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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 24 New Delhi June 2, 2018

Understanding the CPI-M’s Setback in the 2018 State Assembly Elections in Tripura: An Insider’s View

Saturday 2 June 2018

by K.S. Subramanian

The massive defeat of the ruling CPI-M in the 2018 Tripura State Assembly elections by the BJP has led to diverse explanations and interpretations. Unlike the Communist Party in Kerala, which has frequently exchanged power with the Congress party in the State, the CPI-M in Tripura has suffered a massive blow after being in power for an uninterrupted period of 25 years. While the winning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ‘cultural’ wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have gloated over their victory, it is fair enough that in a democracy there should be changing power equations. The defeated CPI-M would need to make an objective and critical assessment of its overall perfor-mance in Tripura.

I was posted in Tripura as the Director General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development (SIPARD) from 1994 to 1997. I have also had earlier the experience of being posted in Tripura during the 1970s. Given this experience, I would like to attempt an account of my understanding on the how and why the CPI-M came to a sorry pass in Tripura and allowed the BJP-RSS combine to run away with the game, set and match as it were. The CPI-M leaders failed to provide a satisfactory account of the anti-incumbency factor.

The SIPARD was an innovative agency set up as part of the Government of India’s effort to promote and speed up rural development training and research in all States. The head of the agency was to be given the status of the Vice-Chancellor of a university with near complete autonomy to carry out his tasks. He would receive financial support directly from the Central Government in addition to making use of funds available from the State governments. In the case of Tripura, of course, I received no financial support from the State Government but was generously supported by funds from the Government of India. Perhaps the Govern-ment of Tripura suspected some sort of conspiracy from the Government of India in setting up these agencies.

My training activities were also supported by professional inputs from the training faculty from the regional branch in Guwahati of the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), Hyderabad. Though efforts were made by the bureaucrats in the Tripura Secretariat to put roadblocks in my way, the SIPARD was well on its way given the Central Government support. I produced a document on my experiences in this regard which was titled ‘Institutional Crisis and Policy Responses’, copies of which were sent to the State and Central governments. This was an opportunity lost by the Government of Tripura in dealing with tribal unrest in the State.

CPI-M Chief Minister Dasarath Deb, who came to power in 1993, died in office in 1998 after a disappointing performance because of old age, poor health and domination by the bureaucracy. Manik Sarkar, who followed Deb, has been a party apparatchik though he is regarded as honest. The government led by Deb and Sarkar has been largely ineffective in addressing the key problems of the State and failed to follow the masterly example set by their predecessor Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty.

A stock response of the CPI-M-led State Government in Tripura to frequent incidents of tribal uprising was to appeal to the Central Government to send additional contingents of Central paramilitary forces to deal with the situation. Other options were available but those were not tried. The bureaucrats in the Secretariat ignored the fact that research facilities available in the SIPARD could be successfully to utilised to understand and deal with the causes of tribal unrest and take necessary action. When incidents take place, the bureaucrats are expected to go to the spot and study the situation and submit reports and recommendations. Unfortunately, the response of the CPI-M Government was mainly in terms of law and order, in fact more order than law. This was not different from the response of the previous Congress governments in the State. Both were dominated by timid Bengali bureau-crats unaccustomed to playing a key role in difficult situations. When serious violent incidents were taking place, a leading CPI-M Bengali intellectual in the Tripura University came out with a statement that the tribal militants were just ‘terrorists’.

Manik Sarkar, without realising the impli-cations of his actions, kept approaching the Central Government for more and more para-military forces. A top cop from Odisha was brought on deputation to head the Tripura Police Force. Former Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty would never have done this since he did not trust the instincts of Bengali top cops in dealing with tribal unrest. When a police chief from Odisha with no previous experience of handling tribal unrest was posted in Tripura, he naturally exposed his ignorance of the situation in the State. Every time a violent incident took place in Tripura, he was allegedly inclined to post more and more security personnel outside his own office without leaving his chair!

During the years from 1999 to 2003 Tripura witnessed the most intense tribal militancy. Two major outlawed groups in the State were on the rampage and continued their militancy and violence by carrying out a campaign of mass killings, extortion, kidnapping, intimidation and arson. While their leaderships were secure in their hideouts bordering Bangladesh, their cadres targeted the ruling CPI-M, security patrols and Bengali settlements.

