Rampant immigration has eroded Tripura’s cultural identity, provoking a violent backlash. Avalok Langer discovers four lives that were transformed in the process
When their worst nightmare became a reality, they lashed out. A slow and steady influx of Bangladeshi refugees has converted Agartala, the capital of this once tribal kingdom into a ‘Little Bengal’. ‘The Tripura Phenomenon’ could well become the future of other Northeast states.
The liberation of East Pakistan compounded the immigration problem created during Partition. With the immigration rate shooting up to 10,000 refugees a month, the tribal share of the population (50.09 percent) in 1941 fell to 28.44 percent by 1981. The loss of communal dominance, political power and the erosion of the tribal Kok Borok culture have resulted in a deep-seated resentment among the Tripura tribals.
Opposition to the influx of East Pakistanis was seen as early as 1947 in the shape of Seng Krak (Clenched Fist), Tripura’s first tribal militant organisation. But the armed struggle only came to the fore under the leadership of Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, a member of the Tripura Upajati Juba Samati (TUJS).
After substantial jail time and a hiatus of sorts in the Burmese jungles, Hrangkhawl formed the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) in 1981. It was only when the TNV came overground and joined the political mainstream that the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), the present avatar of Tripura’s underground, was born.
‘People used to walk in and urinate over me when I was in jail’
Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl
MLA, INDIGENOUS NATIONALIST PARTY OF TRIPURA
Adjusting the frame of his spectacles, he stared at the business card I had handed him. His gaze alternated between the card and us, seemingly sizing us up. Satisfied, the former ‘self-styled’ TNV commander, Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl pointed to my guides as he spoke: “We were young students like them, maybe 20-21. When we came back home after completing our studies, we saw that options were limited. The influx of outsiders had become enormous and no one was checking it. We felt that we had to draw the attention of the Centre to do something to check the immigration, so we started the movement.”
The movement was launched on the basis of land rights. After his initial stint in jail in 1971, the TUJS used democratic methods like civil disobedience and hunger strikes to get the attention of the Centre and succeeded. They met with Central leaders and demanded constitutional safeguards to protect their existence. They presented the Centre with time-bound demands. They were prepared to set up a parallel government and recapture lost land. For this, Hrangkhawl set up a volunteer force, the Tripura Sena.
I have heard that during your time in jail, especially after the riots when the strength of the Tripura Sena was growing, you and your cadres were tortured?
I was out buying fish at the market when I was picked up. I was locked up with 3,000 tribals, most of them innocent. I spent seven months in jail. I told them, “You can hang me, you can kill me, I don’t have a problem, but you can never change my mind.” That period was very dark. My torture was not physical, it was mental. I was forced to live in a dirty toilet. It was filled with faeces and people would walk in and urinate over me. (Rumour has it he had to clean a drunken constable’s vomit with his hands). We weren’t allowed to bathe. We weren’t given clothes. If we asked for a blanket, they would wipe the dirt off their feet on the blanket before handing it to us. Our jailers would cover their hands with cloth and twist the prisoner’s scrotum. I could hear my boys screaming with pain.
They wanted stories, so I told them ‘stories’ from the jungle. I told them that we would send messages by a special system we had created. Our boys would sit on top of trees and then by using flashlights we would send messages from one tree top to another. They also wanted to know how we burnt houses, so I told them that we would use the inedible part of the maize plant because it was soft and when it is dry it is inflammable. We would dry them, light them, tie them to arrows and shoot them into houses. None of this actually happened but I had to tell them something.
When the TNV came overground, you were the commander, your troops were not only large in number but well trained and equipped. What was the logic behind joining the mainstream?
In 1981, I had revived the TNV and we spent eight years in the jungle conducting our armed struggle. But when in 1988, Rajiv Gandhi sent a message, I knew it was time to come overground. From the start I knew arms are not the final solution. I believe that after 10 years an armed struggle cannot survive. We might have taken up arms to fight for the people but with time an armed struggle starts working against the people. There are always selfish individuals who misuse arms to fulfill their monetary and sexual desires. Arms were no longer the answer, so we accepted the prime minister’s olive branch.
Today, you are an MLA of an indigenous tribal party. Why did you enter politics?
