Ask anyone in poll-bound Tripura to list the major issues in the upcoming Assembly elections on February 18 and, more often than not, they will say “ten-three-two-three”. It refers to a Supreme Court order last March, which cancelled the appointment of 10,323 government school teachers in the state.

This is no small number in a state where few industries exist and the government is the biggest employer. Not surprisingly, employment is a major election issue. In a population of around 38 lakh, over six lakh people are registered as unemployed – one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The loss of teaching jobs, however, offered the Bharatiya Janata Party an opportunity in Tripura, where it has emerged as the main opposition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government that has ruled the state since 1993.

Reaching out to affected teachers, it holds out the promise of a “one-time relaxation” of the norms that govern appointments, which would save their jobs.

The BJP’s promise

The Tripura government made the 10,323 teachers’ appointments in December 2013. The jobs were given on the basis of what was referred to as “merit” and “need” through an open-interview process. No written tests were conducted.

Last March, the apex court ruled that the government did not follow appropriate recruitment rules while making these appointments.

More than one lakh people had reportedly applied for these jobs. After the appointments were made, rejected candidates moved the High Court, alleging that the government had violated provisions of the Right to Education Act and not followed the guidelines framed by the National Council for Teachers’ Education for the recruitment of teachers while selecting the candidates.

The Tripura High Court ruled in favour of the petitioners. The state government then approached the Supreme Court, which upheld the High Court order.

Now as the state goes to polls, the BJP holds out the hope that the Centre will step in to save the teachers’ jobs. In a meeting in Delhi on January 5, Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar is believed to have assured a delegation of teachers from Tripura that the Centre would try to help the affected tutors by introducing an amendment in the Right to Education Act, 2009.

“We have convinced the HRD ministry to give Tripura a one-time relaxation,” said Sudip Roy Barman, a legislator from the state who recently moved to the BJP from the Trinamool Congress, and was present during the meeting. “At our request, the ministry has approached the law ministry, so we are sure the jobs will be saved. And remember, we are not saying that we will do it only if we come to power. The Centre will give the relaxation whether the BJP or the Left comes to power.”

Sudip Roy Barman

Left’s damage control

The communist party has been in damage control mode since the Supreme Court order. In May, it announced the recruitment of 12,000 “non-teaching staff” in the education department, ostensibly to accommodate the 10,323 teachers likely to lose their jobs after a court-sanctioned extension period ends on June 31.

However, a contempt petition filed by an unemployed youth against the state government has held up this process. The appointments are now pending until the Supreme Court passes its final judgment on the petition. The next hearing for the case is scheduled for July 2.

The CPI(M), however, insists that the court order will not affect its fortunes in the election. “We are a pro-poor government,” said the party’s Tripura state general secretary, Bijan Dhar. “The government appointed these teachers according to a state government policy that was formulated when the first Left government had come to power in Tripura in 1978. This policy was meant to help backward sections of the society. The court has also not said that there was any corruption. We had to fill the vacancies.”

Tripura, which boasts of the highest literacy rate of all Indian states, also has one of the highest concentrations of government schools in the country. It has 6,556 primary and senior basic schools and over 4,000 high and higher secondary schools. Every sub-division has at least one English-medium school, and there are plans to set up an English-medium school in each block. In recent years, however, the state has battled a major crisis of vacancies in school.

Dhar also accused the Opposition of instigating the rejected candidates to file the petitions. “Everyone knows that the person behind the original petition is Sudip Roy Barman, who was with the Congress then and now with the BJP,” he said.

Barman said that he had only extended “legal aid” to the petitioners. “They are victims of the Left government’s policies,” he said. “They were all originally Left workers. But I helped them in spite of that.”

A division in the ranks

The teachers appear to be divided into two distinct camps – one supporting the Left party and the other, the BJP – with each group claiming to represent the majority.

The pro-BJP All Tripura 10,323 Victimised Teachers’ Association claims to be backed by 7,000 of the affected teachers. It claims to support the BJP because of the Left’s indifference. “We did not support anyone for the longest time, but we realised we had been made victims of a political conspiracy,” said Aurobindo Sarma, who heads the association. “The CPI(M) has completely deserted us, they are not even mentioning us in their rallies.” Sarma claimed the state leaders of BJP, on the other hand, “showed us the way to approach the HRD ministry”.

According to him, this would translate to more votes for the BJP. “We have been assured that they will help us,” he said. “So, we will also have to show our gratitude to them. We have told our students’ parents that they should all vote for the BJP too. It is about the future of their assets, their children. If our jobs go, who will teach them? We have told them, ‘Think about your children, do you want to protect the system or change it?’”

The Left-affiliated Tripura Government Teachers’ Association played down the size of the BJP faction. “They have no more than 50 people,” contended Bhaskar Deb, a member of the group, and a teacher who is likely to lose his job due to the apex court order. “Ask them to do a show of strength, it will be all clear. As of now, all the candidates and their families will vote for the CPI(M).”

Deb insisted that the “state government is doing all that it could do to save our jobs”, adding that the affected teachers had little faith in the BJP’s promises. He said: “It was Sudip-da [Roy Barman] who brought this upon us. He did all that could be done to cancel our appointments. How can we trust the BJP now?”

(Photo courtesy: Bhaskar Deb).