By the way, Tripura has a 856-km long porous border with Bangladesh. The militant cadres resorted to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against civilians and the State Government. They had the common aim of removal of the Bengali-migrant population from the State. Violence, intimidations and mass abductions took place. CPI-M Minister Bimal Sinha was assassinated and legislator Pranab Debbarma abducted. With a parallel administration running in many parts of the hill regions, total helplessness prevailed in the State Police. (Vohra, 2011)

The Tripura Human Development Report, 2007 admits that as part of security measures a number of police stations and police outposts were declared as ‘disturbed areas’ under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. In addition to local police, battalions of the Central Police Forces were deployed in counter-insurgency operations.

Since 2004, the security scenario in Tripura registered improvement mainly due to the appointment of a veteran counterinsurgency policeman from Assam as Tripura’s police chief. The officer adopted time-tested field operation tactics and used unconventional methods to improve the morale of the Tripura Police. He engineered schisms within the insurgent groups in Bangladesh leading to periodic surrenders by militants. The surrendered militants were moti-vated to stage attack on militant bases across the border. The counter-insurgency operations coupled with cooperation between the State Police and the Indian Army contributed to containing the situation. The TAADC elections in 2005 were held peacefully. (Bhaumik, 2007) Reading through the accounts of the counter-insurgency operations provided by security officials, one is compelled to conclude that the ‘development process’ recorded in the Tripura Human Development Report, 2007 was taking place under highly militarised and inhuman conditions which were far from conducive to win the loyalty and commitment of the tribal people to the so-called ‘development’ underway in the State.

Tripura is the only State in the North-East which has been transformed over successive decades from a predominantly tribal State into a predominantly non-tribal/Bengali-dominated State due to the massive influx of Hindu migrants from bordering Bangladesh. The original inhabitants, the tribal people, who owned the lands but had no records of ownership, became a minority in their own State with the lands passing into the hands of cunning neo-settlers from outside. The emerging ethnic conflict, crucially based on the land issue, was not effectively dealt with by successive Congress and CPI-M governments manned by Bengali officials.

The setting up in the late 1970s of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India for the welfare of the tribal people living in two-thirds of the total land area of the State was ineffective because its funds were controlled by the Bengali bureaucrats in the Secretariat. The political settlement between the Rajiv Gandhi Government in New Delhi and prominent tribal leader, Bijoy Hrangkhwal, to end the militancy, did not work. The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), introduced in the nineties, were the major beneficiaries of the funds made available by the Centre. The TTAADC exists side by side with the PRIs but was not integrated with them. After the Mandai massacre of 1980, a comprehensive report was submitted by a Central team led by a former Chief Secretary of the State but its recommen-dations were not made public.

Former Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty, an unrivalled champion of the tribal cause, was increasingly isolated and finally expelled from the CPI-M, perhaps owing, among others, to the tightening grip of pro-Bengali and anti-tribal interests within the State party.

It is not as if better tribal and rural development specialists were not available in the CPI-M-led State Government, which was continuously in power from 1993. The political executive proved its incapacity to contain the increasingly powerful IAS and IPS officials who dominated the administration.

The rigid ideological-political positions of the party in power inhibited it from taking advantage of the (limited but real) positive elements in the rural development policy of the Government of India. The administrative machinery was inefficient in putting through development projects funded by the Central Government. They surrendered to the counter-insurgency model of development.

In the 1980s, during the CPI-M rule, the National Institute of Rural Development had found that the implementation of an Integrated Rural Development Project in Tripura had achieved financial targets but physical achievement was poor. Further, an evaluation of a Central sector project for wastelands development in the State found that 11 out of the 15 tribal majority villages in the project proposal had been arbitrarily excluded in project implementation and Bengali-dominated villages chosen in their place on the ground that the tribal villages were ‘extremist affected’. The evaluator noted that the exclusion of these villages would lead to the impression that development benefits are not meant for these villages but are meant only for Bengali-dominated villages thus feeding extremist tendencies.

As noted, there was no shortage of good officials in the State willing to work in so-called ‘extremist affected’ villages. More disturbingly, the evaluation found that although more than half the project funds of about Rs 145 lakhs had already been utilised, no officer from the nodal department in the State headquarters, including the one directly in charge of project implemen-tation, had visited any of the project sites. Such findings were disturbing in the light of a claim by the State Government that 73.58 per cent of the State population were below the poverty line!

