The Tale of Marichjhapi
Review of the book “Marichjhapi chhinna desh, chhinna itihaash” (Marichjhapi - disintegrated land, disintegrated history). Editor: Madhumay Pal. Publisher: Gangchil. Price: INR 275.00
The mass murderers of Singur, Nandigram and Netai started their hands-on training in manslaughter soon after their party came to political power. It was the same strategy every time- the police or party cadres, or the Harmad goons [i](sometimes both) were let loose on ordinary and poor people because they were guilty of non-compliance with the autocratic diktats of the Party. They did not show allegiance and did not ask the Party for favours. Those people wanted to live on their own, with their own dreams and sorrows. They never tried to seize state power or the party headquarters. The so-called pro-people Stalinist party and its government slew these people for this single ‘crime’. Like elsewhere, there were frantic attempts to hush up the Marichjhapi slaughter. The police and party cadres prohibited the entry of the media, political workers, social activists, and even relief workers. At the same time, convoluted yarns were spun and conspiracy theories spread. This is oddly similar to the various types and tactics of the mass murders that we have witnessed in the past 34 years.
The Marichjhapi massacre was almost forgotten. It resurfaced in the backdrop of the Singur and Nandigram imbroglio and discussions started with a renewed interest. Publication of the book reviewed here has added a new dimension to the discourses.
This carefully edited book compiles the statements made in the West Bengal State Assembly by the chief minister of that period, along with news items, articles and editorials published in the printed media. It contains letters from the Communist leaders Jyoti Basu and Samar Mukherjee written in 1961 to the Relief and Rehabilitation minister regarding the resettlement of the refugees. It also has two articles by Saibal Kumar Gupta-former chief of the Dandakaranya Development Authority, an article by the renowned Gandhian social activist Pannalal Dasgupta, first-hand accounts of the revolutionaries Bina Bhowmick and Kamala Das, heart-rending commentaries from writers Sunil Gangopadhyay and Jyotirmoy Dutta and others. These articles were originally published in the ‘Marichjhapi Bulletin’, ‘Compass’, ‘Anandabazar Patrika’ and ‘Jugantar’ newspapers in those days. Among those who have looked backed upon Marichjhapi after all these years are Manoj Bhattacharya - leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Sukharanjan Sengupta from Anandabazar Patrika who was first journalist to have set foot in Marichjhapi, Ashok Mitra-the then finance minister of West Bengal, and Amiya Kumar Samanta - the Superintendent of Police spearheading the infamous Operation Marichjhapi. The book also contains an article by Tushar Bhattacharya - maker of a documentary film on Marichjhapi; an interview with Prafulla Mondal - the then Panchayat chief of Kumirmari, a village adjacent to Marichjhapi; the memorandum submitted by the refugees to the parliamentary team that visited Marichjhapi; two critical discourses by Annu Jalais and Ross Mallick; Jhinuk Chakraborty’s review of Jagadish Chandra Mondal’s Bengali book “Marichjhapi: Noihshabder antarale” (‘Marichjhapi: behind the silence’. This review was published by the Publishers’ and Book Sellers’ Guild in the Baisakh - Ashaar, Bengali Year 1409 issue commemorating the Calcutta Book Fair. A few copies were initially distributed. Then the remaining copies were withdrawn, for reasons unknown); two historic poems by Shankha Ghosh and one by Subhash Mukhopadhyay.
The refugee movement is one of the main factors that helped the Left bastion gradually strengthen its hold in West Bengal. The people who lost their ancestral homes and lands due to the partition of India came to these parts looking for shelter. The leftists took up their cause with great gusto and launched movements demanding a proper and humane rehabilitation of the refugees. In 1961, Jyoti Basu wrote to Prafulla Chandra Sen, the then Relief and Rehabilitation Minister, that the fasting campaigns of the refugees in several resettlement camps highlight their strong objection to the relocation to Dandakaranya.[ii] Therefore, Jyoti Basu suggested some alternative locations for resettlement camps in West Bengal itself. One of the areas he suggested was Herobhanga 2nd Scheme which was part of the Sunderbans and so was nearer home. Samar Mukherjee, in a letter to the Prime Minister of India, objected to a forceful relocation of the refugees to Dandakaranya. At that time, the central government was trying hard to send the refugees of West Bengal to Dandakaranya under its project, and so aids or doles granted to various refugee camps were suspended. Despite their hapless situation, the refugees continued to agitate against the project of a forceful resettlement in Dandakaranya. The leftists came to their aid, supported their cause and strongly demanded a resettlement in West Bengal itself. Later, when the Communist Party of India was divided and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was formed it was still argued that the party policy was against rehabilitation in Dandakaranya.
