Former militant Bijoy Hrankhal on Tripura's tribal needs

Bijoy Kumar Hrankhal was the founder member and vice-president of the Tripura National Volunteer, the first militant group in Tripura. He laid down arms in 1989, after a treaty with late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The treaty didn't accomplish much. In 1991, Hrankhal formed another militant outfit, the National Liberation Front of Tripura. He quit the group in 1994 and in 1997 surrendered to the government. A member of the Tripura Legislative Assembly currently, he tells Biswendu Bhattacharjee that Tripura's tribals need more than packages in spurts

By Biswendu Bhattacharjee
Published: Friday 15 September 2006

Forests are the mainstay of tribals in Tripura, and in many other parts of the country as well. But of late, tribals have been displaced from forestlands. The bill on tribal rights over forestlands will be re-tabled in parliament. What are your views on this issue?
Yes, tribals have had close relations with forestlands since yore. We have been doing jhum cultivation for ages. But rapid devastation of forests has affected tribal life. Tribals are also partly to blame for the destruction. But don't forget that non-tribals have been the major encroachers of forests, and they have devastated forests wantonly. As a consequence, jhum cultivation has suffered.

As for the proposed bill, I feel the Union government must first chalk out plans to rehabilitate. In the past, tribal families have been dragged out of forest reserves in the name of regrouping but they have never been rehabilitated well. This state of affairs must end.

Over the years, a handful of development packages have been launched for the tribals of northeast India. How do you rate them?
You are right many developmental packages have been launched. Implementing them well can certainly improve the living standards of the tribal masses. But the trouble is that most of the schemes of the Union government don't reach the tribal people. Tripura's government has been particularly tardy in implementing central government packages for tribals. Corruption and inefficiency in administration are big stumbling blocks. But I also feel that it's not enough to have development in packages; development should be a continuous process for the northeast.

Do you feel deprivation is still rampant in northeast India?
The northeast has begun to get its due in the past few years, but much more needs to be done to bring the region at par with the rest of the country. Tripura's Left Front government claims that it has done much for the development of the state. But their achievements, they claim, are not attested by the state's economic growth rate. Let's not forget that the Left Front government has been in power for ten years. Any government in power for that long could have achieved that growth rate. Moreover, central government funds are an important reason for Tripura's economic growth.

Tribal insurgency in northeast India has always been linked to the lack of development. You have seen development in the region from close quarters. What is your opinion?
Actually people have tried to ascribe causes to tribal insurgency in northeast India in ways that suited their purpose. Simply speaking, people wouldn't lift arms if they had food, shelter, jobs and clothes. Tribal insurgency has its roots in deprivation. Had the region's economy been developed, the youth in the northeast wouldn't have taken to arms.

But tribal insurgency has waned steadily particularly with the peace processes undertaken by the Union and state government. Do you feel that the peace talks are going in the right direction or do you feel that that the initiative lacks consistent policy?
Let me clarify something first. Peace talks can never be a permanent solution. Talks can merely provide a roadmap to permanent peace. We require much more. The government must have a concrete policy for the northeast; it has been found wanting in this respect so far. Let me also add that when an insurgent outfit moves to the talking table, it's very keen on peace. But their zeal is very often dampened by the corruption that goes on during peace talks. I have observed from close quarters how elements, both in the Union government and in states, corrupt peace talks by pouring money. When money flows in, the process becomes politically very cheap.

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