits the majority community. Tripuri anger remains, an anger the BJP and IPFT leveraged as hope during elections in early 2018.

And to think that at one time, Bengalis were welcome. Tripura’s royals, who ruled till 1949 when they signed a treaty of accession to India, didn’t prevent Partition refugees from entering Tripura. Tripura’s kings encouraged Bengali administrators and teachers, even cultivators. The Rajmala, a chronicle of the kings of Tripura, begun in the mid-fifteenth century during the rule of Dharma Manikya I, was commissioned to be written in Bengali.

Rabindranath Tagore was a beloved guest of the Manikyas, beginning with Bir Chandra Manikya. There is a story that the king was desolate after the death of his queen, Bhanumati, in 1881, and found solace in the young Tagore’s poem Bhogno Hridoy—A Broken Heart. He sent word of appreciation to Tagore in Kolkata and offered to print his works on hearing that the poet was being dismissed by Bengali littérateurs. His successor, Radhakishore Manikya, invited Tagore to Tripura. Two successive kings, Birendra Kishore Manikya and Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya, continued the relationship. The treasury helped Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s dream university take shape. Tagore gushed, as later-day Tripura government sources proclaimed: “When the woodlands of Tripura have sent out invitations to their floral feast through their courier of the south wind, I have come as a friend."

That’s finished.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.

Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns at livemint.com/rootcause

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