The lynching of Shantanu Bhowmik, a 27-year-old journalist with an Agartala-based cable news channel, by a mob in Mandai on September 20, was not a stray incident. Bhowmik, according to Tripura West Superintendent of Police Abhijit Satparshi, had gone to Mandai to cover “a possible clash” between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP), the tribal wing of the ruling CPI(M).
The area had witnessed violence the previous day too, with the CPM accusing the IPFT of blocking roads to prevent its supporters from attending a GMP rally in Agartala. According to the CPM, at least 60 of its cadres and supporters, including women, were injured and 16 vehicles were damaged by stone-throwing IPFT cadres at a dozen places in Mandai, Khowai, Tulasikhar and Champaknagar.
Mandai is the site of what could be called Tripura’s Nellie. In June 1980 — less than three years before several thousand Muslims from erstwhile East Bengal were butchered in villages including Nellie in Assam’s Nagaon district — about 450 people, mostly Bengali-speaking non-tribals, were massacred by armed tribal insurgents here. Officially, 250 people were killed, but the massacre’s memory continues to haunt Tripura even today.
Over several weeks leading up to Bhowmik’s killing, tension had been building up across Tripura — for two reasons. One, the BJP has gained in strength after a major chunk of the Congress, including six MLAs who had only a few months earlier moved to the Trinamool Congress, joined the saffron party. And two, the ratcheting up of the demand for a separate tribal state of Twipraland by the IPFT.
Frequent visits by top BJP leaders including national president Amit Shah, national general secretary Ram Madhav, and convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), Himanta Biswa Sarma, suggest that after a long time, the Assembly elections in Tripura, due next year, will see a real fight. (The Congress has for long been very weak.) The BJP has been allegedly backing the IPFT as a potential partner against the Left in the tribal areas.
The CPM has been trying to gauge the strength the BJP would likely gain, should it ally with the IPFT. N C Debbarma, president of the tribal party, has claimed it would field candidates at 30 unreserved seats, in addition to the 20 seats reserved for STs. The IPFT is also exploring the possibility of putting up candidates at the 10 seats reserved for the SCs. The CPM has complained that the IPFT’s road and rail blockade was part of the BJP’s attempt to test the waters.
The way the CPM and its partners in the ruling Left Front are looking at the IPFT and its possible alliance with the BJP, suggests the state would witness a clear division between tribals and non-tribals in the elections. The CPM has called the IPFT a “rabidly anti-Bengali” party — a description which, with repetition, will likely polarise the majority of Bengali voters against the tribal party. The Left would then be able to concentrate on the 40 non-tribal seats in the 60-member House, and look at whatever it gets from the 20 tribal seats as bonus.
Even though elections are some months away, it seems likely the BJP will attempt to play the ethnic card in the tribal areas, while also trying to wean away those Bengali voters who have been voting Left mainly because a viable alternative has not been visible. The BJP had campaigned on the “jaati-maati-bheti” (identity-land-homes) plank in Assam last year, and its senior minister Sarma, who addressed 269 rallies across 126 constituencies in a little over three weeks last year, has already declared the Left’s days are numbered in Tripura.
The Left would like to believe that “only one section” of Congress members and supporters have gone over to the BJP — another section has come to the CPM, while a third section remains with the Congress. Based on this calculation, the Left thinks it would actually win more seats than in 2013, when it got 50 (CPM, 49; CPI, 1) and the Congress, 10.
These calculations draw on the ethnic composition of Tripura. According to Census 2011, the state has a population of 36,73,917, of which 11,66,813 — nearly 32% — are STs. Most non-tribals (who make up 68% of the total), are Bengalis who had migrated from erstwhile East Bengal in the wake of Partition.
In 2013, the Left won 19 of the 20 tribal seats (CPM, 18; CPI, 1). Of the remaining 40 seats (including the 10 reserved for the SCs), the CPM won 31. The Left believes that given the demographics of the state, it would continue to be in the driver’s seat even if the IPFT and BJP come together. The BJP, on the other hand, would like to turn all Northeast saffron, and Tripura, ruled by the Left since 1993, would be a significant prize.