HOW THE TRIPURIS GOT WIPED OUT BY BANGLADESHI REFUGEES

THE final partition of Bengal in 1947 was a disaster for Tripura. It opened the floodgates of an influx from East Bengal that forever changed the demography of the erstwhile princely kingdom.This demographic change paved the way for a fierce ethnic conflict that has ravaged the tiny state for the past two decades. The independent kingdom also lost its direct geographical link to the Indian mainland and this isolation stunted possibilities of its rapid economic growth despite the availability of key resources like natural gas.
In short, Partition turned Tripura into an insignificant little pariah in India’s backyard whose bark would lack the bite and the noise levels needed to be heard in faraway Delhi. So, more than half a century later, Tripura has less than 80 kilometers of rail and one precariously maintained highway connecting it to the rest of the country - a lifeline that a determined rebel armed action or a fierce landslide can cut off, at least for several days. And with two members in the Indian Parliament, it hardly matters in India’s legislative arithmetic.
Twipra, as the indigenous tribes-people of the state call it, means ‘land besides water.’ In Tripura’s days of yore, some of its kings controlled large tracts of eastern Bengal. Maharaja Bijoy Manikya is said to have ‘taken bath in several rivers of Bengal.’ So, Tripura’s ‘Bengal connection’ is no post-partition phenomenon. When the Manikya kings controlled Comilla and parts of Chittagong, Noahkhali and Dhaka divisions of contemporary Bangladesh, they ruled over tens of thousands of Bengali subjects. In 1280 AD, following the submission of Ratna Fa to Mughisuddin Tughril, the Tripura kings first invited many Bengalis of high caste. Many of them were related to the ‘Baro Bhuiyans’ or twelve warlords
Further, it was not just for the love of Bengali culture and language or to be able to utilize its potential as the lingua franca between several tribes speaking different languages that the Manikya kings encouraged Bengali migration into the hill state. Bengalis helped to organise and maintain the structure for modern administration and the hardy peasantry of eastern Bengal reclaimed, through ‘jungle-avadi leases’, the undulating terrain for wet-rice settled agriculture that would boost royal revenues.
This Bengali migration had started gathering momentum from the beginning of the 20th century. Hence, on the eve of Partition, the indigenous tribes of Tripura were not in a decisive majority like the tribespeople of the neighbouring Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). In the CHT, Bengalis were less than 2% of the population at Partition. But in Hill Tipperah, since the end of the 19th century, they accounted for more than 40% of the population and the tribespeople were barely in a majority. Even in the normal course of migration, the tribes-people would have become a minority in Tripura. But Partition opened the floodgates and speeded up the process. In just two decades, the tribals were reduced to a decisive minority.
The end of princely rule and the introduction of Indian style ballot-box democracy also meant that the tribals would soon be marginalized as far as control over political power was concerned. The king was gone and it would take Tripura more than 40 years to see the first and the only tribal chief minister the state has ever had - Dasarath Deb (at one time known as Raja Dasarath in the hills) who was chief minister for four years after the communists returned to power in 1993.
When the communists first came to power in 1978, the founder of the communist movement in Tripura, Biren Dutta, pleaded with the CPI(M) state committee to make Dasarath Deb the chief minister. But on the intervention of Politburo member Promode Dasgupta, the CPI(M) state committee chose Nripen Chakrabarty. Towards the end of his life, Dutta lamented this decision as the ‘one big mistake by our party in Tripura’ (Biren Dutta, interview with author, 23.4.1987).
He argued that had the CPI(M) made Dasarath Deb the chief minister in 1978, it would have gone a long way to assuage tribal sentiments and reinforce the faith of the tribals in the communist movement. ‘Tribal extremism would never have taken off had Deb been made the chief minister and we would have been able to spread the communist movement to other tribal-dominated states of Northeast. But we missed that great chance by foisting Nripen Chakrabarty who was always described by tribal extremists as the refugee chief minister’ (Dutta, ibid).
In fact, until the communists came to power in 1978, successive Congress governments showed little concern for tribal sensitivities. They allowed thousands of Bengali refugees into core tribal areas earmarked by King Bir Bikram as a Tribal Reserve. The tribals had good reasons to feel marginalized as foreigners in their own land. In 1943, King Bir Bikram had earmarked 1950 sq. miles as Tribal Reserve, but in 1948, the Regent Maharani’s Dewan A.B. Chatterji vide order no. 325 dated 10th Aswin, 1358 Tripura Era (1948 AD) threw open 300 sq. miles of this reserve for refugee settlement. Later, more of these areas would be opened to the refugees.
