Crossing Over

Demographic change in one small state is used as a red flag in its giant neighbour, Assam. But the history of Tripura and its people is much more than that.

Crossing over by Sanskrita Bharadwaj; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

High and hectic drama was a feature of Indian life in the months leading up to independence, and every corner of the subcontinent threw up its own variation on the theme. In the princely state of Tripura, tucked into the northeastern wing of the peninsula, the ruler Bir Bikram Kishore Manikya came to the decision to join the Indian Union in April 1947. But he died before the merger could be formalised, and his son was a minor. A regency council headed by his widow, Maharani Kanchanprava Devi, took charge.

Rumours were afoot about a conspiracy to get Tripura to merge with East Pakistan. In a Ruritanian plot twist, a key actor in this plot was thought to be Durjoy Karta, a relative of the late king. A local political party, the Anjuman-e-Islamia, promised him the throne if he was able to swing the region still known as Hill Tippera. (Plains Tippera, a neighbouring district governed by British India, had already become a part of East Pakistan.) Anjuman-e-Islamia had strong support from the Muslim League, which in 1947 was riding high in the east, having acquired the Chittagong Hill Tracts despite stiff opposition from the local tribal population in that area.

“I am well aware of what happened,” said Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, the son of the minor in whose name the regency council governed at the time. Pradyot’s grandmother had her own plans for the state. “She had resolved to respect her late husband’s decision and join India,” he told me.

Kanchanprava Devi’s own father ruled the central Indian principality of Panna. Together, they sought the help of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India’s first home minister, and leader of the gargantuan task of integrating the princely states. Patel, in turn, wrote to Akbar Hydari, the governor of Assam, to intervene on India’s behalf. “After my grandmother reached out to the government of India and told them Durjoy Karta was arriving from abroad, he was held in custody at the Bombay Dockyard,” Pradyot Debbarma told me.

Kanchanprava Devi signed the instrument of accession with India. It was September 1949. It had taken two years, but Hill Tippera had joined the fold.

Looking at the map today, it is no small wonder that the Maharani managed to push this deal through. Tripura isn’t India’s smallest state—it is bigger than Goa and Sikkim—but it is a tiny thumb of land that shares an 856km-long border with Bangladesh on three sides. In the years after Indian independence, its politics, too, have been heavily shaped by Hindu Bengali speakers.

Crossings between their cultures began centuries earlier, for agricultural and administrative reasons. But, in the tumultuous quarter century from 1946 to 1971, they were made by people escaping communal strife and violence. Even now, the timing and intensity of Bengali migrations continue to be contested points in the state. The migrations radically altered Tripura’s demographic balance by making the indigenous tribal residents a minority.

It sparked a conflict that spanned three decades, and birthed several militant groups and sub-groups. The violence has more or less subsided in the last two decades, and in 2018, a relatively new entrant in a long-running game of political musical chairs swept the polls: the Bharatiya Janata Party.

I’m from Assam, a state whose demographic politics have sent shockwaves through the country. What many don’t know, though, is that a variation of the same conflict has haunted Tripura for decades. The conflict is linked fundamentally to the ongoing battle in the country over what kind of nation India really is, and who gets to claim full citizenship here. When viewed from this lens, the BJP’s ascendance in Tripura is a continuation of a political destiny that has been decades in the making.

Majority Report


he Manikya kings of Tripura had a history of inviting East Bengalis to their domains for administrative and agricultural purposes. Manas Paul, a senior journalist based in Agartala, argues that migration was first encouraged during the reign of Maharaja Ratna Manikya, who ruled in the late fifteenth century.

But indigenous groups in the state find this an unsatisfactory version of history. They contend that those migrations were never meant to be permanent. “They used to come for business and go back to Bengal,” Bikash Roy Debbarma told me. He is an independent writer and historian and also the president of the Kokborok Sahitya Sabha, which works for the preservation of Kokborok, the native language of many of the state’s tribal communities. Bikash Debbarma claimed that the census reports that began in 1911 showed low numbers of Bengali inhabitants.

This was a common refrain: Pradyot Debbarma of the erstwhile ruling family also insisted that the tribal population used to be a majority before independence. “Of course, we had cultural links with the Bengalis but when my grandmother signed the instrument of accession with India, she did not sign it for Comilla or the plains. We signed it for Hill Tippera, where tribals used to be a majority.” [1]

“Any change in demography has an impact on land holding patterns. That’s where the conflict starts.”

