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During the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture in 2011, the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell recounted an incident from Mozambique, where he lives for part of the year. During the worst days of South African apartheid and the civil war in Mozambique, Mankell visited the north of the country. He was walking on a path toward a village. He saw a young man coming towards him, a thin man in ragged clothes. As he came close, Mankell saw his feet. “He had in his deep misery,” Mankell told his Delhi audience, “painted shoes on his feet. In a way, to defend his dignity when everything was lost, he had found the colors from the earth and he had painted shoes on his feet.”
In Tripura, the small state tucked into the north-eastern corner of India, no-one goes without shoes. A keen eye, even on the briefest visit, would find everyone shod – a remarkable fact for a state where poverty has not been banished. But government data on poverty has shown something remarkable. Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the Planning Commission numbers show a decline in Tripura’s poverty rate from 40 percent to 17.4 percent. That is a drop of 22.6 percent: the highest decline in poverty figures for the country during this past decade. The Tripura decline is not shared by its neighbors: Manipur (from 37.9 percent to 47.1 percent), Mizoram (15.4 percent to 21.1 percent) and Nagaland (8.8 percent to 20.9 percent). Pointing out this data last year, the financial columnist Manas Chakravarty noted, “The state must be doing something right, although we don’t have the faintest idea about it. We need to find out fast, so that the nation can learn from Tripura and adopt its model of development, whatever that may be.” One of the indices is that despite the poverty rates, people seem to have access to their basic needs – such as shoes.
It is because of the small gains that the Communist-led Left Front won a landslide victory in the recent Assembly elections (the Left Front won 50 seats in the 60 member Assembly, with the Communist Party of India-Marxist winning 49 of those seats and the Communist Party of India one). This is the seventh time the Left has won in Tripura; five of these wins have been consecutive, and each of these has been with a two-thirds majority. In fact, but for the 1988 elections, widely believed to have been massively rigged, this would have been the eighth successive Left victory.
The politics of basic needs and of peace play a very large role in the Left’s success in Tripura. While the rest of India whittles away at the Public Distribution System (PDS), Tripura has enhanced it to the betterment of people’s lives. Not only can one get basic foodstuffs at subsidized prices, but one is also allowed to procure light bulbs through the PDS system. Bread alone is not enough for human dignity. Education is one of the most sought after public goods with schools as one part of it and reading at home another. Without light bulbs and electricity, there can be no intellectual development. By making sure that the PDS system is not simply for the survival of people, but also for their enhancement, the Left dignifies the role of the State. Such improvements are widely commented upon inside Tripura, where the development model has struck a chord with the public. The slogan for the Tripura Model is simple: people’s growth before the GDP.
Election Rally of Left Front. Photo: Abhishek Debbarma.
As with the other states in India’s north-east, militant separatism tore through the society from the 1980s onwards. The Tripura National Volunteers and the Tripura Tiger Force and the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) wreaked havoc in the state. They targeted the Bengali population, trying to sow the seeds of division between the “tribals” (the Kokborok speakers, the Reang, the Jamatia, the Chakma, the Halam, the Mog, the Munda, the Kuki and the Garo) and Bengalis, as well as between the Christians and the Hindus. That the Communists comprised people of all communities, and had been leaders in the early rebellions in Tripura against the King and for tribal rights in the 1940s and 1950s has always threatened those who believed in sectarian politics. Turning to the gun was a sure-fire way of trying to undermine the politics of amity that had begun to define the state.
Here is a sense of the violence over October-November 1998:
October 7: NLFT fighters kidnapped seven-year old Keya Debnath from her home in Bagna in Udaipur.
October 19: NLFT fighters fired into a market in Dhumacherra (Dhalai district). Abducted Badal Roy, a laborer.
October 20: NLFT fighters abducted five passengers from a bus near Kusumbar.
November 3: NLFT fighters fired into a market place in Maynama, killing three people, including Subodh Kuri. Militants killed nine-year old Rupali Adhikary and Haradhan Debnath in a village in Madhya Barjala. Gunmen fired into a jeep on the Assam-Agartala National Highway, killing Jagdish Saha.
