Guwahati: With the Assembly elections in Tripura due in a year, the tussle to bag the crucial tribal vote — which constitutes 31.78 per cent of the electorate — has begun. Though the merger of the Tripura People’s Front — an indigenous political group — with the BJP is seen as a move to counter the TIPRA Motha (Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance), the battle has just started for the BJP to retain its government in the state.
The TPF-BJP merger was announced in a rally attended by the tribal party’s president Patal Kanya Jamatia, Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb, Union Minister Pratima Bhowmik as well as other senior BJP leaders. During the rally, Jamatia, who has been known for her controversial statements against “Bangladeshi infiltrators”, said, “The main reason behind this political step is to ensure safety, security and peace for the people living in the hills.”
ThePrint reached Jamatia through calls and text messages about the merger, but she declined to comment.
TPF had earlier been in alliance with TIPRA Motha — helmed by the royal scion of Tripura, Pradyot Manikya Debbarma — but walked out over differences. The TIPRA Motha is a major political force in the state’s tribal belt since its inception in 2019.
ThePrint looks at why this merger may be significant for the 20 tribal seats (in a house of 60) and the implications of Jamatia’s entry into the BJP fold.
Demographic and political changes
Tripura is home to at least 19 tribes, including the Tripuris, Riangs, Jamatias and Noatias among others. Due to waves of Bengali migration from Bangladesh, tribals, who had in 1874 constituted 64 per cent of the population, were displaced to the hills and their population declined by over half.
Of the 60 Assembly seats in Tripura, 20 are reserved for tribal candidates while on another 10 seats, tribal voters play a significant role. Since 1972, they have been held by the CPI(M), which has been the longest-ruling party in the state, or Congress-offshoot “tribal” parties like the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS). Only in the 2018 elections, a majority of these seats were wrested by the BJP and its alliance partner, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT).
The IPFT managed to win eight of the reserved seats and the BJP bagged as many as 10 seats.
But, ahead of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) elections in 2021, cracks emerged in the BJP-IPFT combine, and the local party served a blow to its partner, by allying with TIPRA Motha. The move came following months of “discontentment” with the BJP, while IPFT leaders claiming at the time that the BJP was not working towards the rights of indigenous people.
However, the IPFT-TIPRA Motha alliance didn’t fructify, as TIPRA alleged IPFT announced candidates “without consulting” it, while according to the latter, TIPRA was at fault as Debbarma “didn’t keep his word” on seat-sharing.
Despite this, bad blood between IPFT and BJP continued as the tribal party continued its demand for a separate state. It remains a part of the BJP-led government.
TIPRA Motha, meanwhile, emerged victorious in the TTAADC elections in April 2021, as it won 18 of the 28 seats, signalling a shift in electoral politics in the tribal belt. The Autonomous District Council, set up in 1985 with the aim of providing internal autonomy to tribal areas and to provide social, economic, and cultural protection to the people, governs 2/3rds of the state in terms of geographical area, and accounts for over 87 per cent of the total number of tribals residing in the state.
Another twist came in November 2021, when the IPFT joined the TIPRA Motha’s rally in New Delhi over a separate state for the indigenous people, or Greater Tipraland (an extension of IPFT’s earlier call for Tipraland), effectively signaling that the BJP government is likely to lose its strategic tribal arm.
TPF’s fiery leader
The TPF is a civil society organisation-turned-indigenous party, which was founded in 2014 by Patal Kanya Jamatia.
Over time, the TPF started engaging in political activities around indigenous rights. Then, in the TTAADC elections, TPF fielded candidates with the TIPRA Motha. At the time, Jamatia was also appointed as chief adviser to TIPRA.
Prior to this, Jamatia had made headlines first in 2018, when she filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Tripura, and then in 2019 when she filed a petition against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, saying that it will result in “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” getting citizenship.
Jamatia had, in 2018, after the formation of the BJP-IPFT government, said: “The administration is being controlled by illegal migrants, even the present chief minister is also illegal migrant from Bangladesh.”
In December last year, signs of trouble emerged between the TPF and TIPRA as workers clashed at TTAADC headquarters of Khumulwng during the local body polls after Debbarma proposed symbol-less elections. At the time, however, Debbarma had said: “Our parties are different but in our hearts, we are the same.”
According to reports, TPF’s merger with the BJP came following a discussion between Jamatia, BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance chairman and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, and Tripura CM Deb.
“She (Jamatia) is a vibrant hot-headed leader who had also opposed the BJP. In her, the BJP found a person who can raise slogans against the TIPRA Motha,” said Agartala-based political analyst and senior journalist Jayanta Bhattacharjee.
A tribal face for the BJP?
Politicians and experts ThePrint spoke to had mixed responses over the political implications of the TFP’s merger with the BJP.
Addressing a rally, Jamatia had said her party “stands as a symbol of development and peace” and called for “peaceful co-existence”. “They say ‘Greater Tipraland’, I am telling you, it is ‘Greater Unity’ between tribes and non-tribes which is required for the overall development of the masses,” she said.
TIPRA chief Debbarma told ThePrint that he expects the merger to benefit his organisation.
“It will consolidate our tribal votes even more, because she (Jamatia) was more powerful as an independent leader, but after she has gone to the BJP, she has lost her credibility,” he told ThePrint.
IPFT general secretary Mewar Kumar Jamatia, who is the minister of tribal welfare and forest in the Biplab Deb government, said voter preferences in the tribal belt would hinge on which party is in favour of Tipraland.
“A majority of indigenous people are demanding statehood, whoever stands against this will not get the votes. Maharaj (Pradyot Debbarma) is a supporter of Tipraland and so are we,” Mewar said. “It doesn’t matter if we would achieve this or not, those against this movement will not get votes especially in the tribal belt.”
Sunil Kalai, an assistant professor at the Department of Journalism, Tripura University, is of the belief that Jamatia’s flip-flopping stand could have a detrimental effect on her political campaign. “It’s going to have a reverse effect because Patal Kanya was known as an indigenous activist, but now she’s taken a U-turn,” he said.
However, he admitted: “Going with BJP is the only option for every small political party or indigenous political party across the country, that’s a fact.”
After the merger, Debbarma said in a video message that his party will not look to align with the BJP. “A new leader in the BJP (Patal Kanya Jamatia) has made a statement that TIPRA Motha is too small a party to survive and also mocked our constitutional demand for Greater Tipraland,” he said.
“Yes, BJP is a very big party. They are the richest party in the country. They have bigger organisational strength than us. But we are a small hill-based party. So, let BJP fight in all 60 seats. We are ready to fight in 30-35 seats. In the end, the people will decide who is a small party and who is a big party,” the former Congress leader said.
Bhattacharjee, however, said the tribal vote may end up getting split between the BJP and TIPRA after this move. “The BJP is quite a big party and they have a considerable organisation with the tribals and now they will promote her,” he said.
(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)