Recalling the Forgotten Left-Led Marichjhappi Massacre in 70’s Post-Colonial Bengal
In Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Kanai, the whipper-snapper adolescent protagonist, the dweller of the cities, the connoisseur of everything urbanite, inherits a peculiar story from his left-leaning, village-dwelling, school-teaching old dreamer of an uncle, Nirmal. He recounts the tale of the Utopic Tide Country to his novice nephew, telling of a particular British Knight, Daniel Hamilton in Calcutta, who supposedly had purchased nearly ten thousand acres of the desolate, uninhabited mangrove-covered lands of the Sundarbans. This was the early 1900s. The tale evolves into the picture of the Sundarbans that developed under the careful gaze of Hamilton Saheb. In no time, these uninhabited lands, consisting of nothing but mud and unadulated forests - manifested heavily with the likes of tigers, crocodiles, and leopards - soon had the swirl of civilisation looming above them. People from all across the country, in hoards, came to occupy the lands. The reasons being two - very simple yet daunting: This is the early twentieth century; natives are in search of land; the Sundarbans became the most alluring opportunity for them, since these lands were closer to home, closer to Calcutta, unlike the far-fetched dreams of Trinidadian, Burmese or Malayan lands; besides, these stretches were free to settle into, uninhabited, potent for use. As word spread, the Sundarbans soon attracted people in vast numbers. They came from the north of neighbouring Odissa, from the Santhal Paragans, from Eastern Bengal. Hamilton welcomed all without discrimination, without qualms; however, there was one catch - in return for the indiscriminate welcome which he meted out to anyone seeking a stay at the Sundarbans, he asked for the reciprocation of the same indiscrimination. Everyone would be welcomed, thus, but no one would bring along their petty ideas of division, casteism, and religious differences. Ghosh writes, “Here there would be no Brahmins or Untouchables, no Bengalis and no Oriyas. Everyone would have o live and work together”. What was born, as a result, was a near-utopic inhabitation of a landscape. What Daniel Hamilton, a white minister in the land of brown people, was essentially trying to build was a new vision of a society, a ‘new kind of a country’, that would be run not by hierarchies of labourers and consumers, but by co-operatives. There wouldn’t be exploitation or land divisions. Instead, everyone would be entitled to a fair share of fertile land, and everyone would work, shoulder by shoulder.
The utopic proliferation of the Sundarbans under Hamilton Saheb’s influence brings to mind the core tenets of Leninist-Marxist practices of social reform and livelihood. A land without divisions, a land without caste, a land that is socially distributed among everyone in equal shares. Besides, a vision of a society that is driven by equal work, equal pay, and equal yield sounds much like the promises that the Communist Party of India (CPIM) leaves for the people in its vows. However, the most important question - and probably the only one that should matter - is whether the CPIM, like every and any other political authority, has been adept to keep its word? The answer is a most definite resounding No. The CPIM, when they had first come to power in the state of West Bengal, in the 1970s decade, was buoyant with the promises of shaping a Bengal landscape that would be built against the sectarian and revisionist social landscape that the long reigns of the Congress had left behind in its wake.
The reason I refer to The Hungry Tide and bring the reign of the CPIM in respect is because I want to highlight one of the vicious incidents that had gone down under the watchful gaze of the party, upon the Dalits of the land; not under the gaze alone, in fact, under the very supervision of. Our commonplace history archives, official records or word of wise mouths fail to recall the events of the atrocities; this, which most definitely constitutes a foul, putrid patch upon the otherwise knowing CPIM, has been misinformed, misstated and eventually forgotten from the collective consciousness of the people. Decades later, works like Amitav Ghosh’s, aspire to recall and bring the existence of such back into life, once again. Literature, which always has been subjected to misplaced notions of being the safe haven for maladaptive daydreamers and escapists, definitely serves a more important purpose. It cannot be separated from the culture, the very situatedness of its social and political dimensions. Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide vouches for that. After all, where academic, intellectual work - lauding itself to be ‘un-literary’ and hence serious - has been severely scanty in commemorating an inevitable portion of Bengal’s post-colonial history, Ghosh’s Literature has filled the gap.
Rest assured, this won’t subject anyone to sit through a painful, spurious review of Ghosh’s book. There are many available, right under the doormat. This isn’t one of those. Although, I do refer to Ghosh’s book time and again, along with two other works, which I have stated below. In order to get a firmer grasp on the matter, let’s take a quick detour into the immediate history after India’s partition.
Post-partition, the Congress had been beyond successful in splintering the strongest Dalit governmental alliance which had been in power in the country, in the colonial era. The East Bengal Namasudra Movement, being the most notable, politically-mobilized movement by the Dalits (in alliance with several Muslims), had kept the Hindu-dominated, landlord-enhanced Bengal Congress Party in opposition since the 1920s. However, with partition, the Dalit government inevitably suffered a heavy backlash, losing their unified vote-block, as it was now divided between the separate lands of India and Pakistan, becoming minorities in both the countries. West Bengal, now uplifted with the support of higher-caste Hindus, saw the election of the Bengal Congress Party at the State level.
