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Naked protest: Behind blockade of landlocked Tripura, demographic change and identity politics

The IPFT’s talks with Tripura’s Left government ended inconclusively on Sunday, with the outfit demanding a “concrete assurance” from the Centre on its demand before lifting the blockade.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati |
July 18, 2017 1:28:56 am
tripura, tripura naked protest, tripura ipft protest, twipraland, tripura tribal communities The IPFT agitation has begun to impact the supply of essential commodities. PTI photo

Thirteen years after a dozen elderly women of Manipur staged a naked protest in the heart of Imphal to demand the withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a group of 18 youths in Tripura took the same route last week to press for a separate state for Tripura’s indigenous tribal communities. The youths were members of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), which has been enforcing an indefinite road and rail blockade since July 11 seeking the creation of a separate Twipraland. The IPFT’s talks with Tripura’s Left government ended inconclusively on Sunday, with the outfit demanding a “concrete assurance” from the Centre on its demand before lifting the blockade. Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijuju will meet with an IPFT delegation in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Who are the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT)?

The IPFT was formed in 1997 through the merger of the Tripura Hills People’s Party (THPP), the Tripura Tribal National Conference (TTNC), the Tripura Tribal Students’ Federation (TTSF) and the Tripura Upajati Karmachari Samity (TUKS), with the avowed intention of protecting the rights of Tripura’s tribal communities. In 2000, the IPFT won 18 of the 28 seats in the Tripura Tribal Autonomous Areas District Council (TTAADC) elections. The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), an armed underground militant group, had announced that it would not permit other parties to contest, largescale violence and at least 75 deaths had followed, and after even the handful of candidates that the Congress had put up failed to campaign, only the Left Front and IPFT were left in the fray. The LF, which has been in power in Tripura since 1998, won the remaining 10 seats.

In 2001, the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV), a group that had launched a movement for a sovereign Tripura in 1978, merged with the IPFT. A year later, following the merger of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), an ally of the Congress, with the IPFT, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) came into being. The INPT won six seats in the Assembly elections of 2003.

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Over the next few years, the INPT split, and several leaders for other parties. Before the 2009 Lok Sabha election, N C Debbarma, a former director of All India Radio, Agartala, revived the IPFT and announced its primary motive would be to fight for a separate Twipraland for Tripura’s indigenous tribals. The IPFT has contested Assembly, TTAADC and Lok Sabha elections, but has never made an impact.

But what is the basis for the demand for a separate Twipraland?

Tripura is home to 19 tribal communities, divided by the Tribal Research Institute, Agartala, into ‘aboriginals’ and ‘migrants’. Twelve — the Tripuri, Reang, Jamatia, Noatia, Lusai, Uchai, Chaimal, Halam, Kuki, Garo, Mog and Chakma — are said to be aboriginals; the Bhil, Munda, Orang, Santal, Lepcha, Khasi and Bhutia are said to be migrants. In 1901, Tripura’s population was 1.73 lakh, with tribals making up 52.89%. In 1941, the population had risen to 5.13 lakh, of which 50.09% were tribals. Independence and Partition led to a massive influx from East Pakistan, reducing the tribals to a minority. According to the 2011 Census, tribals were only 31.1% of the state’s 36.74 lakh people. As the tribals have been pushed into a minority, they have felt marginalised, and one section of their leaders have come to believe that a separate state is the only way out of their situation. Armed militant groups like the TNV, NLFT and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), vowing to fight for tribal identity and security, have carried out a series of attacks on non-tribals.

Another section — including tribal and non-tribals — saw autonomy under the provisions of the Constitution as the best way to protect the interests of tribal communities. The Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) was created, first under the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution in 1979 and then, under the Sixth Schedule in 1984. The TTAADC provides for self-governance for the tribal peoples, as well as internal autonomy, thereby protecting tribal social, economic and cultural interests.

How did the current agitation begin?

The IPFT launched its first movement for Twipraland in 2013, and revived its demand this month by beginning a blockade of railways and highways from July 11. Landlocked Tripura, which is bound by Bangladesh on three sides, is connected to the rest of India only by National Highway 8 and one railway line. Hundreds of trucks carrying essentials like foodgrains and petroleum products have been stranded on the Assam-Tripura border, and Northeast Frontier Railway has cancelled all trains to and from the state.

While the IPFT alleges that indigenous tribal communities have not received any significant development benefits under 19 years of Left rule, the CPI(M) sees a BJP hand in the agitation. It points out that IPFT leaders had met Jitendra Singh, union Minister for Development of Northeastern Region (DoNER) and Minister in the PMO, in May, following which the agitation began. Elections to the Tripura Assembly are due in another six months, and the BJP hopes to expand its footprint in the Northeast.

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