Agartala, Udaipur: It was around 4 pm on 8 September when the prominent Melarmath area in the heart of Agartala became a sea of saffron flags. Around 500-600 people — workers and leaders of the BJP — had taken out a procession against the CPI(M).
Two days earlier, in Tripura’s Dhanpur constituency, workers and supporters of the two parties clashed after a convoy of four-time former Chief Minister Manik Sarkar was reportedly stopped.
For 71-year-old Haripada Das, a member of the CPI(M) state committee, the BJP’s 8 September procession had started off like any other the city had seen.
But it would soon take a torrid turn.
As the procession passed by the CPI(M) state headquarters, 20-25 BJP workers allegedly “broke away”, veering off the main road where the rally was taking place and made their way to the office.
“They first attacked the cars that were in front and set them ablaze. They then got into the office, and broke everything — including almirah, pictures that were up on the walls. The smoke had engulfed the office and ash covered the walls,” Das alleged. “We had to lock ourselves in our room since it was getting difficult to breathe.”
Along with the CPI(M) state headquarters, five media houses, district and subdivision offices of the left party, and hundreds of homes of CPI(M) workers were torched and ransacked on 8 and 9 September in the worst spate of political violence the state has seen in some time.
The violence isn’t an anomaly either.
ThePrint spoke to leaders of several parties, who indicated that such incidents have been occurring since the BJP’s rise to power in 2018, and have become all the more common in the last few months.
Anatomy of the violence
The recent violence began on 6 September, in Tripura’s Dhanpur constituency where former chief minister and leader of opposition, Manik Sarkar, had gone to address an event.
According to CPI(M) leaders and news reports, Sarkar’s convoy had been stopped by BJP workers. Soon after, a crowd of CPI(M) workers and supporters came to his rescue, forming a protective shield around the four-time chief minister.
The hostilities sparked clashes between supporters of the two parties with several getting injured.
Two days later, in seemingly unrelated incidents, reports started coming in of violence and arson from across the state. In Agartala, BJP workers allegedly attacked state and district offices of the Left party as also the offices of a CPI(M)-affiliated newspaper Daily Desher Katha and of other print and visual media organisations.
“They broke the chain at our district office and brought arms with them; they ransacked the office and torched the motorbikes of workers and all of this happened in front of the police over a span of 30 minutes,” said Pabitra Kar, a senior leader in the CPI(M) and former speaker of the Tripura Assembly.
“The fire service was also cordoned off. Our local, district and sub-division offices across the state were hit,” he added. “At some places, they bulldozed and torched them.”
The CPI(M), in a statement, said “44 party offices (42 of the CPI(M), 1 Revolutionary Socialist Party, 1 Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) have been attacked, burnt, and party property destroyed” between 7 and 8 September.
ThePrint accessed at least 15 complaints that the Left party filed over the incidents of 8 September, 9 September and 10 September, an overwhelming number of which blamed BJP workers.
According to Inspector General of Police (Law & Order) Arindam Nath, a total of 42 FIRs had been lodged following the incidents, of which the CPI(M) had filed 25, the BJP seven, the police had lodged eight and two were by media houses. Nath also confirmed that over 30 arrests were made in the cases, including 19 on non-bailable offences and the others on bailable offences.
When ThePrint attempted to question Papia Datta, general secretary of BJP Tripura and one of the leaders who had led the rally, she refused to answer and instead said that one should go to West Bengal where there were “actual instances of political violence”.
BJP spokesperson Subrata Chakraborty said his party doesn’t endorse the attacks. “We don’t believe in this kind of violence, We don’t support this kind of violence; the crime branch will take action,” he said. “There have also been instances where a BJP worker was brutally beaten up and three offices of the BJP were also attacked.”
ThePrint also attempted to get a response from Chief Minister Biplab Deb through Sanjay Mishra, Officer on Special Duty to the chief minister. The copy will be updated with their comments.
The events from the day led to several people criticising the police. In some instances, eyewitnesses ThePrint spoke to claimed police culpability in the violence.
In Udaipur, where the CPI(M)’s district office, along with tens of houses, was ransacked and torched, the police had seemingly failed to keep the peace. Among the houses that were torched was the home of former CPI(M) MLA Madhav Saha.
“We had planned a rally of 2,000-3,000 youth at the time when the BJP goondas came and ransacked our cars and hit people… it was in front of the police that they broke into the party office and attacked motorcycles,” Saha claimed, adding that although the police had set up barricades around the office, the “hooligans” had managed to get through.
According to Haripada Das, the police had remained “mute spectators” despite being present at the site even as the mob pelted stones and charged inside with lathis despite being present at the site.
IGP Nath said the police are looking into the allegations. “It is still under inquiry if there were any shortcomings on the part of our officers. Specifically, in the case of the attack on Pratibadi Column, the editor had lodged a complaint against the police official.”
Following the incident, Das had also filed a petition in the Tripura High Court, in which he had said the police had failed to take action over the incidents despite lodging FIRs and depositing videos and CCTV footage shot at the time of these attacks.
