“We want self-rule”: Pradyot Debbarma on his party’s victory in Tripura tribal council polls

01 June, 2021

On 10 April, a newly formed political party swept the elections in Tripura’s Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council. The Tipraha Indigenous People’s Regional Alliance, or TIPRA, won 18 of the 28 contested seats, defeating the state’s ruling alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura. TIPRA was founded as a political party on 5 February by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, a member of Tripura’s erstwhile royal family.

Debbarma was formerly a member of the Congress Party and was appointed as Tripura’s Congress state president in 2019. He resigned the same year because of differences with the party regarding the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Congress had asked him to withdraw a petition he filed in the Supreme Court seeking the implementation of the NRC in Tripura. In September 2019, Debbarma wanted to protest against the CAA, but he claimed that the Congress asked him not to. Subsequently, he resigned from his post and from the party. In December 2019, Debbarma announced the launch of TIPRA as a social organisation aiming to work for the rights of indigenous people. In February 2021, he stated that TIPRA would contest the TTAADC polls as a political party.

In April, Kimi Colney spoke to Debbarma about his political journey, the reasons behind TIPRA’s victory, and the party’s current and future goals. “Our core ideology is Greater Tipraland,” he said. “We no longer want to be controlled by Agartala. We want to have our future of our own.”

Kimi Colney: You have won a landslide victory in the TTAADC polls despite being a newly floated party. What according to you is the major factor that led to your party’s win?
Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma: We had a team of young faces. Around ninety percent of them were not from a political background, their uncles, fathers, aunts had no political positions. We had [people who were] 25-26 years old and 30-31 years old who were elected members. I would probably qualify as one of the oldest candidates at 42. We had a very positive campaign, we did not speak out against BJP, we did not speak out against the Communist [party] or the Congress. We offered the people, “this is what we will do.” I had resigned [from the Congress] on the principal ground [of the] CAA. Then I formed the social organisation called TIPRA.

 Then suddenly Corona happened. Nobody was helping anyone. My organisation, all these young guys, we started helping people. We helped close to thirty-five thousand migrant students, labourers who came back to Tripura, whether it was from Pune, Guwahati, Shillong, Delhi, Himachal, Chennai, Hyderabad. We arranged cars for them, we arranged food for them. And we helped people in the villages also. So we became recognisable. When the government had failed, we were working. Then we tried our best to unite all the regional parties because we said that indigenous people are suffering. That is because national parties have exploited us and they have just failed on their promises. When that did not happen, I was forced to create a [political] party and I just got two months. In the two months we really worked hard. We led a positive campaign and while we were attacked from all quarters, we kept our discipline. I am an organisational man. I have worked in the Congress party [at the] grassroots. I worked from a village level. I was part of the NESO, or Northeast Students Organisation student movement, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so I know how to organise. When I was in Shillong, I organised all the rock concerts, all the football matches or political things. I think I have organisational capability. So we did it and we fought. We fought really hard, we were out-funded by all the parties and yet we fought and we believed in ourselves and we won. 

KC: You have called for a “Greater Tipraland.” Can you explain what the idea behind this is?
PKMD: We want every Tripuri who is outside the TTADC area—they may be in certain parts of Mizoram, in certain parts of Assam, they could be in Agartala which is outside the TTADC area, there are some in Bangladesh. We want a council which will oversee the socio[logical], cultural and economic aspect of our people. We have lost our language, we have lost our identity, we have lost our way of life, our history. So for all these people who are outside, there should be a reference point where they can come and figure out what it is. I want this to be not under the state government, but under the prime minister of India. I want a development council for the development and protection of the indigenous people of Tripura.

 So that is my idea of Greater Tipraland, where no Tripuri who is outside the TTADC will be left alone or orphaned. I am not saying that we have to fight the elections in Bangladesh, it is within the Constitution of India. It means that we want a protection of our way of life, our culture, our economic aspects, our food, our cuisine, our dances, our clothes and this greater Tripura concept for the development of our people outside the TTADC. I am not saying I want to be in charge. I want historians, academicians, scholars, journalists, people of eminence to be a part [of this]. It is a demand for the survival of our people.

