Ramification of conflicts in Tripura

Jayanta Bhattacharya

The greatest human migration in history, the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent into India and Pakistan, saw the movement of more than fifteen (See Refugees in West Bengal, Edited by Pradip Kumar Bose, CRG) million people. This massive displacement forced extensive and well-documented suffering and brought about major socio-economic and political changes.

Tripura, a princely state bordered on three sides  by East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), felt the migration’s impact .Partition opened the floodgates to migrants who outnumbered the indigenous people of the state within a decade. Partition permanently changed the demography of the state.

This paper points out how the tribes of the state were marginalized in terms of possession of land, profession and identity culminating in a conflict between the Hindu Bengali migrants and the tribal groups of the state and its consequences.

Tripura, once ruled by tribal kings of the Manikya dynasty with tribals constituting the majority among their subjects, merged with India officially on October 15 1949..  According to the 1941 census, tribals constituted 53.16% of the population; in just ten years that figure was down to 37.23%.   The demographic change paved the way for the eventual conflict between the tribals and Bengali migrants which devastated the state for more than three decades. In addition, the independence of India led to Tripura’s geographical isolation from the ‘mainland’ creating major hurdles to economic development, especially communications and transport since all goods and travelers had to move by a circuitous route bypassing EastPakistan to reach the “mainland.”

During pre-Partition days, the king of Tripura had complete sway over his hilly domain (roughly the present geographical area of Tripura) and, in addition, had a Zamindari (or land tenure) in 'Chakla Roshanabad' comprising four districts of present-day Bangladesh, then East Bengal and later East Pakistan,  such as Comilla, Noakhali, Chittagong and parts of Sylhet. Many Bengalis were thus subjects or tenants of successive Tripuri kings.

The Tripura kings encouraged Bengali migration into the interior areas of the state for their own interests. As attested by the 'Rajmala', Tripura's royal chronicles, they  had always placed educated and trained Bengalis in high  positions to modernize the royal administration; they also encouraged settlement of Bengali peasants  with incentives such as land grants. The reasons were two fold – augmentation of revenue and persuading the tribals, who were mostly jhum or ‘shifting’ cultivators, to take to settled cultivation. The first Imperial census conducted by the British government in 1871 put the Bengali population in Tripura at 30%, a figure that grew slowly and steadily.

However, the realisation had dawned on King Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya (1923-1947), that his tribal subjects could ultimately be swamped by the Bengali influx, prompting him to  create a tribal reserve in 1943 encompassing  2050 sq miles of land ,meant for the

Tripuri, Reang Halam, Noatia and Jamatiya  tribes. They were known as ‘Pancha Tripuri’ and his far-sightedness is reflected in the fact that this tribal reserve was the precursor of the present Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC).

Within three decades of partition, the tribes people were reduced to less than 30 per cent of the state’s population completely marginalizing them in politics, economy, and control of land. The influx intensified the process of land alienation from the tribal  people and added to their collective sense of loss and marginalization (Bordoloi, B N (ed) (1986): Alienation of Tribal. Land and Indebtedness, Tribal Research. Institute,  Assam. - (ed) (1990):

At independence, therefore, and the merger of princely Tripura with the Indian Union, land alienation of the tribals emerged as a major problem. Between 1947 and 1971, altogether 6,09,998 Bengalis, displaced from East Pakistan, came to Tripura for rehabilitation and resettlement. Since the total population of the state in 1951 was 6,45,707, it is not difficult to imagine  the tectonic population pressure created on the tiny state. In this period, the state government settled the refugees on land under different schemes, enabling them either to get financial assistance or helping them to buy land.

The implementation of these schemes speeded up the process of large-scale loss of tribal lands. The tribals continued to be impoverished, reflected in the number of tribal agricultural labourers in the three decades since the partition. In 1951, cultivators constituted 62.94 per cent of the total tribal workforce in the state, while only 8.93 per cent were in the category of agricultural labourers. But in 1981, the percentage of farmers in the tribal workforce had fallen to 43.57 per cent while the number of agricultural laborers had risen to 23.91 per cent.

