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Tripura may explode any day

Tripura may explode any day

Author: T V R Shenoy
Publication: The Weekend Observer
Date: June 24, 2000

THIRTY-SEVEN years ago, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made one of the most disgraceful speeches made by any Indian Prime Minister. With the Chinese battering away at Assam, he made what can only be described as a farewell address to the North-East. Mao's forces pulled back, but the people of that corner of India never forgot with what ease a Prime Minister would give them up. It was from that episode that the conviction began that nobody cared for the North- East except when there was a crisis.

Has anything improved in the years since then? I believe the situation is, if anything, even worse. Today, nobody cares even when there is a crisis. And for proof of that assertion look no farther than Tripura.

Before I continue, let me point out a few pertinent facts. Tripura is one of those rare states that is ruled by neither the National Democratic Alliance, nor by the Congress and its allies. (Bihar, which makes the headlines with mind-numbing regularity, has the Congress (I) in the Rabri Devi ministry, and Farooq Abdullah's National Conference is a member of the National Democratic Alliance.) But Tripura is ruled exclusively by the CPI(M).

Second, the current chief minister of the state, Manik Sarkar, is a mere stripling by Communist standards - just fifty-one. But that also means he is free of some of the prejudices that blind his octogenarian colleagues in the Politburo.

I referred to Rabri Devi and Farooq Abdullah earlier; let me now state that Manik Sarkar's Tripura combines some of the worst traits both of Bihar and of Jammu & Kashmir. There has been a general breakdown in the machinery of the state, and there has been a simultaneous rise in militant activity.

The situation has become so bad that the Consultative Committee of planters' associations met on 16 June to review the situation.

Planters in the state recently submitted a memorandum to the visiting union home secretary complaining of a 'reign of terror' unleashed by militants. They were not exaggerating; there are three incidents of kidnapping reported every two days, a statistic that has been true of the last three years. On a per capita basis, this makes Tripura the kidnapping capital of India.

The national media has generally ignored all this; it did, however, attract the attention of the BBC which then interviewed Manik Sarkar. The chief minister stated in the midst of this conversation that the Baptists were abetting terrorist activities. Coming down to specifics, Sarkar claimed that a functionary of the church was found with gelatine sticks and other explosives.

It is close to two months since the BBC broadcast this interview. But the media as a whole chose to make just passing references to the whole issue. Even those newspapers who did choose to publish Sarkar's allegations don't appear to have followed up the story.

That is something which should have been done, if only to ensure that the generic word 'Christians' wasn't used since the Baptists - strictly speaking a small section of them - don't speak for the whole community.

However, Tripura is, and has been for quite some time, an issue of mounting concern in New Delhi. And the officials in the capital came across an interesting fact when they looked at all the statistics. As I said, there are roughly five hundred instances of kidnapping every year in the state. But in the past three years, not a single victim has been a Christian. In other words, it is a deliberate attempt to scare the native Hindu population of the state. (For the record, all the facts and figures were provided by the Government of Tripura, in which the chief minister also holds the home portfolio.)

There is a second disturbing fact. Planters may be the most visible - or least invisible - victims, but they don't appear to be at the head of the priority list. It is, believe it or not, school teachers who head the category. This, for obvious reasons, has led to the closure of several government schools, since the administration is in no position to provide protection to all the teachers, and they themselves don't have the money to hire guards as the planters do. Nobody is forcing children to attend schools run by missionaries, but do parents have an alternative if government institutions shut down?

The Marxist government has, all unofficially of course, come up with a tit-for-tat solution. It is putting pressure on Baptist schools to close their doors wherever a state- administered institution has been shut. I am not quite sure what to make of this 'eye-for-an-eye' attitude; what I do know is that this nonsense isn't doing any favours to the children of Tripura.

The Left has also revived the theory of the 'foreign hand' (one of the late Indira Gandhi's favourite phrases). I believe that they may just have a point.

The intelligence agencies in Delhi have been tracking the flow of funds into India from the United States; it turns out that the Baptists are amongst the largest recipients of such 'aid'. But there has been very little accounting for precisely what is done with this money. Delhi has other evidence as well, but this is something that shouldn't be revealed just now.

Finally, the unhappy state has a full-blown refugee crisis just waiting to erupt. There are 80,000 refugees, perhaps more, in the tiny state. (Tripura has barely a tenth of the population of Delhi!) Almost all these 'refugees' are Bengalis, who have emigrated from neighbouring Bangladesh either voluntarily or under duress. But the native tribes resent their presence, a situation that is almost tailor-made for trouble.

Heaven knows that India paid heavily when Delhi ignored the looming crisis in Assam until the agitation suddenly exploded. I can only pray that in their preoccupation with a Bihar or a Kashmir, 'tiny' Tripura is not put on the backburner until it is far too late.

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