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In Tripura, why the IPFT is crucial for the BJP?

Since 2016, it has become apparent to political observers in the state that IPFT will be a factor in the future. Particularly after ethnic clashes between the tribals and the Bengalis saw at least 30 people injured and 15 vehicles, torched in Agartala onAugust 23.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | New Delhi |
September 25, 2017 2:24:16 pm
tripura, ipft, tripura agitation, tipraland, agartala, twipraland, highway blockade, railway blockade, indigenous peoples front of tripura, northeast protest, separate statehood protest, indian express IPFT(Indigenous People Front of Tripura) and other tribal wings during a road and rail blockade movement programe on the demand of saperate state.

For the BJP in Tripura, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) – the party whose blockade became the site of the murder of TV journalist Santanu Bhowmik in Mandai in Tripura’s Khowai district last week- is the key to the 2018 assembly elections in the state.

The IPFT was formed in 1996 after the separatist group, the National Liberation Front of Tripura, was banned and faced a massive crackdown from the police. Four years later, the IPFT had their first major electoral victory, winning the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council elections which administers the tribal areas in the state.

A year later, it joined forces with the Tripura Upjati Juba Samiti, the state’s first tribal party and later with the Tribal National Volunteers – a militant group turned political party– to rename themselves as the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT).Twpira was one of the largest historical kingdoms in north-east India and the demand for a separate state for Twipra or Twipraland has been at the heart of secessionist politics in the state for decades.

In 2003 and 2008, the INPT lost successive elections, resulting in massive defections and eventually a split, with the IPFT once again carving itself out. While speaking to The Indian Express in August 2016, NC Debbarma, the chief of the party had explained the split and said, “It was very simple, we wanted Twipra for the tribals, they didn’t.

Since 2016, it has become apparent to political observers in the state that IPFT will be a factor in the future. Particularly after ethnic clashes between the tribals and the Bengalis saw at least 30 people injured and 15 vehicles, torched in Agartala on August 23. This was days ahead of by-polls to a seat under the state’s tribal autonomous body in the Simna-Tamakari Assembly was held on August 26. The violence had centred around a massive rally organised by the party where party chief NC Debbarma underlined that the party would “stick to the demand for separate land for the indigenous people”.

The Simna-Tamakari Assembly by-polls The Left won the by-elections for the Simna-Tamakari assembly seat. However, the victory offered little comfort to the ruling party. The order INPT- which Left leaders described as more “malleable” to their electoral demands – appeared to have been clearly replaced by the IPFT as the state’s indigenous people’s party. With the support of the BJP, the party had fast become the Left’s biggest challenges in Tripura’s key tribal districts.

The result saw the CPI(M) win by a margin of 582 votes, an increase of 73 votes since the last elections in 2015. The Left candidate Kumud Debbarma secured 9,260 votes, IPFT candidate Mangal Debbarma got 8,678 votes. The next-closest candidate was INPT’s Nirmal Debburman with 1,066 votes. No other party breached the 200-vote count. Prior to the elections, the BJP after initially announcing their candidate – Kishore Debbarma – decided that it would “unofficially” support the IPFT in a bid to not “weaken” the anti-Left vote.

But party leaders from across the party spectrum had earmarked the election, noting that it mirrored the changing political scenario in the entire state – a rapidly rising IPFT trying to wrest CPI(M)’s control over the tribal areas while replacing the INPT. Led by former guerrilla leader of the Tripura National Volunteers Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, the INPT’s decline appeared to have been sealed. With the IPFT making clear that their demand wasn’t just for “greater autonomy” of Tripura’s sole autonomous council but a separate state of Twipra, the political relevance of IPFT can no longer be ignored.

Enter BJP

That disrupting the Left’s hold over the tribal-dominated ‘hilly’ seats of Tripura is key for the BJP, is something that the party has been well aware of. In the past few months, the BJP has been courting both the IPFT and the INPT, periodically, in the hope of creating an alliance to challenge the Left, said sources. According to BJP leaders, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma, who is also the Convener of the North-East Democratic Alliance has held talks with the two parties for the formation of an alliance with the BJP for the state assembly elections due in March 2018.

A formal alliance is still uncertain, perhaps even unlikely, said BJP leaders, with sections of the party maintaining that where the IPFT was strong, they might not contest, choosing instead to indirectly support the regional outfit. “There will be a division between the tribal and the non-tribal population of the states which will aid the BJP,” said one senior BJP leader.

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