The recent killing of a young journalist in Tripura sent shockwaves across the country, fuelling demand for the arrest of the assailants and justice through speedy trials. Bula Devi speaks to chief minister Manik Sarkar to know, among other things, what his government is doing to nab the culprits and the strategies the Left has chalked out to prevent the rise of the BJP in the state a year before assembly elections.
Interview by Bula Devi; Video by Tribhuvan Tiwari; Edited by Suraj Wadhwa
Tripura has been rocked by the recent killing of journalist Shantanu Bhowmick. What steps has your government taken to bring the culprits to book?
Agreeing to the Agartala Press Club’s demand, we have decided to set up a special investigating team. We will see to it that the case is handed over to the fast-track court. The government has given Rs 10 lakh to the bereaved family.
Okay. Coming to politics, is the BJP trying its hardest to dislodge the Left in Tripura? Is that party formidable?
It might be important to the BJP because we’re a Left-led state. We have been projecting the alternative by implementing our policy. We have thus been getting positive responses from the masses. This is why we have been (in the government) in Tripura for a long time. We don’t think the BJP is a credible threat to us. Actually the Left is a threat to the Left.
It means that we shall have to improve our performance further.
The BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance in its recent meeting vowed to form government in the rest of the Northeast. Do you see the BJP as a credible threat in the region?
I cannot pass any comment in regard to other states. Every state has its own specific characteristics; they have their own strengthens and weaknesses.
How do you counter the BJP’s allegations of rampant corruption in the MGNREGA in Tripura?
Absolutely false. Since MGNREGA was started, Tripura was in the first seven in the list across the country in generating man-days. As per the policy, the number of workdays is 100. While the national average is below 50 man-days, our track record during the last four years has been distinct. We held the first position by generating between 80 and 94 man-days in the first three years. In 2016-17, we came second by generating 80 man-days. Despite this, the Centre reduced it to 42 man-days for 2017-18. We sense political vendetta. The Centre gave no explanation despite our protests.
In 2016-17, we generated 80 man-days. But the Centre is yet to release Rs 100 crore they had committed. They are yet to release majority of funds for the material component of 42 man-days for 2017-18. Again, vendetta. It has posed us a big problem in programme implementation.
What do you have to say about the Left’s shrinking base? It’s now limited to Tripura and Kerala only.
No, it means we have to further improve our activities and everything else.
West Bengal shows people’s disenchantment with CPI(M). You disagree?
I told you, every state has its own characteristics. In Tripura, our experience is different. Everyday supporters of the BJP, the Congress and other political parties are coming to us to join the Left.
You are a four-term CM. Won’t anti-incumbency be a big factor this time?
We don’t take any step that can go against the interest of the people of Tripura or the state as a whole. We have been facing a lot of problems, yet the Centre is not helping us. Anti-incumbency factor plays a role when promises are made but not implemented. The BJP government shall face problems (of anti-incumbency) because what they promised in 2014 is not what they are doing. The previous governments at the Centre did the same thing. But, we are not facing this problem.
Will there be an understanding with the Congress in the coming assembly polls?
The question doesn’t arise. There is the Left Front; we’ve been working together.
Is the unhelpful attitude, as you mentioned, prevalent in this particular government? Or, successive ones at the Centre have been unhelpful?
Earlier governments also created problems for us. So we are going to the people, explaining all these problems and seeking their help too. The people of Tripura are cooperating with us. In my state, there is no wall between the people and the government. It’s also because we are not concealing anything from them. We don’t make promises at the time of elections like other bourgeois political parties like the Congress and the BJP and after getting elected forget about it.
We know our limitations because power lies with the Centre. States hardly have any power, and are dependent on the Centre. There are three lists; most of the items have been shifted to the central or the concurrent list. Whatever is there in the concurrent list is actually being enjoyed by the Centre and thereby all states, big or small, are dependent on the Centre.
You said earlier governments also created problems for you. UPA-I and II?
Yes, UPA-I and UPA-II did not come forward to help us on their own on any issue. Tripura had to raise issues, come to the Centre; organise people; organise struggles and press to fulfil demands for rail, industry, power, etc. For each and every issue we had to organise struggles.
But, most of the Northeastern states depend highly on doles from the Centre.
That is the job of the Centre. Northeastern states should not be treated as beggars; they are part and parcel of India. If there is no cooperation from the Centre to help the states then why talk of a federal structure?
How’s revenue generation in Tripura?
It’s very poor because people are poor. We are trying our level best to improve in sectors like infrastructure, housing, agriculture, small industries, forestry, etc to develop our own economy. Well, being poor does not mean that the people of Tripura can be blamed.
What is the state’s per capita income?
Our per capita income was Rs 80,027 in 2015-16. When I took over as chief minister, it was Rs 11,012 in 1998-99.
Your Independence Day speech...was it run on AIR and Doordarshan at all? Did you have to reshape your speech?
There is no controversy. They simply took an authoritarian step. Who are they to dictate an elected CM to reshape his or her speech? I am a citizen of India. I have every right to access my mind. This is my fundamental right. The Supreme Court has given a verdict in regard to Prasar Bharati and even the Parliament Act has said the same thing. Prasar Bharati should not be biased. They have no right; they crossed the limit. If a CM’s speech is gagged what will be your (media) fate? Is this emergency? Even during Emergency, I don’t remember any CM’s speech being gagged. The media will have to rise up and I am happy that people across the country reacted in a positive manner barring a very few.
What is the status of insurgency?
Insurgency in the state has been contained. But there is no room for complacency. There are still some camps across the border. Some political parties are toying with them. Our security forces are on alert all the time. It’s an ideological, political and administrative fight. There is a lot of improvement, but we cannot be complacent.
Can insurgency be uprooted totally?
Why not? They are just raising certain issues. In Tripura, the tribals are mainly raising development-related issues. The young tribals are being used by our enemies. They say that there are no schools, hospitals, irrigation, power, etc. But the Left Front has undertaken developmental works. We are trying to remove the gap between the rural and urban areas. We are trying to develop basic infrastructure—road, water, power, hospital, school, irrigation, housing, etc. People can actually see the difference that we are trying to make—and that is why even parents of young boys who have joined the armed struggle and living in the jungles are asking them to return home. We regularly speak to the parents and counsel them to tell their children to shun the path of violence. In fact, parents are taking initiative.
Is it that easy?
No, it is not that easy. We had to work towards it for years. We did not depend on the security forces, rather we depend on the common people. Had they not come forward, security forces couldn’t have achieved it. One has to inculcate confidence amongst common masses and we have been working on it for long. They (insurgents) raised ideological and political questions that we debunked. We have undertaken developmental work that they had raised. We have told them to join the mainstream, to talk to us so that there is no stumbling block to talk to the Centre; if necessary we can take them to the Centre. This has been our line of approach.
Therefore, politically, ideologically, administratively, I have been organising common people. Uneven development has caused the problem. One needs to show positive approach towards their demands, endeavour to serve the people, and be transparent and not corrupt. If there is genuine interest in removing insurgency, we should listen to their problems with patience and sincerely work with deliverable objectivity.
Is it true that the entire railway line is coming up in Tripura when the BJP is at the Centre?
Absolutely wrong. I was put behind bars thrice when I was a college student for raising the issue of the railway line. Before the partition, people of Tripura used to visit mainland via Dhaka. But it got cut off after partition. I raised it with Rajiv Gandhi also but he listened only for two minutes. It has been a long struggle and ice started melting when Madhu Dandavate was the railway minister.