He has ruled Tripura for the past 16 years and has been lauded for his spartan lifestyle. Yet, when he chose to publish his memoir, controversy caught him in the most unexpected manner. Manik Sarkar — the poorest chief minister in India — found himself in the eye of a storm when schools across the state prescribed his memoir as part of the syllabus.
On 2 June, the additional director of school education department issued an order, asking education officers in all the eight districts of the state to buy Atit Diner Smriti (Memoir from the Past) written by the chief minister, and another book written by former chief secretary SK Panda. Schools were asked to fund the purchase by using money from the Centrally-funded Rastriya Mydhamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) scheme.
An internal inquiry by the state education department found out that Deputy Director of School Education Ambalika Dutta and Additional Director of School Education DK Debbarma had issued the order without proper sanctions. While Dutta has been suspended, Debbarma was let off with a warning.
“We have found out that the orders were issued without prior permission, so we have taken action and also cancelled the order,” says School Education Director PK Chakraborty.
But the cover-up did not save Sarkar from being targeted by his political opponents. The main Opposition party the Congress, and the BJP, which is slowly making its presence felt in the state, brought serious allegations against the chief minister’s office for trying to influence the government to buy books written by the chief minister and former chief secretary Panda. Panda, who is now posted in the Ministry of Textiles in New Delhi, is known to be a close confidant of Sarkar.
The issue came to light when the education department initiated an inquiry into a case of embezzlement of funds under the RMSA.
“It could not have happened that the education department decided on its own to order the books. We suspect that the chief minister’s office might have been the brain behind this,” alleges Ratan Lal Nath of the Congress. The BJP has gone a step further by taking the issue to the Prime Minister’s Office and Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani. Sources suggest that the allegations raised by the Opposition have more to it than mere political rhetoric.
Unlike other leaders from the Left, who have published their memoirs through the party’s in-house publication wing, a renowned Agartala-based publisher published Sarkar’s memoir. According to sources, the publisher approached people within the government to ensure that the book sells in large numbers.
The very decision of the chief minister to publish the book through a private commercial publisher has raised doubts. “If the chief minister’s office tried to influence the sales of his personal memoir, then it is morally incorrect. The chief minister ought to clear the air on this. If true, it would be case of misuse of high office,” says Ajoy Biswas, a former Left MP from the state.
The BJP has also picked up a debate whether the book written by the chief minister has any relevance in the school education curriculum. “You cannot prescribe a book for school students only because the chief minister wrote it. It needs to have merit. Under what criteria was the book recommended?” asks Sudhindra Dasgupta, state president of the BJP.
Intentional or unintentional, his memoir has landed Sarkar on the wrong foot and his larger-than-life image has taken a beating.