In the electoral battle between the Left and the Right in Tripura, the key to power lies with an ethnocentric party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which is contesting the elections in alliance with the BJP. Since July 2017, the party has been accused by the ruling CPM of fomenting ethnic tensions between the tribal and Bengali sections of the state. Be it a blockade of the state’s only road and rail route to the rest of India to press for their demand for a separate state, or sectarian ethnic killings like that of journalist Shantanu Bhowmik, the party has been the butt of blame by the CPM.
While it is contesting just nine of the 20 Assembly seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, its sway over tribal sections, especially the youth, runs across the state. No wonder the BJP gave a cold shoulder to other tribal-based parties like Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT), National Conference of Tripura (NCT) etc. who were willing to be part of an anti-CPM alliance.
In poll battle between the Left and the Right, the key to power in Tripura lies with Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, which is contesting elections with BJP.
In the context of the ethno-centric politics of Tripura, IPFT is new wine in an old bottle. The ethnic tensions started with the influx of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh since 1947 and acquired a political dimension in 1967 with the formation of a tribal political outfit, the Tribal Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), with a four-point charter of demands: restoration of tribal lands transferred to non-tribals since 1960; creation of an Autonomous District Council for tribals under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution; reservation of government jobs for tribals; and introduction of the Roman script in place of the Bengali script for Kok-Borok and its recognition as the state’s official language and as the medium of instruction.
In the course of the intensification of ethnocentric politics, TUJS underwent splits and mergers, leading to the formation and reformation of many ethnocentric parties, one of which is the IPFT. It was formed in 1997 by a breakaway section of the TUJS under the leadership of N C Debbarma, and it is alleged that the party won the elections to the Autonomous District Councils in 2000 by using the clout of the then tribal insurgent outfit, National Liberation Front of Tripura (Biswamohan) against Left Front candidates. Thereafter, the party underwent the process of mergers and splits with other tribal parties, finally coming out with its name again in 2009.
The fifth consecutive and spectacular success of CPM in the 2013 Assembly elections had a debilitating bearing not only upon the future electoral prospects of the Congress, but also upon the most prominent tribal-based party, the INPT (earlier TUJS) that had been an ally of the Congress since 1983. While the Congress could manage to win ten Assembly seats in 2013, its ally INPT failed to win a single seat. The electoral decline of the INPT gave space to the IPFT which emerged as the main rival to the CPM in the 2015 ADC elections. Since then, the party has been becoming more assertive to press for its demand of a separate state for tribals, until it entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP last month and agreed to temporarily suspend the issue of a separate state.
Current ground scenario
A majority of tribals, specially youths, relate strongly with the IPFT and its leader N C Debbarma vis a vis other tribal parties like INPT and NCT. There is palpable anger among the tribals against the CPM for its partisan attitude of materially incentivizing only Left cadres and supporters. The CPM emerges as the common enemy for aspirational young tribals whose sentiment is echoed by tribal elders too. For instance, Kriti Kishore Debbarma, a Tripuri tribal and principal of a private school at Bishramganj in Charilam constituency reserved for ST, states, “the combination of three factors—corruption, discrimination and ethnicity—sets up the tribals against the CPM. The IPFT has captured their imagination as it takes a clear position against the CPM.”
Similarly, speculation regarding the unease among Christian tribals and many of the IPFT leadership who hail from the Christian community, after IPFT allied with BJP, doesn’t seem to hold ground as would be obvious from the response of a Christian tribal youth, Sinion Debbarma from Simna, another constituency with more than 95 per cent tribal population: “I may not be happy with BJP, but I am very angry with CPM.”
Both BJP and IPFT leaders are clear that their alliance is just an electoral arrangement. Neither party has changed its stance on the issue of a tribal separate state. The BJP opposes it and the IPFT demands it. The common enemy is the CPM. A top leader of IPFT states that this is just a sequential step in the assertion of the tribals’ rightful claim. The real challenge for the alliance will be addressing their mutual incompatibility on the tribal question after the electoral outcome on March 3.
(Sajjan Kumar has a Ph.D from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based Research Organisation specializing in fieldwork based political and electoral Research.)