Tripura violence: With no Hindu-Muslim riots in decades, what led to the recent attacks in the state?

Religious passions were whipped up by social media posts alongside a spurt of political violence.

WrittenBy:Samrat X
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News of mob attacks on mosques and properties in Tripura owned by the Northeastern state’s Muslim minority of less than 10 percent have lately drawn national and international attention on social media. A post by Maktoob Media, which describes itself as “an independent media initiative based out of Delhi in India”, cited the Students Islamic Organisation of India to list 19 incidents of such attacks across five districts of Tripura. The state has eight districts.

On Wednesday, the Tripura police issued a statement through its Twitter handle, saying: “Certain persons by using fake social media IDs are spreading fake news/rumours on Tripura. It is informed that law & order situation in the State is absolutely normal.”

Apart from the images of vandalism and arson, signs of the current “absolute normalcy” were visible in a viral video whose authenticity has not been challenged till the time of writing. It shows a procession carrying a Vishwa Hindu Parishad banner marching to a chant of “Muhammad tera baap kaun”, meaning “Muhammad, who is your father”, to which the crowd responds with cries of “Hare Krishna Hare Ram”.

This rally, one of several organised by the VHP and its Sangh Parivar associates, was held to protest attacks on the Bengali Hindu minority of neighbouring Bangladesh during the Durga Puja festival that ended on October 15. There, Muslim mobs had attacked Durga Puja pandals and ashrams of Hindu sects including Iskcon, whose followers typically chant “Hare Krishna”. The Radha Krishna temple in Chowmuhani in the Noakhali district of Bangladesh was attacked. One devotee, Jatan Saha, was beaten to death while the injured body of another, Pranta Das, was found drowned in a pond.

Chowmuhani is located roughly 25 km from Tripura. The border is close by. It is even closer from Cumilla, the town where the trouble started after a Koran was found resting on the thigh of a Hanuman statue kept, very unusually, in a Durga Puja pandal (Durga Puja pandals don't have Hanuman idols). Cumilla is barely 10 km from the Tripura border town of Sonamura. Even Agartala, the Tripura capital, lies less than 10 km from the Bangladesh border.

Until Partition in 1947, these lands on both sides of the border had a common owner in the king of Tripura. What is now the present state of Tripura was called Hill Tippera by the British. A tract of 692 square miles of land in the surrounding plains now in Bangladesh, spread over Cumilla, Sylhet and Noakhali, was called Tippera. In the Tripura maharaja’s records as well as in British and earlier Mughal records, this was the zamindari estate of Chakla Roshnabad of the Tripura kings. These lands, which were once part of the Tripura kingdom, had gone to Mughal and subsequently British overlordship since the time of Emperor Jahangir, but the Tripura kings continued to administer them as zamindars paying taxes to the Mughals and British.

In 1947 at Partition, these extensive estates and all their inhabitants became part of East Pakistan. The suddenness of it was a shock to the residents. Although Partition had been talked about for years, until July 1946 there was no Pakistan on the cards. Instead, an undivided federation of India had been proposed by a British Cabinet Mission, and formally accepted by MA Jinnah and the Muslim League, as well as the Congress whose president then was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

In July 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru took over as the new Congress president and addressed a press conference in Bombay in which he asserted that his party would not be bound by the terms of the Cabinet Mission Plan. This caused Jinnah to withdraw his assent for the plan of an Indian federation, and he called for a “Direct Action Day” on August 16, 1946, during which severe riots broke out in Calcutta. The riots then spread to Noakhali, then in the plains of Tripura and now in Bangladesh.

Those riots in Calcutta and Noakhali made Partition inevitable. Back then, the violence had been contained after Mahatma Gandhi went to live in Noakhali. He was there until March 1947.

The current religious violence between Hindus and Muslims in Tripura is the first that has come to notice in the state since those times.

“This is the first time since Partition that we are seeing Hindu-Muslim violence,” said Suhas Chakma, director of the Rights & Risks Analysis Group, who has close family ties with Tripura. “What Tripura has seen for the last many decades is tribal versus non-tribal violence.”