Subir Bhaumik

This is a contested view. Subir Bhaumik, who covered northeastern India for the BBC in the 1980s and 1990s, has written that Bengalis accounted for more than 40 percent of the population “since the end of the nineteenth century.” He’d based his conclusions on the demographic split in the census records. He suggested that “the tribespeople may have become a minority” even “perhaps in the normal course of migration.”

East Bengali farmers had been historically coming to Tripura to develop wetland cultivation, separate from the primary mode of agriculture for tribal growers, who practised jhum, or slash-and-burn cultivation. The princely state encouraged the migration: Bengalis were issued leases for large tracts of land for wet-rice settled agriculture that boosted royal revenues. [2] According to Bikash Roy Debbarma, this population stayed for six to seven months of the year, from planting to harvest, before returning to eastern Bengal.

Bhaumik said that these farmers not only cultivated land but also purchased land in Tripura. “So, when they come in and start their cultivation, they produce and save more. Where do they put in this extra money? They buy more land,” Bhaumik explained. “These are backward economies, still predominantly focussed on agriculture where land is the most important resource. So, any change in demography has an impact on land holding patterns. That’s where the conflict starts.”

Musical Chairs


s India became independent, and for some years after, a faction of its communists seriously considered armed revolution to overthrow the state, a goal shared by many communist parties in Asia and around the world. The Communist Party of India launched multiple insurgencies against local monarchs reluctant to give up their power, in regions ranging from Kerala and Telangana to Tripura. In Tripura, the CPI had support from the Gana Mukti Parishad (GMP), a party started by tribal youths who’d been introduced to communist philosophies in the universities of Sylhet, Dhaka, Comilla and Calcutta. (The GMP merged with the CPI in 1949.)

The rebellion didn’t come close to succeeding. It was brutally crushed on the instructions of the government in Delhi and did not resurrect itself. The CPI had more political success when it turned from armed struggle to electoral politics: in Tripura, they won both of the state’s parliamentary seats in India’s first general election in 1952. At the time, Tripura was a Part C state, governed by a Chief Commissioner, without its own assembly. [3]

The key figure among the Tripura Communists at this time was a man named Dasaratha Debbarma, who would come to be known as the King of the Hills. He began organising when he returned from his studies in Sylhet and Calcutta, and established the Janasiksha Samiti to spread education among tribal youths in December 1945. Perceiving his popularity as a threat, the Manikya kings cracked down on the Samiti. Dasaratha went underground, and would only emerge in 1952. Along with other leaders associated with the Samiti, he was instrumental in the establishment of the GMP.

The Communists now appeared to be the party of choice for Tripura’s indigenous voters. But while Tripura had faced down the upheaval of Partition, it had not been unaffected by it. Bengali migration to the state had swelled after the borders were redrawn with the formation of East Pakistan. And the erstwhile maharani’s allies, the Indian National Congress, had their own designs on the state.

Subir Bhaumik writes that the Congress went out of its way to promote refugee rehabilitation in Tripura because they knew it would be difficult to oust the Communists from the tribal areas. Refugees were even settled in areas that were earmarked as tribal reserves by the last ruler, Bir Bikram. Settlements sprang up in the hills with names like Atharacard or Eighteen Cards, and Baiscard or Twenty-Two Cards, to denote the number of resettled migrant families.

By 1961, the tribal population was reduced to a clear minority, from 50.09 percent in 1941 to 37.23 percent in 1951, down to 31.5 percent. [4] The Congress started making rapid political gains on the strength of the majority Bengali votes. In 1967, the Communists lost both parliamentary seats for the first time in 15 years, and Dasaratha yielded his seat to Kirit Bikram Manikya, son of the late ruler Bir Bikram, and father of Pradyot Debbarma. 

The Debbarma kings were Tripuris, the largest tribal grouping in the state, and propping up Kirit Bikram helped the Congress split the tribal vote. But any split along ethnic lines was no longer tenable for political outfits: even the ‘King of the Hills’ had dropped his tribal surname, ‘Debbarma,’ for what critics said was a more Bangla-sounding ‘Deb.’

In Parliament, Dasarath Deb had confirmed that the hills could accommodate Bengalis, though the journalist Manas Paul recalled that Dasarath also warned that the consequences of Bengali settlement could be complicated.

