The last of the ‘Red Bastion’ in India: Tripura

‘How many people have lost their lives?’ – was my question. ‘I don’t have the accurate no, but not less than 8 to 10 thousand people’ – he answered. ‘In how many days these lives were lost?’ – I asked again. ‘Not more than 15 day’s time’ – he had answered.

I was talking to Mr. Vijay Rankhal, the ex supremo of the extremist organization Tripura National Volounteers, as a part of the shoot of Guns and Guitars. It was really difficult for me to believe that the soft-spoken, mild mannered man who is sitting next to me serving me tea could be responsible for one of the worst massacre in Tripura’s history…

Presently the third smallest state of the country, the princely state of Tripura had joined the Indian Union on 15 October, 1949. Tripura was heavily affected by the partition of the country – not only the road distance between Kolkata and Tripura’s capital Agartala has increased from less than 350 km to the present 1,700 km (so as to avoid the present Bangladesh), but also it changes the population pattern of the state, majorly due to the huge influx of Bengali refugees from former East Pakistan- firstly at the time of partition, then again at the time of Bangladesh Liberation in 1971. In 1947, 56% of Tripura’s population consisted of tribal or indigenous population, which was reduced to mere 29 % by 1971.And that had ultimately led to the genocide in June 1980 – the one Mr. Rankhal had spoken about…

However, as generally is the case, the forces that sustained the insurgencies were political parties and individuals who had their own agenda to fulfill. And the majority of the life that was lost was obviously of the common man, who just got caught in the crossfire …
The man made border… there is always a conflict in my mind about the justification of the same … Yes, there could be no denying the relevance of a border which can’t be breach without proper protocol in today’s world…But there is always another side to the argument. In the late 90’s, I had visited one of Tripura’s border village Kasba Kalibari – named after its revered Kali temple. In that village, the demarcation line between India and Bangladesh was a mere stone post. There was a group of kids playing nearby, with whom I started interacting. These kids were among those many other kids and grownups who often walked over this side (Indian territory) illegally, for the ‘all important’ purpose of playing and gossiping with their Indian friends … and in some instances even for smuggling, by bringing fresh fish from Bangladesh – which fetched better price in India, and taking back cigarettes- which fetched higher price in Bangladesh. A Border Security Force jawan had done his ‘duty’ by shooing away three Bangladeshi kids of around 5 to 7 years, back to Bangladesh… and that of course, only after he realized that I’m shooting them on camera…

This time when I re-visited Kasba kalibari, there were no such romantic stories. There is this recently erected massive barb-wire fence separating the two countries…. I couldn’t help imagining John Lennon’s world!

Tripura also happens to be the last remaining ‘red bastion’ of India. Generally I always take the words of politicians with a pinch of salt, but I must confess that I was more than a little impressed when Tripura’s then cultural minister Mr. Anil Sarkar had said on camera – ‘ politics divides; culture unites’ – as a reason behind his different cultural initiatives to bridge the gaps between communities, away from politics… Well, the images of those 3 Bangladeshi kids running from the BSF jawan, more than a decade ago , came flashing back to my mind!

When I was interacting with the band members of the ‘Swraijak’ – the band selected by Lou Majaw that year to represent Tripura in his annual Bob Dylan concert – it was almost impossible to take out words from the mouths of the shy Tripuri guys… but that was due to their pure introvert nature. When I asked them why they had chosen the name of their band ‘Swaraijak’, which in Tripuri language means ‘curse’, they were quick to reply – the name symbolizes the fight against all the curses of evil in our life… Of course, once you give them a guitar on their hand, you realize that they don’t really need to speak to communicate to you…


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