Featured

CPI(M) to Blame for Some Tiprasa People Not Feeling at Home in Agartala: Tripura Congress Chief

Pradyot Manikya Burman talks about the indigenous people’s demand for separate statehood and the 2018 elections, where BJP will attempt to dislodge the CPI(M) government, which has been in power in Tripura since 1998.

Pradyot Manikya Burman

Pradyot Manikya Burman addressing a rally in Tripura. Credit: By special arrangement

New Delhi: Recently, Tripura was in news for a demand that erupted with a vigour unseen in recent times – a separate homeland for the indigenous tribal people of the state called Tipraland.

Spearheaded by the regional party, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), the demand for Tipraland, which it first raised in 2009, is hinged on the demographic change the state underwent, first due to large-scale migration of refugees from East Pakistan during Partition, and later during the creation of Bangladesh. The migration of people from East Bengal made the indigenous tribal people of the state a minority. Though an autonomous district council comprising two-third of the state populated by tribals was created in the 1980s, it failed to fulfill the political aspirations of the people over the years and had also triggered a bout of insurgency in the state bordering Bangladesh.

In an interview to The Wire, Pradyot Manikya Burman, the president of the state Pradesh Congress Committee and the present maharaja of Tripura, dwelt on the demand of the indigenous people that his family represented till the kingdom signed a merger agreement with the Indian Union in 1949.

Among other perspectives, Burman also tried to see the demand for a separate state in the light of the 2018 assembly polls in Tripura in which the BJP will attempt, like never before, dislodging the CPI (M) government which has been ruling the northeastern state since 1998.

Excerpts:

On August 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted “the rich contribution” of the last Maharaja of Tripura, also your grandfather, to the development of the state, something the ruling Left hasn’t till now. The BJP is also talking about conferring Bharat Ratna on the late maharaja and even naming a road after him in Delhi. With the BJP trying to grab power in Tripura, how do you read the prime minister and his party’s sudden attempt at appropriating him. Neither the party nor the PM paid any tribute to the former king on his birth anniversary before.

I welcome the PM’s tweet and this is not the first time he has said this for my grandfather. I clearly remember him coming to the state during the 2014 election where he praised the maharaja during the rally. Even the Congress party’s official twitter handle acknowledged this fact this year.

It is the Left which has played politics by denying the maharaja anything. In fact, the Leftist have to be blamed why a section of Tiprasa people don’t feel at home in Agartala and want to now carve a separate state for themselves. Everything which the indigenous rulers built have been either occupied, names changed to a Khudiram Bose, Lenin Sarani, etc. so a young Tripuri boy/girl does not identify with the place his ancestors lived in.

Regarding the BJP, I have one suggestion that it should be conscious about – the same person who worked with Manik Sarkar to ensure that the Agartala airport not be named after Maharaja Bir Bikram (Sudip Barman) is now a MLA with it.

In Tripura politics, its the same people who have been in opposition to the Left for decades. It is the parties that they represent which has changed and not necessarily how they view the indigenous community.

Recently, we saw the revival of IPFT’s demand for Tipraland. What do you think must have ignited it after a long gap?

This has been a demand for a long time, particularly because the real purpose behind creation of Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in 1980s remained unfulfilled. The indigenous tribal people have really not benefitted from it and the role of the ADC has been largely a farce. However, the demand for a separate state remained dormant till the frustration of certain leaders and people could no longer be contained. Over the last few years there has been a revival. Also, the Janajati (tribal) cell of the BJP, which has been penetrating the tribal areas of Tripura, is learnt to have put some pressure on the IPFT (which is the regional party) to resort to a strong protest demanding a separate state as they feel that their base maybe eroding. In the end, the Tipraland issue would never have been had Manik Sarkar not treated the indigenous people of the state in a step motherly fashion.

What led the IPFT to first resort to the rail and road blockade and later lift it?

On July 10, The IPFT blocked the only rail and road connection of the state with the rest of India demanding a separate state. However, the sentiments of the majority Bengali population are against the demand, which is also the stated position of the Communists. Suddenly, we saw the BJP which till then were sympathetic towards the indigenous people changing tack, perhaps because they sensed the mood of the Bengali people against this blockade. The BJP gheroed the chief minister’s office on the issue. The IPFT leaders were also left in a spot after the BJP backed out and stated that they must withdraw the agitation first before any talks could be initiated. An IPFT delegation rushed to Delhi, wanting to meet the home minister. They waited while the BJP leaders refused to meet them. So I intervened in the matter, met minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju, told him that the IPFT needs to be given an honourable exit. It is not fair to leave them in the lurch. So there was a meeting between Rijiju and the IPFT delegation in Delhi where he said the government will look into the matter but made it clear that a separate state of Tipraland is out of the question. The IPFT Leadership also met Rahul Gandhi on the issue.

Is Tipraland a legitimate demand?

It is a political demand. Some people are questioning it, asking, is it anti-national, is it not against the ethos of the Constitution of India? But it is a constitutional demand. It is also an emotional demand. Whether it is sustainable, only time will tell.

How much of the demand for Tipraland, do you think, be a part of the coming assembly poll narrative?