Even during the Bangladesh genocide, when an estimated 1-3 million people, mostly Hindu, were massacred by the Pakistan army and refugees fled to Tripura, there was no memorable Hindu-Muslim trouble, said Chakma.

Time has, however, not healed old wounds, according to Pradyot Manikya Deb Barman, the titular king of Tripura.

“The pain of Partition still runs very high in Tripura,” said Deb Barman, who is chief of a political formation called TIPRA (Tipraha Indigenous Progressive Regional Alliance). Memories of the Bangladesh war are also still alive there, he added. “The pain and passion run very high.”

His personal view is that “we don’t believe in this sort of thing”, which he described as “very unfortunate...will lead to further divisions in society”. Such troubles will never end, said Deb Barman. “The tribals of Tripura want a separate state. We don’t want to inherit legacy issues of what happened in Bangladesh between Hindus and Muslims.”

Ever since the aftermath of Partition sent waves of mostly Bengali Hindu refugees from the adjacent plains of Chakla Roshnabad into Hill Tripura – and saw an exodus of local Muslims – the principal dividing line in Tripura politics has been between the local tribal communities and the Bengalis. There are finer nuances to this statement that lie beyond the scope of this article, but broadly, the politics, both overground and underground (armed insurgent groups espousing the tribal cause have been around since at least 1978) has revolved around issues of land and identity that pitted local Tripuri tribes against the Bengalis, who went from large minority of approximately 40 percent in 1941 to majority in the decades after Partition.

Before the current outburst of religious passions, which were whipped up by relentless posts on WhatsApp groups and social media about the ongoing “genocide” of Hindus in Bangladesh – two Hindus, Saha and Das, mentioned earlier, are known to have been killed in the recent mob violence – there was already an ongoing spurt of political violence in Tripura. On September 7-8, according to a statement of the CPIM, 44 party offices of the Left parties were attacked, burnt and vandalised. Party supporters were also attacked and 67 of their houses and shops burnt. Four-time chief minister and current leader of the opposition Manik Sarkar was prevented from visiting his own constituency, according to the CPIM.

The Trinamool Congress, which is making a fresh foray into Tripura politics, has also faced attacks. The car of TMC Member of Parliament Sushmita Dev was attacked a week ago, in which Dev sustained minor injuries. Earlier in August, TMC general secretary Abhishek Banerjee’s convoy had similarly come under attack in Tripura.

There are municipal polls due in the state in November. The state assembly election itself is due in February 2023. The state has 60 seats of which 20 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The TMC, which has a largely Bengali identity and little experience of the intricacies of tribal politics, is a non-starter on these seats, where the contest is between the other parties, with TIPRA having the upper hand. That leaves TMC, CPIM and BJP battling it out for the remaining 40 seats.

The recent religious troubles in Bangladesh have come as a godsend to the governing parties on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border. In Bangladesh, the government has filed 71 cases against 3,000 unknown persons for the recent violence. This is a strong crackdown on religious violence by the secular Awami League government but it will also enable them to lock up inconvenient members of the opposition parties which happen to champion Muslim identity politics.

Meanwhile in Tripura, the efforts to drum up Hindu sentiments are showing results for the champions of Hindu identity politics in the form of the mob attacks on Muslim properties. Such polarisation may be expected to go against secular parties like the CPIM and TMC.

A man named Iqbal Hossain, who media reports quoting family members describe as mentally disturbed, was arrested in Bangladesh for placing the Koran in the Puja pandal in Cumilla that sparked the subsequent series of events. His act led to attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh. The ongoing attacks on Muslims in Tripura is a continuation of that. There’s no saying how this will end, because these attacks and the videos and images showing them may again incite fresh attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.

Why Hossain did what he did is not clear. Only this much is clear: The madness is spreading.

Also see
article imageWhy did the media in Bangladesh wake up late to the Cumilla attacks?


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