KC: What is the present condition of the Tripuri people and in what ways does TIPRA plan to bring changes to the current system?
PKMD: Our core ideology is Greater Tipraland, we want Tipraland. We no longer want to be controlled by Agartala. We want to have a future of our own. We are now down to one-third of the people, we have suffered enough. The economic aspect is terrible, the administrative aspect is negligible and we are being depleted and pushed back. Now, what we want is self-rule. When I say self-rule, I say it within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. TIPRA intends to not only bring in clear governance, we also want to reclaim our history and also mentally prepare our community because we have been subjugated for so long. We want to give a sense of pride that we can, and we are not second-class citizens. There is an administrative part and there is a psychological part. The psychological part is not based on chauvinism, it is not based on extreme nationalism like [that of] some leaders. It is based on balancing the injustices which have happened to us in the past. Education is a big sector as well, and health, connectivity. We want English education, we are insisting on that and that is also not being provided.

KC: Compared to national parties, in what way would a regional party’s win make a difference for the Autonomous District Council?
PKMD: I think it is not about regional or national, I think it is about integrity first. What we have seen is that we need to have a sense of commitment and sacrifice for our people. My biggest angst against [a] regional party is [that] whenever we go to Delhi, we go to negotiate for ourselves not for the people, in our state or in Meghalaya or in Assam. We say one thing before elections, another thing after elections. There is no sense of commitment. If we go to Delhi, we end up negotiating for our own personal benefits and position.

 My point is that there used to be leaders who actually fought for the creation of our state whether it was Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram. Today, I don't know if it is an overall deterioration in our educational system but there is a problem. I do believe that regional parties can remain true and hold their own fort. People will vote for them, and in our case, the people did. It is not that I have personally not been offered many positions previously but I have never [been] lured. I left the Congress when they refused to support me on [the] Citizenship Amendment Act. The Communist party and the Congress party did not even hold one protest in Tripura against the CAA. It was me. So this is vote-bank politics. We fought and we have to be worried because our population is small. If our population is only seven or eight lakhs, we cannot allow people to come in thousands and thousands, and this aspect is seldom understood by Delhi. This is a point that we have to drive home. If we do not do this, we will be in a difficult position at some point.

 I am a good friend of Rahul [Gandhi] but after he resigned [as Congress president] after the Lok Sabha election, the same people who heard me out because I was in Rahul’s team were the ones opposing me. I resigned on 24 September [2019], saying that I want to protest [against] CAA. They said keep quiet. And CAA was implemented in December. I saw it coming in September and they said, no, we will not allow that. The problem is that in a national party, you have general secretaries who are least interested in the Northeast. In my state of Tripura, two general secretaries combined, one general secretary came for four hours in three years and the other general secretary came for two hours in two-and-half years. They came roughly for one day combined and they will tell me what to speak for my people. So it is very difficult and these are people who have no base in their own home state. When someone speaks for the regional people, they find it uncomfortable because they are too comfortable so they do not want to listen to our point of view. They try to cut you to size, so it is very difficult for us to be heard at times in the national party.

KC: What is the attitude towards national parties in Tripura?
PKMD: In the indigenous tribal areas, of course the attitude is that you have been told that if you do not vote for national parties, you will get no money. So what we said is you anyway do not have any money. We are not beggars. This thing, that we have to live with the bits and crumbs of Delhi, will not work. And yes, okay they send us money for elections, but in turn they are taking away our land by making laws like [the] CAA and not protecting our people by allowing people from another community to walk into our state. Any party which suddenly decides to do alliances with [a] national party before election, we do it because they need funds for elections. We have to be very clear that there should be no alliances made because national parties offer to fund your campaign.

 We go to Delhi and we ask for central funds and in return we go silent when things like Citizenship Amendment Act happens. We keep quiet when laws are made which go against the interest of the diversity of the people in the Northeast. So right now, in hope for money we are also voting for a party which is not protecting our existence.