The State and Central governments knew that a resettlement in Dandakaranya was not at all conducive to the welfare of Bengali refugees. Yet they went for a forceful relocation, without any plan or infrastructure. Once in Dandakaranya, a harsh nature and an unfamiliar way of life greeted the refugee families. The conditions of the non-arable land were harsh, its soil gravelly and arid. Facilities for irrigation or ploughing with oxen did not exist. How would they start farming? How would they earn their living? Added to this woe was the issue of intermittent conflicts with the local and indigenous people. So from time to time, many of the refugees fled in groups and tried to reach West Bengal for settling down, only to be beaten up and deported by the police of the ruling Congress government. Therefore, when the left-coalition government came to power in West Bengal the refugees heaved a sigh of relief. Naturally they hoped for a sanctuary in West Bengal where they would be able to speak their own language, grow crops in the fertile land and live a decent life. The Left who so vehemently protested against the forceful resettlement of Bengali refugees in Dandakaranya was now at the helm of affairs. Jyoti Basu was the chief minister. The leftist leaders who would be given ministries later, including Ram Chatterjee, had already visited the refugees in Dandakaranya and had welcomed them to West Bengal. This reassured them. Thus began an exodus of refugees from Dandakaranya, as they hoped to find their homes in West Bengal. Reports published in the leading Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika, in 1978, bear testimony to this. However, this was not to be and their dreams were shattered.
Jyoti Basu, the leftist leader of 1961 was the formidable Chief Minister of 1978. By dint of his previous terms as Deputy Chief Minister he knew all the administrative ropes by heart. At first he followed an absolutely bureaucratic strategy of coaxing and cajoling the refugees, trying to hammer home the privileges of living in Dandakaranya alongside its good-natured and simple residents. He promised to personally take care of the minor problems by convincing the central government. It was a story of promises galore. However, the refugees had seen life from close quarters and were not convinced. They crossed the waters, reached the shores of the Sunderbans, cleared the land for agriculture, began to fish and farm, constructed huts, and opened shops and schools. It was their foray into a normal and decent life once more. They made an effort to live their own lives against all odds, without any aid from the government or an allegiance to any political party.
Naturally, all hell broke loose. The CPIM does not let anyone live independently. This party disrupts the normal lives of poor people, deprives them of life and livelihood, and hands over fertile agricultural lands to industrialists without rhyme or reason. While in the government, it uses laws for its own purpose. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was used to defend the controversy surrounding Singur. Similarly, Clause no.24 of the Indian Forest Act (IFA 1927) was the pretext for protecting Marichjhapi from alleged encroachments and ecological imbalance by resorting to a massacre. Sukharanjan Sengupta, journalist, wrote - “On 26th January, 1979, the police surrounded Marichjhapi in almost 100 motor-boats and riverboats by virtue of that Act. The purpose was to prevent the supply of food, drinking water and medicines to the island along the waterways“. The Anandabazar Patrika started its report on 29th January, 1979 as follows - “The first phase of government action has commenced with an economic blockade of the Marichjhapi refugees”. In fact, the IFA 1927 has no such clause which provides for such an all-pervasive embargo. Saibal Kumar Gupta tells us in his article “Is Marichjhapi a mirage?” that Marichjhapi did not have any dense forest and its terrain of bushes and shrubs could not be part of the core area of the tiger reserve. The source of Mr. Gupta’s data was the Centenary Commemoration Volume published by the West Bengal Forest Department in 1964. Moreover, he had visited Marichjhapi umpteen times. The testimonies of the residents of nearby islands also support his statement. In fact, all there was in Marichjhapi at that time was a government plantation of coconut and palm trees, to which the refugees brought no harm. So, how could the forest laws be applied so desperately to an area which had neither big trees nor wild animals?