It will be one of the key issues in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Largely because the problems faced by the autonomous district council over the last decades has not been addressed by the state government, which is run by the Communists. This has created a vacuum for the other parties like the IPFT to raise the demand because they believe that under Manik Sarkar’s rule, the tribal people of Tripura will not get the scope for growth. It is largely true because if you see the budget allocation for the TTAADC, it is far lesser than what you see in the general areas. The district council has ended up largely as an avenue for employment of the other people of the state rather for benefitting the tribal people and their employment.

IPFT leaders in Delhi spoke about the Centre open to discussing “a state within a state” under Article 244A of the Constitution. How practical is that?

BJP has come with its own poll agenda to the state. I am made to believe that it has now raked up the possibility of making a territorial state council, ‘a state within a state’ which comes under Article 244A of the constitution. However, that has never happened in the history of India except in one case, which was Meghalaya. However, it didn’t last, and within 10 months, Meghalaya became a separate state. So will Article 244A will be practical for Tipraland is highly debatable because history shows that within eight to ten months, the state actually breaks up and one part becomes a separate entity. It actually becomes difficult to govern the state, that’s what happened between Meghalaya and Assam.

Also, Tripura is not like any other state. It was an independent kingdom prior to joining the Indian union. Article 35A of Jammu and Kashmir is in news exactly for its special powers drawn from its accession terms. So how feasible is this idea of a separate state sliced out of Tripura which has a merger agreement with the Indian union?

Yes, like Jammu and Kashmir, there are some states in the northeast, like Tripura and Manipur, which merged with an independent India union. Kashmir’s was an accession and ours was a merger. We merged with India on certain guarantees, so it would also have to be seen whether it will be legally possible for a historical entity which had joined the Indian Union to be able to be broken up now into different states, like say, Bihar, Uttrakhand, Chhattisgarh, etc. Because the merger agreement is a legal document between two sovereign states coming together and then becoming a part of India. The same issue comes about Jammu and Kashmir where we are now talking about diluting the powers given to the state on the basis of the instrument of accession. So that is something that needs to be clarified and looked into before any political party promises such a demand.

What we have seen in the northeast is that the BJP had shown an initial willingness to grant statehood to different communities, be it Gorkhaland or Bodoland, about which they also mentioned in its 2014 manifesto. Lately, we are seeing a bit of dithering there. The Gorkhaland issue is hanging in the air; the Bodos are returning to the streets. In Tripura also, we saw some BJP support for Tipraland and then it backed out. So, as a young leader of considerable popularity from the region, how do you see this flip-flop of the BJP?

See, these are people’s aspirations, for greater political autonomy. Now that the BJP is aiming at grabbing power in the region, it is all the more important that it comes clear on these issues. It will have to come clear whether it actually supports Gorkhaland, is it supporting Bodoland, is it supporting the demand for Dima Hasao in Assam. I know for sure that one of the key allies of the BJP and NDA in the northeast, the Nationalist People’s Party (NPP), led by Conrad Sangma, had supported at some point the demand for Garoland in Meghalaya. So, does BJP also support that? Also, are they supporting various demands for territorial councils; what are their views on those demands.

As far as the Congress party is concerned, I don’t think it has any plan to support a separate state. It is interested in giving more powers to the district councils, may be upgrade them, upgrade certain departments, give direct funding. But the ball is now in the court of the ruling party. It should come clear on the issue. Two BJP MPs were elected from Darjeeling, first Jaswant Singh and then S.S. Ahluwalia, on the promise that they will support Gorkhaland. We saw that in case of Bodoland too. The Bodo People’s Front (BPF) is now supporting the BJP government in Assam. The NPP is supporting the party in NDA.  The entire Karbi Anglong district council which was with Congress till a while ago has now moved to the BJP on the same assurance that their demand for a Karbi state will be looked into. So, when we say, ‘looked into’, it is a bit too ambiguous. So I think there should be some clarity on these issues.

And, as far as Tipraland is concerned, this ambiguity will only hurt the people of Tripura. It will create large-scale polarization, which is something I fundamentally think we should not do. Unlike in Darjeeling and the rest of West Bengal, in Tripura, the Bengali population and the indigenous tribals live very close to each other, live across the road. If this polarization takes places, it will only fragment our society. It is, therefore, the job of the central government to come clear on this issue. The state government is clear that it is opposed to the demand for a separate state. The Congress party is clear about not supporting it. But the BJP is tinkering, says, we will think about it, bring us to power and we will then think about it. I think it is not healthy, either for the political process or for the entire society of Tripura.

Finally, though very little is being reported in mainstream media, there is an intense battle for power going on in Tripura between the Left and the BJP, in the run up to the next year’s assembly polls. The Left has ruled the state for a very long period. Do you think BJP has a chance to dislodge the Left in the elections?

I think the Left, the Congress and the BJP will have their own pockets of dominance. BJP has tried to make inroads but I think it has made one big mistake. It has taken in some state leaders who have lost credibility in the Congress; the same people thereafter went to All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), lost credibility in that party too and have now joined the BJP. Members who have joined the BJP over the last few years are actually Congress members who left the party because of these leaders. Now, where do such people go when this band of six AITC MLAs have joined the BJP? People are opposed to those leaders because their entire politics is based on individuals or their families.