September 30, 2020
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A Vote Against Violence

The overriding issue in the elections was militancy, and the Congress alliance with a party backed by militants polarised the voting. More Coverage

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A Vote Against Violence

The Assembly elections in Tripura did not turn out to be as 'tough' as had been predicted by none other than the ruling Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) party secretary, Baidyanath Mazumder. At one stage, the CPI-M led Left Front, appeared to losing ground in the face of a determined assault by the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) militants and their political front, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT). The INPT brought together two separate political parties - the erstwhile Tripura Upjati Juba Samity (TUJS) and Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), and claimed to represent 'tribal interests' in the State.

There was also an intensive campaign of intimidation by the militants in the hilly interiors, with the message going out that additional security arrangements for the elections would not protect the tribal electorate for long, and unless the INPT won all the seats they were contesting, a blood-bath would follow. This was why Left Front leaders, including Chief Mnister Manik Sarkar had frantically pressed the Union Home Ministry and Election Commission for additional forces to ensure that the tribals could cast their votes. As a result, more than 37,000 extra men, including Army contingents, were deployed, in addition to the force already on duty in counter-insurgency operations in Tripura, creating a ratio of one security man for every 25 voters.

The overwhelming security had a major impact, and the tribals in most of the constituencies, excluding a few booths in each, turned out in large numbers to cast their ballots and the CPI-M secured thirteen of the reserved twenty tribal seats, wresting one from the INPT, the Bagma constituency of south Tripura which had been won in five consecutive elections since 1977 by Ratimohan Jamatya, who conceded defeat this time by a small margin of 74 votes.

A profound quiet seems to have descended on Tripura, with the Congress-INPT trying to come to terms with their electoral reverses, and the ruling Left Front reviewing the realities of the retention of power for a record fifth - and a third consecutive - term.

Before the election the direct threat of militant intervention had cast a deep shadow over the Left Front's prospects. It was the banned NLFT's guns which had ousted the Front from power in the controversial Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in April-May 2000. 537 CPI-M tribal leaders and workers have been liquidated by the militants over the past five years, and another 56 persons - including security forces personnel and militants themselves - had been killed in the current year.

Below the surface peace imposed by the heavy and unprecedented deployment of security forces, it is evident that the militants did influence polling in many of the reserved tribal seats.

Nothing illustrates this better than the defeat of senior CPI-M leader and Tribal Welfare Minister Aghore Debbarma in the Pramodnagar reserved Assembly constituency in Khowai subdivision by a margin of less than 400 votes. Debbarma had won in 1998 by 4,993 votes, and the Marxists have lost this seat for the first time since 1952, allegedly because of irregularities in two booths where tribal people were forced by the militants to cast their votes in favour of Animesh Debbarma, who is said to have close connections with the NLFT rebels.

A drastic reduction of the CPI-M's victory margins in the tribal reserved constituencies in Ramchandraghat, Asharambari and Krishanpur in Khowai subdivision, the Simna constituency in the Sadar subdivision, and the Charilam reserve constituency in the Bishalgarh subdivision, were all eloquent commentary on the influence of guns.

The NLFT rebels saw to it that a large number of tribal workers and supporters of the ruling front did not turn up to cast ballots. In another traditional bastion of CPI-M, Kanchanpur, the party candidate Rajendra Reang won by a single vote against an NLFT collaborator of the same name, simply because at least five booths in remote interiors bordering Bangladesh had been inaccessible to the CPI-M nominee, who had lost his father and a cousin to NLFT's bullets before the election.

Yet, for all its efforts, the INPT could add only one more seat to their tally of five in the outgoing Assembly. In south Tripura, which has been relatively free from the militant menace over the past three years, the Left Front has made a near clean sweep, winning 13 out of 14 seats including, three of the four reserved tribal seats.

The overriding issue in the elections was militancy, and the Congress alliance with a party backed by militants polarised the voting. Even in its strongholds, the Congress party's margin of victory - as in the plains areas, dominated by the majority non-tribal voters - was dramatically reduced in most constituencies, including the four seats in Agartala town.

The adoption, virtually in toto, of the INPT-NLFT line by the Congress was the main reason for this loss of support. INPT leader and ex-militant, Bijay Kumar Hrangkhawal's speech in Geneva in July last year, where he had spoken in favour of the banned militants by describing their genocidal politics as a 'struggle for self-determination' and his questioning of the erstwhile princely Tripura's merger with the Indian Union had a very adverse impact on the non-tribal voters.

To worsen matters Hrangkhawal appeared to be dictating terms to the Congress in a public rally held at Agartala in September last. But the state Congress leadership never protested or even appeared to have a voice against Hrangkahwal and his henchmen.

All through the campaign, the Congress leadership, dependent for political survival on the majority non-tribal voters, kept on echoing the INPT line. At the election rally addressed by Party President Sonia Gandhi at Agartala on February 23, she shared the dais with Bijay Hrangkhawal and PCC president Birajit Sinha (who belongs to the minuscule minority Manipuri community), with former chief ministers and veteran Congress leaders standing below the dais.

As could be expected, this did not impact well on voters, who voted the Left Front back to power despite a state-wide anti-incumbency wave as a result of the earlier regimes failure to curb insurgency and rising unemployment. The Left Front has, thus, rightly characterised the electoral outcome as a 'vote against militancy and terrorism'.

The tribals, who have been the worst victims of militancy in recent years, have given a mandate for peace by coming out to vote despite intimidation. If militant intervention could have been totally checked, it is clear that the INPT would have been hard put event to hold on to their strength of five in the sixty-member Assembly.

Sekhar Datta in Agartala is the Principal Correspondent, The Telegraph. Courtesy: South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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