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Citizenship issue in Tripura

The NDA government’s proposed move to amend the citizenship law to make citizens out of Bengali Hindu refugees has been heating up politics in Assam and Tripura, albeit in different ways. The Congress, when in power in Assam, had petitioned the Centre and passed resolutions that Bengali Hindus who crossed over from Bangladesh due to discrimition and religious persecution, should be granted Indian citizenship. In opposition, the Congress is taking an opportunistic stance and equivocating on the issue; the party now criticizes the rendra Modi government’s agenda of granting citizenship on the basis of religion. Rather, the Congress seems more intent in needling BJP’s alliance partner AGP as to how this child of Assam Agitation can accept an amended citizenship law that nullifies the Assam Accord. After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress anxiety to hold on to the Bengali Hindu electorate in Assam was clear to political observers, which explains its contradictory stand over the citizenship issue. While the AASU with various regiol and indigenous peoples’ forums in Assam are vehemently opposing the citizenship bill, it remains to be seen whether that will translate to sufficient political counter-force to block the Centre’s move. But in Tripura, excepting the BJP — the other major political parties and tribal organizations are all opposing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The ruling (CPI-M)-led Left Front, the Congress and the Trimool are in principle against the bill, despite their bases in the Bengali Hindu electorate. However, the tribal organizations Indigenous tiolist Party of Tripura (INPT), Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and tiol Conference of Tripura (NCT) are using their vehement opposition to the bill to push their agenda for a separate state. After forging a common platform ‘All Tripura Indigenous Regiol Parties Forum (ATIRPF)’ last month to agitate against the bill, these organizations have been active in Delhi. The Tripura shutdown called on Wednesday last by the ATIRPF was marred by widespread clashes between their workers and Leftist cadres.   

As in Assam, the BJP in Tripura is eyeing the tribal/indigenous electorate to cement its political base. The by-elections for two assembly seats in Tripura last November clearly indicated that the BJP has begun replacing Congress as the main opposition party there. The long retreat of the Congress degenerated to a rout in the two assembly seats Barjala and Khowai, both won by the CPI(M). The Congress-Left alliance before the assembly election in West Bengal last year, has been perceived to be detrimental to Congress prospects in Tripura. Meanwhile, Trimool supremo Mamata Banerjee, having re-affirmed her sway in West Bengal, has been targeting the Left Front and Congress in Tripura going for assembly polls next year. With the Left Front in uninterrupted power in Tripura since 1993, the situation is ripe for strange political re-alignments between BJP, Trimool and Congress, or at least poaching and barging into each other’s turfs. It is against this uncertain backdrop that the tribal parties are upping the ante over the citizenship bill amendment issue. They are pressing for more power to Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), inner-line permit for tribals, recognition of tribal language Kokborok in Eighth Schedule, and reservation of 50% seats for tribals (against one-third seats presently)in the 60-member Tripura Assembly. Tribal leaders are contending that once the Bangladeshi migrants become citizens — they would be settled in Eastern and Northeastern India, depriving indigenous people of basic rights and eating into their political representation. The Left Front in turn accuses the tribal forum of using the citizenship bill protest as a pretext to muddy the waters before 2018 assembly elections, and push forward its agenda for a separate state. The CPI-M with its substantial base among both tribals and non-tribals, is understandably jittery about the BJP playing the citizenship amendment card with Bengali Hindus, while younger tribal voters are drawn away by identity politics. After all, the Manik Sarkar-led Left Front can rightfully claim much credit for its nuanced response to tribal militancy — using a trained and sensitized police, forgoing AFSPA, re-settling surrendered militants properly, ensuring basic services for common people, and countering militants’ propaganda with its own rrative of development and social harmony. For parties and stakeholders in Assam opposing the citizenship amendment bill, the changing socio-political dymics in Tripura over the same issue bear implications that need to be closely followed.   

About the author

Ankur Kalita