Tuesday will mark the 38th anniversary of one of the worst massacres in independent India that claimed the lives of over a thousand people, many of them women, children and the elderly. It was a cold-blooded, planned and horrendous massacre that few even in Bengal know about or care to remember.
Hardly anyone in India knows about it.
On 31 January 1979, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government, heady with its electoral success in Bengal two years before that, trained its guns on thousands of Bengali Hindu refugees who had fled persecution in East Pakistan (and then Bangladesh) and settled in an uninhabited island in the Sunderbans. Not only were these people desperately poor who had suffered the unimaginable trauma of having had to flee their hearth and homes across the border, they were also all Dalits and OBCs.
The events leading to the Marichjhapi massacre form a sickening narrative on the ugly, hypocritical, diabolic, brutal and inhuman character of communists. Marichjhapi, about 75 kilometres east of Kolkata as the crow flies, also stands as a damning indictment of Bengal’s red helmsman, Jyoti Basu, who presided over his state’s decline while his party gained in strength. It is yet another proof that human lives, even the lives of the poor whose cause they profess to champion, matter little to communists.
Migration From East Pakistan
Lakhs of Bengali Hindus have been fleeing religious, social and economic persecution in East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh, since a little before Partition in 1947. This migration peaked in 1947, and then again in 1970-1971 when the murderous West Pakistani army started a genocidal pogrom against the Bengali-speaking masses in East Pakistan, mainly Hindus. “These migrants were mostly poor, marginal farmers and people engaged in petty vocations in East Pakistan and were mostly Dalits and OBCs. The upper castes, the educated and the wealthy from East Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947) had already set up bases and homes in West Bengal before Partition. The poor and the lower castes stayed behind because they did not have the means to migrate,” explained Amiya Majumdar, a historian.
At the time of Partition, millions of lower caste Hindus decided to stay back in East Pakistan primarily because one of their most influential leaders, Jogendra Nath Mandal, gave a call to lower caste Hindus to stay back in East Pakistan instead of migrating to India. He was an ardent advocate of Dalit-Muslim unity, a disastrous experiment that was bound to fail (read about it in this article). Mandal’s plight represents that of the millions of the Dalits and OBCs who heeded his call; Mandal, who was Pakistan’s first labour and law minister, got completely disillusioned by the anti-Hindu policies of the government and its encouragement to Islamists who started forcibly converting Hindus to Islam and other large-scale atrocities on Hindus. He wrote a long resignation letter to then Pakistan premier Liaquat Ali Khan before fleeing to India in 1950.
Resettlement In Dandakaranya
Lakhs of Dalits and OBCs then started crossing over to West Bengal in the footsteps of Mandal after atrocities by Muslim fundamentalists, often encouraged by the authorities, started increasing. Initially, Bengali Hindu refugees were encouraged to settle down in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. But soon, these three states could no longer absorb the burden of such a huge number of settlers and the Union Government decided to settle the refugees in Dandakaranya (which translates into ‘jungle of punishment’), a vast, arid and adivasi-inhabited region comprising parts of present-day Odisha, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The Union Government set up a Dandakaranya Development Authority (DDA) to facilitate settlement of refugees there and develop the region.
Tens of thousands of Bengali Hindu refugees from East Pakistan streaming into West Bengal were transported to Dandakaranya and settled in camps there. The conditions were harsh, but the Union Government promised loans and other aid, including technical help, to convert the arid lands into farmlands (as in Israel). The DDA planned to give the refugees – an estimated 2.5 lakh who had gone there – pattas (rights) to plots of land for setting up their houses and for farming. But the refugees, used to farming in the fertile alluvial Gangetic delta, felt it would be impossible to grow crops in Dandakaranya. They were also very unhappy with the living conditions in Dandakaranya, where they were (temporarily) put up in tents erected in guarded enclosures. They also found the extreme climate alluvial – very hot summers and freezing winters – too harsh for their comfort. Resentment thus started brewing among them.
Instigating The Refugees
The communists, who had started emerging as a strong opposition force in Bengal by the mid-1960s, started stoking the resentment amongst the refugees. They came out in open support of the refugees. The communists started demanding proper resettlement of the refugees within West Bengal and the scrapping of the Dandakaranya project. They started encouraging the refugees settled in Dandakaranya to return to West Bengal. But they did not do so out of any empathy for the refugees. Thanks to successive Congress governments’ (both in the state and in New Delhi) apathy towards the refugees, the latter started gravitating towards the communists, who promised them the moon if and when they (the communists) came to power. The refugees, numbering lakhs (those who settled in West Bengal as well as the ones in Dandakaranya) started supporting the communists.
