Millennium Post

Tripura's tribal identities

Immigration of politically conscious Bengalis into Tripura after the independence through India’s ‘most porous’ border, and then the exodus of Chakmas from CHT, disrupted the tribal demography of the state, which is now showing signs of revival

Tripuras tribal identities

Some changes in demography are so gradual that when they are started consciously, the long-term implications cannot be imagined. Thus, 200 years ago, when the rulers of Tripura were encouraging the Bengalis — both Hindus and Muslims — to settle in their state, as well as on their estate of Chakla Roshnabad (granted to them by Nawab of Bengal in 1720), they would have never imagined their indigenous Kokborok language and ethos would go on the verge of extinction. When the Tripura royalty was hosting Gurudev Rabindranath Thakur and promoting Bengali art and culture, no one could have envisaged the Partition of the country and its consequences, especially for Tripura.

The last king, Bir Bikram, who was on the throne immediately before India's independence, expired just 11 weeks before the independence (17th May, 1947). He was succeeded by his minor son Kirri Bikram Mannikya, with his widow queen Kanchan Prabha taking over the regency of Tripura. She was instrumental in the merger of Tripura kingdom to the Indian Union in November 1949. However, post-Independence, large parts of Tripura territory, especially its zamindari, went to East Pakistan and the state lost most of its income. But the real tragedy of Tripura stemmed from the demographic transformation which rendered the Tripuri tribe with an unbroken line of 183 successions into a minority. Just to place some facts in perspective: The tribal population was 64 per cent in 1875, 52 per cent in 1931 but, by 1951, it was only 37 per cent. It had dipped to 27 per cent in 2001, but there had been an increase in tribal population to 31.8 per cent in the 2011 census, which is indeed an encouraging sign. Certainly, there is no further inflow of population into the state.

The movement of Hindu Bengalis started well before the Partition, as Tripura was considered to be a safe haven. After the unprecedented Rajpura (Dhaka) riots of 1941, Tripura offered free and planned rehabilitation at Arundhati Nagar, near Agartala. Hindus also sought shelter in the state after the Noakhali riots in 1946. Another exodus from East Pakistan followed the post-partition riots in 1950, 1952 and 1956 when 70,000; 80,000 and 50,000 refugees stepped into the state respectively. Although the formal registration of refugees stopped in 1958, there were waves of 'in-migration' before the wars of 1965 and 1971. Till the grant of statehood, and the deployment of BSF in the mid-1970s, 'it was India's most porous border of a thousand kilometre'. But 1971 was not the end of the story. Due to fleeing from persecution on account of race and religion, there was an exodus of Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill tracts (CHT).

It is needless to say that the Bengalis who moved into Tripura were politically conscious, keen to assert their citizenship and, in contrast to the tribals, were involved in the mainstream political parties. Both the Congress and the Communists tried to woo them by offering concessions / raising demands in their favour, including the use of Khas land in tribal areas, which was the last straw on the camel's back. Bir Bikram Tripur Sangha (1947), Paharia Union (1951) and the Tribal Union (1955) resisted rehabilitation efforts but, to the credit of the Congress and Communists, it must be said that they did not give an ethnic colour to the issue. However, the mode of agriculture, as well as the world view of settled agriculturists and shifting cultivators (jhumias) were so different that over time the tribals found that land was no longer in abundance for their way of life and livelihood. The Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act 1960 did prevent further alienation, but a lot of damage had already been done.

By 1967, the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti was formed, for by this time, tribal youth had also been educated and Christianized by the missionaries, and they demanded Kokborok in the Roman script as the language for education and affairs of the state. TUJS also received help from the MNF, and both organizations had set up training camps in CHT with cross-border support.

In a bid to find a long-term solution to the tribal issues, the Tripura Assembly unanimously passed the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Bill in 1979, which was incorporated into the Sixth Schedule in 1984 through the 49th Constitutional amendment. This was a sign of great maturity and sagacity as there were only 17 tribal members in the 60-member Assembly which transferred over 68 per cent of the area of the state to the Council, which now has its own administrative headquarters at Khumulwng, about 26 km from Agartala.

Thanks to the new fillip in the India-Bangladesh relationship, the end to Tripura's travails is in sight, for the isolation which began with the disruption of road and rail links from Agartala to Kolkata — increasing the distance from 550 km to 1,645 km — has ended with the restoration of 12.3 km Akhaura rail line. This, along with the bridge over the Feni River near Sabroom, has connected the port city of Chittagong directly to Agartala. This is a good augury, not just for Tripura, but the entire Northeast, West Bengal and Bangladesh which share a common ecosphere but diverse political arrangements.

Views expressed are personal

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