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The untold story: how Tripura beat the AFSPA by growing rubber

Soumya Shankar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:15 IST

The insurgency

  • Tripura withdrew the draconian AFSPA last month. It was imposed 18 years ago.
  • There has been sustained peace in the state. Insurgency has almost ended.
  • Root cause of the conflict was disparity between Bengali migrants and local tribals.

The solution

  • Tripura government introduced rubber cultivation in 1963.
  • This helped tribals move from jhum (shifting) cultivation to settled farming.
  • This broke the insurgency as discontented tribals found prosperity.
  • The transparent approach of rubber officials created immense goodwill.
  • When a regional Rubber Office was set up at the request of insurgents in Ambassa in 2009, the last bastion of insurgency fell.

Tripura was spotlight news last month for being the first state in India to successfully lift the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

What went unreported is one of the key factors behind this unusual success story. What really helped Tripura lift the AFSPA is growing rubber. Sounds strange? Read on.

The success of Tripura's Left Front government's battle with insurgency was an innovative blend of governance with tough security measures. The government used a bottom-up approach to enable the tribals who had picked up the gun come back into the social mainstream.

For this, many strategies were used. The most effective of them was planting rubber and converting tribals used to slash-and-burn cultivation into settled rubber farmers.

An insurgency fuelled by ethnic and economic disparity

The root cause of the Tripura insurgency was the struggle over land between Bengali settlers and the indigenous tribals.

The Manikya kings of Tripura or Tippera, as it was originally known, had an affinity with Bengal. They invited a large number of Bengali settlers into the kingdom. This sowed the seeds of political, cultural and economic disparity between the settled Bengali elite and the jhumi (shifting cultivation) native tribals.

After Partition, Tripura found itself surrounded by East Pakistan from three sides, sharing an 850-km border with it. Between 1947 and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, an estimated 6,09,998 Bengalis displaced from East Pakistan poured into Tripura - reducing the indigenous people into a 30% minority.

This further accentuated the tension between the Bengali settlers and the tribals. The state government began settling the refugees and providing them financial assistance to buy land. In response, the tribals took up the gun against it. That insurgency that was born lasted three decades.

How rubber became a secret weapon

And yet, in battling insurgency, the third-smallest state of India has scripted a success story like no other. Among a host of softer ways of tackling insurgency like building roads, infrastructure, education; what really struck at the heart of the conflict was starting rubber cultivation in the state.

Introduced in 1963 by the Forest Department, rubber plantations were initially meant to check soil degradation due to slash and burn agriculture (jhum) followed by the local tribals. The attempt was to move them to settled agriculture by providing them ownership of land.

The shift from shifting cultivation to settled agriculture was also brought through a host of other commercial crops like cashew. But nothing succeeded like rubber. By the early 1980s, the tribals had shifted 'from jhuming to tapping'.

The then Chief Minister Nripen Chakraborty and Communist leader Dashrath Deb brought rubber from Kerala to Tripura - a non-traditional state for planting rubber. Little did they know that they were setting a powerful economic force in motion. Rubber became the ultimate tool to tackle the roots of tribal insurgency in the state.

After the Rubber Board opened a one-man-office in Agartala in 1967, nearly 5,000 acres of government forest land were given over to the promotion of rubber cultivation. This was combined with resettlement plans for indigenous shifting cultivators.

Today, rubber growers - many of them surrendered insurgents - are forming cooperative societies of their own

Bank loans facilitated by NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) covered the rubber-growing gestation period of seven years. Policies were framed to facilitate various aspects of plantation - viz. setting up rubber seedling nurseries, poly-bag rubber nurseries, tapping of rubber trees, raising of mother plants and maintenance of older rubber plantations.

By the late 1980s, seven lakh person days of employment was being created per year through rubber plantation activities.

Tripura Forest Department and Plantation Corporation (TFDPC) which was set up in 1976 and the Tripura Rehabilitation Plantation Corporation, set up in 1983, played a crucial role in this.

