The grim turnstiles keep moving, and one more name has been added to a rather morbid list. After the Gauri Lankesh murder, critics said only the murders of elite, English-speaking journalists in metros spark any outrage, while many lesser-known figures face bullets out in the hinterland. There is some merit to that argument, despite Lankesh having been a bilingual writer. This time, it was 28-year-old Santanu Bhowmik who was hacked to death in ‘faraway’ Tripura. Both the general fact and the specific context need to be analysed separately.
Bhowmik worked for Din Raat, a local news channel; he is the seventh Indian journalist to be killed this year. There were six victims last year, and five in 2015. This is a disturbing set of statistics that speaks of the vulnerabilities members of this much-maligned profession—the object of much derision and envy among the public as a new power elite—actually operate under.
It’s also a stark reminder of the way ‘democratic’ politics is conducted in India, with violence a part of the vocabulary. The distrust for those who have the capacity to convey views or information contrary to received wisdom bleeds into this. Now, the context. Bhowmik was covering clashes between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and a CPM-backed tribal wing.
At the core of Tripura’s history is a conflict between the indigenous tribals—the Tripuris, Reang, Jamatia and others who speak varieties of Kokborok—and the settlers, especially Bengalis. The latter are an old presence, with two Brahmin scholars having rendered the local Tipra kings’ genealogy in Sanskrit in the 15th century.
Ever since the late ’70s, violent ethnic nationalism has been a factor in Tripura and it has seen phases like Operation Roukhala—or ‘deportation’ (of Bengalis). The IPFT is the latest voice demanding a separate state—Tipraland—for indigenous Tripuris. The ruling Left opposes it and the BJP, a new arrival, is said to back the IPFT, using it as a wedge to unseat the long-running rule of Manik Sarkar. The last has not been heard of this.