Jyoti Basu himself advocated the resettlement of the refugees, who had been sent to Dandakaranya in the vast Sunderbans archipelago. He wrote to (then) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and successive chief ministers of Bengal demanding that some islands in the Sunderbans be earmarked for resettling these refugees. Basu sent his comrades to Dandakaranya (among them leaders of the communist-allied Forward Bloc) to instigate the refugees settled there into abandoning their camps and returning to West Bengal. They were promised rehabilitation in the uninhabited islands of the Sunderbans when the Left Front (an alliance of left-leaning parties led by the CPM) came to power in West Bengal.
Dandakaranya To Bengal
Accordingly, groups of refugees started streaming back to West Bengal from the mid-1970s. Many of them were detected and detained at various railway stations en route and sent back, but many managed to slip past police cordons and reach West Bengal. This reverse migration from Dandakaranya picked up soon after the Left Front came to power in West Bengal in mid-1977. They had been scouting for islands in the Sunderbans to settle down in, and the leaders of the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (Refugee Welfare Committee) zeroed in on Marichjhapi.
By mid-1978, an estimated 1.5 lakh refugees from Dandakaranya and other parts of India where they had been resettled had reached Bengal in the hope that the sympathetic Left Front government in power would facilitate their rehabilitation. They encroached on government and even private lands in Kolkata and adjoining areas and started living in squalid conditions, awaiting the promised manna (in the forms of doles, jobs, education and land pattas) from the communists.
In early 1978, a few hundred refugees made their way to Marichjhapi and started settling down there. They cleared the forests, built embankments to protect the island from high tides, dug ponds for storing rain water and for fisheries, and dividing small plots of lands among themselves to build their small huts. As word spread around, thousands of refugees started streaming into Marichjhapi. By June 1978, about 30,000 refugees had settled down in the large island, built nearly 250-kilometre long embankments, set up a beedi-making unit, a carpentry workshop, a bakery, a hosiery unit, a secondary school and a cooperative for farming and fishing.
The large settlement at Marichjhapi became, more or less, self-reliant. The menfolk would fish in the numerous rivers and creeks of the Sunderbans and sell their produce in the nearby Kumirmari island. The women weaved and knitted and sold garments. The bread and cup cakes from Marichjhapi became quite a hit in the other inhabited islands. Volunteer teachers started taking classes. Roads were built and the settlers set up a rudimentary desalination plant. Life, say those who lived in that island, was hard, but idyllic as well.
By then, however, the policy of the communists had completely changed. Having used the refugees settled at Dandakaranya to gain the sympathy and support of the millions who had already fled East Pakistan (and then Bangladesh) and settled down in West Bengal, the communists (as is their wont) did a complete U-turn. After coming to power, the communists declared that there was no space left in West Bengal for refugees from the neighbouring country. They declared that all those who had returned from Dandakaranya and other parts of the country where they had been resettled would have to return.
The communist rulers let loose the state police and their cadres to harass and evict the refugees who had returned from Dandakaranya. They were herded to railway stations and bundled into trains bound for other states. The unwilling were threatened and beaten up, their meagre belongings looted and their documents destroyed. The communists, thus, managed to drive away tens of thousands of refugees, who they had promised to rehabilitate in Bengal after they came to power.
Buildup To The Massacre
From end-December 1978, police and CPM cadres started going to Marichjhapi and ordering the settlers there to leave. Tension started building up as the settlers refused and drove away the CPM cadres and goons. Marichjhapi stood out as a prominent spot of defiance of the communist dictators, who could not tolerate the disregard for their diktat (that all refugees from Dandakaranya have to return). The pressure on the settlers at Marichjhapi increased. The CPM cadres started going to the neighbouring islands and warning traders there against dealing with the residents of Marichjhapi, who used to sell their produce – fish, breads, cakes, garments and cane products – to the merchants of those islands and procuring foodstuff and other items from them.
The CPM also started floating wild stories ascribing sinister motives to the settlers. CPM leaders led a whisper campaign alleging that the settlers were Hindu hardliners whose ultimate objective was to establish Hindu dominance in the Sunderbans and drive out Muslims from there. They alleged that the settlers were being funded by external sources, had set up illegal arms manufacturing units and were planning a rebellion against India. Many of these unfounded allegations find circulation even today in articles (like this one written by a communist acolyte) penned to justify, play down and even deny the massacre. Such rumours and allegations were circulated with the diabolic motive of building up a case against the Marichjhapi settlers based on falsehoods (something that communists excel in) and lies that can be termed as inhuman against people who had been forced to flee their homes due to religious, social and economic persecution (in East Pakistan and Bangladesh).
