In Tripura, Indian citizenship law reignites old hostilities

Communities are on edge as the CAA rekindles rivalries between Bengali settlers and Bru refugees.

[Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]
Residents of Tripura say tensions are rising around the issue of India's new citizenship law [Makepeace Sitlhou/Al Jazeera]

North Tripura, India – The dust had barely settled in Kanchanpur subdivision two weeks after clashes broke out there between Bru tribe members and Hindu Bengalis. As refugees in the northeastern state of Tripura, both communities have been on edge since India enacted a new citizenship law in December.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), eases the path to naturalisation for religious minorities from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who came to India before December 31, 2014. It excludes Muslims.

The act sparked both celebration and outrage in this tiny frontier state. While firecrackers went off in the Bengali-dominated Agartala, the capital city of Tripura, the tribal-dominated hill districts erupted in protest.

Many of the area’s Hindu Bengali residents fled – or are descendants of those who fled – what is now Bangladesh. The Bru tribe members have been living in refugee camps in Kanchanpur since 1997, when 37,000 escaped ethnic riots in the neighbouring state of Mizoram. 

On December 10, communal clashes broke out in Kanchanpur between the Bru refugees and members of the Reang tribe, an indigenous community that is one of the “scheduled tribes” in Tripura and which shares a common lineage with the Bru, who were protesting against the CAA, and Hindu Bengalis who supported it. Protesters reportedly threw stones at traders in the marketplace and vandalised shops.

Several shops owned by members of the Bengali community in Ananda Bazaar were also attacked, after which at least 90 Bengali families took refuge in relief camps set up by the local administration nearby.

[Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]
Members of the Bru and Reang tribal community set up their own market in Tuisama after they say Bengali-owned shops in Kanchanpur market and Ananda Bazaar imposed an economic blockade on them [Makepeace Sitlhou/Al Jazeera]

Opposition to the CAA

Kanchanpur falls under the administration of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTADC), which has been exempted from the purview of the new central law. However, the Tripura tribal groups, including the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), a political party in alliance with the ruling BJP, have demanded state-wide exemption from the Act.

Narendra Chandra Debbarma, a senior leader of the IPFT, explained why tribal groups did not believe that exempting tribal areas from the CAA would be sufficient.

“If there’s a sudden increase in the population of non-scheduled areas [those areas not under the administration of the TTADC], then it will have an impact on the distribution of natural resources in the entire state, including the tribal hill tracts,” he told Al Jazeera.

On December 14, the commandant of the 13th battalion of the Tripura State Rifles (TSR) lodged a first information report (FIR) over the December 10 clashes. The report was filed against 27 people. A copy of it seen by Al Jazeera shows that of the accused, 14 are from the Reang and Bru community and 12 are Bengalis.

“All the Bengalis named are from the opposition party, Communist Party of India (Marxist),” said one member of the Reang community, who was also named in the police complaint and asked that his name not be used for security reasons.

Al Jazeera also spoke to Alindra Nath, one of the Bengalis named in the police complaint, who said that he is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but that he was not present at the scene of the clashes.

TSR Commandant Sanjoy Roy told Al Jazeera that he was on leave and had no information about the case.

Residents of the Naisingpara camp, one of the six Bru resettlement camps in Kanchanpur, insisted that nobody from the Bru refugee settlements was involved in the protests, despite their names appearing on the police complaint.

Achan Sa, the joint secretary of the Mizoram Bru Indigenous Democratic Movement, a body that represents the Bru refugees, said that members of the Bengali community had in October stopped them from carrying out peaceful protests against the central government’s decision to cease ration supplies to the Bru refugees as part of its efforts to repatriate them to Mizoram. 

“When the central government stopped our rations last year, we were stopped from going to protest this and physically manhandled. The attack on the settlements in Ananda Bazaar were in retaliation …,” said Sa.

[Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]
Members of the Nagarik Suraksha Mancha, a citizen protection committee formed by Bengalis, say Bengali shopkeepers in Kanchanpur market and Ananda Bazaar refused to sell to anyone, not only tribe members, for a few days in December in protest at the attacks on traders and shops during the anti-CAA protests [Makepeace Sitlhou/Al Jazeera]

A haven for refugees

Tripura, in India’s northeast, has been a popular haven for refugees since communal riots broke out in Bengal following its partition by the British in 1905. 

Bordering Bangladesh on three sides, with Assam and Mizoram in the north, the state was once a princely kingdom of the Manikyas with several self-governing tribal communities as its subjects.

Before the kingdom, previously called Twipra, was annexed to the Indian union in 1949, the Manikya dynasty had already settled many Bengali Hindus, who largely helped with the running of the administration, and Muslims, who largely worked cultivating the plains, there. 

Significant demographic shifts followed, however; first in 1941 following clashes between Muslims and Hindus in Dhaka, then in 1949 when the Queen Regent, Kanchan Prava Devi, resettled refugees who had fled communal disturbances between Hindu and Muslim Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan. She allocated 300 square miles (777 square kilometres or 192,000 acres) of land from the Tribal Reserved Areas in Kanchanpur to the Hindu refugees. 