November 4: NLFT fighters killed six people, including a nine-year old girl in Dhalai district.
The habits of the modern State should have sent in the armed forces and pushed for the annihilation of the NLFT and its allied groups. This is the approach that the Left Front rejected. The high point of the insurgency was between 1996 and 2004. During this period, the Left was in power. It was through the strategy adopted by the Left that the insurgency wasted away after 2004 (unlike in the rest of the north-east of India). Certainly police actions were used against the insurgents, but as the governor D. N. Sahay wrote in 2011, these were not used in an “exclusive, hawkish, one-dimensional” manner. The Tripura government used its police force for these actions, and, according to Sahay, “Their conduct was under close observation at the highest level (including at the level of the Governor and the Chief Minister), in order to check personnel from going berserk and being ruthless, trigger-happy, oppressive and violative of human rights. This paid off: no complaint of human rights violation, except one or two and that too minor, came up in the course of operations. No antipathy against the security forces or the establishment surrounded the minds of citizens.”
Armed force was not the main instrument used by the Left Front government. Instead it pushed for a political solution, urging militants to give up their arms and take their views into the political domain, showing militants that their own leadership was less interested in their well-being than in an endless militancy that enhanced the lives of neither themselves or their enemies. The Tripura government used Central Government money in the insurgency, not to fatten the pockets of its privileged classes, but to build roads into every part of the state. This was not just to allow the police access to remote areas, but also to bring people from those remote areas into
active contact with the rest of the state. The dividend from these roads in the long run has been immense. Apart from the police and the political leadership, the Left Front turned to its allies for help in the counter-insurgency. The All-Indian Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) worked in the most difficult circumstances, building confidence among women who had turned to militancy to come back to the politics of persuasion. “I had to stop school after standard ten as my father could not afford to pay my fees,” said Shobhamati Jamatiya in 2004. “A group from the All Tripura Tiger Force convinced me that my problems, and those of the tribal population of Tripura, would be solved if I joined their organization.” Shobhamati went to the Tiger Force camp in Bangladesh, where she trained as a militant and fighter. The work of groups like AIDWA and the corruption amongst the leadership of the Tiger Force moved Shobhamati to surrender two years later in October 2002. “I realize now that there is no shortcut,” Shobhamati said, now as an AIDWA activist. “You have to be in the democratic movement.”
Former member of the Legislative Assembly from Takarjala, Bayjanti Koloi remembers how women in her district were excited that a tribal woman had been elected for the first time. As part of her work as a legislature, she held meetings with women in the district, many of whom would subsequently join with Koloi in AIDWA. “Many women who never used to go out of their homes or who never knew about government policies began to speak out strongly about their demands. Women then began to receive threats from activists of the NLFT to stop all political activities.” The NLFT tried to break the connections between tribals and non-tribals, forcing the latter to leave and the former to stop “selling rice to non-tribals. If a tribal woman wore a sari or a bangle, she was stopped and threatened.” AIDWA’s activists held fast. Their bravery broke the cultural agenda of the militants.
Careful policies against insurgency rooted in the well-being of the people earned the Left the support of the people. It helps that the leadership of the Left in Tripura has an incomparable reputation for probity. The Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar, son of a tailor and a government employee, is known as the poorest leader in India (he had $200 in his bank account, about the same amount as he earns per year – what he earns he hands over to his Party, and receives in turn $100 as a sustainer); the only comparable world figure is Uruguay’s President José Mujica, whose net work was $1,800 (he donates 90 percent of his salary to a scheme that builds homes for the poor). Sarkar’s vices are “a small pot of snuff and a cigarette a day.” When news of the massive victory came to him, Sarkar said, “This is a verdict in favor of development, peace and stability besides good governance.”
He forgot to mention the shoes.
Vijay Prashad’s new book, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, is out this month from Verso Books.
Sudhanva Deshpande is part of Jana Natya Manch and is an editor at LeftWord Books.