Big trouble in the left’s last post

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A Congress-led rally over a medical college bungle ended brutally for 85 people, including students. Ratnadip Choudhury finds out what this says about the Left government in Tripura

No stone unturned: A protester being hunted out from a gutter and beaten ruthlessly
No stone unturned: A protester being hunted out from a gutter and beaten ruthlessly, Photo:Manish Acharjee

A RALLY LED by the Congress, the main opposition party in Tripura, ended in a bloodbath last week, with more than 85 people, including journalists, injured in a brutal onslaught by the men in uniform. While the national media hardly took note, a photo-stringer working for TEHELKA managed to capture the horrendous events on camera, even as he himself came under attack.

Ever since the Left Front lost to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the situation in Tripura has been tense. This is the only one state in the country now ruled by the Left, Chief Minister Manik Sarkar having held sway since 1998. Even when other parts of the smallest Northeastern state were ripped apart by sustained tribal insurgency over three decades, the state capital Agartala had remained by-and-large peaceful. However, in just a week, it has become a battle zone.

The chain of events began two months ago when the Congress exposed chronic bungling in medical education. Tripura has two medical colleges: the trust-run Tripura Medical College (TMC) and the government-run Agartala Government Medical College (AGMC). The admission procedure and fee structure in the two institutions are poles apart and the general perception is that this is not justified as the government funds both. Earlier, Health Minister Tapan Chakraborty had justified the exorbitant fees in TMC saying that it was not a government-run college, but was run by a society.

“My brother was coming home in a shared autorickshaw when the vehicle was stopped near MBB College,” relates an agitated Arindam Chakraborty, a local youth. “A police officer named Jahangir Hussain and six other cops dragged my brother out of the vehicle and started beating him up. He pleaded that he is neither a student of the college, nor a Congress worker. But they beat him up so bad that now he is battling for life in the ICU.”

“If TMC is run by a society, how can the state government allocate Rs 28.33 crore covering both Plan and non-Plan expenditure in the current year’s state budget?” asks the leader of the Opposition and Congress MLA Ratan Lal Nath. Despite criticisms, the private college continues to charge an exorbitant fee of Rs 20 lakh for the course compared to Rs 5 lakh at the state-run AGMC.

“On the instruction of the Supreme Court, the state government has formed two committees headed by retired high court judges,” Health Minister Tapan Chakraborty told reporters later in Agartala. “These committees have been looking after the admission and fee issues in the TMC.” This clearly indicates that even the state government admits that there are anomalies with the admission and finances of the TMC.

No stone unturned: A protester being hunted out from a gutter and beaten ruthlessl
No stone unturned: A protester being hunted out from a gutter and beaten ruthlessly, Photo:Manish Acharjee

The Opposition had asked for a judicial probe and cancellation of the Common Entrance Test (CET) for admission to the college. The state government turned it down. On 10 July, the day of the CET, the Congress launched a protest rally near the test centre — MBB College. Since prohibitory orders had been imposed, the protesters were arrested and brought to a school by Tripura Police, Tripura State Rifles (TSR) and CRPF personnel. “We courted arrest along with senior Congress leaders. All of a sudden, police resorted to lathi charge,” recalls Jayanta Roy.

“Cops beat up unarmed protesters in an inhuman way, till they bled. When we tried to take pictures, the security personnel attacked us, beat us, snatched our cameras and threatened to kill us,” recounts TEHELKA’s photo-stringer Manish Acharjee, who was badly hurt.

When the injured protesters were taken to GB Pant Hospital, say city locals, the TSR jawans tried to attack them while emergency medical treatment was being provided. They further allege that state Transport Minister Manik Dey used a few leaders of the newspaper hawkers’ union to stop circulation of local dailies so that the news of police hooliganism could not spread across the state.

The next day, 11 July, as mediapersons discussed the attack on journalists with the state Director General of Police (DGP) K Saleem Ali, the Congress took out a silent protest rally. The rally turned violent as it neared the West Agartala Police Station. The people ransacked the police station and pelted stones. The police resorted to lathicharge and brick-batting. TSR jawans suddenly started firing to disperse the mob. Papai Saha, a Congress activist, was killed in the firing and 45 people, including 15 policemen, were injured. Two Congress MLAs, Sudip Roy Burman and Ashis Saha, were also seriously injured. Prohibitory orders had to be imposed in the entire city.

“The problem with the Left is that the party cadres want to control everything,” is the analysis of former Left Front MP from Tripura, Ajoy Biswas. “Manik Sarkar is doing what Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee did in West Bengal, thus the government’s downfall has begun,” he concludes. Here too, the ruling party has total control over the unions, the police and the bureaucracy. Sarkar himself has held the home portfolio for a decade now.

DGP K Saleem Ali, defending the police action, said that instructions were to stop the protesters at any cost. TEHELKA has further learned from central intelligence sleuths that the order to use brute force came right from the CM’s office. According to unconfirmed leads, CPM cadres mingled in the rally and attacked the police station to provoke the confrontation.

The Left Front has been in power in Tripura since 1993. CPM poster boy Sarkar has been chief minister since 1998, engineering Tripura’s tryst with development and peace. Considered an honest leader with little bank balance or property, this eloquent Marxist is becoming increasingly unpopular as anti-incumbency sentiment brews. Insiders say that there are huge differences within the party on this issue but the CM is not lending an ear.

More and more, it seems like Tripura’s Sarkar, in his trademark white kurta pajama, is walking in the footsteps of West Bengal’s Bhattacharjee, who used the cops ruthlessly to suppress any political movement and cared little about inner party democracy. One more historical blunder in the making?

With inputs from Ramananda Ray Acharya in Agartala.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
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