In 1941, members of tribes made up 50.09 percent of the population in Tripura. By 1951, that had fallen to 37.23 percent. In the same period, the percentage of the population who were non-tribe members (predominantly Bengalis) had risen from 49.91 percent to 62.77 percent. 

The land that was allocated for the resettlement of the Hindu Bengali refugees in 1949 remained under the governance of the TTADC and the assembly seat for it is reserved for a candidate belonging to an indigenous tribal community. 

Sushanta Baruah, a Bengali social worker in Kanchanpur, explained that upon seeing the “violent” reaction of members of the Bru community to the CAA, Bengalis quickly formed the Nagrik Suraksha Mancha (Citizen Protection Committee).

“We are demanding that the Bru IDPs [internally displaced people] be repatriated to Mizoram,” said Baruah.

Another key demand of the committee is for the land donated to the Bengalis be excluded from the jurisdiction of the TTADC and merged with a general assembly constituency. 

[Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]
Bru residents of the Naisingpara camp say that dispite living there for 23 years, they still have no basic healthcare facilities or primary schools for their children [Makepeace Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]

Resettling Bru refugees 

In 2009, an agreement was reached between the central government, the Mizoram government, the Tripura government and a Bru representative body called the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum to repatriate Bru refugees to the Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei districts of Mizoram.

Since then, there have been nine phases of repatriation, but only 7,000 refugees have returned. Many others have refused, citing insecurity and poor living conditions in Mizoram, and have demanded that an autonomous district council be created for their community there.

Residents of the Naisingpara camp say that despite living in makeshift huts in the underdeveloped area near the border with Mizoram for the past 23 years, they still have no basic primary healthcare facilities or primary schools for their children.

Recently, Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs asking to permanently settle “not more than 400-500 [Bru] families” in any single subdivision of the state, suggesting that those who wanted to stay in Tripura may be allowed to do so.

Bruno Msha, the general secretary of the Mizoram Bru Displaced People’s Forum, believes that Bengalis were alarmed by this as they had always viewed the Bru refugees as temporary residents of Tripura.

“Our people will increase the tribal strength to keep Kanchanpur within the TTADC,” he said, adding: “However, we are scared to stay here also. The Bengalis have been spreading rumours about us.”

Old rivalries

Animosity with the Reang tribal community has existed ever since the arrival of the first set of Bengalis in Kanchanpur, where the Reangs were once the majority. Back in 1947, a now inactive armed group called the Tripura Tribal Sengkrak Force, composed mostly of young Reang, ran a violent campaign against Bengalis.

According to Baruah, tribe members and non-tribe members had been living in harmony in Kanchanpur until the arrival of the Bru refugees.

Communal riots did, however, break out between Bengalis and tribe members in 1980. About 450 people are thought to have been killed then, with more than 500 missing, 90 percent of whom were Bengalis, according to official figures. But Baruah said that Kanchanpur was untouched by the riots then, adding that “not even a puppy” had been affected.

“This is all because of Pradyot Manikya Deb Burman [Kanchan Prava Devi’s grandson and the titular heir of the Manikya dynasty] who has been poisoning their [Bru refugees] minds from afar,” said Bikas Das, a reporter with the local daily Chandan Patrika and a member of the Nagrik Suraksha Mancha. “Now the situation here has become completely communal, which should not have happened.”

[Sitlhou Makepeace/Al Jazeera]
The Naisingpara camp is an underdeveloped area near the border with Mizoram where Bru refugees have lived since fleeing clashes in their home state in 1997 [Makepeace Sitlhou/Al Jazeera]

Deb Burman told Al Jazeera that he is often accused – by both the ruling BJP and the state’s left-wing opposition – of inciting “communal” sentiments in the state, whenever he tries to raise the issues faced by tribal minorities.

“I’m not against Bengalis but illegal Bangladeshis becoming voters here,” he explained. “The Centre [central government] says the tribal areas are exempted but neither political representation nor jobs are determined by geographical area.”

Barman left the opposition Indian National Congress party last year alleging it discouraged him from filing a petition before the Supreme Court of India to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a register of Indian citizens, which when implemented in Assam in August excluded 1.9 million residents – in Tripura. 

“The CAA is a clear design of vote bank politics that not only the BJP but also other national parties are playing,” said Deb Burman.

On January 11, he led an anti-CAA rally at Khumulwung, the headquarters of the TTADC. The Indian National Congress party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) did not attend that rally but have been hosting their own against the act.

Baruah says the recently concluded NRC exercise in Assam, which excluded many Bengali-speaking residents, has made Bengali settlers fearful.

“We are third-generation residents but they are saying Bangladeshis like us should go back,” he said.

“In fact, many places that are now in Bangladesh were once a part of erstwhile Tripura,” Baruah added. “Why should we leave now?”

Source: Al Jazeera