On Sunday, at a rally in Kumarghat in Tripura’s Unakoti district, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah tore into Manik Sarkar, chief minister of the state for four consecutive terms. Shah accused Sarkar and the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) of corruption and malpractices, of not using funds released by the Centre. The Left party has ruled the northeastern state since 1993.

According to a journalist with an English daily in the state who attended the rally, at least 50,000 people had turned up for it, a sizeable number for a political gathering in Tripura.

Tripura goes to elections early next year and Shah has already marked it out as the BJP’s next target. His rally in Tripura seemed to be the unofficial launch of the party’s campaign in the northeastern state.

The challenger

At present, the BJP does not have any representatives in the state legislature, which is dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that has 51 of the Assembly’s 60 seats. However, in the last two years, the BJP – with mounting voteshares in Assembly bye-elections and Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council polls – has slowly muscled its way past the Trinamool Congress to occupy the prime Opposition space to the ruling Left.

The rise of the BJP in Tripura has been marked by another phenomenon: violent clashes between its workers and Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadres. The week leading up to Shah’s visit was particularly troubled, reports suggest, with 30 party workers injured in two days of clashes across the state.

Both the Left and the BJP now trade charges about who instigated the violence.

BJP: ‘They are scared of us’

According to Biplab Deb, president of the BJP’s Tripura unit, in the week preceding Shah’s visit, a number of its workers came under attack from Left cadres. “The communists have a tendency of turning violent when their supremacy is threatened,” he said. “It happened in Bengal, it happened in Kerala and now it is happening here. What that means is they are scared of us. And Amit Shah bhai’s rally has rattled them.”

Deb said the latest cycle of violence began when a youth leader of the party, Sushanta Chandra Bhowmick, was attacked by workers of the Students’ Federation of India, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on May 2. “The SFI secretary, Nabarun Deb, intimidated Sushanta and beat him up,” said Deb.

He also insisted that there were many other incidents following the alleged assault of Bhowmick. He said Left cadres had hurled a crude bomb into the house of Papiya Datta, the secretary of the party’s state unit, on the same day. “Luckily the bomb got entangled in a tree next to the house, or else the results would have catastrophic,” said Deb.

He listed other attacks on BJP workers that allegedly took place last week in at least 14 different places across the state. In Kamalpur, a BJP worker called Champalal Baul was reported to have been grievously injured after being assaulted by the Left cadre, he claimed. “At least 15 of our workers are currently in hospital receiving treatment after being thrashed by CPI(M) workers,” he said.

According to Deb, the party’s workers were also attacked on Sunday at Panisagar, as they were returning from Shah’s rally. “On Monday too, two of our workers were beaten up by Left goons in Agartala,” he said.

The BJP has also accused Chief Minister Sarkar of delivering an inflammatory May Day speech, instigating party cadres to resist the saffron party by hook or by crook. “If the chief minister is hell-bent on violence, we know how to respond,” Deb told this reporter. “Our workers have resisted so far, but they won’t for too long.”

CPI(M): ‘They are trying to create civil unrest’

File photo of supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura's capital Agartala. (Photo credit: Arindam Dey/AFP).

Nabarun Deb of the Students’ Federation of India denied charges that he beat up Bhowmick, the BJP youth leader. Nabarun Deb claimed that Bhowmick was manhandling one of his acquaintances and that he had only intervened in his personal capacity.

“There was just a small verbal argument,” he said. According to the Left leader, after the altercation, BJP workers barged into his home and threw petrol bombs. “My elderly mother was alone in the house,” said Nabarun Deb. “When I got the news, I rushed to my house, where I beaten with rods by goons waiting for me.”

Bijan Dhar, general secretary of the Communist Part of India (Marxist)’s Tripura unit, also refuted allegations of violence. “The BJP is trying to create a situation of civil unrest to destabilise the government,” said Dhar. “They have been instigating our party workers who have so far exercised full restraint. They have also falsely accused the chief minister of promoting violence.”

Dhar accused the BJP of bringing in people from neighbouring Assam’s Cachar district for Shah’s rally. “At least 5,000 people in the rally were from Assam,” he said, refuting the BJP’s claim that the rally was a spectacular show of the party’s strength in Tripura. “In the past, we have mobilised more than one lakh people for Manik Sarkar’s rallies.” The BJP was luring people with false promises, Dhar claimed.

Trinamool: ‘We don’t have that kind of support’

Meanwhile, the Trinamool Congress, the primary opposition in the state with six seats in the Assembly, seems to be ceding its space to the Bharatiya Janata Party without much of a fight.

Speaking to this reporter, party leader Sudip Roy Barman said there was “not an iota of doubt” that the BJP had emerged as the second-largest party in Tripura, behind the Left and ahead of the Trinamool Congress. “Every little thing is taken care of by the party’s high command in Delhi,” he said. “We just don’t have that kind of support.”

Barman said that chances of an alliance with the Congress, which has three seats in the Assembly, were bleak, given “national calculations”. “It is unlikely that the [Congress] party high-command would go against the Left at this stage,” said Barman.

The Congress recently extended its support to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury for a third tenure in the Rajya Sabha.