A sea of men and women colourfully decked in the red and yellow colours of the two-year-old Tipra Motha party burst into cheers of Bubagra (Raja) as Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma came forth onto a raised platform in a black kurta.
The scion of the former royal family of Tripura, who enjoys wild popularity amongst his Tiprasa people, raised his arms akimbo and then folded them in acknowledgement of the cheering by his fans.
Moments before getting up on stage at a rally at Kalyanpur in Tripura amidst dancing and clapping by his followers, Debbarma told PTI on Saturday that post-elections they will not be part of any government which does not agree to their demand (of Tiprasa, a separate state). The elections for the 60-member Tripura Assembly election is scheduled to be held on February 16.
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However, he also held out an olive branch. “If there is a hung assembly, we will see (about supporting a government from outside) but we will stick to our main objective,” said the politician, whom many still address as Maharaja.
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His family had reigned the tiny principality for many centuries, before merging it with India in 1947. His parents — Kirit Bikram Kishore Manikya Deb Barman Bahadur and Bibhu Devi — had both been Congress MPs. But much water has flown down the Khowai river since then.
Two successive bouts of militancy had burst onto the peaceful states horizon — first in the late 1980s and then, after an accord with the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi bought peace for nearly a decade, again from 1996-2004.
A separate state for tribals
The demand for a separate state for tribals has once again gained momentum with the Prince endorsing it and old rebels and campaigners for Tiprasa, such as former Tripura National Volunteers chief Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhwal, active as a militant in the 1980s and Ranjit Debbarma, who used to head the All Tripura Tiger Force which wreaked havoc in the area in the 1990s, flocking to it.
Pradyot Debbarma, however, has made it clear that though he is seeking a tribal state, he was in favour of communal amity and welcomed Bengali plains dwellers, Manipuris and Muslims, to be part of the new state, whose boundaries have been left undefined.
In his Saturday rally, he stressed that once again. “They (BJP) want Tiprasa and Bengalis to fight, they do not want to talk of development, of progress. We want all to develop,” he said as his followers cheered.
The underlining of communal harmony was perhaps mindful of the fact that the Tiger Force had on December 12, 1996, slaughtered 27 plains dwellers in one of the most gruesome terror attacks in this part of India which has seen many militant groups come and go.
“My wife’s parents and younger brother were shot dead, riddled with AK-47 bullets after their house was set on fire,” said Subrata Dey, 58, a local resident who shuttles between the capital Agartala, 60 km from Kalyanpur, and this sleepy little hamlet.
About 31 per cent of the population of the state are tribals — who include Tripuris, Reangs, Jamatias, Chakmas, Mogs, Kuki, Bru, Halam, Bhutia, Khasias and Garo. Tripuris are the largest and dominant tribe and the erstwhile princely family owes allegiance to this tribe.
However, the majority of people in Tripura are Hindu Bengalis, some of whom lived here for centuries but many of whom came from Comilla in Bangladesh, where the Maharaja of Tripura also owned vast estates, as well as from Sylhet and Chittagong there as refugees in 1947, escaping murderous rioting.
Relations between the two — tribals and settlers — was peaceful till the 1980s when continued neglect of tribal areas and worsening of relations between the two communities over minor issues saw clashes and eventual tribal militancy.
Attacking the BJP
In Saturday’s rally, Debbarma, however, besides taking care to appease all communities, attacked the BJP. “Today, the Prime Minister will come to Ambassa (a tribal area in Dhalai district) and say Tripura has developed under BJP rule. Has it?” he asked rhetorically before giving his own answer-No, development has not reached you, my poor people.
However, at the same time, the 44-year-old politician, backpedalled a bit and said it’s not his (Narendra Modi’s) fault. He has not been given correct information.
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The attack continued. “Modi ji, Aapke paas 56 inch ka seena hai. Hamare paas Tiprasa ka pyar hain (you have a 56-inch chest, I have the love of Tiprasa people), he thundered using a line reminiscent of the famous dialogue uttered by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s Bollywood blockbuster Deewar.
Though Tipra Motha has distanced itself from the CPI(M)-Congress alliance and refused any seat adjustment deal with it and in the past blamed the two parties for the ills plaguing the tribal community, this election battle seems to focus more on the BJP, possibly because it rules in Agartala.
Debbarma also chose not to spare Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma while describing him as a friend. “Hemanta Sarma has been saying he will not agree to division of Tripura… (But) You are dividing the nation on Hindu-Muslim, Christian, Buddhist lines.”
As dusk fell early in the Barmura hills of Kalyanpur, Debbarma lowered his pitch and turned emotional, stating, “Hum one last fight (electoral) tho karke rahega (I shall fight one last election) before signing off for the day.
This seemed to strike a chord with his audience who waved and cheered madly and tried to fall at his feet as his guards rushed him to an SUV which will drive him off to a helipad from where he will be lifted off to the former capital of his ancestors in search of a last hurrah for Manikya dynasty.