On the weekend, a video from Tripura spread rapidly across social media. It showed the inside of a vehicle, a cross on its windscreen and the sound of a siren marking it out as an ambulance. As the camera shakes, men in uniform are seen surrounding it. Sticks are waved about and the sound of blows landing on the vehicle can be heard. Then there are cries of pain and fear.
The video was reportedly taken on January 8, the day the North East Students’ Federation, an umbrella group for student bodies in the region, called for an 11-hour strike to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was passed by the Lok Sabha last week. According to Sunil Debbarma, general secretary of the Twipra Students’ Federation, the ambulance was carrying four protestors injured in alleged police firing earlier that day, along with two other escorts. One of the passengers in the ambulance had recorded the attack on Facebook live.
“They started beating the people inside,” Sunil Debbarma said of the men in uniform who were seen attacking the vehicle. “Police persons attacking an ambulance is pathetic.”
Ajit Singh, superintendent of police of West Tripura district, where the incident happened, voiced doubts about what the footage really showed. “In the video it is not clear that police are attacking the ambulance,” he said. “In the video nobody is seen attacking the ambulance.” He added that he was looking into “what went wrong” and that the guilty would be punished.
A picket gone wrong
The North East Student Organisation’s call for a bandh was supported by various tribal bodies across the region. In Tripura, the protests against the citizenship bill were concentrated in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. Apart from the Tripura Students’ Federation, regional parties such as the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra and other smaller groups were also part of the protests on January 8. A member of the All Tripura Indigenous Students’ Association claimed they gave “moral support” to the picketers.
“We were picketing near the highway at Madhav Bari, about 23 kilometres from Agartala,” Sunil Debbarma said. “Till 2 pm, it was fine. From 1 pm, the administration had been telling us to withdraw, Section 144 had been imposed. I said our programme was till four, our supporters would not listen. From 2.15 pm, they started direct firing, not even in the air.”
Another tribal student activist, who did not wish to be identified, said that around 2 pm, when the crowd started getting “aggressive”, the district administration tried to break up the gathering. But he also backed Debbarma’s claim that the police fired into the crowd.
Singh claimed the police fired in the air in “self-defence” against the crowd gathered near the Madhav Bari tri-junction. “The protestors were violent and throwing petrol bombs,” he said. “One of the policemen said they saw a country-made gun in the crowd. The next day, a country-made gun was found. They were torching shops, we have the videos.”
At least 30 shops were set alight on January 8, apart from bikes and cars. Debbarma claimed most of the damaged property belonged to the picketers themselves. “Why would we set our own bikes and shops on fire?” he asked. Both Debbarma and the other tribal activist alleged the damage was done by BJP activists who had reached the spot. Singh refused to comment on the allegations.
To the hospital
According to the tribal activist, six protestors had bullet injuries while others were injured with knives and other weapons. After the police opened fire, Debbarma said, the crowd scattered and the injured were taken to the Kherengbar Hospital in Khumulwng, the headquarters of the tribal autonomous council. Four were critically injured and referred to a hospital in the state capital of Agartala.
“They were stopped for checking before they could reach the highway,” said Sunil Debbarma. That was when the police started attacking the vehicle, he claimed. The injured protestors were brought back to Kherengbar Hospital, where the district police finally sent personnel to escort them to Agartala.
First information reports have now been filed against five members of the Tripura Students’ Federation, including Debbarma. “I’ve seen in the papers and TV channels, there is an FIR against me,” he said, still unclear about what sections he was charged under. “The picketers did nothing. They will blame us. Now they’ve found a country gun, two days later they will find bombs – this is what happens. If they had not done a Facebook lived of the ambulance, they would not have believed us.”
According to other tribal activists in the area, the videos started circulating on January 8, which prompted the administration to block mobile internet services and text messages for the next couple of days.
The January 8 shooting has triggered a fresh cycle of anger. On January 12, the North East Students’ Organisation observed a “black day” to protest against the shootings. Under pressure, Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb has ordered a magisterial investigation into the events of January 8. But groups like the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra have demanded a judicial investigation headed by a sitting high court judge and Deb’s resignation.
The citizenship bill has plunged the ruling coalition, consisting of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura into fresh trouble. It had been forged largely because of the BJP’s promise to look into the longstanding tribal demand to turn the autonomous council areas into a separate state. While that seems to be put on the backburner, the bill has triggered new anxieties.
It proposes to grant citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh after six years of residence in India, even if they cannot produce the required documents. Tribal groups in the North East, where politics is shaped by the fear of being overrun by migrants from Bangladesh, are up in arms about the proposed legislation.
In Tripura, which has a large number of Bengali residents and where tribal communities are now a minority, accounting for roughly 30% of the population, these anxieties are particularly acute. The demand for a separate tribal state had given rise to a militancy that lasted decades, along with a security crackdown. It was only in 2015 that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was removed from Tripura, after being in force for 18 years.
While the bill continues to roil the state and the region, the shooting on January 8 may have reignited old fears among Tripura’s tribal population. “We cannot trust any armed force,” said the tribal activist who did not want to be named.
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