They say Gods dwell within little kids. That morning when someone shared the image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, it had taken my peace away. What was his crime? He was uprooted for no fault of his. He was drowned for no fault of his. Since the time we have had a brush with ‘modernity’, stories of human sorrow and exodus have been constant reminders of how uncertain and little value life has.
At different times the world has tackled and reacted differently to the refugee crisis. The sorrow remains equal. The reactions however are not as equal. The Marichjhapi Massacre was of course at a time when technology hadn’t given us a hand to connect with the world. However, even as we dig up sorrowful events of the past, this massacre and trampling of human rights, hardly makes it to the big newsroom of our nation.
The 1970’s was a volatile decade for the entire nation. The war, the formation of Bangladesh, the rise of the Naxals and the emergency had altered lives of many Indians. There were very strong winds of change on Bengal. The incumbent government had left the people disillusioned.
After the partition of Bengal, there was an ever steady flow of Hindu Bengali refugees from East Pakistan. The violence that led to the formation of Bangladesh and deadly massacres saw a large influx of refugees again.
When the CPI(M) was aggressively campaigning ahead of the historic 1977 elections, it had promised to accommodate all Bengali speaking people who wanted to come and settle in West Bengal. This of course included the Hindu refugees who had come from across the border. It was a card well played. For the Bangal( the Bengalis from East Bengal), it was a raw nerve. And it was only obvious that a large share would vote for the Communist Party. They were also disillusioned with the Congress party. A whole lot of factors led to the victory of the Communists, and they were to stay for the next three and a half decades; and would be the undisputed ‘rulers’ of West Bengal.
Now coming back to the refugee exodus- from of the 1.1 million who had arrived by June 1948, 350,000 were urban middle class, 550,000 were rural middle class, a little over 100,000 were agriculturalists, and almost 100,000 were artisans. Some of them found a refuge amongst relatives and friends in Calcutta, while others filled whatever space they could get.
In the 1960s and ’70s – and especially after the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971, communal agitations started to be directed Hindus who had remained in East Bengal. They were forced to leave their homes.
The ruling Congress was clear in its apathy towards accepting the refugees. Instead of trying to provide shelter for them in Bengal, the refugees were pushed further into inhospitable and infertile terrains in Eastern India. Of these, one was Dandakaranya – parts of Orissa, former Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in present day Chhattisgarh. For the people who had lost almost everything except their lives, it was a rude shock. They were also emotionally removed from known terrain- that of Bengal. The area was semi-arid and the refugees would hardly have an option to earn their livelihoods or rebuild their lives.
There were widespread protests and hunger strikes in the refugee camps. But well they weren’t vote bank. Who would care for hunger strikes of people who did not count at all? Dandakaranya was their ultimate fate.
However, their fate was also being a part of an election campaign, that wouldn’t bring any gain to them. Jyoti Basu ( who would continue to be Chief Minister for multiple terms) had demanded that he be allowed to go in person to Dandakaranya, in a much publicized meeting. One of the ministers from CPI(M) had also visited the refugees and in clear words said they would be encouraged to settle in the Sunderbans.
After the CPI(M) came to power, the steady flow of refugees from Dandakaranya started. They had hopes of settling in the Sunderbans, a state they could call home and a language and culture they could speak and connect to.
In 1978 more than 10,000 refugees crossed Kumirmari village and reached Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans. They declared that they did not want any aid from the Government towards their resettlement there. They only demanded that they be allowed to stay at Marichjhapi as citizens of the Union of India. Some even romantically said that they wanted to die on Bengal’s soil.
But the pawns realized the refugee policy had changed. Changed at the whim of a government! Supporters of the CPI(M) argue that there were tens and thousands of people coming for resettlement. It is laughable that they did not realize this when they spoke in the publicity mikes from the nukkads of Kolkata. The government was now worried that the sudden influx of people in Marichjhapi would affect the tiger reserves and the environment. This author thinks the government had realized that the refugees were a resilient force and hence did not want any parallel movements to start. An authoritarian state was what Bengal would see in the coming years, so this suspicion is true to an extent.
The exact figure of the number of people that had settled in Marichjhapi is unknown. However, it is confirmed that the refugees had begun to shape their lives and sort out the mess. But the Sunderbans were not an easy terrain, that too when there was no aid from the state. Initially they would procure food from the Kumirmari village. Suderbans though is all surrounded by water; the water cannot be used for drinking. So even drinking water would have to fetched from the nearby villages. But towards the end of January 1979, the government enforced prohibitory orders under section 144 of the CrPC.
The inhuman economic blockade started. They were thirty to forty heavily guarded launches patrolling the island. While some chronicles say these were the police, some survivors say there were party cadres too. Little children died of green diarrhoa. Some survived on grass and leaves. The drinking water supply was cut off too. After ten desperate and punishing days a party of 16 women set by boat. They had assumed the police would let the women pass. But their boat was ‘attacked’ by a launch. Fourteen women were somehow rescued from drowning. Two went missing. They were later traced at the forest office in Bagnam. They had been molested.
And then one day, hell broke loose. Tear gas and volley of bullets rained on the helpless refugees. No one knows how many were killed. Some bodies were taken away. Some dumped into the river. Some were trying to flee to Kumirmari village by boat. A little girl, about eight years of age was shot at. She died on the boat as her family watched. There are many who have no idea if their loved ones were killed that fateful day. They did not find the bodies.
A father waits to this day. A wife waits for her husband to return.
But the horror did not end. There were resilient few who clung on to the island. On May 16th 1979, the island was under siege again. With state assistance huts of refugees were set on fire. They were then forcefully evicted and pushed to various places.
From Barasat to Bastar, if we look we might still find someone who had lost a loved one in that dreadful Marichjhapi Massacre.
The CPI(M) ruled Bengal for 34 years. And Hindu Refugees are still pariah in this nation. Any effort at rehabilitating them is either seen as propaganda of the Hindu fringe or political breast beating. What this author fails to understand is- how can sections of this nation be so selective in their grief.
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