Is this how Manik Sarkar wins?

Manik Sarkar
Sonaram Marasingh, 92, a daily wage labourer in Manik Sarkar's constituency who ekes out a living selling rubber tree twigs for Rs 108 a kilo, of which his share is a mere Re 1

Dhanpur: Tripura is a communist province of the country in more senses than one. It is not just because the electorate has been voting the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] to power for the past more than 20 years. Like a typical communist country, there is hardly any private enterprise in the State. The jobs mostly come in the form of government contracts. And this, the people सिर्फ़ News interviewed said, is used as an arm-twisting tool by the Manik Sarkar government. If your family is identified as pro-opposition ― which is quite easy in all Bengali-speaking communities ― the youth in the family will be denied government contracts under the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act, referred to as REGA rather than MGNREGA in Tripura.

“The poor prefer CPM due to the threat perception as well as entitlements,” says the son of a panchayat leader of the Indian National Congress in Dhanpur, the constituency of Chief Minister Manik Sarkar, insisting again and again that I do not mention his name.

Several families that appear upset with the CPM rule say they have been dragged to courts on frivolous and/or untenable charges for not toeing the communist line. As during the CPM rule in West Bengal, and also under the Trinamool Congress (TMC), pro-opposition people are heckled in the streets; their children are threatened on their way to school; unidentified miscreants pelt stones at their houses every now and then. And, in cases of disputes between neighbours, local CPM henchmen intervene to ‘settle’ the issue, not allowing the side with grievance approach the police, let alone the courts. The CPM cadre says they intervene to uphold the spirit of fraternity between neighbours. “Court-kachhari kora bhadralokder manayna (dragging the neighbour to a court does not behove a gentleman),” a CPM worker says. Needless to add, a dispute is settled within the area by these bullies invariably in favour of the pro-CPM party to the dispute.

Rubber tree twigs collected by Dhanpur’s tribal people

Seeing flags of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lined along the roads, numbering as many as, or perhaps more than, those of the CPM, I inquire about the electoral contest. “About 70% of Congress workers have moved to the BJP via Trinamool Congress,” a local inhabitant says, adding this happened when Mamata Banerjee turned indifferent to Tripura. “However, the CPM is still far ahead in the campaign.” They say the main difference lies in the campaign style. BJP campaigners have not visited the homes of the people yet, concentrating more on public meetings and processions.

The people say the local BJP candidate Pratima Bhowmick used to be an activist of the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the CPM during her university years. While she is more accessible than chief minister Sarkar, people do not trust the INC workers who were seen, until recently, working for the Congress and then the TMC. This is rank opportunism, say a group of Hindu and Muslim youth.

A local journalist and I are on the main road of Dhanpur when facing Agartala, the capital. The Indian territory ends about a kilometre to the left after which Bangladesh begins. This stretch of a breadth of 1 km along the international border is the only place where one runs into a sizeable population of Muslims in the State. To the right of the road live Bengalis and tribal people with surnames such as Deb Barman, Marasingh, and Noatiya. The tribal people do not cohabit with Muslims, unlike Bengalis.

Samples of freshly made rubber; the twig collectors are tribal, the suppliers and distributors Bengali

Hindutva is not an issue in Tripura even in the areas where Muslims have a visible presence. We learn that Muslims have no problem with loud kirtans of the Ram Thakur, Gaudiya and other Vaishnava sampradayas that have a pronounced cultural presence in the region. The Hindus reciprocate by participating in music programmes organised by Muslims, referred to as “mehfil” in the neighbourhood. The mosques don’t use loudspeakers for azan, we are told.

On inquiring about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the local people tell us the CPM never let the organisation rear its head in Tripura while the ruling dispensation happily accommodated all Hindu practices. As a result, an INC supporter says, the BJP does not enjoy the advantage it did in Kerala where it has recently debuted.

A bit dejected, the INC supporters say they are not sure whether they want their party to win. “This time, it is a real competition. If it becomes a three-cornered fight, it will be advantage CPM,” a Youth Congress leader of the area says. He says, across Tripura, Assembly constituencies have 40,000 votes each on an average and several pockets have dedicated 5,000 odd votes for the INC, which will be a problem for the BJP if the Congress does not concede ground to it.

However, many are tentative in their support for the BJP. They have been made to believe in the conspiracy theory that says the electronic voting machines can be tampered with on a large scale to favour one particular contesting party. They say this is how the BJP has been winning elections State after State and it is Tripura’s moral duty to stop the saffron party’s juggernaut.

Lamenting the state of basic amenities, some elderly people inform us that the water supplied has a heavy iron and arsenic content. “Gallbladder stone is a common ailment in Dhanpur,” an old man says.

Some voters of Induria East

A primary hospital or health centre in the vicinity is ill-equipped while the one in Kathaliya is a little better. The people say Sarkar is well aware of the awful state of the primary healthcare centre, but has done nothing for redress. There is no college in the area. They have a few elementary schools.

It seems initially that we have arrived here on a wrong day, as the shutters of all the shops are down. The few inhabitants moving around the place tell us that the market is not closed ― unlike in Agartala where Sunday is an off day ― but that the shopkeepers down the shutters after a brief opening in the morning and leave for an afternoon siesta only to return in the evening.

We move towards the right side of the main road to interact with tribals. Huts with sloped tin roofs appear few and far between as the terrain turns hilly. It’s a bumpy ride in a small car on a muddy road where bitumen must have been laid ages ago, only vestiges of which remain. As we run into some humanity after a while, we stop by to get the mood of the people. This is Induria East, a constituency that is surrounded by Dhanpur. Here, the people’s representative is the ruling party’s Shyamal Chakraborty.

Speaking in the Coomilla dialect of Bangla, some middle-aged people open up, saying there has been no such thing as “development” in the area for decades. They tell us only half the village is electrified; the rest steal electricity from overhead wires but consume it more than the legal consumers for the simple reason that they don’t have to pay for it.

As we move further, old, emaciated tribal women are seen collecting branches and twigs of the rubber tree. Rubber, we learn shortly, is the livelihood of the tribal population of the region. It takes a day of cutting and three days of processing to turn the wood into rubber. In a free-flowing chat, a group of Marasingh men tells us it fetches a labourer Re 1 for every kilo sold at Rs 108. The MGNREGA rate is otherwise Rs 172 a day, which some of them manage to get 10-15 days of the month.

The road connecting two different parts of Dhanpur

The tribal people echo the view of the Bengalis we met before, saying that their living conditions have not improved since as far back as they can remember. However, unlike the Bengalis, they sound like programmed, if not indoctrinated, voters, and they do not mind if they are named in my report. They have been voting the CPM term after term without sparing their choice a thought, says Jyeshtho Kumar Marasingh, a tea vendor. “This is how life is supposed to be,” says Sonaram Marasingh, a 92-year old man who still works to eke out a living.

As we return to Agartala, we encounter a public meeting by a teachers’ union affiliated to the CPM in a place called Bishalgarh. A demagogue on the mike is full of logic as well as rhetoric, addressing 300 odd people, as he declares that the schools where they teach will remain closed till 18 February when the election to Tripura’s Assembly is to be held.

Nearer to Agartala, we run into a classic example of the BJP’s inability to understand Bengalis. About 50 men are standing by the roadside as a drum beats to draw the attention of more people. This technique of gathering the crowd is so north Indian!