Who will cry for us now? The Left Front and the Congress will always toe their party line and there is no one fighting for our people, raising their issues. People need to know this is the land of tribals. The problem starts when you don’t accept or know this, so you want everything to be yours. If you respect me, I will respect you, but there is no mutual respect in Tripura. They are encroaching on our right to employment, our right on land and all the other opportunities that present themselves. How can we accept it? Yes, we have limitations. We know that and they also have their rights but they must share these rights with us.
‘We have to fight for our rights democratically’
BROTHER OF A TRIBAL, WHO WAS KILLED BY UNDERGROUND CADRES
Sachin Kalai sat smiling as we stared at the bullet holes in the door leading into his bedroom. The middle-aged tribal adjusted his wiry frame as he settled into the sofa. A few years ago, members of the underground entered his house and executed his brother. He has opposed armed struggle ever since.
As a tribal, having lost your brother to a pro-tribal underground movement, has your support for the movement died?
We are all victims of circumstances. The people who commit violent acts and those are victimised by them are equally victimised by circumstances. It is in this environment that we have to live in and survive. Based on my experiences, I don’t feel that the solution lies in an armed struggle. We live in a democratic set-up, we have to fight for our rights democratically. Even Hrangkhawl, who went to the jungle and spent many years underground, had to finally join the mainstream. We need to stop wasting time demanding a separate state (independence) and concentrate on fighting for our rights democratically.
‘We don’t know if my daughter is dead or alive’
THE FAMILY OF NLFT CADRE JAMUNA ROPINI
A member of the Garo underground once said, “It takes courage to join an underground movement. You have to sacrifice your family, your youth and the life you could have had, to stay in the jungle to fight for a cause.” But life is also tough for the family left behind. In a village in Tripura, the family of Jamuna Ropini, a cadre of the NLFT, who married a commander of the outfit, tell their side of the story.
Did you want her to something else in life?
BIKRAM SINGH (FATHER) Nobody wants their son or daughter to join the underground. What sort of life is that? It is filled with danger and hardship. Yes, I wish my daughter had chosen another path. It is not only difficult for us to be accepted by society because of her choice, but I wanted something better for her. Look at the situation here, there are no education or jobs. She wanted to join because of that. It was her choice. We couldn’t do much.
Have you ever felt that you should also join the underground?
NITAI (BROTHER) I am a good person. I just want to get a job and live my life. But I am constantly targeted by the police, arrested, questioned, looked at with suspicion. Yes, people from my home have joined the NLFT, but why torture us for it? We don’t know where they are, they don’t keep in touch with us. Then why bang our door down, question us, harass us? What have we done wrong?
Many feel that families of underground cadres get large sums of money. Is it true?
PRAMILA (MOTHER) We haven’t seen our daughter for years. We don’t know if she is dead or alive. We don’t even get a phone call, leave alone large sums of money.
‘I want my kids to be mouthpieces of the movement’
FORMER CAPTAIN, NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT OF TRIPURA
“In a democratic set-up, it is the numbers that count. Today we (tribals) are 30 percent of the population. By 2011, we could become 25 percent or even 20. How will we survive?” asks surrendered Captain Sujalang Jamatia of the NLFT. “Illegal immigration is the root cause and I feel the Indian government is to blame. They should feel responsible, this influx of immigrants is a problem between India and Bangladesh. Why should the tribals of Tripura fight alone?” he asks.
Why did you join the movement?
I was born into the movement, I saw it grow around me. I always supported it on a personal level, but it never occurred to me to join. I am weak and soft, not meant for war. The leaders would come to the villages, hold meetings and tell us about the movement. What changed my mind was what happened after one of the meetings. One of the cadres was shot dead and then the security forces mistreated his body. That image stuck with me. So I decided that even if I am not physically strong, I might be of some use to the movement.
How do you feel now after coming overground in 2004?
I feel like I am at the crossroads of my life. As a common man, this life is much better. But seeing the plight of the people, I feel sad. It hurts that the Central government doesn’t care. The existence of the tribals is threatened, we are losing our identity. In the end we will be converted into Bengalis.
What future do you want for your children?
I was educated in Bangla. I cannot properly express myself to you without a translator. I want my two children to be educated in English so that they can be the mouthpiece of this movement and be heard on a global platform.