On March 20, Patal Kanya Jamatia joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in the presence of Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb. With that, the party she heads, the Tipra People’s Front, effectively merged with the BJP.

As she joined the BJP, Jamatia batted for “greater Thansa [unity]” between tribal and non-tribal populations in the state, and an end to the “communal line of politics” that threatened to divide Tripura. In the interests of “peaceful co-existence”, Jamatia said, she was prepared to give up on aspirations for a separate tribal homeland carved out of Tripura, a long-running demand that had spawned decades of militancy.

Jamatia expressed the hope that there would be a “four-engine BJP government” in Tripura. The party was already in power at the state and central levels. She hoped it would also be in power in the tribal autonomous council in Tripura as well as the village councils.

Jamatia also described Deb as the “first honest Tripura CM”, who had tried to work towards “development for all”.

It was a marked change of direction for Jamatia, who, just a few years ago, had called Deb an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant”. It is also the first time that the BJP in Tripura has absorbed a tribal party into its ranks. It will need to balance tribal demands with the demands of its Bengali Hindu votebank in Tripura.

Twipra vs Tripura

Traditionally, the defining faultline in Tripura politics has divided the tribal community and the state’s non-tribal population, most of whom are Bengalis who settled in the state through several waves of migration. It has kept alive fears among the tribal community that they would be “swamped” by non-tribal populations.

In the 1970s, the tribal demand for Tipraland, a separate ethnic homeland, led to an armed movement for self-determination. The Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Act was passed in 1979, covering areas with predominantly tribal populations. The council was later granted powers under the Sixth Schedule, which provides for decentralised governance in tribal areas of Tripura, Assam, Mizoram and Meghalaya. The tribal council covers about two-thirds of Tripura’s territory.

The creation of the council, however, did not quell the movement for self-determination. While the armed movement has largely died out, several political parties claiming to represent tribal interests in the state continue to demand a separate ethnic homeland.

Ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura had campaigned aggressively for the separate state of Twipraland, consisting of the tribal council areas, and won eight seats that year.

Last year, the Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance, or Tipra Motha, swept the autonomous district council elections. The party seeks to establish a “Greater Tipraland” – that is, a separate state consisting of the council areas and bodies to ensure the rights of tribal communities living outside council areas.

The Tipra Motha was floated by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, scion of the Tripura royal family, after he left the Congress in 2019. It has absorbed other tribal parties in the state and emerged as the main representative of tribal politics, in opposition to the BJP.

Vying for the tribal vote

The tribal vote is important for any party wishing to stay in power in the state. Twenty of the 60 assembly seats are reserved seats for communities defined as indigenous to the region. In 15 other seats, tribal populations can swing electoral results.

The BJP, which won the 2018 assembly elections and formed government for the first time in Tripura, tried to navigate this electoral dynamic by tying up with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. But it has always been an uneasy alliance, given the tribal party’s demand for a separate state and the BJP’s reluctance to accede to it.

On March 22, tribal welfare minister and Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura leader Mevar Kumar Jamatia told the state assembly that unequal development between the hills and the plains was fuelling the demand for a separate state.

The tribal party is said to be toying with the idea of allying or merging with the Tipra Motha. But party spokesperson Mangal Debbarma denied such plans to Scroll.in.

“Since 2009 we have been demanding Tripraland,” he said. “We are working towards achieving it. We will not need the support of Tripra Motha.”

Still, the BJP is looking for new tribal faces and allies.

A veteran journalist in the state told Scroll.in that Jamatia joining the BJP would “certainly give a boost” to the saffron party, given her influence in some pockets of the state. “The BJP has realised that Pradyot is posing a real challenge,” said the journalist.

Gautam Chakma, a political scientist who teaches at Tripura University, told Scroll.in that the success of the Tipra Motha had made the BJP and the Indigenous People’s Front nervous.

“IPFT and CPI(M) [the Communist Party of India (Marxist)], which were once strong in the tribal areas, are also losing their ground slowly,” said Chakma.

