Bangladesh is the first to welcome me to Agartala as soon as I land at the Northeastern state's capital. SMSs from 'GrameenPhone', our neighbour's leading cellular service provider, pour in as soon as I switch on my phone on disembarking. 'GrameenPhone welcomes you', is the first, followed by four more helpfully informing me of Bangladesh's emergency services numbers as well as those of the Indian embassy and consulates there. Large swathes of Tripura, I later learn, are covered by not only 'GrameenPhone', but also two other cellular service providers of Bangladesh. Indian cellular service providers don't cover any area bordering Bangladesh and since their Bangaldeshi counterparts have put up powerful towers all along the international border, residents on this side of the border have to depend on the Bangaldeshi cellphone companies to communicate with each other inside Indian territory. But visitors to Agartala need to be cautious, as I was advised to be. My cellphone connection kept migrating to GrameenPhone throughout my stay at Agartala, and especially when I went to Kamalasagar, a small tourist spot that has a 500-year-old Kali temple, right next to Bangladesh. The trick is to keep the network selection on manual mode, instead of automatic as we normally do, so that unsuspecting souls don't migrate automatically to a Bangladeshi service provider and gets charged ISD rates for outgoing and incoming calls and messages.
Tripura is just emerging out of the dark shadows of militancy and there's a cautious sense of relief, optimism and even happiness, in the air. The bulletproof-jacketed police and paramilitary forces are still visibly prominent, but they too look relaxed. The last time I was in Agartala three years ago, the place looked like a town under siege. There has been a vast improvement in not only the security scenario, but also the physical infrastructure in and around Agartala. Roads are much better, there are more new cars on the roads, dilapidated structures have given way to new buildings and branded goods sell briskly from gleaming stores. Ok, so it's nothing compared to Delhi or Mumbai or Bangalore, but things are improving fast.
What sets Agartala apart from other big towns in India is the cleanliness in evidence there. There aren't any overflowing garbage dumps and plastic-choked drains. Roads and kerbs are swept regularly and present a neat look and decrepit buildings are a rare sight. That's all because, unlike Calcutta, people generally like to keep their surroundings clean. There are a large number of poor people in the state, but they live in neat huts, not ugly shanties. Overall, Agartala holds out huge hope for advancement and things are nowhere as miserable as Calcutta. Which is quite a surprise, because Marxists are the rulers there as well. The secret, perhaps, lies in the fact that the most of the Bengalis of Tripura are migrants from Chittagong and Noakhali provinces of Bangladesh where conditions are harsh and, therefore, demand greater human endurance and output.
Agartala played host to a number of chief ministers, governors and senior bureaucrats earlier this week, all there for a plenary session of the North Eastern Council (NEC), the region's planning body. DoNER Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was there with a team of top officers from Delhi. A glittering white Prajna Bhavan, well designed and architecturally sound, was the venue of the two-day jamboree and was, expectedly, well-decorated with flowers and buntings. But what struck me was the absence of our national flag that ought to have been fluttering atop the meeting venue and should have found pride of place inside the plush, air-conditioned meeting hall as well.
The governors of Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Sikkim were at Prajna Bhavan for the better part of the two days, as were the CMs of Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, Mani Shankar Aiyar, senior
ministers from all the eight north eastern states and senior officers. None felt the absence of the tricolour or, even if they did, overlooked the glaring omission. I went around Agartala and looked at all government buildings; none save for the Raj Bhawan, sported our national flag. But there were CPI(M), CITU, SFI and DYFI flags aplenty, fluttering from many buildings and most lampposts. This, I'm told, has become the norm over the past decade, ever since the Marxists have established their stranglehold over Tripura. That explains it; like their counterparts in Bengal, Tripura's Marxists also abhor any show of patriotism. For them, party and ideology gain precedence over country and
The 107-year-old Ujjayant Palace, residence of the Manikya kings who ruled over Tripura (the kingdom extended to some provinces of present-day Bangladesh) is a grand structure that residents of Agartala are justifiably proud of. Located in the middle of one square kilometre of well-laid, Mughal-style gardens with fountains and large pools, the mixed-architecture, two-storied structure presents a majestic sight with beautiful tiles floors, intricately crafted wooden doors and ceilings and European-style domes and towers. When lit up at night, the palace rivals its more famous counterparts in Rajasthan. It houses the state legislative assembly now and the interiors are, thus, out of bounds to ordinary citizens.
