Bengalis of Tripura came as refugees from East Pakistan after communal violence there
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) continues to prove its incendiary potential for politics and ethnic unrest alike in North-east India.
Assam led the way when, on 31 August it released a list which could make 1.9 million people stateless. A large number are Hindus, which is proving to be tricky for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government as well as the central government.
It’s also a point of concern for the party’s moral redoubt, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Media reported RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat as saying at a meeting in Kolkata on 22 September that Hindus in Assam caught in the NRC net won’t be expelled from Assam. This chimes with both BJP and RSS stands on the proposal to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which would allow non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan the opportunity for naturalization by reducing residency requirements. It’s a knot of the government’s making.
Cut to Tripura, where the matter has received focus in an unexpected manner. Earlier this week, the Congress chief for Tripura, Pradyot Manikya, resigned his post citing differences with his party over NRC. Manikya wanted to pursue a suit at the Supreme Court urging NRC in Tripura. His party, in unsurprising consonance with the ruling BJP’s stand in the state, had urged him to not. The reason: vote-bank.
That’s the issue. To NRC or not-to-NRC, as it were, could backfire in Tripura in ways that could make Assam’s exercise look like a campfire. The largely Bengali population of Tripura, more Hindu than Muslim, are essentially not from Tripura. While many are settlers for a generation or more, some are more recent arrivals.
Tripura was not long ago a kingdom. The Manikya kings ruled in a nearly unbroken line from the 15th century—the 13th century, if you consider the semi-mythical Ratna Fa—until 1949. The current titular king, Pradyot, once told me he identifies himself as Tiprasa, as the province’s indigenous collective of peoples call themselves. Tiprasa as an identity is more inclusive than Borok, insisted Pradyot, because it includes people beyond the Tripuri tribes who have immigrated over the past several centuries. It’s an important nuance because this identity is distinct from Tripura’s overwhelming Bengali identity.
In 1949, the queen regent, Kanchan Prava Devi, Pradyot’s grandmother, signed a treaty of accession to India. For all practical purposes it stopped being Twipra, the land by the water, jettisoned the British-colonial Hill Tipperah, and emerged fully as the Sanskritized Tripura, to which the original conjoining of “tui" (water) and “pra" (near) in the Kokborok language was as different as earth and sky.
Tripura went from being majority indigenous Borok people—mainly Tripuri, Reang, Noatia, Halam, besides other tribes—and some Meitei (Manipuri) to being majority Bengali. Between 1941 and 1951, years of the decadal census, 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 hovering above 30%.
Bengalis arrived as refugees from East Pakistan as a result of communal violence even in the years after 1946 and 1947, and wars with India, in waves of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and, sometimes, hundreds of thousands.
In 1952, close to a quarter of a million refugees poured in, dwarfing even the near-200,000 of a year earlier. Pakistan’s conflict with India over 1964–1965 drew more than a hundred thousand. Pakistan’s butchery in soon-to-be Bangladesh in 1971 opened the floodgates. Tripura’s population of about 1.5 million at the time—already majority Bengali—swelled by a third, according to a US State Department memo to President Richard Nixon. Dainik Sangbad, a daily newspaper in Agartala, in mid-1971, estimated refugees at nearly 1.3 million. Nearly all were Bengalis.
Tripura took them all in, during what is called the Regency Period, when Kanchan Prava Devi ran affairs on behalf of her minor son—Pradyot’s father Bir Bikram—a period that lasted from 1947 to Tripura’s formal accession to India in 1949; and after.
Pradyot’s stand on NRC highlights this ethnic churn of Tripura’s past and present. The BJP’s ally in Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), has also demanded NRC. Pandora’s box is wide open.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.
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