The Tripura High Court Monday issued a notice to the state government seeking a response in the next hearing on 4 October. The state government Monday also imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in West Tripura after the Trinamool Congress sought permission to hold a rally led by its general secretary Abhishek Banerjee.
‘Never before seen’
For Sanjib Das, a CPI(M) leader and resident of Udaipur, the 8 September attacks were nothing short of devastating. Das’ house, located in the interiors of Gomati’s Salgara area, has been rendered to a barebone, ashen structure.
When ThePrint visited his house, situated in a village of Salgara, only heaps of ash and dismembered furniture remained inside.
Sanjib’s wife, Suparna Rani Das, who was present in the house along with her two children, when the act of arson took place alleged, “They kept screaming Jai Shree Ram outside, and started pouring the petrol before setting the house on fire. I thought at that moment I wouldn’t live.”
Sanjib, who is currently living at his relative’s house, added, “I’ve faced damages to the tune of Rs 50-55 lakh. I am not financially afloat enough to rebuild the house. I somehow have to survive, I have nothing left. The reason they did this is because I am the CPM party leader.”
Opposition party leaders ThePrint spoke to say that although Tripura is no stranger to political conflicts, this is one of the worst spates of violence the state has seen in the past 8-9 years.
“Following the declaration of the Assembly results in 2018, BJP started their attack in a very fascistic manner, and throughout the state from one end to another, our party offices were burned down, ransacked, looted and bulldozed and some were occupied also,” former chief minister and leader of opposition in the Tripura Assembly, Manik Sarkar, told ThePrint.
“Whatever they had promised during the election campaign they’ve been failing to implement…Whatever they’re doing now is just to divert the attention of the people from the party issues,” he added.
TIPRA motha chairman and current head of Tripura Royal Family, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma, in an earlier interview to ThePrint, however, said that the BJP was only continuing the intimidation that the CPI(M) practiced during its time in power.
Sarkar’s colleague, Kar, said that there were “personal clashes” when the Left Front was in power, but the recent events were political in nature. “Earlier there was no problem for anyone to conduct meetings, the TMC (Trinamool Congress) has attempted to come now, but aren’t able to hold rallies,” he said.
Tripura TMC leader Subal Bhowmik agreed.
“This is a jungle raj, people are getting frustrated. The CPI(M) has been behind many such incidents during its time, an MLA was also murdered once… But this situation of unrest is also grave. Recently, I along with one of our youth leaders was also attacked, 13 of our cars were hit.”
According to Tripura Congress president Pijush Biswas, the party’s offices in the state have also come under attack in the last few years.
“Some of the Congress offices were taken over after the Lok Sabha elections; they were painted over in many of such places. I was also attacked a few months back,” he said and added, “In Tripura’s history, we haven’t seen this kind of sponsored attack, especially on the media.”
A long history of political conflict
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report ‘Crime in India 2020’, Tripura with 0.5 per cent of political crimes per one lakh people, had topped in the Northeastern region.
For many, this didn’t come as a surprise given the state has over decades seen numerous instances of political conflicts.
The state of Tripura was officially annexed in 1949 after the Tripura Merger Agreement was signed between the Kingdom of Tripura and the Government of India. Surrounded by Bangladesh on three sides, the state started witnessing an influx of Bengali migrants from 1951, which was the starting point of hostilities between the indigenous and the migrant population in the state.
These, Indraneel Bhowmik, a professor at Tripura University, said were the first instances of violence. “This was fueled by political interference, after which, political issues became more predominant.”
It was in 1978 that the state elected its first-ever CPI(M) government under Nripen Chakraborty, around the time of the formation of the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) whose core was the demand for Tripura’s independence from India. In the following years, the state government attempted to disband the militants through economic policies and counterinsurgency.
According to Sunil Kalai, an assistant professor at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications in Tripura University, the indigenous population has borne the brunt of violence under the CPI(M) government.
“Any student who belongs to the Tripura Student Federation or who were branded as ‘anti-Left’ were always alleged to have a leaning with militancy. They get arrested in Class 11-12 (sic) … there were fake encounters, they would also burn the TSF alive, which was never recorded by the government,” he alleged. “It is not just about political party, the result of violence will always result in violence.”
The hostilities only worsened and in June 1980, about 350-400 Bengalis were massacred at Mandai, a village in the Sadar sub-division of the state. Then in 1988, more than 100 individuals were killed in election-related violence in the state.
Since then, political violence has become all too commonplace in Tripura. Pre-poll violence especially, Bhowmik said, is commonplace.
“Tripura has had a violent past. However, time and space has changed. The epicentre of activities have also changed as has the approach to things,” he said adding that the instances of political violence had intensified in the last few months possibly because the “state elections is less than one and half years away” and “demonstrating strength might be a political strategy”.
According to Pradyot Debbarma, the recent events were triggered by the entry of Trinamool Congress in Tripura. “The wounds of the Bengal loss haven’t healed and with Trinamool coming directly into Tripura, the BJP has overreacted,” he said.
“The BJP has also given an unnecessary lease of life to Communists by attacking and burning their offices. It gives a party like the Communists that is dead and buried a new lease of life. The BJP has fallen in this trap.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.