What made Tripura singe in communal flames

What made Tripura singe in communal flames

On the night of October 23, Abdul Rahman (name changed), a resident of Naraura Tila village in Tripura’s Sepahijala district, was getting ready to sleep when someone started banging his door. It was a neighbour who came to inform that the local mosque was up in flames. While Rahman and others rushed to douse the fire, similar incidents took place simultaneously across several districts...

On the night of October 23, Abdul Rahman (name changed), a resident of Naraura Tila village in Tripura’s Sepahijala district, was getting ready to sleep when someone started banging his door. It was a neighbour who came to inform that the local mosque was up in flames.

While Rahman and others rushed to douse the fire, similar incidents took place simultaneously across several districts as Tripura witnessed a series of incidents of communal violence since October 20 in the aftermath of attacks on Hindus during Durga puja celebrations in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Like Naraura Tila in Bishalgarh block, a mosque in Kakraban (Udaipur block) Krishnagar was also set on fire while those in Dharmanagar and Rowa Bazar were attacked and vandalised.

These apart, the state has also been a mute witness to gutting of houses and shops owned by Muslims in various places, hoisting of Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) flags on a mosque wall and at the residence of a prominent Muslim businessman in Kailashahar. In some places mosques have been asked not to blare out azaan, the call to ritual prayer.

In the communal flare-up, fencing of a Kali temple was also damaged and an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leader stabbed on October 29 in Unakoti district.

The incidents have brought to the fore changing social ethos of Tripura, which had never in the past seen such religious conflagration despite being a hotbed of ethnic insurgency for a long time.

What has changed in Tripura?

The transformation started after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power in the state in 2018, dislodging a Communist government that had ruled India’s third-smallest state for 25 years on the trot.

“Historically, there had never been any incident of religious violence in the former princely state of Tripura or even after it had merged with India in 1949. The first time we witnessed an incident of damaging of a mosque and Muslim property by an organised unruly mob in the state was at Baiddadighi under Sepahijala district in 2019. At present, it is going on across the state,” said Imam Abdul Rehaman of Tripura state Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind.

Muslims constitute 8.60 per cent of Tripura’s 36.74 lakh population and they trace their history back to the 13th century when prince Ratna-fa (Ratna Manikya) took the help of Sultan of Gaur (Bengal) to conquer the kingdom of Tipperah, then ruled by his brothers.

According to some historical accounts, after the victory, the new ruler brought a good number of Muslim families to settle in different parts of his kingdom. In the 17th century, the king of Tripura started encouraging large number of Muslim cultivators to migrate to his kingdom to reclaim fallow land to increase revenue.

Rulers of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty were known for encouraging immigration and settlement of non-tribals, especially Bengalis to Tripura. The Brahmins and other ‘upper caste’ Hindus were brought in to run the administration while landless Muslims were welcomed as cultivators or sharecroppers.

The Muslim population in Tripura was second to adivasis in 1876-77 as per a report of CW Bolton, the political agent of Hill Tipperah (present-day Tripura). According to the report, the kingdom had a Bengali Muslim population of 19,504 as against a Hindu Bengali population of 6,663. It had an indigenous tribal population of 57,906.

Even until the 1961 census, Tripura had a significant Muslim population of 20.14 per cent. All this changed a decade later following the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The Census report that year revealed that the Muslim population in the state plummeted to 6.68 per cent though overall Bengali population went up to 70 per cent.

The creation of East Pakistan following the partition of India and its rebirth as Bangladesh in 1971 had a tremendous impact on land-locked Tripura, which is surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides.

The twin developments permanently changed the demographic profile of the tiny state spread over 10,500 sq km. Despite that no religious conflicts in Bangladesh, or for that matter in neighbouring Assam, ever spilled over to Tripura. The only time the state witnessed some communal tension was over three decades ago after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Even then, there were no major incidents of violence.

The state’s miniscule Muslim community was quite sure that the age-old bond would remain unscathed even when communal violence broke out in several places in Bangladesh in mid-October. But they were proved wrong.

“Hindus and Muslims had been living here peacefully for ages. We had never in the past seen such madness,” said Rahman of Naraura Tila.

The Bangladesh trigger

More than 10 incidents of religious violence were reported from across Tripura following rallies taken out by VHP—a close ally of the BJP—to protest attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.

At least seven people were killed, temples vandalised and hundreds of houses and businesses of the Hindu minority were set ablaze in Bangladesh after rumours about a copy of Quran being desecrated at a Durga Puja pandal in Comilla.

