Unlike Nagaland, which has never had a woman MLA, Tripura has performed only slightly better in terms of women’s representation. But the election on Thursday holds promise.
The parties in Tripura seem “bolder” in their choices this time, with 31 women in the fray, and TIPRA Motha claiming to lead the change with six women candidates – a number hitherto unheard of for regional parties. The party has also fielded two indigenous women from general seats, breaking the idea that tribals will only contest from reserved seats, as has often been the case in Tripura.
Tripura, after all, had its first woman MLA in the early 1970s but had to wait two decades to witness an indigenous woman get elected to the assembly. In 1993, Kartik Kanya Debbarma became the first indigenous woman MLA, but ever since she was sacked from the Dasarath Deb cabinet over graft charges, the representation of tribal women in the state assembly has remained negligible. This, despite 20 reserved seats for tribals in the house.
Further, the previous two assemblies had no women indigenous MLAs, and even in the current assembly, Santana Chakma is the only indigenous MLA and minister to represent the voice of tribal women in the 60-member state legislature.
‘Never had so many indigenous women contestants’
TIPRA Motha’s women candidates, most of whom are contesting elections for the first time, see party head Pradyot Kishore Debbarman as a “messenger of change”. Every candidate this reporter spoke to lauded his “efforts” to bring indigenous women to the forefront.
This was also visible in Debbarman’s most recent rally for Nandita Reang in Dhalai district, the Raima Valley (Dhalai district) candidate. While he took the opportunity to question the BJP’s claims of a ‘double-engine’ government, the focus remained on Nandita Reang. The Chairman was there for the candidate, not the other way around, the locals pointed out. This, many believe, has catapulted the party’s popularity among all sections of the electorate, especially women.
The party claims to champion the voice of the indigenous communities. In 2021, just two years after its formation, it swept the autonomous district council elections. It is contesting 42 seats, including 22 non-tribal constituencies, this time.
Meri Debbarma, the TIPRA Motha candidate from Kamalpur, a general assembly constituency in Dhalai District, claims TIPRA is the first regional political party to encourage women’s participation in politics.
“Debbarman is very keen to promote the women of the society. In every political programme of the party, women have been an integral part and he keeps reiterating his stand that women must stand solid on their feet to achieve our ideological goal of Greater Tipraland,” Meri told EastMojo.
Even though this is Meri’s first election, she has been associated with politics for decades through her family. “My mother used to be a member of Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), the state’s first anti-Left political outfit, also considered the ideological parent of indigenous parties like the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) and now TIPRA Motha. In 1988-89, I used to accompany my mother to political events organised by the TUJS. Although she (Sukhi Kanya Debbarma) did not get a chance to fight the polls, she was a member of the TUJS’s Central Committee,” Meri recounted.
Meri started her political career with the IPFT (Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura) in 2016 when the party started to rebuild. “From 2017 to 2021, I was an active member of the IPFT. For the last seven months, I have been a member of TIPRA and working dedicatedly as a warrior of our Bubagra (the Kokborok word for king, referred to Pradyot Debbarman given his royal roots).”
Asked why TIPRA had fielded women candidates, she said, “Look, our Bubagra has a vision for his society. He wants to break all the prejudices that are blocking the rise of Tiprasas. He knows the struggle of a Tiprasa woman who faces a lot of hardships but never compromises with her love and compassion for the family and society as a whole.”
Meri, who will take on BJP candidate and sitting minister Manoj Kanti Deb, is confident of victory even though it is a general seat. “My constituency is not a simple seat. Only 9,500 voters among 45,000 total voters are from tribal areas. But I am getting a good response from the public and with the blessings of both tribal and non-tribal voters, I will be able to become an MLA in the days to come.”
Contrary to some tribes in the Northeast, the Tripuri tribal society is patriarchal. However, that has not stopped Swapna Debbarma, another woman candidate of TIPRA Motha from Mandai Bazar constituency. “My husband is an employee in the TTAADC’s publicity department. He has always supported and helped me in my political career,” she said.
Like Meri, Swapna also started her political career with IPFT but never got a chance to fight in elections. She was looking after the charge of IPFT’s Sadar District Secretary since 1999 when the IPFT was floated for the first time. The party ruled the TTAADC for five years but was dissolved because of internal strife to pave the way for the formation of INPT. “I did not join INPT. When the IPFT was revived ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, I was again inducted into the party’s central committee. But when I saw the party deviating from its core demand of Greater Tipraland, I thought TIPRA would be the best choice to carry on in politics. Bubagra appointed me as the President of TIPRA women Federation, the women's arm of our party and since then I have been working under his guidance.”
TIPRA is neither the only indigenous-focussed party nor the only party that has nominated women candidates. But Swapna says there are several reasons why women, especially indigenous women, seem to be favouring TIPRA this time.
“There is a basic difference between other regional parties and TIPRA Motha. Wherever you go to attend our meetings, you will see more women than men. Even in protests, women play a pivotal role. The reason is simple, unlike other parties, the Maharaja has given respect to women and asked them to lead from the front. Even when tickets were distributed, he again proved that he is with the women of Tiprasa society.”
According to her, the TIPRA supremo did not discriminate while nominating candidates from his party. “Even a veteran Bengali leader like Laxmi Nag is contesting polls for TIPRA. Apart from that, four women including me are in the fray from tribal society and one candidate is from the Manipuri community. This shows Bubagra’s respect for women from across the groups coexisting peacefully here in Tripura,” said Swapna.
Mandai Bazar is one of the constituencies where TIPRA Motha is being seen as a frontrunner. “We are not contesting the polls to win, we are in the battle to defeat our rivals with a bigger margin of votes,” said Swapna.
Nandita Reang, the TIPRA candidate from the Raima Valley constituency, concurs with Swapna. She called TIPRA’s efforts of promoting women in the political sphere a ‘paradigm shift’ in regional politics. “The national parties have certain obligations while finalising the names of candidates. But regional political parties are run by individuals. What the Maharaja did in these elections is no less than setting a precedent and I hope it will have a ripple effect in the days to come,” said Reang.
Not the only party
But contrary to what TIPRA Motha claims, they are not the only party to field indigenous women candidates. Minister Santana Chakma, BJP state vice president Patal Kanya Jamatia, and BJP corporator Himani Debbarma will contest polls on a BJP ticket from Pecharthal, Ampinagar and Golaghati assembly constituencies, respectively.
While Santana Chakma and Himani Debbarma could not be reached for comment, senior BJP women leader and president of the state’s BJP Mahila Morcha Jharna Debbarma said, “BJP has the highest number of women candidates for the polls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party always gave women the respect they deserve in terms of political representation. This becomes more evident as our Pratima Di (Pratima Bhoumik) was made the first union minister from Tripura.”
The contest in Pecharthal also has former women Congress general secretary Purnita Chakma contesting on a TMC ticket. It’s a triangular fight with TMC and BJP fielding women candidates against .
“I would like to thank the TMC high command for considering my name. Despite fighting in only 28 seats they have shown their confidence in a Chakma woman. And I would say this is a big change in politics,” said Purnita Chakma.
Counting of votes may suggest the scale of this change on March 2.
Mrinal Banik is the Tripura correspondent of , a Northeast India-based news portal. This report was published in collaboration with Newslaundry.