Growing land alienation has remained a recurrent theme in tribal militancy since it first surfaced with the ‘Sengkrak’ (Clenched Fist) movement in the mid-1960s. The opening up of much of the Tribal Reserve Area for refugee settlement by the Congress government of post-princely Tripura added to the existential problems of the tribal community.

In 1952, the legendary Communist leader Dasarath Deb, a tribal (Tripuri tribe, the largest tribal group of Tripura) and then a Member of Parliament, had drawn the attention of Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru to the continuous influx  from East Pakistan, suggesting reservation of  more areas of Tripura for tribals.

In 1955, Indian Home Affairs Minister Govind Ballabh Pant expressed a similar opinion, favouring new tribal land reserves. In 1960, the Chief Commissioner of Tripura, N. M. Patnaik, represented before the U. N. Dhebar Commission that specific areas of the state should be declared as reserves for the tribals under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution

But the Dhebar Commission suggested that special tribal development blocks in tribal compact areas be created first and the Fifth (fifth only) Schedule could be tried if the experiment on tribal development blocks failed.

But little was done to protect tribal rights on lands. In order to consolidate its refugee vote bank, the Congress government continued to encourage the settlement of migrants from East Pakistan. In some areas of Tripura, the refugees formed co-operatives like the Swasti Samity and took to extensive land grabbing in tribal compact areas, undermining and ensuring the failure of the Dhebar Commission’s own proposal. Before Tripura became a state, the Communists had won both Parliament seats in the state. They advocated limited autonomy and the creation of a tribal reserve to protect tribal lands.

But the state unit of the Congress, dominated by Bengali refugees, was determined to take advantage of Tripura’s changing demography and ride to power on the strength of its newly acquired refugee vote banks. In 1967, the Communist Party lost both Parliament seats to the Congress for the first time in Tripura. That year, an exclusively tribal-based political party ’Tripura Upajaty Juba Samity’ (Tripura Tribal Youth League) or the TUJS was formed. The very same year, the first tribal insurgent group, Sengkrak, surfaced in North Tripura.

Four years later, Tripura became a full-fledged state (until then it was an Union Territory) along with Manipur as part of the process of the second reorganization of the Northeastern region. The movement for tribal autonomy continued to gain momentum and three primary reasons fuelled the campaign

 He observed – “the problem of problems is not to disturb the harmony of the tribal life & simultaneously work for its advancement, not to impose anything upon the tribals & simultaneously work for their integration as member & part of the Indian family.

Source: Ethnographic Atlas of Indian Tribes, Prakash Chandra Mehta

*  since 1967, ethnicity began to shape Tripura’s politics in a more pronounced manner than ever before as the TUJS and the Sengkrak began to focus on the marginalization of the tribals in their homeland as their major political theme,

*  the Communists, challenged by the TUJS in their tribal base  and accused of failing to protect the interests of the indigenous people, lent their support to the ethno-centric political demands for tribal autonomy,

 * The Central government saw the grant of autonomy as a way out to curb growing tribal militancy in Tripura and also in other parts of the Northeast.

The Congress was  voted out in 1978, following a nationwide trend that reflected a public backlash after the authoritarian state of Internal Emergency (1975-to1977)  and the Communists, now more acceptable amongst Bengalis came to power in the state assembly for the first time with a thumping majority. Strangely, in December 1978, the remnants of the now-defunct Sengkrak and the militant  elements of the TUJS combined to form the underground Tribal National Volunteers (TNV) to fight for ‘’Swadhin Tripura’’ (independent Tripura). The extremist challenge and the growing pressure of the TUJS prompted the Communists to push for tribal autonomy with backing from the new anti-Congress dispensation in Delhi.

The Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council was created by an Act of Parliament in 1979, and brought under the Sixth Schedule. A Leftist juggernaut has steamrolled all political opposition and ruled the state virtually unchallenged, except for a brief period in the late 1980s, However, in June 1980, Tripura was rocked by unprecedented ethnic riots, disrupting the whole process of implementing the autonomy provisions. It was only in January 1982, that the elections to the newly formed Council could be held and the Council constituted.

