Forty one years ago, on January 31, thousands of Bangladeshi refugees (the exact number still unknown) were killed in a police firing and the starvation because of economic blockade on Marichjhapi island in West Bengal’s Sundarbans.
On Friday, Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banarjee tweeted about the massacre,”On that day, thousands of innocent people were killed on the chilly island of Sundarbans. Prayer to those who lost their lives in this incident. Most of those killed in those days were poor and oppressed people.”
১৯৭৯ সালের এই দিনে, সুন্দরবনের মরিচঝাঁপি দ্বীপে কয়েক হাজার নিরীহ মানুষকে হত্যা করা হয়েছিল। এই ঘটনায় যারা প্রাণ হারিয়েছেন তাদের প্রতি সশ্রদ্ধ প্রণাম। সেদিন নিহত অধিকাংশ মানুষ গরিব এবং সমাজের পিছিয়ে পড়া শ্রেণীর লোক ছিলেন
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) January 31, 2020
How did this massacre unfold ?
After Partition, several Dalit and lower caste Hindus decided to stay back in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).This led to the second wave of migration into India.
The arrival of the Dalit refugees some years after 1947 became a crisis of rehabilitation that West Bengal had not faced before. Immediately after 1947, the Scheduled Caste populace of East Pakistan had not uprooted themselves in any massive numbers. Mainly agriculturists, small traders and artisans, their ties to lands were strong and they had initially resisted the idea of moving because their leader Jogendranath Mandal, a minister in the East Pakistan Cabinet, had assured them security. However, through the 1950s, increasing food prices and low-grade communal riots in Khulna and Jessore brought back fears of intimidation. In October 1952, with the introduction of the passport system between India and Pakistan, these uncertainties became real. Through the following years, the Namasudra and Poundro Kshatriyas communities started moving into West Bengal, first in small groups and then in an exodus, reports The Wire.
Most of them were settled by the government in arid and inhospitable areas like the Dandakaranya — a terrain that encompasses Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The Left was not in power in West Bengal at the time, but several Left leaders, like Ram Chatterjee, reached out to the migrants and promised them a home back in Bengal when they came to power, reports the Print.
After the Left government came in power in 1977, the refugees who were rehabilitated in Dandakaranaya started settling in Sunderbans. Left front Minister Ram chaterjee was also reportedly supportive of this.
“Over time, the population of Marichjhapi swelled to 40,000 from the initial 10,000. It had become a functional village with three lanes, a bazaar, a school, a dispensary, a library, a boat manufacturing unit, and a fisheries department even! Who could have imagined that so much was possible in so little time? Maybe all those wasted years in Dandakaranya had given us superhuman will,” an excerpt of survivor’s account from Deep Haldar’s book, ‘Blood Island’.
However, the Left government back tracked on its promises and asked the settlers to vacate Marichjhapi on the excuse of protecting Sunderban biodiversity and that the villagers were endangering the ecology.
The villagers did not accept the diktat. In January 1979, the Jyoti Basu government clamped an economic blockade on the island.
“The refugees used to bring drinking water, foodgrains and medicines from the nearby Kumirmari village but after the economic blockade it became impossible to go to Kumirmari to bring water, food and medicine. We sent 16 women in a boat thinking they won’t harm women. But a launch- Indrajit MV79-sped towards boat and rammed it. We could save only 14 from drowning and later found the other two in the Bagnan forest office. They had been molested,” Narayan Mondal, a survivor told Times Of India.
On January 31, 1979, police opened fire at Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans when the migrants, who had built a thriving community life there, refused to leave.The government admitted a few casualties but the Opposition alleged a cold-blooded carnage. Police boats and launches apparently encircled Marichjhapi and dumped bodies in the river, while many drowned while trying to flee.The truth is yet to emerge after years. The pre-television media were barred from the area on the day of the police crackdown, and the government ignored demands for a judicial inquiry, reports The Telegraph
Survivors say the only tube well on the island was poisoned, boats carrying food and medicine were destroyed, huts were set on fire and women raped. In a matter of days, the island was ‘cleared’, reports the Print
Over four decades have passed. Today, remembering the Marichjhapi massacre assumes more significance when the country is witnessing violence over a new citizenship law.
(Illustration by Sephin Alexander)