The communists, when they came to power, took immediate steps to provide the tribals with an autonomous district council under the 7th Schedule and then under the 6th Schedule. That provoked, for the first time, a Bengali backlash as the Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis) emerged as a formidable political force.
Nripen Chakrabarty managed to control the growth of the Amra Bangali by a combination of force and guile but he never measured upto the increasing violence perpetrated by the Tribal National Volunteers (TNV). Finally, his government fell as the CPI(M)-led Left Front lost the state assembly elections in 1988 amidst massive violence unleashed on Bengali civilians by the TNV. Within four months of the Left’s defeat, the TNV walked out of the jungles, signing a ridiculous accord with Delhi that gave the tribals just three more reserved seats in the assembly and barely anything else.
But a pattern had been set. The Left had good reasons to believe that the TNV violence that undermined the Bengali refugee-settler’s faith in the CPI(M) had been deliberately engineered by the Congress government at the Centre. For example, letters between TNV chief Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl and Mizoram’s Congress Chief Minister Lalthanhawla surfaced in the Mizo weekly Zoeng within two months of the Tripura elections, giving clear indication of a pre-poll deal to unsettle the Left. With this a dangerous trend had been set that would be repeated in the future. The linkage between overground political parties and underground rebel groups became an inseparable part of tribal politics in Tripura.
This process climaxed during the elections for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTADC) in 2002 when the separatist National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) unleashed a reign of terror, kidnapped and killed some Left candidates to back the campaign of the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT). The IPFT won the TTADC elections, defeating the Left Front. This was the first time since the formation of the TTADC that the Left was voted out of power. The NLFT has already unleashed a similar campaign against tribal politicians of the Left with an eye on the 2003 assembly elections.
Partition heralded the end of princely rule in Tripura. After the demise of Maharaja Bir Bikram, Tripura’s enlightened and visionary king, the state was ruled by the Regent, Maharani Kanchanprava Devi, on behalf of her minor son Kirit Bikram Manikya Bahadur.
Immediately before Partition, the Regent Maharani got wind of a conspiracy to merge Tripura with East Pakistan. An Islamic party, the Anjuman-e-Islamia, as described in contemporary intelligence reports, was the mastermind behind it. Its leader Abdul Barik, alias Gedu Miah, a rich contractor, had managed to win the support of some key nobles in the palace for his plans. Contemporary intelligence reports, though largely exaggerated, also suggested a nexus between Barik, nobles like Durjoy Karta and the Muslim League, which had been encouraged by its effortless takeover of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But strong resistance by all political parties and organizations linked to them foiled the move as the Regent Maharani, Kanchanprava Devi swiftly signed the Instrument of Accession that made Tripura a part of the Indian Union on 15 October 1949.
The end of princely rule affected all sections of tribals and left them with a sense of ‘being orphaned’ (Manimoy Debbarma, Tripura’s leading private archivist, interview with author, 12.3.1987). Their demographic majority was tenuous, the influx from East Pakistan seemed endless, and the administration of the state from Delhi seemed to depend almost wholly on the Bengali-dominated bureaucracy. Delhi’s attempt to crush the Upajati Gana Mukti Parishad and the fledgling communist movement that had grown round it also aggravated tribal insecurity.
The Communist Party of India (CPI) was then into its armed struggle phase with B.T. Ranadive at the helm of its leadership. Tripura was one of the ‘base areas’ where the party could afford to fight a guerrilla struggle on the strength of the Mukti Parishad which merged with it in 1949. The ranks of the Parishad were strengthened by hundreds of former soldiers of the Tripura Rifles (the disbanded royal constabulary). These soldiers had seen action in Burma alongside British troops and many of them were battle-tested, if not properly armed, when they defected to the Mukti Parishad.
The communists exploited the sense of insecurity felt by the tribals. The emergence of Dasarath Deb as the supreme leader of the tribals had much to do with his projection as a Raja or a King (veteran communist leader Saroj Chanda, interview to author, 16.2.1989). The activities of rapacious Bengali moneylenders like Hari Saha, against whom some violence was perpetrated, added an ethnic dimension to the conflict.