Underground politics also plays an important role with one group claiming greater rights of representation over others, divided by tribal barriers and mobilization.  Thus, after the TNV surrendered, two other insurgent groups were formed, each with a different agenda -- the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). While the NLFT gave slogans for ‘Free Tripura’ the ATTF raised the demand of deportation of Bengalis whose names did not figure in the electoral rolls of 1952.

The demographic imbalance in Tripura spawned by the influx of Bengali Hindu settlers from the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) carried the seeds of ethnic conflict. The state witnessed the Mandai massacre on June 8, 1980 in which nearly 350 settlers were butchered within a span of four hours, their houses burnt and belongings looted. This massacre was followed by severe riots in which more than 1,000 people including tribals died. The tribals and Bengalis had lived in the state for long time in peace and tranquility, but the riots and growing ethnic division broke the bond of mutual trust. More than 6000 Bengalis have died in violence unleashed by different rebel groups over the last 25 years, more than 1000 have been kidnapped (many were released after payment of large ransoms that pauperized the families of the victims)..

Repeated, ruthless attacks by armed insurgents on the Bengali settlers mostly living in the tribal council areas or at the fringe of the council areas led to huge displacement. Revenue Minister Keshab Majumder in a statement to the State Assembly said that during the last five years at least 1, 24,000 people, mostly Bengali farmers  were displaced in insurgency related violence. The opposition Congress says that this is an under-estimate and that in the last 12 years alone; more than three lakh non-tribal people were displaced.

The US Committee for Refugees estimates the displacement of Bengalis in Tripura at more than 200,000 ( The US Committee for Refugees, Special Report on North-East India, compiled by Hiram Ruiz, 2000)

A large number of tribals living in hilly and interior areas, mostly in district council areas were also displaced due to insurgency, on one-third of the state’s land. They faced extortion and threats, including selective killing depending on their political loyalties. Since the NLFT targeted the activists and supporters of the ruling CPI-M, the state government rehabilitated them in cluster villages near the main roads, provided security cover, distributed doles, constructed makeshift houses, gave healthcare , drinking water facilities, education etc. But their displacement led to a growth of alienation from their traditional social systems.

Thus, during the violent years, the schools, primary health centers and most of the government offices were closed; teachers and doctors did not go to their work places out of fear. This in turn led to an increase in the rate of school dropouts and near total collapse of the health care system. 

The tribals also faced the problems of insurgency partly because the Bengalis living in the tribal council areas were targeted by the insurgents, who had bases in neighbouring Bangladesh. The rebels attacked the densely inhabited Bengali villages near the Indo-Bangla international border because of the advantage of easy transborder crossings. The ultras made the council areas their bastion and operated there. They easily could sneak into the neighbouring Bangladesh, which has 856 km long borders with Tripura. There were at least 30 camps in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Sylhet and Moulavi Bazar districts. So, it was not possible to contain the insurgency merely by augmenting forces, intensifying patrolling and launching major offensive against the guerrillas, who were expert in bush wars. They forced people to pay taxes, abducted them for ransom and killed innocents to instill fear sharpen the ethnic divide.

The Bengalis abandoned many of the villages on the border and took shelter in less vulnerable areas in other parts of the state. The security forces also harassed the tribals on the suspicion that they sheltered insurgents. But in most of the cases the ultras forced the tribal inhabitants at gun point to give them shelter and arrange food and drinks for them. The tribal people were thus sandwiched by the conflict between two armed groups – insurgents and security forces.        (5)


A success story

Yet, over recent years, the state has witnessed massive changes, from conflict to tranquility

The riots, ethnic conflicts and massacres appear to be a thing of the past. The schools in the hills are full of children again, vacated by the security forces. The doors of Government offices and banks were open to the public. The Primary Health Centers (PHC) which had not seen doctors for years are manned once again. And although the old relationship is not re-established, trust is being re-established between the plains and hill people. Things began to change with a combination of political firmness, stringent security measures and determined development efforts.  They key has been the state government’s pro-activeness.

The Autonomous District Council (ADC) for tribals constitute two third of the state's territory and is the home to the tribes people who form one-third of the population.