The same year, in 1967, disillusionment with the Left led to the formation of an ethno-nationalist political group known as the Tripura Upajati Juva Samiti (TUJS). Their slogan was “Kachakkoofoorchung chia, buni tala tanglia.” We are neither white nor red but we are for the tribal cause. The TUJS demanded the adoption of Kokborok as the official language of Tripura and the restoration of land among landless tribals. “Communists were the only party that in some way represented the tribals until the TUJS was formed,” Paul told me, “Therefore, in the tribal areas, the Communists had a rival in TUJS.”

Further demographic shifts were just years away. The end of 1971 saw the brutal war of independence for Bangladesh, and India admitted an influx of Hindu Bengali migrants escaping religious persecution and war. In Tripura, this correlated with the percentage of the tribal population in the state coming down to 29 percent.

The Congress remained in power in the state for another five years, through Tripura’s transition to full statehood in 1972, before its national fortunes swung in the other direction over the years of the Emergency. In 1977, Tripura was as ready to vote the party out as the rest of India. Their victors, this time, were the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Factional Expressions


ver 30 years, as electoral parties made arithmetic calculations to balance out the interests of their voting demographics, tribal resentment was coalescing. In November 1978, it manifested itself in a militant group called Tripura National Volunteers. TNV was led by Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl who began his political career as a popular youth leader with the TUJS. The TNV’s primary demand was the separation of Tripura from India. It had been backed by Mizo National Front, which had taken up arms to fight for the secession of Mizoram.

The pot was bubbling, and in June 1980, an incident of spectacular violence took place in Mandai Bazaar, near the capital of Agartala. The market in Mandai, a tribal-dominated area, was dominated by Bengalis. “It was TUJS that had started a Bazaar bandh across the state,” Bhaumik said. “They were demanding a fair price on products produced by tribals. Bengalis kept their shops open, and tensions started.” It spiralled into outright murder: nearly 350 Bengalis were massacred in a single morning.

“I reached the scene of the attack soon after it had taken place,” the journalist Sanjoy Hazarika later wrote in his book Strangers of the Mist. “It was the first time I saw a senior army officer break down as he surveyed the carnage. The hatred of the attackers was clear: a two-year-old-child had been split in two and laid on either side of its mother. The only living creature in that village that day was a dog, barring the army officials, reporters and photographers who were led to the site.”

The Mandai incident allowed a divide that was ordinarily seen from a political lens to now be seen as openly ethnic. “The CPI(M) and TUJS tribal cadres ganged up and attacked the Bengalis,” Bhaumik said. “And then, later, Bengali cadres of the CPI(M) went and attacked the tribals in retaliation. They did not differentiate between the CPI(M) tribals and the TUJS tribals.”

The ATPLO’s Binanda Jamatia, suspecting that Chuni Koloi had support from Hrangkhawl, arranged for the abduction of Hrangkhawl and his wife Linda from their home in Tripura’s Ambassa town.

Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, the face of the militant movement, was arrested and lodged in jail after Mandai. When he was released a few months later, he announced the dissolution of TNV. But the fire had been lit. Another extremist group that came to be known as the All Tripura People’s Liberation Organisation (ATPLO) soon came into being.

This began a series of factional reactions that was a marker of militant nationalist movements in states across northeastern India. In 1981, a man by the name of Chuni Koloi broke away from ATPLO. The ATPLO’s Binanda Jamatia, suspecting that Chuni Koloi had support from Hrangkhawl, arranged for the abduction of Hrangkhawl and his wife Linda from their home in Tripura’s Ambassa town. The Hrangkhawls were kept in confinement at the Thangnan base camp in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

Over the next few months, Koloi’s faction came to be better-armed than Jamatia’s, even managing to rescue the Hrangkhawls from captivity. In 1983, Jamatia and his ATPLO faction surrendered to the state government in exchange for cabinet berths—but in the meanwhile, Bijoy Hrangkhawl had revived the TNV and taken in Chuni Koloi and his faction.

The TUJS, which had taken the political route, was still very much in the picture. It had raised the demand of an autonomous tribal council that would empower indigenous people to take significant decisions in regions where they were a majority. Naturally, this demand was opposed by thousands of Bengalis who grouped under Amra Bangali. (The United Bengali Liberation Front, which formed in the late 1990s as a response to the tribal-dominated militant groups, was born out of Amra Bangali.)

When Indira Gandhi’s government in Delhi accepted the demand for the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), the TUJS decided to ally with the Congress. This gave the TUJS access to a base in Bengali-dominated areas and allowed the Congress to compete with the Communists in the tribal areas.

