Threats, Violence and Dirty Politics at the Heart of BJP's 'Clean Sweep' of Tripura Civic Body Polls

Citizens claim that workers of the saffron party used intimidation tactics to stop them from voting, while opposition candidates assert that booth-capturing took place in full view of the police.

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New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “clean sweep” of the Tripura civic polls – where the party won 329 of 334 seats – might have been the result of dirty politics, if allegations made not only by the candidates of other parties, but also by voters across the state are to be believed.

These allegations include the intimidation of voters, candidates of other parties and poll officers by BJP supporters; a lack of action by the police, even when such intimidation took place in plain sight of law enforcement personnel; open booth capturing and the vandalism of voters’ and candidates’ homes on the night of November 25, after the elections held that day. In most cases, the perpetrators of the intimidation and violence did not appear to be locals.

“If the chief minister does not respond to these actions, if the police remain silent, it would mean that all this happened under the CM’s command,” Abhishek, a resident of Agartala, told The Wire

Political parties in opposition to the BJP, the ruling party in Tripura, claim that supporters of the saffron party had started intimidating their candidates soon after the anti-Muslim violence that had raged through the state in late October.

A delegation of Trinamool Congress (TMC) MPs had even appealed the Union home minister to look into the matter and had urged the Supreme Court to postpone the civic polls scheduled for November 25, in light of the recent violence.

However, the Supreme Court refused to halt the elections, although on November 23, it directed the state’s director general of police and inspector general of police to ensure peaceful elections, leading up to the counting of votes on November 28.

Also read: BJP Sweeps Tripura Civic Body Polls Marked by Opposition Allegations of Rigging

Voter intimidation

Of the 334 seats up for grabs, the BJP had no opposition in 112 seats and thus won them by default. According to Jitendra Choudhury, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), these 112 seats remained uncontested because “goons sheltered by the BJP forced opposition candidates to withdraw their nominations”. When the Election Commission listed these 112 seats, it did not explain why there were no candidates from parties other than the BJP.

That left 222 seats open for contest and, according to many voters from these wards, BJP workers and supporters began threatening them against voting from November 23, two days before election day.

A photo taken during Tripura civic polls. Photo: Tanmoy Chakraborty.

Sandhya Pal, a resident of Thakur Colony in the Belonia Municipal Council told The Wire, “On November 24 at around 4 pm, BJP workers came to my house and warned me not to vote. They said that nobody from my family should be seen near the polling booth or else, after the results were declared on November 28, we would face consequences.”

While Sandhya Pal decided not to vote, his 18-year-old son Poornajyoti Pal insisted on ignoring the threat. 

“As he arrived at the polling station, the same people who had come to our residence stopped him and warned him to go back,” said Sandhya Pal.

Voters in other constituencies had similar stories. In several instances, voters were physically removed from the polling booths.

“I was the third in line for voting in my ward. It was around 7 am. A few men barged into the polling station and came straight to me. They asked me to move out of the line. I said I would move out only once I had cast my vote. After this, one of the men pulled me out of the line, held me by the shoulder and took me out of the area. I shouted for help from the two policemen present at the polling station, but they turned their faces against me,” said Debjit, a resident of Krishnanagar in Agartala. 

Debjit added, “When I tried to argue, at least eight more men emerged from a car parked outside and started to physically assault me. I eventually had to leave in fear.” According to Debjit, most of the men who pushed him around in and outside the polling booth were not locals from the area. 

His claim was echoed by other citizens of Tripura’s capital city, Agartala, who say that two days prior to the elections, outsiders had entered their neighbourhoods, warning them not to vote on November 25. 

According to Abhishek Das, a voter from Ward No. 18 of the Agartala Municipal Council, the intimidation had started from November 23.

“From November 23, there were goons in my neighbourhood, constantly threatening us saying that if we went to vote, we would have to face the consequences,” Das told The Wire. “They went to almost all the houses in my locality.”

On November 25, when Das stepped into the polling station, he saw about 30 -40 men on motorcycles circling the area and watching the people who approached the polling station.

“Two men stopped me at the entrance and told me to go back. They sent everyone back,” said Das. 

Das claimed that aside from keeping legitimate voters away, these men had been rigging the polls.

“Two of their men were already inside the booth and the others arrived every 30-40 minutes. They would go in, take over 50-60 votes and then come out. They entered all the polling stations in this way,” he claimed.

Similar incidents were seen in the Dimsagar area, where an elderly couple was also assaulted. 

Also read: As Tripura Civic Poll Ends, Opposition Alleges Political Violence, Demands Fresh Elections

Police silent

Elsewhere, several candidates of political parties other than the BJP claimed that they had been attacked or intimidated by supporters or workers of the ruling party.

Humayun Ahmed, the TMC candidate from Ward No. 14 of Dharmanagar, alleged that on the day of the election, he had been manhandled by BJP workers in full view of the police. 

“I arrived at the polling booth at about 6 am to check that all was well. While the BJP people checked the booth without problems, when it was my turn, 10-12 goons literally pulled me out of the booth in front of the police,” he said. “I had an identity card as a candidate so I tried telling them that I had the authority to check, but the policemen laughed in my face.” 

