Less than a month after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took office in Tripura, it is beset with rumblings of discontent. On March 30, the youth wing of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, a member of the ruling coalition, held a sit-in and a hunger strike to protest against the apparent lack of progress on their demand for a separate state for Tripura’s indigenous tribal population.

Several other tribal organisations, which supported the BJP in the Assembly election held in February, joined the demonstration held in Khumulwng, the headquarters of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. “They made a commitment before the election to form a committee to look into the demand,” said Sukla Charan Noatia, general secretary of the front’s youth wing. “They should keep their commitment. We organised the movement to raise our voices to remind them to keep their word. They should at least give a time frame as to when the committee will be formed.”

Promise to keep

In January, Home Minister Rajnath Singh was reported to have promised NC Debbarma, chief of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, that the central government would form a high-level committee to examine the party’s demand for carving out the proposed state of Twipraland out of Tripura’s tribal areas.

These areas – stretching over 7,000 sq km across all eight districts of Tripura and accounting for almost 70% of its territory – are currently administered by the Tripura Autonomous District Council under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which provides for decentralised self-governance in certain tribal regions of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura.

Days after that meeting in Delhi, the BJP and Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura formed a pre-poll alliance. It was a partnership the BJP had been wanting to stitch for a while. For an obvious reason: a third of Tripura’ 60 Assembly seats are reserved for tribals, who make up a little over 30% of its population. In the election, the tribal party won eight of the nine seats it contested and, with a vote share of 7.5%, bolstered the BJP elsewhere.

But the BJP had sidestepped the tribal party’s statehood demand during the election campaign. It has now come back to haunt the saffron party, with youth leaders of its allies in particular starting to grow impatient.

Impending crisis?

Pitor Debbarma, vice president of the All Tripura Indigenous Student Association, a “brother organisation” of the Indigenous People’s Front which participated in Friday’s protests, warned of “consequences” if their demand was not met soon. “If a committee is not formed soon, all our allied organisations will rise in revolt and organise mass strikes,” he said. “There will be a mass movement again.”

In 2017, to press their demand for Twipraland, hundreds of tribal people had blocked a national highway on the outskirts of the capital Agartala as well as Tripura’s only railway track, paralysing the state.

“Our main aim and only ideology is Twipraland,” said Debbbarma. “For that if our leaders have to resign from the cabinet, they will do so.”

Noatia, who is also the organisational secretary of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, however said there were no immediate plans to involve the party’s legislators in the agitation and that there was no rift in the coalition government. “It was an organisational activity,” he said. It doesn’t mean that there is any problem with the BJP.”

Mrinal Kanti Deb, the BJP’s state spokesperson, echoed Naotia. “There is no anger against the state government,” he claimed. “As I see it, it was a gentle reminder to the Centre to form the committee.”

Another BJP leader too played down the protests, saying the leadership of the tribal party was not involved in them. “The senior leaders wanted power, they have got it,” said the leader who didn’t want to be named. “Even they know it is an unreasonable demand.”

He remarked that the demand for statehood was like the “Ram Mandir issue”, referring to the dispute over a piece of land in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where the Babri Masjid stood before it was destroyed by Hinduvta groups in 1992, ostensibly to build a temple to Ram in its place. “Everyone knows it is not an easy demand, but you can’t say it publicly because it will demoralise the party,” the BJP leader said, referring to the demand for Ram temple. “Similarly, IPFT has to keep talking about the statehood issue to keep the moral of its cadres high.”

Debbarma, on his part, said he was “persuading the ministry of home affairs to expedite the process”.