A several-pronged strategy was worked out: first, the security forces and their anti-insurgency operations, especially local police, benefited from a massive modernisation drive, with officers and lower ranks being provided modern weapons, equipment for swift communications, advanced training in jungle warfare and deployment in strategic locations to prevent movement of the militants.

Second, the Central government, in association with the state government, developed a rehabilitation package for surrendered insurgents; this helped to bring back what local politicians called “misguided youths to the mainstream”

Under the  rehabilitation package the surrendered insurgent would be lodged in Rehabilitation camp where they would be imparted vocational training for a period of 36 months with a stipend of Rs.2000/- per month and an immediate grant  of Rs.1.5 Lakh. Minor crime cases against successfully rehabilitated surrenderees will be withdrawn.

Thus, the Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar, was able to tell the State Assembly on June 15, 2010 that “as many as 7,992 insurgents of different outfits including the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) have surrendered to the authorities in last 17 years.”  The graph of insurgency-related violence is dropping rapidly: In 2009-10 225 insurgents surrendered and during this period, the number of insurgency related incidents fell to 24 in which nine persons died. The number of insurgency related incidents in 2007 was 113 which came down to 80 in 2008.

A major reason for the sudden drop in violence must be credited to the Bangladesh government which has taken action against the insurgents located there, breaking up the ca mps and handing over the rebels to Indian authorities.

Even as raids started since 2009 by the security forces in the neighboring country no major insurgent leader of Tripura was handed over to the government of India so far.

The Director General of Police of Tripura, Pranay Sahaya in a Press Conference at Agartala on October 11, 2010 had  said: “Now it is clear that two Chiefs of two insurgent outfits – Ranjit Debbarma of All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and Biswamohan Debbarma of National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) are in Bangladesh. The process for handing them over to the security force is on.”

However, he said that large number of insurgents had surrendered to the Indian Security forces due to pressure in the country.

 “With the Awami League Government (of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina)  coming back to power, the situation started changing. Harbouring of the insurgents stopped and the ultras were either being handed over to Indian authority or pushed back. Surrender of the huge number of ultras from their base camps was the fallout of the proactive measures taken by the Bangladesh government,” says the Chief Minister. (This was this in an interview –  provided reference in footnote). “Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Delhi last January was a significant milestone in paving the ways for restoring the spirit of brotherhood and close co-operation between the two countries.”

In addition, connectitivity with Bangladesh has improved with new road and railway lines being opened up and access to Chittagong Port, a long-standing Indian demand, also being provided. Under the terms of an agreement, India has to develop the rail and road connections to the port from Tripura and also re-develop and dredge Chittagong, one of the best sea ports of South Asia.

The conflict in Tripura is basically over the loss of tribal lands, sharing of powers and subsequent pauperization of the tribals. The government decided that the challenge of land alienation could be reduced by giving land holdings to the tribal in forest areas, which constitute 60% of the state's territory.

More than 1,17,000 tribal families ( Roughly about 5,85,000 tribes people)have thus been rehabilitated under the Schedule Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006.  (Speech of C.M, Manik Sarkar in the 59th meeting of the North Eastern Council on Sept.28, 2010)

That good implementation and good governance is good politics is seen in the results of the elections for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) which were held on May 3, 2010. The Left Front made a clean sweep of all 28 elective seat, further consolidating its traditional base among the indigenous people, with 63.80 per cent of the votes, brushing aside the Congress and its former poll ally, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (NLFT), headed by Bijoy Hrankhawl, an insurgent-turned political leader..

* Statement of the Revenue Minister in the Assembly on January 13, 2006

*2.U N Dhebar Commission: U N Dhebar was president of the first commission constituted to study the problems of tribals in the country in 1961. He was the  former Chief Minister of Saurasthra and became MP in 1962.

* This scholarly article authored by senior journalist Sri Jayanta Bhattachary was presented in a seminar . We are uploading it for the benefit of our inquisitive viewers.

Published on the 14th Nov 2012 Readers can send their comments on this feature to :  feature@tripurainfo.com