After several months of parleys, including at the Prime Minister’s level, BJP and a local tribal outfit called Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) have come out with a minimum common programme for contesting the upcoming Tripura Assembly polls to be held on 18 February. It is incredible that the BJP, which endlessly declares itself as a ‘nationalist’ and ‘patriotic’ force, should ally with an openly separatist group in a border state. Perhaps, its electoral ambitions are overwhelming, or perhaps all this talk of nationalism is just talk.
Although people of Tripura know IPFT inside out, for the rest of the country its history and record is hazy at best. So here’s a short history of BJP’s latest election buddy.
IPFT, was founded in the late 1990s by Harinath Debbarma and N C Debbarma after they quit an existing tribal organization called Tripura Upjati Juba Samiti (TUJS). Harinath Debbarma was the founding chief of the so-called ‘Independent Tripura Government’ that was announced in Tripura Star, a weekly newspaper edited by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhwal, founder of the outlawed terrorist outfit Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) in the 1980s. While in TUJS, H. Debbarma had called for extradition of Bengalis from Tripura in 1980. He also led a violent attack during the Tribal Autonomous District Council (TADC) elections in 1990, getting the election rigged. In the 2000 elections to the TADC got help from the armed National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in terrorizing tribals in order to win the elections. The NLFT was backed by the outlawed TNV.
The other IPFT leader Narendra Chandra Debbarma was Director of the Agartala station of All India Radio. He was widely reported to have strong sympathies with extremists and reportedly visited in Bangladesh.
It is worth recalling that the period of 1998 to 2007 saw a tide of bloody violence unleashed in Tripura by various extremist organisations. Over 2200 people were killed, most of them tribals, although the extremists were supposedly fighting for tribal rights. It was only due to the astute leadership of the Left Front, and the wisdom of tribal people, that these activities failed miserably and the violence was finished off. The IPFT today is the new avatar of those involved in the violent period.
In 2002, IPFT merged with TUJS to form the Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT). In 2003, INPT formed an alliance with Congress to contest the Assembly elections winning 6 seats in the 60 member Assembly. Before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, NC Debbarma quit the INPT and revived IPFT. It continued to contest TADC, Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, losing badly in all. It also continued to suffer a series of splits with various leaders hiving off and forming their own outfits like National Conference of Tripura, Tripura People’s Front, Tipraland State Party, Twipra Dophani Sikla Srwngnai Motha, etc. Most of these splits took place because of personal rivalry which came to a head usually when some election or other was taking place. Some leaders joined the BJP too.
Ultimately, last year the remaining IPFT split again because one faction accused NC Debbarma of taking money from BJP to align with them. It is this ‘NC’ faction that is now in alliance with BJP for the Assembly polls. Another faction called the Tripraha group of IPFT has meanwhile formally merged with the BJP.
Despite all the splits, mergers and infighting that has dogged IPFT its politics is defined by the following principles:
1. Separate state of Tipraland to be carved out of Tripura and encompassing the present tribal areas.
2. Throwing out Bengalis from Tripura, especially from tribal areas.
3. Aligning with any party – Congress or BJP – to counter the Left Front.
4. Strong support to the Tripura royal dynasty and denial of the despotic exploitative role of the royalty in exploitation of tribals.
5. Easy resort to violence against whoever opposes it, including tribals.
The IPFT carries within it the legacy of some of the worst aspects of Tripura’s history, including fanning flames of ethnic conflict, linking up with other separatist organisations including outlawed ones operating from beyond India’s borders, and an unquenchable thirst for personal power at the cost of its own declared principles.
In August 2013 it organized an aggressive and violent procession in Agartala raising poisonous anti-Bengali slogans and raising the demand for separate Twipraland. Since 2017, IPFT has become super active with an eye on the Assembly polls. It may have also been encouraged by national parties, themselves looking to make a headway in the Left dominated state. In July 2017, IPFT held a two week blockade of the National Highway, the sole connecting road link between the state and the rest of the country, causing disruption in supply of essential commodities to the state.
"Since 2009, we have been agitating for a separate state carved out by upgrading the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) areas. The Left Front government in the state and the previous UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government at the Centre did not give importance to our demand," NC Debbarma said at the blockade even as he sent IPFT General Secretary Mevar Kumar Jamatia and the party's youth wing President Dhananjoy Tripura to New Delhi to meet central government leaders.
The blockade was lifted after talks with Central Govt. including Home Minister Rajnath Singh and the PMO office. At the lifting of blockade, NC Debbarma assured the gathered tribals that “‘Twipraland’ was soon going to be a reality”.
This short history of BJP’s new found partner in Tripura exposes the BJP’s opportunism as also hypocrisy. Thankfully, despite all the money being channelized to the state by BJP and fear of violence by the likes of IPFT, this unholy alliance appears to be heading for a defeat.