Being part of a media team invited to the NEC plenary, we were luckier. The palace's doors were opened to us for a 'dekho' inside. And what met our eyes wasn't very captivating. It was apparent that the palace wasn't being preserved properly and the interiors looked shabby and run-down, like that of sarkari offices in most parts of the country. It was clear that the 'babus' and 'netas' who work out of the palace haven't taken proper care of the structure's interiors. Thankfully, they'll vacate the palace soon and move into a new building that'll house the state assembly.
Good, I said, suggesting to a state tourism department officer accompanying us that the palace could then be converted in a prime heritage hotel. He was aghast at this suggestion! Tagore, he told me, had stayed in this palace and converting it to a hotel would amount to desecrating his memory. The palace would be converted into a museum, he added. I could only shake my head and wonder if corrupt babus and venal politicians who've occupied the palace all these decades haven't already sullied Tagore's memory. The palace clearly needs big bucks to restore it to its former glory. The government obviously lacks resources for such restoration, and the expertise and inclination for proper upkeep after the restoration. Leasing out the property to any big hospitality group that has the expertise in restoring such palaces would be the best way to preserve the Ujjayant Palace.
Talking about hotels, Agartala lacks good hotels. There's just one decent hotel, part of a chain of 'smart basic' hotels that have come up in various parts of the country. The other hotels and 'guest houses' in the town are miserable. Government accommodation, too, is no good. Since Tripura is trying to project itself as a tourist destination, it urgently needs to get big hotel chains interested in building at least budget hotels in Agartala. The government has done its bit in the rest of the state by building decent tourist bungalows. At Kamalasagar where I had gone, a two-storied bungalow on a hillock overlooking paddy fields and a railway line in Bangladesh is clean, smart and modestly-priced, well within the range of travelers on a shoe-string budget. All other tourist destinations in the state, I'm told, offer similar accommodation. No wonder then that tourist inflow into Tripura is registering a huge increase. The state is quite beautiful and offers a lot to all sorts of tourists, including wildlife enthusiasts. But, as I said, Agartala needs more and much better hotels; nearly all the existing ones are quite uninhabitable.
The tourism department officers who escorted me to Kamalasagar let out a collective, nostalgic sigh on seeing a canary-yellow goods train tugged by a diesel engine snaking its way through lush paddy fields just across the international border. "Those were all our lands, part of the kingdom of Tripura," they exclaimed, before launching into extensive recollections of tales handed down by parents and grandparents of those 'glorious' days in erstwhile East Pakistan. Partition of Bengal and the 1965 war with Pakistan after which transit rights through present-day Bangladesh were severed sounded the death-knell for the economy of Tripura and, in fact, the entire North Eastern region. Trade and commerce used to be conducted through Bangladesh and Chittagong was the port through which goods from North East India used to be exported. Even communication links between the North East and the rest of India were through East Pakistan.
With these links getting snapped, the only link between India and the North East is the 27-kilometre wide chicken's neck of North Bengal (the Siliguri corridor, as it is known). It takes 50 minutes to fly from Calcutta to Agartala, but nearly 60 hours to travel between the two Marxist bastions by road or rail. But if one were to cut through Bangladesh, travel time gets reduced to just about ten hours. Bangladesh, clearly, holds the key to the economic rejuvenation of Northeast India and it is high time New Delhi employed smart diplomacy and imaginative solutions to gain transit rights for goods and people through our neighbour. GrameenPhone would become more popular then.