India's Rocker Aristocrat Takes on Modi

Why you should care

Because this rocker aristocrat represents a simmering tribal threat to India’s ruling party.

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Dressed in a white kurta and pajama with a red-and-black scarf, Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma looks energetic. Rolling up his sleeves, in high-pitched Hindi, he tells the crowd: “Today, the king will speak straight from the heart.” At this gathering of more than 15,000 indigenous community members in the town of Khumulwng, outside the capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, Debbarma takes on the state government of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that also rules at the center under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The youth have lost faith in leaders they elected. They came to power on certain promises that they will protect our indigenous rights, customs and cause. Today, within less than a year, people can see the leaders compromise on basic fundamental issues,” says Debbarma, the 40-year-old royal scion of Tripura.

All of 5-foot-7, Debbarma, fondly called “Bubaghra” (“king” in tribal Kokborok language) by locals, is the emerging voice of the disgruntled tribal youth of Tripura, a state of 3.6 million people bordering Bangladesh. He’s come a long way from his playboy past. The pampered brother of four older sisters was labeled as the “party prince” for his love for Jack Daniel’s and Coke, music and soccer. A guitarist, he is close to American singer Axl Rose, of Guns N’ Roses, whom he met in Los Angeles via singer Sebastian Bach, formerly of Skid Row. Rose and Bach even performed at Debbarma’s 30th birthday party. “But I have changed; I am more evolved now,” asserts Debbarma in an interview, sipping a cup of masala chai.

When a political system fails, especially in a border state, you give opportunity to radicals to come up.

Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma

The evolved prince is the president of the Tripura wing of the Congress, India’s grand old party, now in opposition in the state and at the center. That an aristocrat is the Congress face challenging Modi in Tripura could, to some, underscore what the prime minister frequently alleges: that he’s a man who has risen from poverty, fighting against a party led by the privileged. But Debbarma has a stern message for the BJP: Indigenous people won’t tolerate any more neglect. They want roads, health care facilities, clean drinking water, jobs and, above all, a separate state. For decades, they complain, Bengali settlers have received better treatment.

Debbarma at a rally

Debbarma at a rally.

Barring the capital city of Agartala, largely inhabited by Bengalis, there’s hasn’t been development anywhere else. The districts, home to more than 19 tribes including the Jamatia, Lepcha, Chakma and Reang, are backward. The Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) helped put the BJP in power here last year, but the tribes still feel neglected. Modi faced angry Debbarma-led protesters — including some who burned Modi effigies and released black balloons — during a February visit to inaugurate the statue of Debbarma’s grandfather Maharaja Bir Bikram at the Agartala airport.

Tripura was its own kingdom until 1949, when it merged into India. Debbarma’s grandfather was its last king, and his political ascent has a regal air. Slogans such as Ayuklothung Bubaghra (The King Is Coming) and Kiphilwi Thangdi, Modi (Go Back, Modi) fill the air in Debbarma’s rallies. Last year, before the elections, BJP promised to give free education to every girl child, one job to every family, housing to all and smartphones to the youth. None has been fulfilled. In addition, the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the BJP-majority parliament, recently passed a bill to grant Indian citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — which Tripura tribal youth fear will cause a flood of migrants from Bangladesh. The Rajya Sabha, the upper house where the BJP doesn’t have the numbers, didn’t pass the bill before parliament closed mid-February, so the proposed law will need to be taken up by the next government.

Sitting at a Delhi hotel a fortnight before the rallies kicked off, dressed more casually in a black tee and a pair of black jeans, the suave “Maharaja” warns that anger could lead to a resurgent violent insurgency. “When a political system fails, especially in a border state, you give opportunity to radicals to come up,” says Debbarma, who also runs an online magazine, northeasttoday.com.

In the 1980s and ’90s, tribals picked up arms demanding separate “Twipraland” for the 1 million indigenous people. The insurgency ended a few years ago, but the demand for statehood remained. The BJP promised to look into it if voted into power — a big reason Communists were ejected after 25 years in power. But “there is no talk of statehood now,” Debbarma complains.

Debbarma, who read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, calls himself a centrist. He has coined a new slogan in Kokborok — poila jaati ulo party, or “Choose people over party” — which reverberated in his rallies. Recently, Tripura police termed this and another slogan allegedly chanted at the Khumulwng rally — “Bye Bye India, Hello China” — as “objectionable.” Police also charged two tribal leaders and one tribal human rights activist who attended the rally for being involved in a “criminal conspiracy to promote sedition and hatred between racial groups.”

As the news of the sedition charges spread like wildfire on social media, more and more tribals came out in support of Debbarma, who has more than 119,000 followers on Facebook. His friend and colleague in the Congress party Taposh Dey says people appreciate that Debbarma has no air of a Maharaja. “He does whatever is good for the people; he never misleads them,” Dey adds.

Ujjayanta palace ii

Ujjayanta Palace II

But this youngest child of former Congress parliamentarians, the late Maharaja Kirit Bikram Kishore Manikya Bahadur and Maharani Bibhu Kumari Devi, is called a “reluctant” politician by political thinkers because he never took a plunge into electoral politics. Nandakumar Debbarma (no relation), an adjunct faculty member of Kokborok language at Tripura University, says: “He has never shown his commitment as a full-time politician who can sustain. He is certainly not a strong force against Modi.”

The academic accuses the Maharaja of speaking “selectively” — criticizing the citizenship bill, but not advocating for better education or more power for tribal autonomous district councils. “Plus, he is hardly rooted to the state. He has been mostly in Delhi or Shillong; he can’t even speak Kokborok fluently.”

After attending St. Edmund’s in Shillong, Debbarma studied history at St. Anthony’s College in the northeastern hill town; he could never learn Kokborok there. The Maharaja, who is still single, claims he now spends most of his time at his Ujjayanta Palace in Agartala, meeting tribal people and listening to their grievances. Sometimes, he even visits tribal hamlets where he eats his favorite wahan mosdeng (sticky rice and pork).

Is this all a political stunt?

“No,” comes his reply. “I do it for creating beautiful memories.”

OZY’s 5 Questions for Pradyot Bikram Manikya Debbarma

  • What’s the last book you finished? Newsman: Tracking India in the Modi Era by Rajdeep Sardesai and The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.
  • What do you worry about? That the Communists will come back because of the mismanagement of the BJP.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Love.
  • Who’s your hero? Changes from time to time. Right now, nobody.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? I want to be in a forest alone.

Read more: From local boy made good to Kashmir nationalist.

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