Pranab Debbarma, 45, is leading a rally of around 500 tribals, some carrying a red flag, some wearing a red cap and others with red bandanas on their foreheads. The tribals are walking the serpentine hilly tracks, chanting slogans in favour of Debbarma —the Left Front candidate from Simna in West Tripura district, not too far from the India-Bangladesh border. He has won the seat for four consecutive terms, the first time in 1993 at the age of 25 to become Tripura’s youngest MLA.
“I will surely win again because the tribals believe in the Left Front and we have delivered. Our Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is leading the state towards stable governance and development, and the fact that we tamed the insurgency is no joke. The tribals will make sure the Left Front retains power,” says Debbarma.
Simna was once a hotbed of tribal insurgency. Until 2005, the All Tripura Tigers Force ruled the roost here, and in 1997, the underground rebels had kidnapped Debbarma. “They took me blindfolded to their hideout in Bangladesh,” he recalls. “I was captive for 11 months. Their plan was to put pressure on the Left Front government by kidnapping me, but I managed to flee.”
In 2011, Tripura witnessed only a single death at the hands of the rebels, as per police records, a sharp contrast to the 514 fatalities recorded in 2000, when insurgency was at its peak. “Now, anyone can drive from Agartala (the capital) to Simna even in the evening. Earlier, someone who dared to do this would surely be abducted by the rebels,” says Kamala Debbarma, 32, a CPM supporter. She is so confident of the Left Front’s triumph that she has invited the villagers to join her in a victory rally to be held in the local market on 28 February when the results are declared.
Her confidence is backed by history. In the 2008 Assembly polls, the Left Front won 49 out of the 60 seats, including 19 of the 20 seats reserved for tribals. This huge mandate was thanks to the Left’s success in rural Tripura, particularly the tribal areas, which comprise 83 percent of the state’s area. Although the tribals are a minority (9.93 lakh out of the 36.71 lakh population), they have ensured six Left Front governments out of the total eight that the state saw after attaining full statehood in 1972. With insurgency on the wane, the Left Front is now in a far more ‘secure’ position in the tribal areas.
“The tribals are our strongest base and they will once again keep faith in us,” says CPM state secretary Bijan Dhar. “In the 2010 polls to the Autonomous District Council for tribals, we swept all the 28 seats; in the 2011 polls for the village committees in district council areas, we won 472 of the 527 village committees. Two decades ago, infrastructure like roads, schools and drinking water were absent from rural areas. Now, they are all available.”
When insurgency in Tripura is in its last legs, rebels are not out of the fray. If the Left Front has fisheries minister Khagendra Jamatia, a former rebel turned CPM leader, in the poll battle, a prominent face of insurgency in Tripura Bijoy Kumar Hrankhwal is fighting a battle of political survival from Ambassa constituency in Dhalai district. He is the only legislator of his party Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT). “We had to take up arms because tribals were alienated from development. When the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted us to join the mainstream we came overground but I later decided to join politics because the Left Front has always oppressed the tribals. Hence, others also took up arms just like I did,” says Hrankhwal, who in December 1978 launched the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV). The rebel outfit carried out several killings till Hrankhwal signed a tripartite peace accord in August 1988.
Even before the merger of the erstwhile princely state with the Indian Union in 1949, the tribals in Tripura saw an armed struggle driven by Leftist ideology and led by Dasarath Deb of the Ganamukti Parishad. In 1952, Deb won the Lok Sabha poll from East Tripura on a CPI ticket. After the 1964 split in the CPI, Deb joined the CPM and founded the Tripura Rajya Upajati Ganamukti Parishad, the tribal frontal organisation of the Left Front in the state.
Deb and his comrade Nripen Chakraborty built the Marxist base. In 1978, Chakraborty formed the first Left Front government riding on the wave of tribal support. The Left managed to cling on to power until 1988, when the Congress and the tribal outfit Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS) came to power. Five years later, the Left Front came back to power and Deb became the first, and till date, Tripura’s only tribal chief minister. Deb and Chakraborty are now dead, but the Ganamukti Parishad, with 1.5 lakh members, remains the Left’s strongest pillar in Tripura.