The Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura, a political party that claims to represent the state’s indigenous tribal population and is demanding a separate state of Twipraland for them, lifted its blockade of highways and railway lines on Thursday. The blockade, in support of the statehood demand, had cut off the state from the rest of the country for 11 days.
While the crisis may have been diffused for now, political observers believe the statehood demand could play an important role as Tripura goes to elections early next year. Both the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party – which has emerged as the primary opposition in the state over the last two years – have been in poll mode for several months now, resulting in violent clashes between their cadre. They have traded charges on this subject as well.
The BJP is behind this blockade,” said Bijan Dhar, general secretary of the Tripura unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “They did all this to disturb the law and order of the state and break the unity that exists between Tripura’s tribals and non-tribals.”
Dhar alleged the BJP wanted to create unrest to pave the way for the promulgation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Tripura. Last month, the saffron party had asked the Centre to impose the legislation – which gives security forces overriding powers to arrest, search and even kill – in the state after clashes broke out between its cadre and members of the Left party.
The BJP, however, said the Left government was out to “discredit” it by linking it to the blockade. “The truth is that the Left government completely failed to deal with the situation,” said party spokesperson Mrinal Kanti Deb. “The governor had to step in to resolve the situation.”
‘Separate state out of the question’
Rejecting the statehood demand, Bijan Dhar said the state government is open to discussions with the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura but will not compromise on the integrity of the state. “A separate state is out of the question. We will never support something like that,” he said, adding, “We can discuss about enhancing the administrative and economic powers of the autonomous district council.”
Currently, a Tripura Autonomous District Council administers the tribal areas of the state under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which provides for autonomous decentralised self-governance in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The area of jurisdiction of the council is spread across the eight districts of Tripura, spanning over 7,000 square kilometres.
The Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura wants these areas – which make up almost 70% of Tripura’s total land area – to be turned into a separate state, or Twipraland. Indigenous people account for slightly over 30% of Tripura’s total population.
The BJP’s Mrinal Kanti Deb told Scroll.in that while the party, too, did not support the demand for a separate state, it “recognised the deprivation of the tribals of the state”. He added, “If we come to power, we will convert the district council to a state council and we will ensure that the state council gets direct funding from the Centre.”
The tribal vote
The tribal vote is crucial in Tripura’s electoral politics. A third of the state’s 60-seat legislature is reserved for its large tribal population, which has historically supported the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – which, in turn, has ruled the state since 1993. Experts, thus, believe that an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura makes strategic sense for the BJP. Several youth leaders of the regional party joined the BJP in large numbers last year.
Deb, however, said the BJP’s plan for the 2018 Assembly elections is to “fight the battle by ourselves”. He added, “The IPFT [Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura] is not currently a member of the NEDA [North East Democratic Alliance], so we will see and decide after the elections.” The North East Democratic Alliance is an anti-Congress political block formed by the BJP with various regional parties in the North East.
The BJP’s offer of a state council, were it to come to power, has not impressed the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura, though. Dismissing it as “bogus propaganda”, the party’s president, NC Debbarma, said, “There is no constitutional provision for anything called a state council. Either it is a full-fledged state or not.”
Debbarma also said that an alliance with the BJP “depended on their attitude”. He added, “If they accept our demand, then we will think. Otherwise, there will be no alliance.”
Trinamool boost to BJP
Even as an alliance between the Indigenous People’s Forum of Tripura and the BJP remains uncertain, the saffron party is set to receive a big boost with all six of the state’s Trinamool Congress MLAs expected to join its ranks next month. Sudip Roy Barman, one of the six legislators, said they were disillusioned with the party leadership’s decision to support the same candidate as the Left in the presidential election held on Monday. “We joined the party to oppose the Left,” he said. “But it seems the party is more opposed to the BJP now. Our motive is to defeat the communists and we will continue with that.”
A leader of the BJP’s Tripura unit confirmed the developments regarding the six Trinamool Congress MLAs. “They will go to Delhi to meet our party president Amit Shah,” he told Scroll.in. “After that, in the first week of August, we will have a grand show of strength where the six leaders, along with their workers, will join the BJP.”