Meet Tripura’s Padma Shri Awardee: The Tribal Leader Who Resisted The Gun And The Cross

Meet Tripura’s Padma Shri Awardee: The Tribal Leader Who Resisted The Gun And The Cross

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Friday, January 27, 2023 12:27 PM IST
Meet Tripura’s Padma Shri Awardee: The Tribal Leader Who Resisted The Gun And The CrossBikram Jamatia awarded Padma Shri.
  • Bikram Bahadur Jamatia not just waged a solitary battle against militancy in Tripura but also organised resistance against conversions. 

Eighty-six-year-old Bikram Bahadur Jamatia, is a man of extraordinary courage and conviction. At a time when insurgency was at its peak in Tripura, Jamatia campaigned extensively against the powerful and brutal militants. He was instrumental in turning the tide against the proscribed outfits. 

However, the daring drive against militancy wasn’t Jamatia’s only claim to fame. What’s equally important was his relentless campaign against conversions by Christian missionaries in his state. 

Jamatia, as the Acra (or chief) of the Jamatia Hoda — the apex socio-cultural-religious body of the Jamatias who are one of the primary tribal groups of the state — fiercely resisted proselytisation of his fellow tribals by aggressive Christian missionaries who had a free run under the earlier Congress and Left regimes in the Northeastern state. 

The retired state government employee, who lives in his native village of Moharcherra in Teliamura subdivision of north Tripura’s Khowai district, received a pleasant surprise when the district deputy commissioner, Dilip Kumar Chakma, called him up Wednesday (25 January) evening, to inform him about his nomination for the Padma Shri. 

Chakma invited Jamatia to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations at Khowai town (the district headquarters) the next morning. 

“I was overwhelmed by the news of my award. It is a great honour and recognition of my work and I am very thankful to the state and Union governments for this award which I have accepted on behalf of all the Jamatia people,” the octogenarian told Swarajya

Resisting Militancy

Insurgency took roots in Tripura from the late 1980s with tribal militant outfits raising the demand for a separate state for tribals and expulsion of Bengali Hindu non-tribals who had flooded the state in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition. 

These outfits were initially helped by the Mizo National Front (MNF) which was, at that time, engaged in fierce fighting with Indian armed forces. They also received training, financial and arms support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) through pro-Pakistani lobbies within the Bangladesh security and political establishments. 

The Tripura tribal outfits, primarily the Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) and the All Tripura People’s Liberation Organisation (ATPLO), carried out numerous attacks on non-tribals, killing thousands. Hundreds of tribals also lost their lives in counter-attacks and in counter-insurgency (CI) operations by the security forces. 

Fierce CI operations led to the decimation of these insurgent groups and killing or arrest of many militants, including the leaders of the proscribed outfits. The top leaders of the groups were then forced to surrender. 

However, militancy raised its head once again in the late 1990s because the root causes of militancy — the sense of deprivation among the tribals caused by lack of development and backwardness of the tribal areas and consequent poverty — remained unaddressed by the Left and Congress regimes. 

The National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) were formed by disgruntled elements of the earlier outfits. These two groups created mayhem and launched an ethnic cleansing of sorts to drive out non-tribals from the state, especially the tribal areas of Tripura. 

Bikram Bahadur Jamatia, who was a state government employee at that time, realised that if militancy developed deep roots among the tribals, it would be the tribals who would be the worst-affected. 

“Violence does not yield any results and I knew that tribals and non-tribals have to live in harmony in Tripura. So I started campaigning extensively against militancy in the tribal areas,” he told Swarajya

“I explained to my tribal brethren that militancy will not solve any problem and will only bring to a total halt all the development. I told everyone that militancy will leave us (tribals) more impoverished and will only lead to deaths and displacement,” Jamatia recalled. 

He received threats from the militant outfits. They initially asked him to stop his campaign and when he paid no heed to them, they issued grave death threats. But even that could not deter Jamatia. 

“I knew what I was doing was right and I had the power of truth as my shield. My fellow tribals started realising that militancy would not solve any problem and started supporting my campaign whole-heartedly. That gave me more strength and I stepped up my campaign. Ultimately, I prevailed,” said Jamatia. 

Countering Conversions By Christian Missionaries

Christian missionaries had stepped up their activities during the turbulent years of militancy. Church bodies and organisations supported by the Church have always been suspected of having links with the militants, most of whom had converted to Christianity. 

The militants were encouraging the poor tribals to convert to Christianity and, at times, even compelling them to do so at gunpoint.  

Bikram Bahadur Jamatia realised that the indigenous faith of the tribals would be completely wiped out by the bellicose Christian evangelists who were enticing the poor tribals with promises of petty material gains and education, or spreading their faith at gunpoint. 

“While campaigning against militancy, I also campaigned against the spread of Christianity. I told my fellow tribals about the richness of our indigenous faith that had evolved through centuries and grew out of our tribal soil. I told everyone that our faith was worth adhering to and protecting from the onslaught of a foreign religion that had little to offer to us,” said Jamatia. 

Inspired by his resistance against the spread of Christianity among the tribals, a number of other prominent leaders of the Jamatia Hoda launched a movement to strengthen the indigenous faith among the Jamatias. 

The Christian missionaries, who were also denigrating the indigenous faith of the Jamatias in their evangelical zeal, were thus stopped short in their tracks. The movement launched by Bikram Bahadur Jamatia thus defeated the designs of the Church. 

Recognition For Jamatia

Despite all the work that he had done, Bikram Bahadur Jamatia never received any official recognition. That, say people close to him, was mainly because the Congress and CPI(M), which had ruled the state since independence, did not approve of the resistance he had built up against Christian missionaries. 

The CPI(M)-led Left Front and the Congress were quite friendly with the Christian missionaries and silently encouraged their proselytization. They did not, thus, approve of Jamatia’s anti-conversion movement and did not recognise his work and contributions. 

“The Padma Shri for Bikram Jamatia is long overdue. He should have got this a long time ago. He was neglected till now because the Congress and Left governments of the state were not happy with him for the resistance he built up against conversions,” said former chief minister Biplab Deb. 

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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