A ‘Reading’ without History: Questioning a Flawed Reading of Left Politics in Tripura

R K Debbarma’s reading of left politics in Tripura in the article “Where to Be Left Is No Longer Dissidence” (EPW, 27 May 2017) is ahistorical, inaccurate and one-sided. Two distinctive features of Tripura’s left-led political movement have been the safeguarding of the rights of the tribal people on the one hand, and maintaining democratic unity between the tribal and the non-tribal (Bengali) people on the other.

R K Debbarma’s “Where to Be Left Is No Longer Dissidence” (EPW, 27 May 2017) looks at the history of left politics in Tripura, particularly through the movement of the Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP) and its leaders like Dasarath Deb. He first argues that the organisation and the movements of the GMP were primarily focused on ethnicity, and not class. He then argues that Deb’s world view was ambiguous about the relationship between class and ethnicity; it is argued that “ethnicity” was the prime focus of the GMP under leaders like Deb. Debbarma also rejects the historical role of the left in the social, economic and cultural transformation in Tripura. According to him, the achievements in literacy and infrastructural development in Tripura have rendered any discussion on the “dispossession of indigenous communities … impossible.” Finally, he argues that the left, over the years, has decimated “armed groups and fronts which espoused self-determination and in the process militarised” Tripura. Development in Tripura under the left may, thus, be equated to the escalation of militarisation.

I shall try to respond to each of Debbarma’s arguments.

GMP: Integrating Rights of Tribals with Class Outlook

Debbarma argues that “ethnicity” was the prime focus of the GMP since its inception and that it never had a class outlook. A close reading of the history and evolution of the GMP shows such a conclusion to be wrong.

It was with the formation of the GMP in May 1948 that the political movement of the tribals in Tripura acquired a radical and mass character.[1] The GMP was formed in the midst of an extraordinary political situation: the long-standing exploitation of the tribal people through dadan and titun,[2] continuation of food scarcity and famine-like conditions since the World War II, and a reign of terror and repression on the members of the Communist, Party of India (CPI), activists of the Praja Mandal (PM), the Jana Siksha Samiti (JSS), and the tribal people by the Dewani administration (Deb 1987, 2000, 2006; Basu 1996; De 1998; Roy 2012).[3] The prime objectives of the GMP were to resist the repression of the Dewani administration, raise pressing political, economic and social is-sues of the tribal community, and demand a ­responsible government in Tripura (Deb 1987, 2006; Mohanta 2004). Activists from PM and the JSS like Deb, and ­communists like Aghore Debbarma and Biren Dutta played an important role in the formation of the GMP.

It rapidly mobilised the tribal people in the hills as well as sections of the non-tribal people. Towards this purpose, its appeals—including to sardars or tribal chiefs—were based on tribal identity and bonds. It agitated against the practices of dadan and titun. It led an armed resistance against state repression from late 1948 to 1951. Along with all this, it took up the agenda of so-cio-cultural and economic reforms; for instance, it challenged regressive and obscure practices in the then tribal society and also opened common granaries for the supply of food.

Debbarma suggests that the GMP’s appeal among people was solely due to its emphasis on “ethnic” or identity-based appeals. Appeals made by the GMP to sardars and adding of the word upajati in its name seem to be some of the grounds that have led him to such a conclusion. Indeed, such appeals and protection of tribals from state repression were the GMP’s focus areas between 1948 and 1951. However, what he ignores is the strong presence of a class dimension in the movements led by it. Particularly after the Golaghat killing in October 1948, the GMP underlined the class nature of the state. It argued that the Congress government, owing to its class character, was protecting the interests of the landlords and moneylenders using the police and military against poor tribals and the peasantry as a whole. It also argued for the need to build a wider democratic unity on class lines. 

As a result, it made attempts to unite all tribals and create unity between the tribals and non-tribals (like the poor Bengali Hindus and Muslims) and bet­ween the tribal peasants and workers (tea garden workers from central and eastern India who had settled in Tripura). It was from a working-class perspective that this unity was sought to be forged (Deb 2006). It is most interesting to note that though Debbarma cites an article by Deb (2006) titled “Shreni Sangramo Gana­mukti Parishad” to support his argument, strangely, he does not provide the reader with the English translation of the title “Class Struggle and Ganamukti Parishad”!

Dasarath Deb’s World View

Debbarma underplays the influence of Marxism among the GMP’s leaders like Deb. He gives two instances to support his argument. First, Deb had refused to term the GMP as a communist movement or affiliate it to the larger communist movement. Debbarma is apparently ref­erring to the resignation of Aghore Debbarma from the GMP in late 1949 due to differences with Deb over the pro-posal to merge the GMP into the CPI. Debbarma tries to project this as an anti-communist stance. However, it is clear from Deb’s writings that the decision was purely tactical and based on the then prevailing political conditions. Deb (1987) wrote: 

It will be a strategic mistake to do this at the moment. The struggle is going on under the name of one organisation. In the middle of this, if we change the name of the organisation, the activists and supporters will be confused. A proper field has to be created for the formation of the Communist Party. Building the mindset of the supporters and activists of the Parishad in that direction will take time. People with staunch anti-Communist feelings cannot be seen among the activists of Mukti Parishad. From the time of the Janasiksha movement, they have read communist literature; even now, they are taught the literature of Communist Party. From time to time, discussions are organised on Marxist philosophy. However, the time has not yet come to make all the frontline activists of Mukti Parishad members of Communist Party. 

