The communal violence in Bangladesh in the wake of Durga Puja has come as a shock to South Asia observers, who had hailed the country as a beacon of economic development. Such identity issues had not flared up in the country over the past two decades. However, the focus on Bangladesh has sidelined anti-Muslim violence that erupted in the Indian state of Tripura as a repercussion for the events across the border.

Over the past week, mosques are reported to have been vandalised in Tripura and the home of a prominent Muslim advocate was attacked.

Religious fault lines in Tripura have been getting sharper due to political dynamics that have been developing in the state since the Bharatiya Janata Party took office in 2018. A new element has been introduced into the equation by the attempts of the Trinamool Congress from neighbouring West Bengal to expand its footprint into Tripura.

The situation, unless handled carefully, could hurt the warm relations between India and Bangladesh.

Who are the Muslims of Tripura?

Until now, Tripura has never figured in the binary of Hindu-Muslim conflict that is present across the region. Tripura’s Muslims, who form 9% of the population, are overwhelmingly Bengali speakers. They have not been in the limelight before because the conflict lines in the state have so far been between the Bengali Hindus and the indigenous tribal people.

At Partition in 1947, which was followed by the accession of the erstwhile princely state of Tripura to the Indian Union two years later, thousands of Bengali Hindu refugees entered the territory. More came with the Bangladeshi Liberation War in 1971. These influxes changed Tripura’s demographics. From being a tribal majority state, it became one predominantly composed of Bengali speakers.

The migration of Bengali speakers to Tripura, however, had started in pre-colonial times. In the Rajmala, the chronicle of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, there are numerous instances of rulers encouraging the Bengali speakers to settle in their kingdom. Bengali Hindus were encouraged to migrate in order to run the administration, while Bengali Muslim cultivators were welcomed so that imperial revenues could be increased by uncultivated land being tilled.

The era of being a protectorate of the British Empire was a time of polarisation of Tripura’s tribals. Taxation and land policies favoured the Bengali-speaking migrants. During this time, the rulers of the Manikya Kingdom also increased the taxes collected from their tribal subjects to fulfil the demands of their British protectors. Many tribal subjects were unable to bear this burden and lost their land rights.

The dominance of Tripura’s administration by Bengali Hindus is reflected in claims by indigenous tribal organisations that Bengali Hindus have taken control of all institutions in their state and are disregarding the rights of the indigenous people.

In this period, religious conflict was not a pronounced element in Tripura. In the years preceding Independence, a Muslim party called the Anjuman-e-Islamia tried to mobilise support for Tripura to be merged with East Pakistan. When Tripura’s princely rulers opted to accede to the Union of India, many Muslims from the kingdom moved to East Pakistan, which would later become the independent nation of Bangladesh.

This emigration led to a sharp fall in Tripura’s Muslim population. This is evident from the census: from 24.09% in 1941, the community’s numbers fell to 6.68% in 1971. Furthermore, as more wealthy and educated Muslims left Tripura, the community’s socio-economic downturn got steeper.

How did Muslim identity in Tripura become politicised?

Under the regime of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which ruled the state for most of post-partition history, the polarisation of tribal identity reached its peak. The areas of the state where tribals live were neglected in terms of development. This is mainly in the eastern regions. where there is a tribal administrative council. The resulting disillusionment led some to turn to militancy as part of a wider cluster of insurgent groups in the North East.

Furthermore, the move in 2013 to rename the Ujjayanta Palace as the Tripura State Museum angered tribals. They saw it a measure to undermine the indigenous Manikya dynasty that once ruled the territory.

As the percentage of Muslims fell to single-digit figures post-Partition, it made them ineffective as a potential constituency for political parties. However, even under the seeming egalitarian policies of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) regime, the socio-economic indicators of Muslims remained dismal. According to a Tripura government survey in 2014, the share of Muslims in government services was 2.69%, which is much lower than their proportion in Tripura’s population.

The same year, data collected from 22 colleges found that the enrolment of Tripura’s Muslims in higher education was very low. Only 1.5% of women students were Muslim, while 3.6% of men students belonged to the community.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s political structure in Tripura, as it was in West Bengal, was dominated by upper-caste Bhadralok Hindus.

It was against this backdrop that the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to make inroads in the state.

In 2016, the disillusionment of tribals led to the formation of a tribal political organisation, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, to demand separate statehood for the community. This culminated in riots between tribals and Bengali Hindus.

In 2018, the BJP came to power in Tripura. One of the primary reasons for the party’s victory is that it secured a large chunk of tribal votes because of its alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front.

Even before the elections, the BJP tried a variety of measures to increase its support within the tribal population. One such step was the decision of the BJP government at the Centre to rename Agartala airport as Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya airport, after the territory’s last Manikya ruler.

At this point, many observers may conclude that the rise of the BJP in Tripura has led to targets being shifted: where once tribals were in the cross hairs, now it is Muslims. While partly true, this reasoning does not reflect the complete picture. The BJP’s rival, the Trinamool Congress, which rules West Bengal, is trying to make inroads in the state. This where the story takes form.

In West Bengal, a major portion of Trinamool Congress’s support comes from the state’s Muslim population. With Tripura’s tribal population overwhelmingly becoming disillusioned with the BJP after the announcement of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which provides a faster track to naturalisation for Bengali Hindus who have entered Tripura after 1971, the Hindutva party is possibly trying to solidify the majority Bengali Hindu votebank in its favour.

The communal violence in Bangladesh comes as a perfect opportunity for the BJP. The first incident in Bangladesh that triggered the countrywide communal violence occurred in Comilla, a district that borders Tripura. Hindutva groups in the state began to organise processions and mobilise people to attack mosques and Muslim-owned shops and homes across the state.

India-Bangladesh relations

Just as Bangladesh is surrounded by India on three sides, the state of Tripura is surrounded by Bangladesh to its north, west and south. During the Bangladesh Liberation War, the state sheltered a large number of refugees – in fact, it had more refugees than its own population. It was also a major training site for Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini freedom fighters.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, while Bangladesh has friction with West Bengal regarding the sharing of water from the Teesta River, Prime Minister Hasina in 2019 signed a memorandum of understanding with Tripura which allowed the Indian state to draw 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni River located in south-eastern Bangladesh.

Tripura also is projected to be a trade hub due to its proximity to the Chittagong port, which Bangladesh has agreed to let it use. In addition, Bangladesh hopes to import electricity from Tripura to fulfil its ever-growing needs as it is now one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.

The relations between Bangladesh and Tripura are so warm that the present Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb claims to have a mother-son connection with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. However, the cancellation last week of a three-day Bangladesh International Film Festival and the anti-Muslim riots for ostensibly avenging the communal violence in Bangladesh point towards a crack in these strong relations.

This should concern the governments in both Agartala and Dhaka.

Rudabeh Shahid is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.