Ahmed continued, “I called the sub-divisional police officer (SDPO) to tell her that law and order was not being maintained. She assured me that she would look into it, but there was no further response. I tried reaching out to the superintendent of police (SP) three or four times, but he did not respond either. I even identified the BJP worker who threatened me. His name is Chandan Bhownik.” 

Members of the TMC from Dharamanagar claimed that none of their polling agents were allowed inside the booth. They also alleged that voters had been being stopped from entering the booth.

Similar incidents have been claimed by the CPI(M). Tapash Dutta, a member of the CPI(M) from the Belonia Municipal Council, said, “There are 17 seats in Belonia. Nine of our candidates were beaten up and scared off while they were on their way to the polling station, while seven of our candidates and polling agents who somehow managed to enter their respective booths were thrown out, some even in front of the presiding officer who did not inform higher officials of what had happened.” 

Although the police repeatedly assured Dutta that action would be taken, the CPI(M) member claimed that the police actually did nothing. 

“I spoke to the review officer, the SP, the SDPO, but none of them took any stringent steps against the goons,” said Dutta.

Even chief minister Biplab Deb’s constituency saw incidents of violence. Uma Chandra Deb, a candidate from Ward No. 23 of the Agartala Municipal Council, said, “All nine booths in my ward were captured by BJP goons. Even the presiding officer was thrown out of a booth.” 

She continued, “We had been there since 7 am to check the booth. We were told that we would be allowed to enter after 10.30 am. But when our turn came, goons compelled us to move out. The police just watched the booths being captured. We talked to the sector officer, the officer in charge, the SP, everyone. But no action was taken.” 

Ajoy Rai from the CPI(M), a polling agent of booth No. 8 of Ward 23, told The Wire that he has been in active politics for 45 years now, but never before had seen such a breach of law and order as he had on November 25. 

Also read: Tripura Violence: SC Agrees to Hear Plea Seeking Probe into ‘Communal Riots’

Violence and vandalism

Noting the reports coming out of Tripura on November 25, the Supreme Court took immediate cognisance of the matter and at about 11.30 am, directed that the media should be given unhindered access to cover the civic polls. The court also ordered the installation of CCTV cameras in all the polling booths and directed the Union government to deploy two additional companies of Central Armed Police Forces to secure the polling booths and ensure proper free elections. 

Security forces arrive at a distribution centre ahead of the Tripura Municipal Corporation elections in Agartala, Nov. 24, 2021. Photo: PTI

However, even after the Supreme Court’s order, the intimidation of voters and booth capturing continued. Only the Kailashahar Municipal Council of the Unakoti district had fair polls thanks to the courage of the sector officer, according to Abdul Mannan, a well-known businessman. 

“Goons arrived at Ward No. 12 of Kailashahar Municipal Council in the morning and threatened the sector officer when he tried to stop them,” Mannan told The Wire. “One goon said that he would see the sector officer after 4 pm, threatening to assault him after the polling ended. All of this happened in front of the police.” 

Several journalists who had already been facing problems while covering issues in Tripura were physically threatened on election day. On November 25, journalist Tamal Saha tweeted that he and his cameraperson were assaulted and that they “feared for their safety”.

The day after the election, the residence of Debashish Barman, a CPI(M) candidate from Ward No. 6 of the Agartala Municipal Council, was attacked. By the end of the attack, his home was completely vandalised and his idol of Lord Shiva was destroyed by the miscreants. 

Sources say that at least eight houses in Agartala were vandalised on the night of November 25. The names of the victims and their statements have not been recorded because they are afraid of further violence should they speak up. 

‘Not a single murder has happened’ 

This fear of further violence has stopped many voters from even registering police complaints. When The Wire reached out to the SP of North Tripura for a statement on the issue, he refused to comment on the grounds that government guidelines do not permit him to speak to the press. Other police officials that The Wire phoned on the basis of numbers available on public portals did not respond.

Even the Twitter handle of the Tripura Police has been inactive since November 20, although it was constantly in use immediately after the October anti-Muslim violence as the law enforcement agency attempted to defend itself against accusations of lack of action during the violence.

Only members of opposition parties have protested the election day violence. Some members of the CPI(M) demonstrated at the office of the sub-divisional magistrate in Belonia, after which a written complaint was sent by Amitabh Dutta, a CPI(M) member and former member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from Dharmanagar, to the Regional Office, listing the illicit activities that had taken place on election day. 

While the CPI(M) has been told that the SDPO will look into the matter and the police claim they will take stringent steps against the law-breakers, no arrests have been made so far.

Even the chief minister has so far not made a single statement on the violence on election day. The state can only take responsibility for violence if it accepts that violence has in fact taken place and so far, there is no sign of any such acceptance. 

After polling ended on November 25, Sushanta Choudhary, a BJP MLA, told the media: “Not a single murder has happened. How can the opposition say that poll rigging has happened?” 

BJP MLA Sushanta Chowdhary. Photo: PTI.

With this statement, the BJP appeared to show a lack of interest in law and order unless there are actual deaths. In fact, residents of Agartala allege that BJP MLAs attending rallies with the chief minister right beside them had continuously made statements such as, “If the opposition does not step back, we will not spare anyone. Whoever comes in our way shall not be spared.” 

The names of some victims of violence have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Hrishi Raj Anand is a Delhi-based freelance journalist who reports on human rights, marginalisation and COVID-19.