He further wrote:

Gradually through discussions and negotiations, a mindset/outlook will emerge among the activists and then at that time a Communist Party can be formed taking all these activists along. (Deb 1987: 67–68) 

Debbarma suggests that there was confusion or hesitation in Deb’s mind about Marxism. However, Deb’s writings suggest other-wise. In his own words, if he had any reservation about the Communist Party, he would not have been made the president of the GMP by communists like Biren Dutta and Aghore Debbarma (Deb 1987: 68). He also openly acknowledges that the “GMP laid a strong base for the formation of the Communist Party in Tripura” (Deb 1981: 1). Debbarma ignores all such historical evidence and puts forward a totally biased and one-sided argument about Deb.

Role of the Left

A key problem in Debbarma’s writing is the total absence of analysis of the role of the Congress Party in the exclusion of tribal peo-ple from socio-economic, political and cultural spheres. It is only from such a historical standpoint that we can objectively analyse the Left’s role in addressing concerns of exclusion through mass movements and legislations. 

The history of the GMP and the Communist Party from the 1950s is crucial to understand the Left’s role in the transformative poli-tics of Tripura. With the changed political situation in the country and the state from 1951–52, the political line of the left under-went a change; it adopted a path of mass movement and participation in electoral politics as its political line.

Tripura, at this time, was in a state of flux. With the partition and the onset of communal tensions in the then East Pa­ki­stan, the state saw a huge influx of Bengali Hindu refugees (Menon 1975). The influx continued into the 1950s and 1960s, and completely changed Tripura’s demographic profile. Between 1947 and 1971, more than six lakh displaced persons came to Tripura from East Pakistan (Mohanta 2004: 75; Bhattacharjee 1989: 37). Till 1941, tribals in Tripura were a majority and constituted about 50.1% of the population. However, they constituted only 28.9% of the population in 1971 (Mohanta 2004: 75). This had a severe impact on the lives of tribal people, especially in terms of alienation of their land, autonomy and culture.

Loss of tribal land was an important consequence of the refugee influx, as the refugees were often rehabilitated in the tribal areas and also encroached upon tribal lands. The Dhebar Commission Report of 1961 had noted that the influx of displaced persons into Tripura had adversely affected tribals and accelerated the land problem (GoI 1961). Here, it is important to note the differing ap-proaches of the Left and the Congress, which was in power at the centre and the state. The GMP and the communists realised the threats posed by unabated immigration, and demanded administra­tive and constitutional safeguards to protect tribal lands. Deb, who was also a member of parliament, suggested to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that:

some area or areas of Tripura shall have to be set aside for the tribals alone, and no other person belonging to non-tribal community should be allowed to settle there. (Basu 1996: 170; Chakraborty 2004: 119)

The GMP held regular meetings and gatherings demanding an early and satisfactory solution to the problem of rehabilitation of the tribal jhumias (shifting cultivators) affected by irregular encroachments on their lands by the Bengali refugees (Basu 1996). It was the result of such a mass movement that the Congress government had to bring about the Tripura Land Revenue and Land Reforms (TLRLR) Act in 1960 to safeguard the land rights of the tribals and also, later, insert Section 187 in the act prohibiting transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. In a meeting convened by the then union home minister in August 1973, Deb once again argued for

maintaining the compactness of tribal-dominated areas, stoppage of infiltration of non-tribals into these areas, recovery of transferred lands of the tribals and imposition of stringent restrictions on such future land transfers” (Basu 1996: 145).

The GMP, in a resolution dated 25 October 1973, had demanded the return of all tribal lands transferred since 1961 to its original owners (Basu 1996: 146). Together with the struggle to safeguard the rights of tribals on their land, the GMP and communists were also sympathetic to the cause of the refugees and demanded their proper rehabilitation (Basu 1996; Mohanta 2004). The left’s political line, thus, was: proper reha-bilitation of the refugees without affecting the rights of tribals, especially through encroachment on tribal lands. [4]

The Congress-held administration all­owed the immigration to continue unabated and even settled refugees in tribal-compact areas. Those who encro­a­ched upon tribal lands often did so with the connivance of the Congress, administration (Deb 1992). Though the Congress introduced the TLRLR Act in 1960, the act had many loopholes and it failed to safeguard the rights of tribals. One of the drastic steps was the second amendment of the TLRLR Act in 1974, which aimed at restoring “illegally” transferred lands. In reality, it did two things. First, to prevent unauthorised occupation, it fixed the cut-off date as 1 January 1969 and thereby legalised all unauthorised transactions from 1961 till 1969. About 13,000 applications seeking redress in revenue courts against illegal trans-fer of tribal lands, thus, stood nullified (Basu 1996: 176). Second, the amendment also annulled the Tribal Reserve completely.[5] The amendment was strongly opposed by the Left.

