Journalists reporting on the recent political developments in Tripura put themselves in danger

Mourn Santanu Bhowmik. A young television journalist in Tripura, he was in his late-20s when he was brutally killed. On his last journey, thousands of grieving citizens walked beside his body.

In late December 2016, Bhowmik had posted on his Facebook wall the image of a message that read: “Life is Short… Do the Things you Love to do… Speak the Truth.” Tragic, prophetic words. His murder led to shock and outrage not just in Tripura but across India, more so because it followed the cruel silencing of another fearless journalist and activist, Gauri Lankesh. Like Lankesh, Bhowmik too had angered fanatical forces who have powerful backers. They both have paid the price for speaking the truth.

Bhowmik worked with Dinraat, a local channel, and was responsible for much of its political coverage. To identify the forces behind his murder, it is necessary to look at the political developments he was reporting on in his State which is heading for elections early next year.

Encounter politics’

The electoral strategy practised by the current leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party under its president, Amit Shah, is on full display in Tripura. The motto is, anything and everything is legitimate to grab power. It is a version of ‘encounter politics’ — what is being encountered is ethics, morality, principles, truth, honesty, even national interest. Journalists who report on the different aspects of this ‘encounter politics’ put themselves in danger, as Bhowmik did.


Freedom from fear — On Tripura journalist murder

Plan A of ‘encounter politics’ is the use of money and intimidation against opponents. The three prongs used by the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh against political opponents are the powers of the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Income Tax department, and the Enforcement Directorate. In Tripura, they are up against a popular and honest Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar, whom they cannot touch; nor can they bribe or threaten communist MLAs as they do in other parts of India. So they did the next best thing: they got most of those MLAs who won on a Congress ticket in the last elections to defect to the BJP. Thus, even without winning a single seat, the BJP has become the main Opposition party in the State Assembly in Tripura and is using that position to mobilise all the anti-communist forces.

A corollary of Plan A is the ‘encounter approach’ of political intervention among the people. This is diametrically opposed to the normal democratic way of policy-based criticism of one’s opponents. ‘Encounter politics’ believes in dividing people, causing insecurities, perfecting the method of manufacturing lies and rumours to incite violence. This method of intervention is often timed just before the visit of Mr. Shah to any Opposition-ruled State and is usually linked to creating communal divisions, so as to provide the BJP president the opportunity to attack Opposition governments for “appeasement politics”, deteriorating law and order, and boost demand for the Centre’s intervention. It happened in Kerala, Karnataka, and Odisha. In Tripura, with only a small minority population, the communal card was not considered to be that effective. So the idea was to kill the peace between tribal (31% of the population in the State) and non-tribal communities.

The Left Front government had brought peace to Tripura. It built unity among tribals and non-tribals through people-oriented development policies combined with firm administrative action. The government’s initiatives were possible because of the sustained political work and heroic role of thousands of communist tribal cadre, hundreds of whom were killed by the extremists. A critical role was played by the Tripura Rajaer Upajati Ganamukti Parishad, the foremost organisation of tribals founded by the legendary communist leader, Dasarath Debbarma. The emphasis was to politically isolate the tribal extremists from the mass of tribals in the State rather than depend on paramilitary forces as in other parts of India. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act was scrapped in Tripura in 2015. Tripura has emerged as not just the best governed State in the Northeast, but one of the best in India. It has an enviable record of establishing the best indicators of social development, especially in the development and enhancement of tribal rights.

Nexus between BJP and IPFT

The BJP is now resurrecting extremist politics. Among the various tribal groups and parties, the BJP has established close links with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, the political wing of an outlawed secessionist group which had, in the past, been organising terrorist attacks on non-tribals from its bases across the border. These groups had been backed by the Congress in their attempt to oust the Left Front government. It is now the BJP which is following the same path, with added aggression and money.

The IPFT split into two factions reportedly on the issue of one of its leaders receiving a substantial amount of money from the BJP. Leaders of this faction, now known as the IPFT (NC Debbarma), met Jitender Singh, the Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, and later made a public statement that the Central government was sympathetic to their demand of a separate Twipraland to be carved out of the area currently under the Tribal Autonomous Council formed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The IPFT has been indulging in violent agitations, including the blocking of the national highway. Bhowmik had been exposing the nexus between the BJP and the violent activities of the IPFT.

While on the one hand, the BJP is encouraging violent activities for a separate tribal State, on the other, in urban areas, it is trying to whip up sentiment against the tribals. This has led to tension and even clashes between communities in some areas, though swiftly contained by the government. This is blatantly anti-national, more so in a sensitive border State.

On September 19, a huge rally of tribals was held in Agartala. It was organised by the Ganamukti Parishad and addressed by Mr. Sarkar along with tribal leaders. Vehicles carrying the participants were attacked by small groups of the IPTF, and 118 were injured. Bhowmik had reported on this. The following day, he and his cameraman got footage of the continuing attacks on the Communist Party of India (Marxist) cadre and offices in Jirania. He then left the area, but went back hearing of more violence by the IPFT. His killers knew him. They knew of his reports exposing their violence. He was abducted by them, attacked, and his bloodied body was later found. Four IPFT men have been arrested.

But can the practitioners of ‘encounter politics’ escape their responsibility for his death?

Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP