June 28, 2020

Tripura: Struggle for Democracy and Tribal Rights

IN the early 1940s, the Communist Party was present mainly among a few urban non-tribal people in Tripura. During this period, after the conclusion of Second World War, twelve educated tribal youth came together to form Janasiksha Samiti (JSS, Mass Literacy Association) on December 27, 1945. The objective of the JSS was to not only campaign for literacy, but also to struggle against exploitation, various social ills and superstitions prevalent in the tribal society. It also took up the issue of black marketing and hoarding that were rampant during the war years. JSS established hundreds of primary schools (according to an estimate, as many as 488). A large number of impoverished tribal villagers volunteered for the construction and running of these schools. The JSS was broad in its outlook and was not swayed by narrow sectarianism. As a consequence, a notable section of non-tribal intelligentsia too joined the movement. Communist Party was actively involved in the Janasiksha movement.

The movement for literacy later developed into a movement against feudalism, monarchy, the rule of dewan and for the establishment of a democratically elected government. In this process, leaders of JSS like Dasarath Deb, came into contact with the Communist Party. Apprehending the threat of ‘people’s education’ movement, the king tried to throttle the JSS and nip it in the bud. Nonetheless, the movement flourished and left a deep mark in Tripura’s society and laid the foundation for unprecedented mass struggles.

The government made all kinds of efforts to curb the activities of the JSS and arrest its leaders under the Preventive Detention Act. At this critical stage, the leaders of the JSS held a secret meeting and decided to form the Ganamukti Parishad (GMP, People’s Liberation Organisation) in 1948, as a political platform for the tribals. The GMP mainly worked to protect the tribal people against forced labour, exploitation by moneylenders and businessmen, alienation of land, tortuous family tax and the grass tax and also against State-sponsored terror. Communist Party helped the formation of the GMP.

Units of GMP were formed in every tribal village to combat the atrocities of the police and the army. On August 15, 1948, the GMP held a massive rally by mobilising thousands of people from tribal communities, who converged at a nearby tribal village, before marching on Agartala. They flooded the entire town, shouting slogans – government by people’s vote; abolish dewani rule; release political prisoners unconditionally; cancel arrest warrants; stop police torture; do not imprison anybody without trial and Inquilab Zindabad – and held a rally in the heart of the city. It was a militant rally, which roused self-confidence of the people and prepared them for struggle. The government thought that the GMP became weak after the incessant raids by the police and military in villages. But this rally proved them wrong. After this rally, the GMP gained immense popularity among the common people.

There was an acute food crisis in Tripura in 1948. In those days, almost the entire economy of tribal areas was controlled by exploitative moneylenders. Tribal farmers, under the leadership of the GMP, consistently fought their exploitation. The dewani administration tried to crush tribal protests by unleashing the police. In the police firing in Golaghati, seven people were killed and many got injured. That incident opened the eyes of the people towards the unholy nexus between hoarders, moneylenders, land-grabbers, police officials and the administrators of independent India.

On March 9, 1949 the administration imposed military rule to crush communists. The leadership of the GMP went underground to escape arrests. On March 28, 1949, the army killed three tribal girls at Padmabill, shooting them point blank, as they refused the titun system (unpaid forced labour for carrying the luggage of officials). They were the first women martyrs in Tripura’s mass movement. Their killing further enraged the people.

Assessing the situation, leaders of the JSS reached the conclusion that there was no choice but to conduct resistance struggle. The news of the armed struggle of the people of Telangana, the farmers of Kakdwip, also inspired the GMP. A decision was taken to form a guerrilla force, for which arms possessed by the tribals were collected. Together with the armed struggle, it was also decided to conduct an ideological struggle against monarchy and feudalism and encourage the study of books and pamphlets on Marxism-Leninism in every village. To realise this object, classes on Marxism were conducted for activists. An extensive campaign programme to ensure that tribals do not become communal and do not develop anti-Bengali or anti-non-tribal sentiment too was conducted. Minimum literacy was made mandatory for all activists.

The armed struggle in Tripura took place from 1948 to 1950. When the armed struggle was at its peak, some tribal sepoys of Tripura Rifles left the force with their weapons and joined the guerrilla force. Such defections from the army created great fervour among the people and increased their confidence. Between 1949 and 1950, GMP grew in almost every para of the Tripuri tribal community. A village committee was formed in every para, with nine members, including a secretary, joint secretary and treasurer. This structure helped in the development of a large number of activists.
The GMP had two wings – political and military. Dasarath Deb was the supreme commander of the military wing and also the leader of its political wing. Some of the codes of conduct formulated by the Party for the guerrilla forces, stressing on discipline and proper political training, were: (i) supremacy of the political wing over the armed wing and strict obedience to its decisions in all actions; (ii) treating people with respect and politeness, particularly women (iii) prohibition on the confiscation, damage of the property of peasants and being fair in dealing with the peasants; (iv) not ill-treating captives. Classes were conducted for the guerrillas on this code of conduct. It was mandatory for all the guerrillas to attend political classes for at least one hour in a week. Several books like Lenin’s ‘To the Rural Poor’ were part of compulsory reading. This was how the guerrillas were politically sensitised.

Guerrilla forces followed these injunctions meticulously and as a result, the GMP became exceptionally popular among the tribal people. A major section of Bengali Muslims too supported the GMP. Even the partition of the country could not breach the long-standing relations between Bengali Muslims and the tribal people.

The GMP formed people’s government in many villages. To decide upon disputes and administer justice, arbitration committees were formed. Forced labour was abolished and the extent of land holdings, rents for leasing and sub-leasing of land, interest rates, were fixed. Caste discrimination was banned. Elaborate rules were framed banning polygamy, child marriages and oppression of women, excessive alcohol consumption, against superstitions and branding women as witches. These rules were obeyed like laws. A new social order was introduced, which was fundamentally different from that of feudal monarchs.

Under pressure of these mass struggles, Tripura formally merged with the Indian Union in October 1949. But the old feudal forces made an alliance with the emergent capitalist class and retained their hold on power. Leaders of the JSS and GMP realised that it is not possible to emancipate the tribal communities and the working-class without a simultaneous struggle against both the feudal and capitalist forces.

After the merger, attacks on the GMP and communists further increased, with the government vowing to ‘crush the communists within days’. Military camps were established even in interior hilly areas and many villages were completely burnt down. In spite of the military terror, young people supported the GMP and worked as its ears and eyes. They led the resistance of the people against the government. Within a few months, GMP expanded in such a way that underground leaders and workers could roam in tribal villages in broad daylight. People who could provide information to the police were almost non-existent. Each village had a hiding place, where political classes were regularly conducted. The defining feature of these days was the regular conduct of meetings and political classes that had strengthened the democratic and political consciousness of the people and their commitment towards the movement.

Women were organised in a women’s association and the guerrilla force. Tribal women played a heroic role as couriers, preventing the arrest of leaders and protecting them when they were underground. Tribal women were divided in groups to form a Nari Samiti. They went to different areas and inspired women to join the women’s guerrilla force.

While conducting the resistance struggle, GMP also focused on the cultural movement. Many songs were composed in Kokborok, the language of the tribals. With songs and dance, tribal youth were encouraged to develop their culture under the slogan: ‘Banduk o sanskriti ek sathe chalao’ (the armed and cultural struggle will go on together).

In mid-1950, the entire leadership of the GMP decided to formally join the Communist Party. Though initially there was confusion among the people, the leadership of the GMP successfully explained the reasons for their decision and convinced the people. From then onwards, the people of Tripura, started owning the ‘Red Flag’.

As the Party realised the limitations of armed resistance movement, identified a sense of desolation among the tribals and lessening intensity, it decided to withdraw armed resistance in 1951. The Party was able to secure the release of political prisoners, withdrawal of arrest warrants and ensured the end of stringent repressive measures.

In this background, the Party contested the 1952 elections and emerged victorious in both the Lok Sabha seats and 21 out of the 30 electoral college seats – a reflection of its mass support.