Once again, the demand for a “Twipra land” was heard in the streets of Agartala, as supporters of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura launched a procession on Tuesday. As IPFT activists ran into clashes with shopkeepers and residents, at least 17 people were injured and Section 144 was imposed on the state capital.
The violence took place on a day when a by-poll was held for the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council, where the main contest was between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the IPFT, believed to be backed by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Trinamool Congress.
In Tripura, an old identity politics, which gave rise to a militancy that lasted decades, seems to have been resurrected in new political rivalries.
Land of the Twipra kings
Like so many movements of ethnic self-determination in the North East, Tripuri nationalism traces its roots to legends of an ancient, indigenous kingdom. The origins of Twipra land stretch far back into history and prehistory, though the earliest known records of Tripuri kings date back to the 13th century. During British rule it became the princely state of Hill Tiperra, until 1949, when the last Tripuri king acceded to the Indian Union.
Much like the Bodo and Ahomiya movements of identity, it was fanned by anxieties around demographic change caused by the great migrations of the 20th century. Since the late 19th century, the kings of Tripura had encouraged non-tribal Bengalis to settle in the region and cultivate it. The political turmoil of later decades – from the Partition of 1947 to the Bangladesh war of 1971 – would inject more Bengali settlers into the region. The indigenous population of the state dropped from 52.89% in 1901 to 30.95% in 1991.
In the 1970s, it gave rise to a tribal movement for self-determination, which turned violent under the Tripura National Volunteers, formed in 1978 and backed by Mizo separatists. In response, the government passed the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Act of 1979, which would apply to areas with a predominantly tribal population. A few years later, it granted the council powers under the Sixth Schedule, in order to secure tribal rights.
It did not quell the demand for self-determination, however, and militancy continued. After the Tripura National Volunteers surrendered in 1988 and turned into a political party, the insurgency was led by newly formed groups such as the National Liberation Force of Tripura and the All Tripura Tigers Force.
Even as insurgency raged in the state, visiting violence on non-tribal populations, new parties constructed around the old identity politics came into being. In 1997, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura was formed, reportedly backed by the militant National Liberation Force of Tripura. The central agenda of the IPFT: turn the areas under the autonomous district council, that is, roughly two thirds of Tripura, into a separate state for the Tripuri tribal population.
After 2013, when Telangana was formed, the demand for statehood grew louder, with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura holding demonstrations outside Raj Bhavan in Delhi. Over the last three years, it has also held demonstrations at Agartala. Every year, according to local residents, the rally threatens to teeter into violence. This year, it did.
What’s left of the Left
But Tripura, home to a violent assertion of identity, has also been an old bastion of the Left. The movement of the 1960s and ’70s was supported by the communists, who had a large vote base in tribal areas. The councils of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District have also been dominated by the Left. For years, the state government swung between the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But with the fading of the Congress in the east, the Left has held nearly undisputed sway.
Since 1998, Tripura has been governed by the CPI(M)’s Manik Sarkar, whose party returned to power with large majorities in successive elections. Sarkar’s government scripted what has been called one of the rare success stories of insurgency in the North East.
Years of militancy brought on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants powers and immunities to the army and has long been an object of anger for local populations living under it. But counterinsurgency measures in Tripura were led by a trained and reorganised police force, which was held accountable by the state government. Sarkar’s administration also fought the psychological hold of militancy, devised schemes under which militants could surrender and be absorbed back into the mainstream, tried to ensure that jobs and basic services reached people living in the most remote areas. By 2015, the state was calm enough for AFSPA to be removed.
All through, the Tripura government has been keen to project the “integrity, harmony and unity of the tribal and non-tribal people” and stressed that the Tripuri struggle for autonomy was supported by the “democratic people of the state”. But recent incidents suggest the government may be losing control of that narrative. On August 24, the CPI(M) issued an angry statement which claimed the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura’s violent demonstration was “pre-planned and certain opposition parties sought to exploit the situation”.
A political reset?
The CPI(M)’s wrath may well hide deeper insecurities about the political landscape in Tripura, which is beginning to show the first signs of change. In recent years, a section of the youth in rural areas have been drawn to the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and its call for a separate “Twipra land”. Election results for the autonomous district councils also suggest a creeping erosion of the CPI(M)’s vote base.
It doesn’t help the CPI(M) that the Tripura is now on the radar of other regional and national parties. The BJP, which gained a toehold in the region after it won in Assam and recently set up the North East Democratic Alliance, plans to make inroads by striking up tactical alliances with local parties. The Trinamool Congress has long eyed Tripura as it made a push to expand beyond West Bengal.
Both parties made a bid for power in Tripura during the assembly elections of 2015, but both have a long way to go. For parties with no established support base, it makes eminent sense to make common cause with local political actors and issues.
The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura’s clamour for a new state, then, could hide a subtle political reset in the state of Tripura itself.