Since this is a Sixth Schedule Area, land which comes under the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council remained under tribal control.

In 1992, a special plan called the Rubber Block Plantation Scheme was introduced for the overall development of tribal planters. "We identified groups of tribal communities and brought in 56% subsidy from Central Rubber Board, 24% from the Tribal Welfare Department of the state government and about 10% from other beneficiary groups - providing a total of 90% subsidy" explains Chandrasenan Nair, Joint Rubber Commissioner, Tripura.

The Tripura Rubber Mission 2006, further enhanced the capacity of different stakeholders in achieving the target of rubber expansion, giving permanent jobs and settling 30,000 tribal families.

All this was happening in the midst of a raging insurgency.

"The root cause of insurgency is poverty. Rehabilitation provided a sense of ownership in such a manner that the landless got land and permanent livelihood. This changed the socio-economic scenario in tribal areas and found acceptance with insurgents" says Jitendra Chaudhury, Tribal Welfare Minister of Tripura, who oversaw the growth of rubber in the state.

Slowly, the jhumias, who provided the cadre for the underground militia, started seeing sense in what the state government was doing. The corruption-free and helpful attitude of rubber officials helped foster a feeling of trust between the government and the indigenous people.

As a result, many tribals started turning towards the state. They started planting rubber trees as a means of economic empowerment.

Initially, the insurgents were skeptical of the state government's agenda. Rubber was seen as an alien crop and rubber officials faced dire security threats when entering jhumi areas. Many were abducted and mistreated.

"Initially, we faced threats from the insurgent groups. But after seeing our commitment, they started supporting us. With a systematic approach and ensuring that there was no corruption, we won their hearts. Finally a stage came, when the local population was negotiating with the insurgents on our behalf," Nair recalls.

He explains, "While we could not even enter militant strongholds initially, today things are different. After transforming insurgency-affected areas into plantations areas and insurgents into rubber growers, today all districts of Tripura can be accessed by us. This came about because the insurgent groups publicly supported us and welcomed us into the areas under their control."

Tripura model: where development trumps violence

Today, rubber growers - many of them surrendered insurgents - have been empowered by forming cooperative societies of their own. They take collective decisions regarding the plantation, nurturing of the estates, tapping, processing, etc.

The government provides technical know-how and marketing assistance. Cash subsidies are given directly to societies - without any middlemen. This has resulted in tremendous confidence among the tribals about the state government's intent.

"Of the surrendered insurgents, most have been rehabilitated and brought into the mainstream through heavily subsidised and protected rubber plantations," claims Nair.

In 2009, when a regional Rubber Office was set up at the request of the insurgents in Ambassa, the last bastion of insurgency in Tripura fell. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar was keen on lifting AFSPA from the state as early as 2010, when he declared the surrender of nearly 8,000 insurgents, including those of the outlawed National Liberation Front of Tripura and All Tripura Tiger Force.

The CPI(M) in Tripura has also managed to reinforce its tribal political base by ending the insurgency

The Act was ultimately lifted in May 2015. In India, while the northeastern borders are never quiet, such a feat could only be achieved with unrelenting political will coupled with diligent planning and co-ordination.

After handling insurgency very firmly, the CPI(M) in Tripura -has also managed to reinforce its tribal political base by ending the insurgency.

As a result, in the recent Tribal Autonomous Council elections, the party won all the 28 seats. "The Communists in Tripura have a proletarian presence, unlike their bhadralok image in West Bengal. The CPI(M) in Tripura is much more rooted to the ground than in the other parts of the country," reflects Subir Bhowmick, former BBC Correspondent for the North East, who grew up in Tripura.

First published: 14 June 2015, 8:25 IST
Soumya Shankar @shankarmya

A correspondent with Catch, Soumya covers politics, social issues, education, art, culture and cinema. A lamenter and celebrator of the human condition, she hopes to live long enough to witness the next big leap in human evolution or the ultimate alien takeover of the world.