The Congress and groups like the Aamra Bangali, formed by Congress supporters, were opposed to the de­mand of autonomy for tribals. In the cultural sphere, the Congress government dealt another blow to the aspirations of the tribal people by making Bengali the official language of Tripura in 1964. 

It was with the ascendancy to power of the CPI (Marxist)-led Left Front government in 1978 that attempts were made to undo the damage. The Left Front government amended the Scheduled Tribe Official Language Act in January 1979 to include Kokborok as the official language of the state. It passed the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) Bill in March 1979 to form the Autonomous District Council (ADC) under the Seventh Schedule, and led a struggle to bring this ADC under the Sixth Schedule finally in August 1984. The TTAADC was the outcome of a joint struggle of the tribal and non-tribal people; the Bill was unanimously passed by tribal and non-tribal member of Legislative Assembly in the assembly. A process of restoration of illegally transferred lands of tribals back to them and redi­s­tri­bution of khas (government-owned) land to landless families began. 

The restoration of alienated land to the tribal families was a significant aspect of Tripura’s land reform under the Left. Till Sep-tember 2005, almost 9,000 cases of restoration had been handled and 7,147 acres had been restored to tribal families (Government of Tripura 2007: 64). Land redistribution was another important feature of land reform where state-owned khas land and ceiling-surplus land were redistributed to the landless. Between 1997–98 and 2004–05, a total of 34,598 acres were distributed to 37,349 families (Government of Tripura 2007: 64). Recent data from the state government’s revenue department shows that from 2012–13 to 2016–17, a total of 3,447.91 acres of government khas land was allotted to a total of 25426 landless and homeless families. Out of this, 9,829 ST families received 1,599.09 acres—the highest among all social groups (Government of Tripura 2017). Through the Fifth Amendment of the TLRLR Act in March 1979, the Left Front government also recognised the rights of sharecroppers on land. 

Tripura is also among the few states in the country where the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has been implemented in true spirit. According to the ministry of tribal affairs, out of the total claims received, the number of titles distributed in Tripura was 1.22 lakh (as of February 2016). In terms of percentage of titles distributed over number of claims received, Tripura stands second in the country with 63.96%, just behind Kerala (65.54%).[6] 

In sum, Debbarma ignores the Left’s transformative role in Tripura’s politics, which emerged in opposition to the regressive role played by the Congress Party. The evidence discussed above show that Debbarma’s charge of the Left “betraying the indigenous people of Tripura” is historically flawed. While he consistently uses the term “dispossession” in this article, nowhere does he indi-cate what he implies by that term. It was also because of the mass support enjoyed by the Left among both the tribals and non-tribals that it has been regularly winning the Assembly and TTAADC elections.[7]

Development and Insurgency

Debbarma’s attempt at equating Left’s developmental agenda with “militarisation” is equally incorrect. 

Tripura, in the 1980s and 1990s and till the mid-2000s, was marred by violent insurgency. During this period, physical insecurity due to insurgency was a very important developmental challenge in the state (Government of Tripura 2007). By the late-2000s, insurgency was brought down significantly by the Left Front government through multipronged measures. These included (i) political and ideological campaigns involving the masses; (ii) appeals to peace and communal harmony; (iii) development work in tribal areas; (iv) rehabilitation packages for surrendered insurgents; and (v) effective, but restrained, use of state police and military forces. It was due to such carefully crafted measures that insurgency in Tripura was tackled better than in other states.[8] When peace re-turned the Left Front government revoked the Disturbed Areas Act in May 2015 and dispensed with the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which had been imposed in 1997. 

It was under the Left Front government that Tripura experienced significant progress in the indicators of human development. For example, it made substantial progress in the expansion of literacy and schooling in the 1990s and 2000s. According to the 1991 Census, the state’s literacy rate was 60.40% and this increased to 87.20% in 2011. According to the Literacy Statistics 2016 of the Government of Tripura, literacy rate in Tripura stood at 97.22%.[9] 

Conclusions

Debbarma’s reading of Left politics in Tripura is ahistorical, inaccurate and one-sided. Two distinctive features of Tripura’s Left-led political movement have been the safeguarding of the rights of the tribal people on the one hand, and maintaining democratic unity between the tribal and the non-tribal (Bengali) people on the other. In this task, the GMP and the Left in Tripura, through mass struggles and state intervention, made a historic contribution. Debbarma appears ignorant of the rich history of these struggles. 

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