The run-up to the 1988 assembly elections was bloody. The TNV unleashed a spate of violence in the settler areas which left many dead—with figures ranging from 36 to 117. In a paper, Bhaumik has suggested that the violence had been “deliberately engineered by the Congress government at the Centre.” The goal, Bhaumik argued, was to undermine the Bengalis’ faith in the Left Front government. (I haven’t been able to confirm this independently.)

What was in it for the TNV? Well, four months after the Left’s defeat, Hrangkhawl and his followers walked out of the jungles and signed a peace accord with Delhi. The content of the agreement was similar to those forged with the Nagas and the Mizos with one key difference: the government would make serious efforts to deport migrants from Bangladesh and restore lost land among the tribespeople. 

According to the terms of the accord, the number of seats reserved in the assembly for indigenous people went from 17 to 20. Hrangkhawl oversaw the implementation of the agreement.

“Bijoy Hrangkhawl was asking for Shaahdin Tripura, an independent Tripura,” Bhaumik told me. “Then, he settled for just three additional tribal seats.”

Guns, Kidnappings, Ambushes


ripura experienced a fresh bout of militancy after the TNV surrendered in 1988. Dhananjoy Reang, the vice-president of the TNV, rebelled against what he saw as the capitulation of Hrangkhawl and withdrew into the jungles to form the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) in 1992.

Once again, the chessboard was coming to be influenced by new players. There was also the All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF), which had been formed in 1990 by Lalit and Ranjit Debbarma as a result of their disgruntlement with the CPI(M). Their demands included removal of the names of post-1956 migrants from the electoral rolls and restoration of land to tribals. (In 1993, after Lalit and his 1633 cadres put down arms, Ranjit and his followers renamed the group as the All Tripura Tiger Force.)

In the mid- and late 1990s, the NLFT and ATTF presided over a frantic surge of violence. Their targets were security forces and Bengali settlers. It helped that they had access to hideouts across the border in Bangladesh, with camps spread over Sylhet, Habibganj, Maulvi Bazaar districts and also the Chittagong Hill Tracts. With the revenue from kidnapping and extortions, they purchased arms from the black markets in southeast Asia and Bangladesh.

In Strangers of the Mist, Hazarika noted that the groups were not really interested in secession. “There is nothing revolutionary about them,” Hazarika had quoted an anonymous government official as telling him, “This is the bottom line for them, not independence, not separation. They want a deal, they want to be secure.” Pradyot Debbarma also felt that the insurgency had little to do with ideology. “They felt betrayed,” he said, referring to indigenous people becoming a minority on their land. “It is more to do with frustration than ideology.”

In February 2001, the NLFT split after its most feared lieutenant Nayanbasi Jamatia came out of the jungles with 137 guerrillas. Prior to surrendering, he demanded a political position and a meeting with then chief minister Manik Sarkar. [5] When his demands were rejected, he returned into the Chittagong Hill Tracts, even as a large part of his cohort surrendered to Tripura police.

Around 2002, Manik Sarkar changed his policy. His old tactic of negotiating a political settlement with the insurgents was not working. “He realised he needed to take a different step,” Bhaumik said, “because kidnappings were increasing.”

The insurgency only tapered off with outright brute force from the police, whose ranks swelled in Tripura after an audit by then director general of police B.L. Vohra, who took charge in 2000. His successor G.M. Srivastava then evolved a method that used surrendered militants to attack the camps of their former comrades, and initiated trans-border attacks on hideouts. “They would know their base camps better than anyone else,” Srivastava told me during an interview at his home in Guwahati. “We blasted two camps in Bangladesh. We had to scare the militants.”

One of the last major attacks in Tripura occurred in 2008, when serial bombings in Agartala killed four people and injured 76. Security officials initially suspected that a Bangladeshi terror group was behind the attacks. But in 2015, four men linked to the ATTF were sentenced to life imprisonment by a trial court.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which continues to remain in effect in Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and six districts of Arunachal Pradesh, was revoked in Tripura in May 2015. Bangladesh, which had earlier not made too many noises about the rebel camps on its territory, also changed its policy after the Awami League came to power in 2008. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered the demolition of rebel camps and assured India of stricter vigilance.

It ushered in an era of relative security stability for Tripura, though it was hard not to feel that history had come full circle with a Left Front government leading the crackdown on indigenous militant groups: back in the 1940s, the Communists had first mobilised tribal youths to take up an armed struggle.

A New Power In Town


n 2018, not only did the BJP topple the five-term regime of the CPI(M), it also managed to win by a two-third majority. Tanmoy Chakraborty, a journalist from Agartala, put this down to anti-incumbency against the CPI(M). “See it’s like, people were bored of eating dal-chawal every day,” he said, “So, they wanted to try something new.”

