There is nothing new about the recent bout of violence in Tripura, except that it is immediate in its impact. The battlelines across which this ethnic war is being waged are decades old. And the week-long violence since May 18 in the western district of the state, in which 50 lives were lost, is nothing more than the aggravation of perpetual hostility between the tribals and the non-tribal Bengalis.
Chief minister and cpi(m) leader Manik Sarkar admits as much: "It's not a new problem. Vested interests have been active for several years to divide the tribals and the Bengalis in the state."
His rivals in the recently-formed Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (ipft), a party floated with the avowed objective of protecting tribal interest, don't agree. Says ipft chief Harinath Debbarma: "The ruling Left Front has been unable to digest its defeat in the recent Autonomous Council elections. So, the day we took oath, the violence began. It is the Left Front which is fomenting trouble between the tribals and non-tribals." He goes on to allege that the ruling Left Front and a new militant group calling itself the United Bengali Liberation Front (ublf) are working in tandem to create fresh trouble so that the ipft is pushed on the defensive. The ublf is a rag-tag outfit comprising fanatical Bengali youth who see no other way but to take up arms to counter the threat posed by tribal extremists. The ipft, however, says that it was the ublf that kickstarted the trouble by killing six tribals mid-May.
Whatever the cause, at least 50 people, most of them Bengalis, have lost their lives in the violence that rocked the Khowai and Teliamura areas of the West Tripura district. Nearly 27,000 people have been rendered homeless and are currently housed in makeshift camps in school and office buildings. Several villages have been deserted because most families have fled the area fearing fresh attacks by the National Liberation Front of Tripura (nlft), a banned organisation. None of the villagers want to go back to their original homes. As Ashis Biswas from Policepara village, currently sheltered in a makeshift camp, says: "We can't go back now unless the government provides us full security." At least 600 families housed in Dhapidayal Bidya Niketan school under Teliamura police station echo similar sentiments.
The tribal-Bengali divide is, therefore, complete. But what exactly is the root of this animosity? Avers chief minister Sarkar: "The source of this tribal-non-tribal schism can be traced to the Partition. An unscientific division of the country has led to this situation." Indeed, the changed demography of the state is the source of the problem. At the time of independence, Tripura, then a princely state, had a little over 50 per cent tribal population.
Post-Partition, the influx of Bengali Hindus fleeing East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh has reduced the tribals to a minority 31 per cent. Moreover, the tribals also trail behind in availing the benefits of development. The Bengalis dominate the political and other social fields. This has led to a groundswell of resentment. More and more radical tribal youths have taken to arms. Frequent attempts at ethnic cleansing by the nlft and another tribal outfit, the All Tripura Tigers' Force, have resulted in massacres over the past decade.
The recent incidents have once again brought to the fore the helplessness of the administration in dealing with this situation. Says Sarkar: "We have, time and again, been telling the Centre to provide us with more security forces, especially the army, but the Vajpayee government has repeatedly ignored our plea. But just sending in forces will not solve the problem. We have been urging the Centre to take a holistic view rather than look at it as a mere law and order problem."
Sarkar may blame the Centre but for the victims of violence the misery is endless. Says Nityananda Debnath (55), who lost both his sons and a daughter-in-law in the May 10 massacre: "I have lost the will to live since there is no one to look after me and my wife." Several others who escaped with their lives have nowhere to go and many of them now await a bleak future. Says Biswas of Policepara: "We have no security in the area and unless the government provides the tsr (Tripura State Rifles, the armed police wing of the state) we will not go back." Indeed, many non-tribals exhibit a distinct lack of confidence vis-a-vis central forces such as the crpf or the Assam Rifles. Indrajit Roy, a resident of Baghber village, says: "The May 20 massacre could have been prevented if the crpf stationed nearby was concerned about our welfare. But that's the last thing on their minds. They openly side with the tribal militants."
With the thorn of bad faith piercing the hearts of both the people and the security forces, it's a free-for-all in the rural areas.
Relief is tardy and security almost non-existent. Although the Centre has promised to send in more forces, the fissures separating the tribals and the Bengalis are so deep that the situation in Tripura is likely to only worsen further.