It was instructive that Debabrata Koloi, a tribal elder, demanded the removal of Chief Minister Dasarath Deb’s statue from the premises of the TTAADC headquarters. Throughout his tenure as CM, Deb remained a prisoner of his ill health, a prisoner of the top bureaucracy and a prisoner of his own Bengali-dominated party. He began to be perceived by the tribal people as having become totally ineffective as the pre-eminent tribal leader of the State. Deb became so ineffective in office that a top bureaucrat taking advantage of his ill-health and his administrative naivete, started functioning virtually as the CM, playing ducks and drakes with the administration and showing scant regard for the CM and the Cabinet. The CPI-M-led State Government again showed a deplorable lack of courage to remove the officer from his position and wasted valuable time in chalking out measures to combat the insurgency situation which had begun to steadily worsen right from 1995. Only after the lapse of a lengthy period of about three years, did the State Government wake up to the deteriorating situation and ask the officer to proceed on leave by which time, in any case, things had gone out of control.

In 1998, a senior official in charge of the North-East in the Union Home Ministry stated to me that the development machinery in the rural areas in the State had totally collapsed. The far-reaching potential of the SIPARD, a parastatal rural development training and research agency funded by the Central Govern-ment, in studying and combating rural development challenges in the context of growing insurgency, remained neglected by power-hungry bureaucrats and the misguided political elite. It is not at all surprising that the development and security scenario in the State was allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that a CPI-M inclined scholar noted that the State was on the ‘brink of a civil war”.

Finally, it must be noted that the communist movement in Tripura in its initial stages played a creative role in mobilising ethnic identities by setting up organisations such as the Jana Mangal Samity (1938), Jana Shikkha Samity (1945) and Tripura Praja Mandal (1946). The organisations opposed the Bengali domination of the bureaucracy of the princely state. The party campaigned for fair distribution of access to resources (land) for the marginalised tribal populations. From these moves emerged the Gana Mukti Parishad (People’s Liberation Organisation), which led a four-year-long armed struggle against the princely administration and the Indian state. It solidified ethnic identities and a Left politics of redistribution. This created its mass base among the tribal population of the State.

In 1978, the CPI-M, which had come to power, altered the development model from one that brought the large base of tribal support and adopted a development projects-led model in which a hydel project on the Gumti river was commissioned.

The devastation caused by the project breached the CPI-M’s earlier alliance with ethnic politics. The 40,000 tribal families displaced by the Gumti project barely received any compen-sation. The environmental damage was immense. By 2007, the dam hardly produced any electricity, the water levels had come down drastically, but the Manik Sarkar Government, perceiving a ‘conspiracy’, was unwilling to distribute these new wastelands among the displaced tribal population. In view of the massive influx of Bengali settlers into Tripura following the 1971 Bangladesh war and the apprehensions it caused among the 19 tribal communities in the State, this was a disastrous blunder, which is yet to rectified.

Secondly, though the CPI-M Government in 1978 recognised the indigenous Kokborok language as the second official language of the State, it refused to allow the tribal people to use the Roman script and insisted on the use of the Bengali script. The refusal to accept the Roman script for the indigenous language as had been done in Nagaland and Mizoram, was perceived by the tribal people to be a manifestation of the CPI-M Bengali elite’s superficial concern for tribal welfare along with its need to ensure its own electoral success in politics. (Anandaroop Sen, March 7, 2018)

The discussion above clearly highlights the failure of the CPI-M to imaginatively utilise the opportunities available to it in Tripura to blaze a trail of ideological and political accomplish-ment and not letting the people of Tripura to fall prey to the blandishments offered by the RSS-BJP combine.


Bhaumik, Subir, 2007, ‘Taming the Twipra Tempest, Ethnic Conflict and Militancy in Tripura’, in Jaideep Saikia, Frontiers in Flames, Northeast India in Turmoil, Penguin, Viking.

Subramanian K.S., 2017, State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge.

_2001, ‘Human Rights of the Tribal People: The Basic Issue in Tripura’, Mainstream, January 27.

2000, Tribal Insurgency and Rural Development in Tripura,Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, February 19.

Vohra, B.L. 2011, Tripura’s Brave Hearts: A Police Success Story of Counter-insurgency, Konark Publishers, New Delhi.

The author is a former IPS officer (now retired) and a scholar.

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