Opinion | Will TIPRA Motha’s Rise Result in Bengali Polarisation in Tripura?

In the northeastern state of Tripura, TIPRA Motha of royal scion Pradyot Debbarma has been the point of discussion in political circles. Assembly elections are expected to be held by February next year. Motha, which will be contesting the state elections for the first time, is currently ruling the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) and is the dominating party in the tribal belt. Tribals constitute 31% of the state population and there are 20 Assembly seats reserved for them.

Motha has been focusing on the Greater Tipraland. Although the regional party is yet to particularly specify about the Greater Tipraland, the demand for a separate state definitely has been popular among the tribals. This demand is almost the same as the earlier demand for separate Tipraland. It was evident when the Motha-led alliance came to power in TTAADC last year by winning 18 seats out of 28 and bagged 47% votes.

Some say Motha’s rise may result in counter-polarisation among the majority Bengalis and this may benefit the ruling BJP, which has been grappling with factionalism and anti-incumbency. One can’t deny the possibility of counter-polarisation among the Bengalis given the history of this northeastern state with sharp ethnic divisions. At the same time, one can’t confirm any such counter-polarisation.

In the 2018 Assembly elections, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura of NC Debbarma fought on the agenda of separate Tipraland. It aligned with the saffron party which allotted nine seats in the tribal belt. The CPI(M) thought that the alliance with IPFT(NC) would cost the saffron party in the Bengali-dominated areas. But that didn’t happen.

In the Bengali-dominated areas, voters were polarised between Left and non-Left lines. This happened despite movement by IPFT(NC) for separate Tipraland in the state, including highway and railway blockades in July 2017.

This month TIPRA Motha organised a big rally at the Vivekananda ground, also called Astabal ground. This was the second big rally by the regional party this year. Both times, Agartala was peaceful, unlike the IPFT rally of 2016 when tensions erupted in larger parts of the capital city as the party’s supporters allegedly created mayhem resulting in communal clashes.

This shows the difference between TIPRA Motha and IPFT(NC). One may disagree with its Greater Tipraland demand but it has to be said that Pradyot has been very clear that his party’s demands aren’t against non-tribals.

Not only this, apart from the 20 Scheduled Tribes reserved seats, the party is also likely to contest 15 seats, where there is a sizable presence of tribals.

Even Pradyot knows that to win a couple of seats out of these 15 seats, he needs the support of non-tribals. Even in the 20 ST reserved seats, Bengalis are a factor in around 6-7 seats. Despite Motha winning handsomely in the 2021 TTAADC polls, the BJP won all the three General category seats — Machmara, Dasda-Kanchanpur and Manu-Chailengta — where it had put up candidates from the Bengali community.

In fact, Motha doesn’t command the same kind of support among all 19 ethnic groups of Scheduled Tribes. So, it is not that the entire hills have been under Motha control.

On the other hand, the CPI(M), under its new state secretary Jitendra Chaudhury, the party’s prominent tribal face, has been trying to get back lost tribal base from Motha by focusing on basic issues through its tribal wings — Gana Mukti Parishad, Tribal Students Union and Tribal Youth Federation.

Pradyot is aware that although Motha is currently dominant in the hills, it has many challenges and, to emerge as a major player in a diverse state like Tripura, it also needs support from non-tribals.

Already, the party supremo has said that his party would form Scheduled Caste and minority cells. The party this year had contested the Surma bypoll, a seat reserved for Scheduled Castes, and stood second after the BJP. The seat has a sizable percentage of ST voters, who voted for Motha candidate Baburam Satnami.

However, it also showed the sincere attempts of the party to get support from the non-ST voters. Importantly, Motha’s Agartala rally this month was also attended by a good number of Muslims.

The BJP, which has been alleging that Motha is trying to polarise the tribals in the name of Greater Tipraland, shouldn’t forget that it too allied with IPFT(NC), which contested elections mainly on the issue of separate Tipraland, to dethrone the CPI(M)-led Left Front in 2018.

Obviously, there are attempts to polarise the Bengalis on community lines by showing the fear of Motha but the ground reality suggests that in the plains the polarisation is going to be on political lines — BJP vs non-BJP.

True that separate statehood demand would be one of the main factors but basic issues like unemployment, price rise, food and water crisis, development and pending dearness allowances are too going to be the other major factors in the tribal belt.

One should also look into Pradyot’s statements repeatedly stressing on development of the hills. One shouldn’t forget that, currently, Motha is running the TTAADC administration, which has been facing a severe financial crisis. Obviously, Motha has been blaming the BJP government for not allocating the required funds. However, Motha too can’t just wash away its hands from development of the hills. The saffron party already has alleged corruption in the TTAADC administration to counter Pradyot’s party.

It can be said that despite the emotional slogans of separate state, the basic issues still remain a big priority in the tribal belt and undoubtedly, these issues are going to be important factors for the tribals in the upcoming elections. So, it is unlikely that Bengalis living in the plains are going to vote on community lines ignoring the basic issues like unemployment, development, price rise, water crisis and pending dearness allowances.

Sagarneel Sinha is a political commentator. He tweets @SagarneelSinha. Views expressed are personal

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