But the communists managed to keep the ethnic groundswell under control. They handled it to great advantage for winning tribal support but never allowed ethnicity to dominate the idiom of state politics. By the time the communists won both the seats from Tripura in the 1952 Parliament elections, they had become the dominant force in Tripura’s politics. Within five years, they were in a position to form a government in the state through electoral means, but were denied that opportunity because there was no state assembly in Tripura.
The Congress, outmanoeuvred in the tribal areas, went out of its way to promote refugee settlements even in areas marked as Tribal Reserve by the late King. Hundreds of Bengali refugee settlements started springing up in the hills, often bearing names like ‘Atharacard’ (Eighteen Cards) or ‘Baiscard’ (Twenty-two Cards) after the number of card-holding refugee families. As a result of this settlement, by 1961, the tribals became a minority.
In two decades, Tripura had become a Bengali refugee state and in 1967, for the first time, the communists lost both the Parliament seats in Tripura, Dasarath Deb losing the East Tripura (Reserved) seat to Congress candidate Kirit Bikram Manikya. The demographic impact of Bengali settlement was beginning to make a political impact. The Congress was edging past the communists on the strength of the ‘refugee vote’.
In 1967, the year the communists lost both the Parliament seats, two political groups surfaced in the tribal areas. The Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS) was born with the slogan ‘Kachak koofoor chung chia, buni tala tanglia’ (We are neither white nor red but we are for the tribal cause). The TUJS challenged the communists in the tribal areas, constantly outradicalising the communists on tribal issues.
The second group, the Sengkrak (Clenched Fist), a tribal militant outfit, first surfaced in North Tripura. Already facing growing Congress support among Bengali refugees, the communists now met a strong challenge from the TUJS and tribal militant groups like the Sengkrak (and the TNV and the NLFT that followed it) in the tribal areas. Caught in a nutcracker, they turned increasingly to winning Bengali support through a combination of employee, student and youth movements. But in the process they slowly surrendered their strongest base areas to the tribal parties and militant groups. So, if Partition gave the communists a great chance to build a political base by utilising the nationality question, it also created an arena for bitter ethnic conflict which subsequently reduced their base.
Over the years, the ethnic conflict between the Bengali settlers and the indigenous tribesmen has only intensified. The massacre at Mandai, in which nearly 350 Bengalis were killed in one night on 5 June 1980, was followed by unprecedented ethnic riots in which more than 1000 people, mostly Bengalis, died. More than 6000 Bengalis have died in violence perpetrated by different rebel groups in the last 20 years, more than 500 kidnapped and released for huge ransoms that have economically crippled their families and hundreds have been declared missing.
The US Committee for Refugees estimates the internal displacement of Bengalis in various parts of Tripura at more than two lakh (US Committee for Refugees, Special Report on Northeast India, compiled by Hiram Ruiz, 2000). Expectedly, Bengalis have started hitting back, though the scale of their retaliation is still minimal. A newly formed group, the United Bengal Liberation Front (UBLF), has bombed vehicles carrying tribals and markets frequented by them.
Though at the helm of power, the communists are fast losing their support. Organisationally, they have all but retreated from the tribal dominated areas to avert NLFT attacks and in the Bengali-dominated areas they are seen ‘either as useless or as anti-Bengali.’ ‘It is because we Bengalis vote for them that the communists enjoy some clout in Indian politics. But these are the people who have, instead of protecting the Bengalis, dropped us before the tribal wolves and let them feast on our rotting flesh. We will punish them as much as the tribal extremists, though we will not touch tribals who are fighting the militants,’ said Bijon Basu, the UBLF chief (Bijon Basu, telephonic interview with author, 6.6.2000).
The RSS has also begun spreading its influence in this disturbed state where the principal insurgent force, NLFT, a follower of the Baptist Church, has openly assaulted Bengalis and tribals who reportedly do not profess allegiance to the church. Three RSS pracharaks were kidnapped by the NLFT and killed. With the Congress in decline and communists under pressure, the UBLF and the saffron groups are leaving no stone unturned to increase their spheres of influence. Post-partition Tripura, therefore, after five long decades remains a hotbed of violent political action where the ruling hammer and sickle is being challenged by tribal insurgency, saffron nationalism and Bengali subnationalism. All four have their roots in the disturbing legacy of Partition.

By Subir Bhaumik (satchitahnand@yahoo.co.in)