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‘Bengali’ party’s tribal backbone: what lies behind Marxist grip over Tripura

Agartala, April 6: Seen as a Bengali party it may be, but the CPM believes its stranglehold on Tripura owes to unflinching support from the indigenous Kokborok speakers.

For all the state’s long history of tribal insurgency, statistics bear out the Marxists’ sway over the indigenous communities that make up 31.5 per cent of the state’s population of 37 lakh (2011 census).

The CPM-led Left Front swept the 2005 and 2010 elections to the autonomous district council (ADC) for tribals whose authority spreads over two-thirds of the state’s 10,491sqkm territory.

In last February’s Assembly elections, the Left captured all the 20 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, one better than 2008 when it had lost a seat to Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) president and former rebel Bijay Kumar Hrangkhawal.

In the last two rural elections of 2006 and 2011, the CPM had captured 90 per cent of the 527 village committees (the ADC counterparts of panchayats).

Indigenous youth Ashok Debbarma, 30, a CPM sympathiser awaiting a government job, attributed the Left’s success to its development projects that he says have benefited all communities.

“The Bengali-tribal conflict belongs to the past. The Left government has given us rights over land and jobs, so we have no reason to blame anybody in racial terms,” Ashok said.

He was speaking in the Mandai market area, where more than 200 Bengalis were massacred on June 8, 1980, as ethnic riots shook the state.

Sukhu Debbarma, an assistant sub-inspector posted in the Council Bhavan of the ADC, echoed him.

“The ADC is ours and we get our dues. We are also benefiting from the central schemes implemented by the state government,” Sukhu said.

The INPT, the CPM’s lone rival in indigenous politics, differs. “The Left has never been able to protect the vital interests of the indigenous people,” party joint general secretary Amiya Debbarma said.

He said the tribals would never have got the ADC and other rights without the movements launched by the now-defunct Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS), the state’s first ethno-centric party that came up in 1967.

But even Amiya accepted that the Marxists had “made a good start” in the 1940s and gained a foothold among the tribals through “the literacy and resistance movement launched by the late Dasarath Deb, who merged his outfits with the communist party”.

Deb’s movements

A group of indigenous youths, led by Deb who later became chief minister (1993-1998), had launched a mass literacy movement under the banner of the Jana Shiksha Samity on December 27, 1945.

Tripura’s indigenous people were then reeling under a double blow: an economic crisis besetting the princely state and the continuing influx from the then East Bengal under royal patronage.

Deb soon transformed the Samity into a political outfit, the Gana Mukti Parishad, and started a resistance programme against misrule. By mid-1948, the Parishad had merged with the undivided CPI, giving fresh impetus to the communist armed struggle in Tripura that coincided with similar movements in Tebhaga (Bengal) and Telangana.

Nripen Chakraborty and other communist leaders arrived by August 1950 to strengthen the communist movement in the state, then based exclusively among the indigenous people.

Since the CPM formed a government in 1978, it has ruled the state for 31 of the 36 years, yielding power to the Congress only between 1988 and 1993. In the nine Lok Sabha polls between 1980 and 2009, it has won both the state’s Lok Sabha seats seven times, losing only the allegedly rigged polls of 1989 and boycotting the 1991 edition.

“The communists fought for our rights through the ’50s and ’60s when the indigenous population was being swamped by refugees from East Pakistan,” said Manoranjan Debbarma, indigenous Marxist MLA from Mandai.

“The fast-changing demography, reflected in the settler population gaining majority, hurt the party. The reason the CPM and the CPI were routed in the 1967 Assembly elections was that they had demanded a district council for the indigenous people based on the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.”

Manoranjan said the Marxists continued championing indigenous rights even after ethnocentric politics emerged in Tripura in 1967.

“The CPM’s struggle against the displacement of 27,000 indigenous people from the Raima Valley to pave the way for the Dumbur hydel project, and its movement demanding restoration of alienated tribal land, helped the party retain its indigenous base.”

But the Marxists’ greatest success lay in mobilising the non-tribal settlers for the movements for indigenous rights, such as the ADC.

Just after coming to power, the Left government faced ethnic riots in 1979 and 1980 because of the sharp polarisation brought about by parties such as the TUJS and Amra Bangali.

Still, the first Left government set up the ADC under the 5th Schedule through elections in January 1982. Within three years, the council had come under the much more powerful 6th Schedule following an August 1984 constitutional amendment by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

“The ADC is now a vibrant body symbolising tribal aspirations in terms of political autonomy, linguistic and cultural safeguards, and land rights,” Manoranjan said. “It is being further empowered, so the indigenous people have reposed their faith in the CPM.”

Asked which community dominated the party’s leadership, he brushed the question away as “irrelevant” because “economic development has been going on at a remarkable pace over the past decade and a half to the benefit of all”.

Asked the same question, CPM central committee member Bijan Dhar said: “Marxists do not believe in ethnicity, race or religion.”

Tripura West votes on April 7 and Tripura East on April 12.