December 09, 2019
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Ethnic Bloodlines

The colour red may prevail if the old genie isn't reawakened

Ethnic Bloodlines
Swapan Nayak
Ethnic Bloodlines
On paper, it is a straight contest in Tripura between the ruling Left Front and the alliance between the Congress and the Indigenous Nationalist Peoples of 'Twipra' (INPT). On the ground, though, the central government—through the army and paramilitary forces—could well essay a role that could swing things in the Left's favour. The Congress manifesto harks back to its 1988 electoral success when its alliance with the tribals—comprising 30 per cent of the state's population—had paid off. In that election, a lethal combination of killings of non-tribals and partisan army action had toppled the Left Front. This time, however, New Delhi's assurance that it will do its best to ensure a violence-free poll may help it retain power.

The INPT's links with the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) are well known and many Congressmen say they cannot understand why the party high command overruled state leader Samir Ranjan Burman's reservations about aligning with it. Says chief minister Manik Sarkar, "It is for a national party like the Congress to explain why it feels it necessary to align with the INPT, whose antecedents are known to everyone here." He goes on to say that he expects "the army to play a neutral role" and that he had the assurance of its chief on this.

It is believed deputy prime minister L.K. Advani himself responded favourably to the Tripura CM's request for additional troops. The Centre's support to the Tripura government makes sound political sense for the bjp. Says a party insider, "Advani would not like to help the Congress win in Tripura, while a Left victory would be no threat to the nda." But, cautions he, "opening a channel of communication with Sarkar or (West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb) Bhattacharya makes it potentially more difficult for the Left to forge its secular third front with the Congress."

The Left Front had swept the 1998 elections, cornering 41 seats in the 60-member assembly. The Congress won in only 13 constituencies. And this time around, though the anti-incumbency factor could work against it, political pundits put the odds heavily in favour of the Left, considering that the Congress has tied up with the political front of a banned extremist group.

If fear was the key to the 1988 assembly elections, the spectre of violence haunts Tripura in 2003 as well, despite the additional troop deployment. In January alone, 20 domiciled Bengalis were killed by tribal extremists. Yet the Congress' dubious alliance gives the Left Front a distinct edge over it. As Gautam Das, editor of the CPI(M) organ , puts it, "This election is really about larger issues like national integrity. The Congress, a national party, must explain why it follows the lead of the INPT, whose advisor is Bejoy Rankhal. It is he who called for an 'Independent Tripura' and the expulsion of all 'outsiders' from the state at a conference in Geneva."

To be sure, there are hurdles in the Left's path. CPI(M) leaders admit their workers have not been able to campaign in some constituencies which have tribal seats because of extremist violence and intimidation by their political opponents. But they estimate only five to six such pockets. They are hoping a demonstration of their government's success will negate any advantage tribal violence would give their rivals and win them the elections.

They tout statistics to highlight their government's performance.According to their claims, irrigation coverage is 22 per cent as against five per cent in 1978; 90 per cent tribal hill villagers now get drinking water supply, drastically reducing the death toll from water-borne diseases from around 400 a year to around 30; every village is being provided with all-weather roads; 55,000 families have been provided cheap housing; 500 buildings have been set up for schools and colleges, well-equipped health centres have been opened up in districts and national highways extended to remote areas.

Their opponents, of course, are all too ready to rubbish these 'achievements'. Says former Congress CM Samir Ranjan Burman: "The Left Front is responsible for the tribal-Bengali divide. There was no communal disharmony under the Congress. The Front's corruption and inefficiency alienated both groups. Over 1,00,000 families belonging to both groups are refugees because of ethnic violence. The Kashmiri Pandits receive Rs 2,500 per family per month whether they live in Maharashtra or Delhi, why has the LF done nothing for the displaced here, or spoken to the Centre?"

Adds INPT secretary Rabindra Debbarma, "The CPI(M) should never accuse others of terrorism. Its leader Dasrath Deb was the first terrorist with a price of Rs 10,000 on his head. Today it speaks of tribal extremism, although the tribes have been brutally exploited, dispossessed of everything in their homeland. Is it extremism to demand justice, dignity, education, health and jobs? Forget slogans like 'Free Tripura' or 'Go home outsiders'. We want an economic package for tribals, as is done for Nagaland or Kashmir. The government asks people to surrender and then offers them only class IV jobs. Do you consider that enough? It is ridiculous."

The Congress-INPT also allege that there is virtually no law and order in the state beyond Agartala town, with kidnappings (6,000) and killings (10,000) reaching record levels. The Left government, they allege, has totally failed to protect its citizens. (Yet, the pre-electoral violence, with a few exceptions, has targeted Left supporters and workers.) Both the Congress and the INPT have promised to stop ethnic violence and work out a new package for tribals within six months if elected to power. Says Jahar Saha, Congress leader in the assembly, "We shall restore peace in the state between three and six months." Many see it as an unlikely instance. They say if the INPT sweeps all 18 seats it is contesting or does very well, it will stake a claim for chief ministership. If that happens, many fear, it may push for 30 out of the 60 assembly segments being placed under the ST category.

But winning comes later. For one, senior government officials discount violence of the 1988 kind—one of the factors that might help the alliance win—because the Assam Rifles, which is known to be soft towards the tribals, has been kept away from election duty. In fact, it will be the bsf and the CRPF which will be deployed at the time of the polls while the army has already been deployed to dominate sensitive areas. Says a senior bureaucrat, "The army has been patrolling most areas and is deployed at eight sensitive spots. Fifteen bsf companies are also assisting the government. We have effectively plugged the supply lines of extremists. They have problems moving their arms and ammunition. Most recent killings have been isolated attacks, not massacres carried out by killers employing saturation fire."

A Congress-INPT win is something political observers have not even started factoring in yet as a possible post-poll scenario. Nothing short of a miracle or threat of extremist attacks—which could keep voters away—can help the alliance make good on the strength of the INPT's tribal votebank.
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