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Fight for ballots where bullets ruled

Takarjala-Golaghati (West Tripura), Jan. 29: This stretch of hilly undulating land around 35km south-southeast of Agartala — an arch in geographical terms — was once a forbidden area for a majority of non-indigenous people of the state.

Most of these people were rehabilitated in Eastern Golaghati, Takarjala and Jampuijala by the government in the mid-fifties. They survived the ethnic cleansing by Tripura National Volunteers between 1978 and 1988 but fell prey to the cleansing carried out by the All Tripura Tiger Force and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in the nineties. Nearly 1.5 lakh settlers had to flee.

Things have since cooled down, with insurgency on the decline, and realisation dawning on the indigenous people about the futility of it all but a visitor can sense the fear that still prevails in Eastern Golaghati, a part of the Golaghati (Scheduled Tribe) Assembly constituency.

Tattered roadside posters and festoons proclaim the names of the contenders — Manav Debbarma, 32, of the regional Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and Keshav Debbarma, 38, of CPM, who had won the seat in 2008. Small groups, huddled by the roadside and near markets, seemed absorbed in pre-poll calculations. “Our candidate Manav is likely to turn the tables on Keshav this time. He is young and hard working but his problem is that he has little time to cover the entire constituency,” said Suresh Shil at Baidyadighi market.

Despite the ethnic divide, Congress and INPT workers are campaigning together to defeat the CPM. “You take it from me, Keshav is all set to retain the seat. His rival does not even know the topography of the constituency,” said local CPM leader, Chandralal Das. The candidate, busy campaigning, could not be reached for his reaction.

As the jeep moved ahead towards Takarjala, the road became quieter. Inquisitive faces of indigenous children and their mothers peeped through windows of elevated traditional bamboo huts in the jungles, not far from the road.

Takarjala, around 8km from Golaghati, is a half-an-hour ride by jeep from Agartala. But this once-bustling market and nerve centre of Marxist political activity, now wears a deserted look even in the mid-afternoon.

In a small ground close to the market, veteran CPM leader and candidate Niranjan Debbarma was crying hoarse over the inadvisability of voting for his young INPT rival Rajeshwar Debbarma, whose flags, festoons and motor cycle-borne workers dominated the town and the 2km stretch of road to the bustling Jampui-Jala market, the headquarters of the new subdivision.

“This time the battle is tough and Niranjan cannot get through easily though they are trying to gain advantage through distribution of land under the Forest Rights Act. The amount of corruption and nepotism that have gone into it will spell their doom,” said Biswaroop Debbarma, president of INPT.

The CPM is, however, confident of retaining the Takarjala seat “on the strength of our work”. “This has been one of our base areas since the forties and the INPT, which is known as the mask of NLFT, can never hope to win this seat,” said Ramendra Debbarma, autonomous district council member and local CPM strongman.

Rajeshwar was addressing a meeting at Belbari near Champak Nagar, 10km northeast of Takarjala. He sounded confident of victory over phone.

On the journey back from the once-forbidden land, one saw telltale signs of destruction wrought by misuse of the Forest Rights Act. The indigenous beneficiaries who received allotment allowed unscrupulous timber-merchants to cut down trees for a price, defying restrictions, and paving the way for the land’s conversion into rubber plantations on lease by non-indigenous business sharks from Agartala.