Tripura minister NC Debbarma, tribal politics patriarch, pulls off a coup to reclaim IPFT

Narendra Chandra Debbarma, Tripura’s veteran tribal leader and founder of the Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPFT), an ally of the ruling BJP, was inducted into the newly-appointed Chief Minister Manik Saha’s Cabinet Monday. At the swearing-in event, Debbarma, 84, who has been ailing for the past few months, was seen struggling to read his oath of office using a magnifying glass. He had met with a few accidents last year and sustained concussions leading to his hospitalisation that forced him to stay away from politics for months. The IPFT has also been gripped by a major crisis, with Debbarma’s leadership facing a serious challenge, which might even lead to its further split in the coming days.

An ideologue of Tripura’s tribal statehood, Debbarma has remained active in Tripura’s tribal politics for the last five decades. He had worked with the All India Radio at Agartala and retired as its station director in the late 1990s. He has been involved, directly or indirectly, with a slew of tribal political parties including the Tripura Upajati Juba Samiti (TUJS), Tripura Hill People’s Party, Tripura Tribal National Council in addition to the IPFT, which was first floated in the late 1990s.

This IPFT’s first avatar, led by Debbarma, won the Tripura Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in 2000 but it suffered a split, following which the NSPT was created in 2004. After a long hiatus, the IPFT 2.0 was formed in 2009, which again suffered a split in the form of a breakaway faction, called the IPFT-Tipraha, that later teamed up with the BJP and finally merged with Pradyot Kishore-led TIPRA Motha party, which swept the Tribal Council polls last year.

Political observers say Debbarma was mainly behind the formation and splitting of various IPFT splinter outfits. After his prolonged illness, he sought to take a backseat during the IPFT’s central conference held on 3-4 April this year, where his young protégé Mevar Kumar Jamatia was elected to head the party.

The IPFT was first conceived in the late 1990s when the proposal of a separate state for Tripura’s indigenous communities was made. Years after the party was revived in 2009 following its initial split, the Debbarma-led IPFT made a significant impact on Tripura politics by raising the demand for “Tipraland”.

In the 2018 Assembly polls, the party went on to win 8 seats and then allied with the BJP to form their coalition government, which replaced the CPI(M)-led Left Front dispensation, which had been ruling the state for 25 years consecutively. A few years later, however, royal scion Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma started championing the cause of a separate tribal state and floated his TIPRA Motha party in February 2021. Pradyot pushed his statehood demand in the name of Greater Tipraland, which is essentially an extension of the IPFT’s Tipraland but also involves belts having Tripuri tribal habitations in Assam, Mizoram and other Northeastern states along with even parts of Bangladesh.

Mevar Kumar Jamatia. (Photo: Debraj Deb)

Amidst his party’s challenges, including a crushing defeat in the 2021 Tripura ADC polls at the hands of the fledgling TIPRA Motha, Debbarma has been suffering from various ailments and age-related health problems.

While Jamatia claims that he is the IPFT’s “legitimate president” as per the recent organisational poll results, a major row has erupted as Debbarma, after lying low for a few months, has now sought to take the helm of his party again, even as he accused the former of allegedly acting against the party’s interests by “colluding” with Pradyot and “hatching a concerted conspiracy” to merge the IPFT with Motha.

“How can an IPFT leader say the party itself will be dissolved into another regional party? This is an anti-party activity and he (Jamatia) will be punished according to our party constitution,” Debbarma told media persons recently. He also got Jamatia dropped from the new BJP Cabinet headed by Manik Saha, who replaced Biplab Deb as the new CM a few days ago.

In his defence, Jamatia said that 80 per cent of the IPFT leaders from across the state, who attended the party’s April conclave, expressed their willingness to work with the Motha, either through merger or by allying with it. Also, he claims, Debbarma himself signed an agreement with Motha in December last year, which purportedly stated that “…both the parties agree that after Delhi Abhiyan (held early this year), they will initiate the process of unifying both parties as one united political party”, which would later contest the ADC village committee (VC) elections and 2023 Assembly polls as a single entity.

An upset Jamatia also says that Debbarma’s claims over the party presidentship is “baffling and unintelligible” and that he made an effort to execute Debbarma’s own pact. He is now planning to take legal recourse to settle his dispute with Debbarma, who seems to be back in control of the IPFT now.

Jamatia claims that he worked for over four years as a tribal affairs minister for the welfare of people. He claims that he has the support of a majority of his party leaders and legislators, accusing Debbarma of “somehow managing to woo them to his side”.

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