| Lending them a voice
The first time I heard the name of Bejoy Hrangkhawl, chairman of the recently formed Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura, was when Rajiv Gandhi angrily demanded to know from Nripen Chakraborty, then chief minister of Tripura, at a press conference in Agartala airport whether it was not a fact that the chief minister had deliberately left Hrangkhawl’s place of detention unguarded to allow him to escape to his hideout in Bangladesh. It is an irony of history that this same Hrangkhawl is now being berated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as Anti-National No.1.
The cause of their indignation is a speech made by Hrangkhawl to a gathering of human rights NGOs in Geneva last July at which he used the expression, “self-determination”, to describe the goal of his organization. The other irony is that it is none other than nonagenarian Nripen Chakraborty himself who has reacted to the CPI(M) screaming blue murder by saying that if he had been treated as the tribals of Tripura had been treated, he would have said the same thing in Geneva as Hrangkhawl had said.
Hrangkhawl’s remarks attracted virtually no attention in the rest of the country but have, in recent months, become the centrepiece of the ruling CPI(M)’s election campaign as Tripura gears up for the next state assembly polls, scheduled for February 2003. The police have registered a case of treason against Hrangkhawl — somewhat belatedly, only in late September, although the remarks were reported two months earlier. Significantly, the police acted after a CPI(M) flop-show which contrasted starkly with the Congress’s September 8 rally, the most massive rally the Congress has ever organized in Agartala (apart from prime ministers’ meetings).
The police having registered a case, Hrangkhawl thought it prudent to remain outside the state for a while, especially as his wife was in any case in need of medical treatment. But although he has since returned to Tripura, no further action has been taken because the Tripura government does not seem to know whether to throw him into prison as a traitor, or avoid the risk of making a martyr of him on the eve of an election in which he is among its principal opponents.
Certainly, the public outburst of demonstrations immediately after the registration of the case (leading to the shooting down by the police of several innocents) showed that arresting Hrangkhawl would amount to driving the last nail into the CPI(M)’s coffin. For what the ruling party is facing in Tripura is the prospect of certain defeat. Kerala having already slipped out of the CPI(M)’s grip, a follow-up loss in Tripura would reduce the Marxists to what they really are — a regional party of West Bengal. A sad denouement for a party whose pretensions are not only national but also international (remember Leon Trotsky — although Jyotibabu would rather not').
The persecution of Bejoy Hrangkhawl is a blatant instance of the abuse of power. His own party colleagues were so concerned about his speech that they organized a press conference on his return from Geneva to clarify that whatever the construction placed on the speech, the INPT was not secessionist, not terrorist and not anti-national. Not fazed, the CPI(M) launched its resident Praveen Togadia, education minister Anil Sarkar, whose vocabulary on non-Bengalis comes straight out of Goebbels’s thesaurus of epithets for the Jews. In Delhi, the CPI(M) lathered itself into a fit of patriotic fervour. How, they demanded, could an all-India party like the Congress possible ally itself with such a dangerous anti-Indian force'
Hrangkhawl gave the answer himself. At the September 8 rally, he insisted he was an Indian, loyal to the Indian flag and faithful to the Indian Constitution. He stressed that as a citizen of this great country, he was demanding for his people only the rights vouchsafed all Indian citizens under the Constitution of India. He said he believed the Indian Constitution would grant his people the rights and entitlements being denied them by a chauvinistic CPI(M) government in Tripura. He said they were contesting the elections because he and his party believed in peaceful change of government and had forsworn all violence. Instead of accepting with good grace this unambiguous clarification of his position, the CPI(M)’s reaction, typically, was to step up the level of Anil Sarkar’s bluster, calling on all Bengalis to arm themselves to take on the marauding tribals. Anil Sarkar continues as a minister of the CPI(M) government. He has not been publicly reprimanded by his masters for behaving like a Tripurarian Narendra Modi.
Instead, the CPI(M) has started a whispering campaign that the INPT is nothing but the terrorist National Liberation Front of Tripura in mufti. Apart from this being a libellous charge against a grouping of democratic nationalists who face the NLFT terrorists on a daily basis without the security in which CPI(M) ministers wrap themselves, it ignores the CPI(M)’s own links with the All-Tripura Tiger Force. The INPT is no more linked to the NLFT than the CPI(M) is to the All-Tripura People’s Liberation Organization.
Widespread and diversified terrorism in Tripura is the consequence of a total collapse of good governance and, therefore, of law and order. Even moneys meant for the autonomous district councils of the state have been purloined by the state government. The marble in the minister’s house is the butt of local jokes. The spur to terrorism is that the Tripura government unleashes its own brand of state terrorism on tribals who dare oppose the left.
Not till there is a government in Agartala which looks upon the tribal people of Tripura as democratically entitled to differ from the ruling establishment can the process of ending militancy even begin. The Stalinist mindset of the CPI(M) prevents them from doing so. It is only an alliance with the spokespersons of a significant section of tribal opinion, such as the Congress-INPT alliance, which could begin to do so.
The CPI(M) relies primarily on the special police unit, largely comprising communist cadre, who have been issued and trained in the use of lethal weapons, to maintain the peace. The consequence is that there is neither law nor order in the state. Government statistics tell vividly the sorry tale. As reported in the Agartala Sandhya Patrika of August 29, the CPI(M) government has impotently looked on as the crime card has notched up 2,909 murders, 2,514 kidnappings, 2,531 extremist attacks, 2,158 dacoities, 15,704 cases of arson and 75,000 rendered homeless in ethnic rioting. No wonder Tripura prays for change.