On December 11, as Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, Mantrilal Kaipeng, a tribal farmer in Tripura, joined a group of protesters from Debthang village in Teliamura.

The Act provides a fast track to India citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistation. Tripura’s tribal population, who fear the accommodation of migrants would marginalise them further, broke into protest.

For Kaipeng, the day ended in tragedy. Three Boleros were ferrying the group to the protests. According to media reports, the 65-year-old farmer died in an accident, falling out of the vehicle when the driver swerved hastily to avoid villagers who were trying to stop them.

But a complaint filed the same day at the Teliamura police station tells a different story. When the cars reached the market of Tuichindrai, a large village in Teliamura, the complaint says, “a group of Bengali local miscreants attacked upon the passenger of the vehicle by deadly weapon like iron rod, wooden weapon, Dao etc”. The vehicle was smashed and Kaipeng “brutally beaten up”. He died of his injuries at GB Hospital in Agartala.

The first information report, registered the next day, charges a “group of Bengali miscreants” with rioting with a deadly weapon voluntarily causing hurt, culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and wrongful confinement, among other things.

‘Rained lathis down’

Lalungtham Kaipeng, Mantrilal Kaipeng’s son-in-law, was in one of the Boleros. “A mob of 30-40 people had blocked the road and told us to stop,” he said. “Once we did, they started throwing bricks at the vehicles. We started moving back but they dragged my father-in-law out and rained lathis down on him. Soon, they were joined by more people who must have thrashed him for 20 minutes.”

Mangal Kumar Rangkhal, another protestor at the spot, said the rest of them were too scared to intervene. “They had all these weapons,” he said. “We had nothing on us.”

Daniel Hrangkhawal, who was driving the vehicle and filed the police complaint, said he did not wait long enough to see what had happened to Kaipeng. “Once they started hitting the vehicle with stones and lathis, I turned back and sped away,” he said.

Renei Parongkhawl, who runs a sweet shop in Debthang, said she found Kaipeng in the village bazaar around 1pm on December 11 and was the last person to speak to him while he was still conscious. “He couldn’t speak much but he said he ran away after the Bengalis beat him up,” she said. “I noticed there were bruises all over his legs and his bones seemed broken inside”.

Photographs of Mantrilal Kaipeng’s body show contusions on his head, arms, feet and upper body.

Daniel Hrangkhawal, who drove the car that was attacked.

An information blackout

The story of Kaipeng’s death was slow to travel out because of the information blackout imposed on the state. Along with mobile and broadband internet, SMS services were also stopped in Tripura for 48 hours on December 11.

While the police admitted to protests in parts of the state, they denied any deaths caused by violence. When Scroll.in called a senior police official to ask about the Teliamura death, he claimed it was a road accident.

But journalists from the tribal community also claim news dealing with tribal rights is routinely suppressed. “If we ever raise any issue related to indigenous rights, it is seen as fomenting communal sentiments and blacked out,” said Kamal Koloi, founder of Koktripura TV, the first local channel in Kokborok, the Tripuri tribal language.

Political evasions

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the state government, has played down the violence. Even as protests broke out, Chief Minister Biplab Deb said all was calm in Tripura.

Kalyani Roy, the BJP legislator from Teliamura, maintained that Kaipeng was not lynched. “When the vehicle was restrained by the protestors, he tried to get out of the vehicle and fell down, as a result of which he sustained some injuries,” she said. “He was taken to another hospital before he was taken to GB hospital. A lot of time was wasted in this.”

On December 17, a “peace meeting” was organised by the local administration at the Assam Rifles ground in Teliamura. Roy claimed it was to mend bridges between tribal and non-tribal residents, mostly Bengalis.

Kaipeng’s son, a government employee, said he spoke at the meeting. “I clarified to the ADM [additional district magistrate], the MLA, the SDM and the police who were present there that this was not an accident,” he said. “The MLA agreed that this had been wrongly reported.”

While Bhaskar Bhattacharya, the Teliamura sub-divisional magistrate, affirmed Kaipeng’s son raised the matter at the meeting, Roy denied it. Bhattacharya said the family had received Rs 5 lakh as an ex gratia payment. But they are yet to receive a copy of the death certificate and postmortem report.

Ansuthei Kaipend holds her husband's picture as the local press flood their home.

Even the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, which claims to represent tribal interests and is an ally of the BJP in the state government, was cautious. Party member Mewar Kumar Jamatiya, who is also state tribal affairs minister, said he would not be able to comment until the police inquiry was completed. “We are definitely pushing for the inquiry report to come out soon,” he said.

Opposition parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which ruled the state for decades, did not raise the issue, either. One senior party leader, who did not want to be named, tried to dissuade this reporter from doing the story. “If any incident happened here, we should move on from it,” he said.

But Tripura’s royal scion, Kirit Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman, who recently quit the Congress, has been vocal on the matter, visiting the family on December 25.

“As a bubagra [head of the Manikya dynasty], not as a politician, I promise to do something about this,” he told Ansuthei Kaipeng, Mantrilal Kaipeng’s wife. “We will get hold of the postmortem report and bring the culprits to justice.”