“Since Tripura Motha is rising very fast, people are now thinking that the future is bright for [the party] and tribals across classes are supporting it,” he said.

A ‘u-turn’

Notably, Jamatia joined the BJP after the Tipra Motha held a massive rally in Agartala on March 12, demanding a separate state for tribals. Debbarma made a fresh “call for unity” among all the tribal communities to achieve the goal of a “Greater Tipraland”.

Debbarma called Jamatia’s decision to join the BJP a “U-turn”. In the past, Jamatia had opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act – which is one of the BJP’s main promises to the state’s Bengali Hindu population. The CAA fast-tracks Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It had led to tribal parties accusing the BJP of enabling “illegal immigration” into the state.

Jamatia filed a plea in the Supreme Court alleging extensive illegal immigration, and sought the detention, identification and deportation of such migrants.

She had also asked for a National Register of Citizens for Tripura, on the same lines as Assam’s NRC, which apparently set out to sift “genuine” Indians from “illegal immigrants” living in the state. Anyone who could not prove that they or their ancestors had entered Assam before March 1971 – the start of the Bangladesh War, which had triggered a fresh wave of migration from across the border – would be considered an “illegal immigrant” liable to losing citizenship rights.

Jamatia, in her petition, said the cut-off date for Tripura should be July 19, 1948, the date on which India closed its western borders to Pakistan – the eastern border saw a more long-drawn population exchange. After she joined the BJP, Jamatia reiterated her demand for an NRC but was silent on the CAA.

Debbarma pointed out that after she joined the BJP, Patal Kanya reiterated her demand for an NRC but was silent on the CAA. “Which means that they just want to throw people from one particular religion,” said Debbarma. “I want NRC but I also oppose CAA.”

He was referring to the idea that the NRC was aimed at ejecting all “illegal immigrants”, both Hindu and Muslim, while the CAA would ensure Hindu migrants a path to citizenship.

“People are not so foolish and can see through the hypocrisy,” Debbarma said.

He added that unless the demand for “Greater Tipraland” was included as a written precondition, there was no question of the Tipra Motha allying with any other regional or national party before the assembly elections of 2023.

“We are fighting for our [tribal] constitutional rights,” he said. “People will answer in 2023 who has worked for the tribals. They already gave the indication in last year’s ADC [autonomous district council] election.”

The BJP’s balancing act

The BJP had used the Citizenship Amendment Bill to woo the state’s majority Bengali Hindu vote in the assembly elections of 2018 and the general elections of 2019.

But 10 of the BJP members of the legislative assembly – two of whom are ministers – belong to tribal communities. Both members of Parliament from Tripura belong to the BJP. Of them, Rebati Tripura belongs to the state’s main tribal community.

He called Jamatia joining the party a “positive development”, since she had significant support in three constituencies.

“More tribal leaders are joining BJP,” said Rebati Tripura, who is also former head of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribe Morcha in Tripura. “We work hard with our slogan, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ – our party is taking along people belonging to all castes, creeds and religions.”

He criticised Debbarma’s “Greater Tipraland” demand, claiming that the royal scion’s only aim was to gain political mileage before the 2023 assembly elections. “Pradyot is not giving any challenge to the BJP, in fact, he wants to work with the BJP,” said Rebati Tripura. “He is fooling the Tiprasa people in the name of Greater Tipraland.”

According to the BJP parliamentarian, it was difficult to divide tribal and non-tribal areas of the state. “It is not easy to break Tripura into two states,” he said “We know the tiprasa [the main tribal community] are deprived in the health, and education sectors. We have to ensure development by keeping one Tripura.”

Veteran journalist and political commentator Swapan Bhattacharya told Scroll.in that Jamatia joining the BJP would not stop the rise of the Tipra Motha.

“In the 2018 election, IPFT came to power with BJP, but they did not do anything for the tribal people,” said Bhattacharya. “Even though RSS made a strong organisation for their brother party, BJP, they [the BJP-IPFT alliance] ignored the tribal issues after coming into power.”

Debbarma had filled the vacuum and his party would be a deciding factor in the next elections, Bhattacharya felt.