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Tripura Elections: Meet Bijoy Hrangkhawl, The Tipra Motha Chief Who Gave Up Gun To Be Kingmaker In Democracy

Tipra Motha President Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl was once the leader of underground Tripura National Volunteers (TNV). However, he now says the gun is not the best way to achieve his goal of a separate tribal state in Tripura called Tipraland.

Tipra Motha President Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl
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The name of Tipra Motha President Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl once used to strike Terror in the hills of Tripura. However, today he is poised to be a kingmaker in upcoming Tripura assembly elections. 

Hrangkhawl is now the Presdident of Tipra Motha, a tribal party in Tripura, which was helmed the demand of a separate tribal state called Tipraland. He now says "gun was not the best way" to achieve that goal. 

The Tipra Motha may well emerge as the kingmaker in a three-cornered upcoming Tripura assembly elections. Tripura will go to polls on Thursday and counting of votes will be held on March 2. The election would be the first in 2023 that has nine assembly elections lined up which will set the tone for 2024 general elections. 

Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl's militant past

The frail figure of the 76-year-old Hrangkhawl now does not give a hint that this man ruled Tripura's forests with gun. He was the leader of underground Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) in 1980s until he signed a peace accord with the then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 and enetered mainstream politics, noted Rediff News in an article in 2003. 

In March 1983, Hrangkhawl had written to the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: "Armed insurgency was necessary to reach your heart. Either you deport all foreign nationals who infiltrated into Tripura after 15 October 1947 or settle them anywhere in India other than Tripura... We demand a free Tripura."

Hrangkhawl started his political life as organising secretary of the ethno-nationalist tribal Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti in 1967 and then became the leader of its militant wing Tripura Sena in 1977, soon after the Left Front came to power in the tiny border state after decades of Congress rule.

Within two years, this militant group broke away from TUJS and evolved into TNV, an extremist force, with help from Mizo rebels.

On June 1980, an attack by tribals saw the massacre of 255 plainsmen at Mandai, 30 kms to the north of Agartala. One front page newspaper headline of that time screamed 'Well-planned human slaughter’, focusing a transient spotlight on this remote part of India.

Since that landmark event, the militant leader’s arrest, and release, splitting-up of TNV, surrender by former colleagues who formed the rival All Tripura People’s Liberation Organisation, and a revival of TNV became part of Tripura terror folk-lore.

A Tripura Police report on ‘Emergence of militancy and its phases’ said TNV “attacks were directed at killing non-tribals and security personnel, and looting arms and ammunition”.

Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl's life in politics

Reversing his original stance, Hrangkhawl signed a peace pact with Rajiv. The accord led to his surrender with 447 followers and formation of a new party –The Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipraland– and the inclusion of more areas in an existing tribal autonomous district council, along with more seats reserved for tribals in the state legislature.

Hrangkhawl told PTI, "I knew that the gun was not the best way, but for some reasons, I had to take it up. At least 50-60 cases were hanging on my head. Democracy is the better way. A constitutional solution (to demands for a separate state) is better,” he reflected, adding, “maybe by taking up arms, I lost some years in attaining (this aim)."

In an exclusive interview to PTI in Tripura's Dhalai, Hrangkhawl said, "When I started fighting in the 1960s, people dubbed me anti-Bengali."

Waving his hands in the air, Hrangkhawl said, "I (have since) proved with my work that I am not communal. In the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTDAC), has any Bengali or other outsider been attacked?"

Demands of Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl

Hrangkhawl told PTI, "We are demanding that the TTADC areas be upgraded to a state like Meghalaya."

Allaying fears that the large numbers of non-tribals, who would also become residents of the new state being sought, could face problems, Hrangkhawl said, “We can accommodate tribals, non-tribals, Bengalis, everyone… we have even put up 13 non-tribal candidates from Tipra Motha.”

Bengalis constitute the majority in Tripura and many of them live in large numbers in the tribal autonomous district, whose map was changed by the 1988 accord to include areas with mixed population.

While some of the Bengalis who were dubbed ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’ by tribal parties such as Tripura Rajya Adivasi Sangha (1953) and TUJS, have lived here for centuries, many others came from Comilla in Bangladesh, where the Maharaja of Tripura also owned vast estates, as well as from Sylhet and Chittagong as refugees during the partition of the country in 1947.

Explaining why his party wanted a separate state, HrangKhawl said, "On the basis of population, tribals account for nearly a third of it, so why don’t they (authorities) give us one third of the budget? Tripura’s budget is for Rs 27,000 crore, yet they wanted to give Rs 5,000 crore and actually ended up giving us just Rs 1,000 crore."

Other parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, and the CPI(M) are willing to concede more executive, financial and legislative powers, possibly through an amendment to the Constitution – called the 125th amendment – but Hrangkhawl, the old campaigner, is not satisfied.

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“More powers is part of the process… but finally we have to have a separate state with a legislature,” said Hrangkhawl.

The importance of Tipra Motha in polls

Dr Biswaranjan Tripura of Centre for Social Justice and Governance at Tata Institute of Social Sciences noted that Tipra Motha "drastically changed the indigenous politics in the state by first forming the government in the TTAADC in 2021, being the single largest regional political party in the state".

Tipra Motha has emerged as the leading party of Tripura's tribal people, who have repeatedly seen parties raising their issues and failing to act on them after elections. 

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Tripura notes that the Tipra Motha has the potential to change the future of state politics.

"The TIPRA Motha has the potential to shape the current indigenous politics in Tripura, provided it remains fully-committed to its core ideology, continue to struggle politically for the rights of the indigenous people of Tripura, and honestly pursue a permanent constitutional solution for its constituents," noted Tripura in an article for Outlook.

(With PTI inputs)

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