The Blockade Of Marichjhapi
Once the communist rulers of Bengal realised that the settlers in Marichjhapi were bent on defying their diktat, they (the commies) decided to act. From mid-January, police in motorised country boats started patrolling the waters around Marichjhapi island and harassing the islanders. The police – and police boats often had communist cadres in them – started forcibly taking away fish caught by the islanders or other merchandise the islanders would be taking to nearby islands in their small boats. Communist cadres also started landing on the island in the stealth of night to damage the islanders’ boats, carts, cowsheds and anything they could target.
When even such harassment failed, the cops and cadres imposed an economic blockade on the island. This documentary provides a vivid description of the brutality and inhumanity of the cops and (CPM) cadres who perpetrated the cold-blooded massacre of the hapless refugees, who were trying to rebuild their shattered lives on their own, without any help from the communist government, which had posed as their saviours before coming to power. The islanders were prevented from venturing out to Kumirmari and neighbouring islands from where they would procure their food and other supplies. The residents of the other islands were also prevented from sailing to Marichjhapi to trade there.
After more than a week of this blockade, with stocks of water, food, medicines and baby food running dry, the desperate and starving settlers of Marichjhapi decided to brave the blockade and sail to Kumirmari to procure supplies. As this account of the sufferings of the islanders illustrates, they were forced to eat even grass to survive and many children started dying of green dysentery. The situation was desperate and a group of 20-odd settlers sailed to Kumirmari under the cover of darkness on the night of 29 January 1979, to get supplies. They managed to land in that island after slipping past the police cordon of Marichjhapi.
The First Killings
But the next day, they were detected by cops and CPM cadres at Kumirmari bazaar. The cops attempted to take away whatever little money they had and the baby food, rice and other essential commodities they had bought from Kumirmari. The settlers objected and fight broke out with the cops and cadres. The cops fired at them and, according to eyewitness accounts, about a dozen were killed. The cops threw away their bodies into the crocodile-infested waters of the Korankhali river that ran between Kumirmari and Marichjhapi. The other injured islanders were arrested and taken away.
The settlers at Marichjhapi were shocked as the news of the killings reached them on 30 January afternoon. But the shock soon gave way to outrage. A series of meetings were held and it was unanimously decided that they would break through the blockade by the cops and cadres the next day. It was decided that a group of women would be first sent out in boats towards Kumirmari. The assumption was that the cops would not touch the women. Sixteen women volunteered to go to Kumirmari the next morning. But the islanders were wrong in assuming that the cops, acting on the direct orders of bloodthirsty communist cadres, would not touch their womenfolk. They were wrong in assuming that there were some vestiges of humanity left in cops in communist Bengal.
On the morning of 31 January 1979, as the women rowed out from Marichjhapi in 10 country boats, they were asked by police to return. When they refused and continued rowing, the police rammed their mechanised boats into the women’s boats. The women jumped into the water and swam away. The cops even fired into the water and killed two of them. The rest were found a few days later in a forest in another island and all said they had been repeatedly raped by cops and communist cadres.
The islanders, who were watching from the shores of Marichjhapi as their mothers, wives and sisters rowed to Kumirmari, were aghast at the police action. A roar of protest rose from the shores of that island and the islanders started brandishing lathis, choppers and whatever they could lay their hands on. That was the signal for the police and CPM cadres to land in Marichjhapi and fire at, molest, rape and kill the islanders and loot their belongings. The mayhem continued for the whole of January 31. Accounts such as this describe the brutality of the massacre.
According to survivors’ accounts, the police did not even spare about 15 kids – aged between five and 12 – who had taken shelter in their school (a thatched hut). The kids had gathered there to make arrangements for Saraswati Puja, which was to be celebrated the next day (1 February), when the cops and cadres landed at Marichjhapi. Hearing the firing and cries of their elders, the scared kids huddled inside the school, cowering in fear. The cops and cadres herded them out of the school and decapitated them. Not content with their gory act, they smashed the idol of Goddess Saraswati into smithereens.
Though figures vary, it is widely believed that at least 1,700 people, including many women, children and the elderly, were killed on 31 January 1979, at Marichjhapi. Many others were injured. The survivors fled to other parts of the state and many are now settled in the North and South 24 Parganas districts of Bengal, eking out their lives in utter misery and penury. Accounts of their sufferings are sporadically published in the media (such as this), but they have been largely forgotten in Bengal while few outside the state even know of their sad plight.
What these settlers in Marichjhapi cannot figure out even today is why the communist government turned against them after having invited them to rebuild their lives in the islands of the Sunderbans. Why the U-turn by Jyoti Basu? Was it because they were Hindus? There will perhaps be no answers to this deafening question.
Postscript: Mamata Banerjee, before coming to power in 2011, promised a judicial probe into the Marichjhapi massacre (and all other killings by communists in Bengal). Six years later, the survivors of Marichjhapi still await a closure. Once again, they feel let down by politicians.
Post postscript: For a heartrending literary account of the massacre, read The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh.
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