KC: TIPRA is open to alliances with all regional parties. Can you explain the idea behind this motive?
PKMD: My motive is with all sincere regional parties, not all regional parties. But the point being that I am open to alliance with the BJP and Congress also, I have no problem. I am centre, I am not a leftist, I am not an extreme right as well. I do not do politics on the basis of religion and I am for an open economy because we need economic activities and a free market. The whole country is now divided between us versus them, left versus right, Hindus versus Christians, Christians versus Muslims. My view is that this is not a civil war, and we want to have a dialogue with everyone. I hope we will appreciate some of the points which political opponents may give and they should also hear our points, and maybe something constructive will come out. TIPRA is not a political party, it is a movement. And that is the reason that when we won the election everybody expected me to become the CEM [the Chief Executive Member, who manages the executive functions of the TTAADC]. I refused because I have realised that I have to ensure that our movement continues. I cannot become comfortable with escorts, with convoys, with security given by the state government and our VIP [very-important-person] culture. I need to work on what I believe in.

KC: As a royal scion, what garnered your interest in politics and how has your journey been?
PKMD: I am not a politician. I realised this very late in life. I am more of an activist. I have fought all my life against the imposition of AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act]. I started The Northeast Today [formerly a monthly magazine and now a website], which was basically an extension of what I was at that time. If you read TNT, it had music, sports, environment, politics, current affairs—so basically that was me, but I have been dragged into politics. But believe me, the day I achieve my goal of Greater Tipraland, I do not want to be a career politician by being in politics for 15-20 years and dragging my feet. The day I get something for my people, which is Greater Tipraland, I will leave politics, I will go get married, settle down and live on top of the hill with my dogs. I have been offered an MP [member of parliament] position, I have been offered a cabinet position, I have been offered the chief minister’s position—even today I can compromise and get any position I want but I refused because my aim is not all this.

KC: There were reports that you were attacked by certain miscreants before the election. Can you confirm this and give your view on the manner in which the elections were carried out in the state?
PKMD: Yes, I was attacked. No action was taken, it is on CCTV camera. They wanted to stop me. [It is said], first they try to bully you, then they try to scare you and eventually you win. So that was the last resort. It backfired on them. 

State elections in states which were previously ruled by the Communist[s] have never been free and fair. It is a culture. Unlike what you see in Mizoram or Meghalaya, in Tripura, we follow the West Bengal pattern of pre-poll and post-poll violence. That is because it is an inherited thing of Communism, so yes, there was violence, pre-poll and post-poll. I just wish that one day we can end it. That is the reason I cancelled the victory rally because there is a tradition in Tripura [that] after you win you have a victory rally, and post that one upmanship, you mock the people who lost and break houses of the opponents. I grew up in Shillong and I have seen that leaders of the opposition and Chief Ministers, they can be friends, they can sing songs together. I do not want this culture [of poll violence]. So I cancelled the victory rally because the weak one, the ones who lost, are also from our community. So we should not mock anyone and hence I wanted to start this new culture and said no to the victory rallies across the state. 

KC: The ruling alliance won 9 seats out of 28, what does this mean for the future of the BJP party in Tripura? 
PKMD: That they should revisit the imposition of CAA and they should also re-look at the alliance partners who kept silent on various issues and hence have been wiped out. The anger was directed towards the regional alliance partner of the BJP more than the BJP. The indigenous people are not let down by the BJP because they did not have much expectations in the first place. But with the regional alliance because they thought that the regional party would protect them.

KC: Does the TTAADC victory give you confidence for the 2023 assembly elections? 
PKMD: Any victory is welcome but we should not become arrogant with our victory. A lot more has to be done. And that is why I have decided to devote my time to build the party and not enjoy the pleasures of being a CEM. 2023 is far away, I basically want to deliver on the promises that I have given to my people and the major one being that we will continue our fight for Tipraland.

I am first a Tiprasa who is an indigenous person from Tripura, I have not used the lineage as a factor. None of my family members are with me in my political party. My mother who was a Congress MP, my sister who was an MP candidate—I have not taken them. I have fought this election on my own. I have come to a point where I think I do not want to bring families into politics. Because most regional parties I see become family-dominated, like the Samajwadi party or the Shiv Sena. I do not want to do that, ours is a movement. As I told you, at the end [of] the day, [when] I achieve our target for the people, I will disband the party. Because this is a fight for our existence not for any chair, till that time we remain true to this cause, we will survive.

This interview has been edited and condensed.