Incidentally, a large part of the present day Comilla district of Bangladesh was part of the Chakla Roshnabad estate of the Tripura king.

The attacks in the neighbouring country evoked strong reactions in Tripura. Purnachandra Mandal, a senior VHP leader of the state, says his outfit organised about 51 protest rallies across Tripura to condemn the incidents in Bangladesh.

Chief minister Biplab Deb joined the chorus of protests expressing concern over the incidents in Bangladesh. Deb has, however, chose silence when it came to minorities in his state. He has so far not condemned the violence.

The state police even tried to hush-up the incidents saying no mosque was torched in the state even as the Tripura High Court took suo motu cognisance of the violence. The state government denied communal tension in Tripura and appealed to people to maintain peace and stay away from rumours.

Minister for Information and Cultural Affairs Sushanta Chowdhury on October 26 categorically denied reports of any mosque being set ablaze at Panisagar in north Tripura. He blamed “a few vested interest groups from outside the state” for hatching a conspiracy to tarnish the government’s image.

On the other hand, BJP MLA from Panisagar Binay Bhushan Das announced compensation for the damaged properties after he recently visited the violence-hit Rowa market area.

The court asked the state government to file a detailed report on the incidents and preventive measures taken by it on or before November 10.

The Tripura police said that they were providing round-the-clock security to more than 150 mosques in the state but no one has been arrested for the spate of violence.

Allegations of conspiracy

The response of the state ruling dispensation naturally has raised several questions. Opposition parties as well as social scientists see a larger BJP conspiracy into the unprecedented alleging a bid to polarise the state on religious lines ahead of November 25 municipal elections, which is expected to set the political trend for the 2023 assembly elections. Bishalgarh, Udaipur, Kailasahar, Dharmangar are among of the violence-hit towns where municipal council elections will be held on November 25.

The state’s BJP government is riven with internal squabbling, allegations of non-performance and a disgruntled ally.

The Tripura police say they were providing round-the-clock security to more than 150 mosques in the state but no one has been arrested for the spate of violence. Photo: Pinaki Das

In 2018, the BJP won the state in alliance with Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the en masse shifting of the Congress’s vote base to the saffron party. Many Congress MLAs and influential leaders had joined the BJP under the leadership of Sudip Roy Barman in the run up to the elections.

Barman and many of his supporters have now turned rebels. They have moved the BJP central leadership more than once for a change of leadership in the state government. The party’s tribal ally the IPFT has also voiced its displeasure over the functioning of the government.

To add to the BJP’s worry both the resurgence Trinamool Congress and a spirited CPI (M) have raised the pitch of their attacks, constantly lambasting the government for its failure to fulfil poll promises. The unfulfilled promises include the assurance to provide employment to at least one member of every household, a minimum wage of Rs 340 for MGNREGA card holders, regularisation of contractual government employees, bringing to book all the accused in chit fund scams among many others.

Trinamool, in fact, is posing as a challenger to the BJP in Goa, Assam and Tripura. Former West Bengal minister Rajib Banerjee and Tripura BJP MLA Ashis Das joined the TMC in Tripura on Sunday at a rally led by Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee. Rajib Banerjee — a minister in Mamata’s government in 2011 and 2016 — quit in January.

Former Lok Sabha MP from Silchar in Assam and former chief of Congress’ national women’s wing Sushmita Dev joined the TMC in August. Her father Santosh Mohan Dev was a seven-term Lok Sabha MP. He won two of his terms from Tripura West.

The TMC has also deployed political strategist Prashant Kishor-led Indian Political Action Committee to start conducting surveys on the ground for the 2023 Tripura polls.

“The recent incidents of violence in Tripura are politically designed and aimed at polarising the society along religious lines so that people do not seek jobs, employment, development, education and just get into the Hindu-Muslim binary… These are attempts to cover the incompetence of the party in power and to encash the Bangladesh incidents for petty political gains in Tripura,” said Pradyot Kishore Deb Barma, the scion of the Tirpura’s royal family.

Deb Barman has recently floated his regional political outfit Tipra Motha, which has made significant inroads in the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTADC).

Echoing his views, sociologist Dr Paul Pudussery said some elements are trying to create the narrative of the ruling dispensation that Hinduism is under threat. “Such narratives are being built just for political gains, it does not benefit any religion,” he added.

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