By Amir Ullah Khan and Ismail Shaikh
The recent communal incidents of communal violence in Tripura have been unprecedented in a state that did not even see any such occurrence during the nation-wide chaos following the demolition of Babri Masjid demolished. The High court in Agartala took suo moto notice of this and directed the state government to file an action taken report.
Tripura is located in northeast India. It is the third-smallest state in the country, covering an area of 10,492 square km, which is roughly twice the size of the city of Hyderabad. The state is divided into four districts, North Tripura, East Tripura, South Tripura and Dhalai.
The geography of Tripura consists of hill ranges, valleys and plains. The plains constitute a majority of the landmass whereas the hill ranges and valleys constitute a minority. Tripura is bordered by Bangladesh to the north, south, and west, and the Indian states of Assam and Mizoram to the east. It is curiously the only state which has almost all of its sides surrounded by a foreign country, which in this case is Bangladesh. It shares a great 456-kilometre boundary with Bangladesh. The population of Tripura is relatively small, with the 2011 census recording 36,71,032 residents. Newer estimates record the population to be around 40,00,000.
The population is roughly divided into two main groups, the various indigenous Tripuri tribes and the Bengalis, with the indigenous tribes comprising about 40% of the population and the Bengalis constituting the remaining 60%. Almost all of the indigenous populations live in the hilly ranges and valleys, whereas the rest of the general population lives in the plains. The large presence of Bengalis in Tripura is due to the fact that till the last century, Tripura had open borders with Bangladesh. Before 1941, Tripura was an independent state and was not part of British India. The effects of which are seen till now, as almost everyone in Tripura (whether Hindu or Muslim) has a relative in Bangladesh.
This, however, is not the complete story as illustrated by two following facts: (1) Between 1901 and 2011, India’s population grew by 5 times whereas Tripura’s population grew by 21 times and (2) between 1951 to 2011, India’s population grew by 3.3 times whereas Tripura grew by 6.8 times. This huge population growth was due to the massive influx of migrants first from Pakistan, and then from Bangladesh during the Indo-Pak War of 1971. This caused the share of the Indigenous population to fall drastically. Most of the migrant influx was Scheduled Caste Hindus from Bangladesh, who fled due to the threat of religious persecution. This explains the fact that Tripura also has the highest percentage of Scheduled Castes in North-East India.
Unfortunately, the massive influx of migrants caused more problems for the indigenous population than simply a drop in their population share. The indigenous tribes were geographically marginalized, often forced to move to the hilly ranges as the population density in the plains was increasing rapidly. Furthermore, Bengali was replacing the indigenous language Kokborok, despite being the language of the tribal population. It was not accepted as the official language of the state for a long time. Politically, the battle that goes on in Tripura is between the Communist Party and the BJP. Almost all Socio-Economic discourse that goes on in the state is in the monopoly of the political parties, with almost no third-party participation. As a result, there are scarcely any Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in Tripura. The exception is a relatively small organisation called “Lawyers for Democracy” that works towards ensuring peace throughout the state.
In Bangladesh, there was an attack on a temple during the festival of Durga Pooja on 13th October. After the incident in Bangladesh, protests were made in Tripura. As remarked earlier, this outrage in Tripura was due to the fact that almost everyone in Tripura has a relative in Bangladesh. Most of these early so-called ‘protests’ were statements made by various political parties condemning the attacks. However, shortly after Durga Pooja, there were organized protests by far-right Hindu organizations. Although most of the organized protests were peaceful, they were carried on a daily basis. The gatherings were not large, but they were consistently sustained, often being by the same people travelling from village to village. One of the strategies used was the planning of protests in areas having a relatively high Muslim population obviously to provoke the other side. In some places, the provocations succeeded a little bit of local-level violence erupted.
Almost all of these sustained mini-protests were effectively ignored by the National Media. It only took notice when an incident happened in Panichogat where a rather provocative hateful statement was used as a slogan. It is a remarkable fact that all the provocative slogans were raised in Hindi, even when Hindi is almost never spoken in Tripura! Soon after, communal violence erupted and 15 mosques and one temple were attacked. All this is doubly remarkable for the simple fact that Tripura has never witnessed any communal violence at this level throughout its entire history. This was also the first time that a sustained protest of such consistent levels has ever occurred in Tripura. Fortunately, despite being in the midst of communal strife, some Muslims took the initiative to extend money to repair the temple. This gesture, provoked sympathy throughout the state, leading to various peace meetings between groups. Since then, the situation has become relatively peaceful in the state.
However the disquiet seems to be all pervasive even now and there is an ominous silence. The state has used all its might to quell any discussion on the situation. This has led to a suspicion that all is not well in this idyllic state that has been a symbol of peace and quiet for decades. The simmering doubt over Tripura’s real situation can only be cleared if travel is permitted, people are freely allowed to speak on the issue, including on social media and where action is quickly and firmly taken against the rioters.
Amir Ullah Khan and Ismail Shaikh are researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice, Hyderabad