The refugees started settling down in Marichjhapi from May, 1978. By the end of June, the number of settlers had crossed 40,000. The government banned further entries from July and the economic blockade started in January, 1979 which, incidentally, was the International Year of the Child. That year started off with Mr. Jyoti Basu clamping prohibitory orders and starving almost 3,000 children of Marichjhapi.
On 31st January, 1979 the police opened fire in Marichjhapi. On 1st February the newspaper Anandabazar Patrika reported that six people were killed, while government sources claimed two deaths, including that of Meni Munda, a local tribal woman. Other sources maintained that the toll was 40 to 45. According to Tushar Bhattacharya, the dead bodies were dumped into the sea or were bundled off to dense forest areas of the Sunderbans as ‘tiger-fodder’ (very similar to the strategy adopted in Nandigram).
After a writ petition was filed, the High Court ruled the following on 7th February, 1979 -“The supply of drinking water, essential food items and medicines as well as the passage of doctors must be allowed to Marichjhapi. The island cannot be put out of bounds”. After the ruling, Debabrata Biswas, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit carried some food to Marichjhapi. Rice and other provisions poured in from different areas. Jyotirmoy Dutta, acclaimed poet and journalist, went to great lengths to carry medicines, foodstuff and milk etc to the island. He writes - “Under the shield of the Calcutta High Court’s decree dated 7th February, food has started to arrive in this island. The arrivals began since 2 pm yesterday after a continuous blockade of 15 days. To a Bengali, the bubbling sound of steaming rice is the most exciting sound in the world. Last evening this sound filled the air while people cooked rice, and the smell of slightly moist wood burning in earthen stoves emanated from the huts“. Mr. Dutta has named 17 people who died of starvation due to the blockade. He was also a witness to the refugees stacking corpses at the Netaji Nagar pier and waiting for the official motor-boats to arrive and take them away. That was the only way they could escape from the island and they did so. The economic blockade and the police firing demoralized many of the refugees. They left the island with hatred and repulsion towards the CPIM and the Left Front government. About 28,000 to 30,000 people stayed back, as reported by Sukharanjan Sengupta. Police camps were set up in Marichjhapi on 6th May. The persecution started on 13th May and at midnight the police and the C.P.I (M) party cadres working hand in glove set fire to the market area. Genocide and arson continued relentlessly from 13th to 15th May. The refugee settlements were scorched and destroyed, women raped, guns fired, people slaughtered and burned. The bodies were again dumped into the sea or carried to the dense forests to be eaten by tigers. On 17th May, the remaining refugees were forcefully evicted by the police and taken to Hasnabad by motor-boats. Then they were loaded in trucks and sent to the Dudhkundi refugee camp. At the end of the operation, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (who had been Chief Minister of West Bengal till very recent times and was the Minister for Information and Culture in those times) smugly declared in the State Legislative Assembly-“Marichjhapi is finally free from refugees.”
The Anandabazar Patrika reported on 18th May, 1979 -“Motor-boats, with such names as Meghdoot, Shyamalee, Sumitra etc have started arriving. Goods and people are loaded in the trucks immediately. Then they are setting for the Dudhkundi and Banpur relief camps en-route to Dandakaranya. Food and water are unavailable. There is no arrangement for providing medicines to babies born on the boats or their exhausted mothers. Medical aid is not considered for small boys who sustain injuries trying to jostle their way into the trucks. It’s all about loading trucks and leaving the island. It has been a year since the refugees came to Marichjhapi from Dandakaranya and built their colony. Ashes are all that the colony is now left with, because the island is up in flames since Monday. “
This inhuman and spine-chilling episode of evicting refugees was spearheaded methodically, and utmost care was taken to hide the macabre operation from public gaze. Eminent personalities were not allowed to enter the island. Seven Members of the Legislative Assembly belonging to the Janata Party, including Kashikanta Maitra, made an attempt to visit Marichjhapi. They were arrested on the charge of flouting prohibitory orders. Promod Dasgupta threatened to cancel all advertisements in the newspaper ‘Jugantar’ if they continued to publish Pannalal Dasgupta’s reports on Marichjhapi. Pramod Dasgupta was a founding Politbureau member of the CPIM, its state secretary and a stalwart of the Left Front government at that time and Pannalal Dasgupta was his very own brother! Despite the threats and prohibitions, daredevil journalists like Sukharanjan Sengupta and Jyotirmoy Dutta managed to hoodwink the police and surreptitiously collect bits and pieces of information. Their reports shocked the people of Bengal and there were protests. Eminent intellectuals such as Samar Sen, Benoy Ghosh, Hemanga Biswas, Sankha Ghosh, Birendra Chattopadhyay, Badal Sircar & others issued a press release and denounced the massacre. At the initiative of Jyotirmoy Dutta a charitable event was organized where celebrated singers like Suchitra Mitra, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and Gita Ghatak performed for the benefit of the refugees. Sunil Gangopadhyay has raised this question - “After cutting off their food and water supplies they were forcefully thrown out of West Bengal by hook or by crook. Their likes and dislikes were of no consequence. Is this acceptable under any law, moral code or conscience?” The CPIM and its Left coalition went all out to undermine the protests. They tried to bury the truth by spreading false propaganda, fabricating conspiracy theories and maligning the refugees. Jyoti Basu’s speech in the State Legislative Assembly and the articles by Ashok Mitra (the then Finance Minister) and Amiya Kumar Samanta (the Superintendant of Police leading “Operation Marichjhapi’’) unveil the brutal face of falsehood.