In the run-up to the elections, BJP sent in key Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers to Tripura. Sunil Deodhar was one of them—he was in-charge of the party’s plans in the state. Bikash Roy Debbarma told me that Deodhar had done the groundwork that helped strengthen the party’s Hindutva base in Tripura.

The approach treaded a fine line, one that was meant to acknowledge the syncretic practices of tribal communities, while also reassuring the Bengalis of commitment to the Hindu cause. During the first phase of the party’s tribal outreach project, for instance, the figure of Bharat Mata was represented in the attire of the four major tribal communities of Tripura. “The idea is to counter the sense of alienation these tribes feel from the rest of the country,” Deodhar had told The Indian Express.

Explaining the workings of the BJP in Tripura, Devid Debbarma, general secretary of BJP’s Janajati Morcha, told me that there is an in-charge in every constituency. “BJP is a cadre-based party. We work from the booth level to the state level. Every constituency is supposed to have 50 booths and we have a leader at every booth.”

“But the BJP never negotiated with the IPFT for the formation of Tipraland. The party has fulfilled the promises they made to IPFT.”

Devid Debbarma

In a development that was at odds, at least on paper, with the BJP’s integrationist model of governance, it chose the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura as its main ally in the state. The main demand of the IPFT is Tipraland, a state carved out of the TTAADC areas. The beginnings of the party itself hark back to the darkest days of the insurgency. In the 2000 TTAADC elections, the militant NLFT had said that it would only allow the IPFT to contest the elections.

“But the BJP never negotiated with the IPFT for the formation of Tipraland,” Devid Debbarma told me. “The High Level Committee is supposed to be working for the development of the indigenous people. Key leaders from IPFT such as N.C. Debbarma and Mewar Kumar Jamatia were given powerful ministerial positions like land revenue, and forest and tribal welfare. BJP has fulfilled the promises they made to IPFT.”

Now, six months before the state goes into its next assembly election, the ground is shaking somewhat. There is a sense that the much-vaunted “development” touted by the BJP hasn’t reached several tribal areas. Tribal leaders are also discontented by their lack of involvement in urban areas. “There isn’t a single seat reserved for tribals in the urban areas,” Bibhu Kumari Devi, former Congress MLA and wife of the late Kirit Bikram Manikya told me.

Chakraborty, the Agartala journalist, noted that the recent change of chief minister mid-term—from Biplab Deb to Manik Saha—indicated that there could be something “fishy” within the BJP. [6]

In April 2021, Tipra Motha, an opposition party led by Pradyot Debbarma, registered its maiden victory in the TTAADC elections. Tipra Motha’s main demand is the tribal-majority state of Greater Tipraland. [7] In late August this year, Hangsha Kumar Tripura, BJP’s main leader in the TTAADC, jumped ship to Tipra Motha. The BJP’s ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas’ is only words, he said after the switch, which have done nothing for the tribals and the non-tribals of the state.

Amidst all this, a cloud of doubt has formed over which way the IPFT will swing. Devid Debbarma insisted that the BJP-IPFT alliance is still intact but he also said that changes might occur before the election. Uday Reang, a Tipra Motha worker, told me that IPFT currently hangs somewhere in between—not with the BJP nor with the Tipra Motha. In June, reports indicated that a faction of the IPFT will join the Tipra Motha. The faction’s complaint was that the IPFT had reneged on its core demand of statehood and was constantly bickering with the BJP.

“There has to be some semblance of reconciliation between the tribals and the non-tribals,” Subir Bhaumik said, as he considered the situation. “After all, these are two groups of dispossessed people—one fled religious persecution while the other lost their land.”

Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Assam. You can see some of her archived work here.


I am very thankful to everyone who gave me their time and spoke to me in detail for this piece—Pradyot Debbarma, Bibhu Kumari Devi, Subir Bhaumik, Manas Paul, Bikash Roy Debbarma, G.M. Srivastava, Devid Debbarma, Uday Reang and Tanmoy Chakraborty. For this piece, I primarily referred to three books—Bhaumik’s Agartala Doctrine, Sanjoy Hazarika’s Strangers of the Mist and Manas Paul’s The Eyewitness: Tales from Tripura: Ethnic Conflict. I also referred to several research papers and news reports in BBC, India Today, The Hindu, Frontline,, Indian Express, IANS, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, etc.