The inclusion of three outstanding poems by Sankha Ghosh and Subhash Mukhopadhyay written in 1978 is a distinctive feature of this book. No adjective is enough to describe the brilliance of ‘Thakurma’r Jhuli’ (by Subhash Mukhopadhyay), ‘Tumi ar nei shei tumi’ and ‘Ultorath” (both by Sankha Ghosh). Suffice to say that the literary work of these two poets, cherished and loved by all, bear testimony to the axiom that poetry transcends space and time. The poems included in this collection extend historical reality through the creation and recreation of words. During their rule of 34 years the CPIM and the Left Front government have repeatedly deprived the poor of their homes, lives and livelihood. Some of the sordid tales made it to the news; most did not. The government and the State have victimized street hawkers, farmers and shanty dwellers time and again. The seeds of this vicious cycle of eviction were sown in Marichjhapi. On one hand, India’s independence was born with the cancerous cells of India’s partition and communal hostility as a result of political power-play. On the other hand, the lives of innocent, ordinary people fending on their own and keeping the games of politics at arm’s length were destroyed. They left their homes during the Partition of India, during the Indo-Pak war, during the Bangladesh Liberation War in order to survive in an alien land. They were forced to cross borders mainly because of communal hatred. Their quest for survival in a new land was a tragic failure as they were never rehabilitated properly. History repeated itself when they left Dankaranya for Marichjhapi. Starvation, police firing and carnage greeted them at the end of that journey. Their huts were scorched and once again they were dispossessed and driven off to Dandakaranya. The State bared its teeth and snarled in a show of power- the same State which had once reassured those hapless refugees of solidarity. History will remember those people in seats of power as slayers of innocent people and for their unabashed betrayal. This daring and painstakingly compiled book has minimal printing errors. Madhumay Pal has lucidly narrated the backdrop of the impressive efforts put in the compilation. Many people contributed heartily to the endeavour, and Madhumay Pal has acknowledged all of them with respect and gratitude. Also, the experience of publishing such a book must have been thrilling. This is particularly significant as the meticulous attempts to erase all evidence of a phase in history are still ongoing. This book has tried to revive interest in exactly that period. Despite being a small publication house Gangchil came forward to support the project. In fact, they have been impressing readers for a long time with the quality and material of their publications. This book too can challenge big houses with the excellent standard of its binding, aesthetically done décor and selection of fonts. This is a must-read for understanding the true nature of the Left Front when in power.
_ The word has in origins in the Spanish Armada, the fleet of 30,000 that was defeated by the English navy in 1588 and led to the decline of Spain and the rise of Britain as a colonial power, changing the course of world history.
The Portuguese brought the word to Bengal three centuries ago, when its distorted form harmad was used to refer to Portuguese pirates and slave traders, notorious for their brutality. In recent years, it entered Calcutta’s street language when Mamata Banerjee began using it to refer to CPM cadre.
_ The Dandakaranya Project (DNK) was set up in September 1958 in Central India for the settlement of persons displaced from former East Pakistan (now independent Bangladesh since 1971).