The first wave of Migrants that Bengal received from East Pakistan happened to be the Hindu upper-caste landed gentry and the urban middle-class. This was 1948. The migrants, constituting most of the upper-class section, owing to the privilege of their educated and well-connected networks, settled in and amongst their influential friends, relatives and political associations Others squatted on public and private lands in the city and its outskirts.
The 60s and 70s saw the second wave of migrants. This primarily constituted the poorest and lowest caste of the Hindu population, who fled from East Bengal after becoming the direct recipient of communal agitations from the Muslim-dominated Pakistan populace(triggered specifically after Mujibur Rahman's assassination). This wave of migrants to enter Bengal, owing to the scarcity of their resources and connections, had to be completely at the mercy of Governmental aid. The Congress, now in power, sought to, however, scatter this wave of lower-class Hindu migrants to colonies and settlement camps in other states, vouching that West Bengal lacked sufficient land to spare for these people. They instead were landed mostly in the uncultivated, infertile forests of Dandakarnya, already the traditional home to the tribal people. Even relocated here, the Dalit migrants didn't find an ultimatum. They were, once again, the ripe targets of the local Adivasi tribes whose native lands were being encroached upon.
The CPIM was steadfast to locate in such a turn of events, an important initiative to take up the cause of the deported and displaced refugees and present a strong oppositional lead to the Congress Government. They urged for the resettlement of the deported refugees to their native Bengal, a land which faithfully belongs to them. Jyoti Basu was not amiss in proclaiming that it would not be “an easy, administrative affair to get rid of the refugees from their colonies”. They pushed forth the cause of how - and here comes in the anecdotal reference from The Hungry Tide - the Sundarbans along the Ganges delta laid vacant and could pose as an appropriate settling ground for the refugees. Having championed the cause of the Refugees, the Leftist opposition seemed to gain a sound political base among the exiled people as well as among those belonging to the lower castes within Bengal.
Jumping to more recent times. Bengal of 1977. The Left Front transitions from Opposition to coming into power. They are suddenly a little taken aback, when they find that the exiled refugees have taken them at their word. The refugees, growing desperate under the hostile circumstances of their exile and unfurnished settlement camps, saw the Left’s coming to power as a nourishing relief. Keeping in mind the Left’s previous boisterous support for the refugees’ cause to provide them proper shelter, the exiled refugees sold all their belongings in an attempt to secure resources to transport back to Bengal. As many as 1,50,000 refugees arrived to Bengal, in the resplendent hope, expecting the Left, now that it was in power, to honour their word.
The Left, who braved themselves as the ‘people’s government’, now seemed to unheedingly walk back upon their own promises. With the sudden influx of the refugees - which the Party wasn't quite ready to handle yet - now seemed to grow consciously concerned about how it might adversely affect the state’s economic recovery. The ensuing contradictions led to a certain level of clash arising between the people’s government and these hoards of homeless, uprooted people, already at the brink of their limits. The People’s Government, thus - democratically elected as it was, lauding its inherent support for the grassroots level workers, labourers, artisans whom they believed to form the bedrock of society, emphasising staunchly the idea of a classless, casteless society much in accordance to that of Hamilton saheb’s – was suddenly adept now at dismissing the migrant crisis. Their dismissiveness did not certainly seem to affect the rich and elite wave of migrants who had made their way home to Bengal and settled in the crannies of the city already. Instead, the brunt fell upon the exiled group of refugees, primarily constituting the Dalits, the poor and the lower-class Hindu migrants.
In no time, the Left now have these refugees arrested in numbers, and deported back, forcibly, to their resettlement camps. With much irony, they were doing what their predecessors (The Congress) had done, for which they weren’t quite amiss in issuing criticism before. Thus, while the upper-caste squatters, influential migrants of the first wave were getting their colonies, lands and shelters legalised widely in Calcutta and the outskirts, the group of Dalit Hindus, already uprooted and without a destination, were being transported cross-state to settlement camps, yet again.
In the chaos that ensued, a certain number of refugees did manage to escape the government’s hold. They filtered down and escaped to various places within West Bengal, one of them being the Marichjhapi Islands of the Sundarbans, within the fertile, unmade, untouched grounds of which the fleeing refugees could envision the promise of a potent home.
May 1977. Nearly as many as 30,000 refugees, belonging to the SCs and other backward castes, find their way into the uninhabited lands of Marichjhappi. This is where our real tale begins, except it is no tale at all. It is history. Let me paint a picture of Marchjhappi for you, the state that it was in when the settlers stumbled upon, evading the grid of the government: wide stretches of uncultivated fertile earth, a fresh and virgin lands, without the barest whiff of human civilisation; a welcoming breadth of soft, yielding tide country mud. Such was the appeal of the Marichjhappi islands, fresh and alluring before the hoards of abandoned refugees, exhausted, frustrated, broken. It is difficult not to situate uncanny parallels between the welcoming landscapes of Sundarbans of Hamilton Sahib, and the inviting embrace which Marichjhappi extended to the dishevelled bands of migrants.
Forsaken by the government as they were, the migrants, given their incessant travelling and subjection to unceasing disavowal, were steadfast to fend for their own livelihood. Within a mere span of a couple of weeks, they had birthed a civilization out of the unmade wilderness of Marchjhappi. Paths were laid out, badhs were settled; wide stretches of lands, barbed and fenced up, were divided into smaller plots; a networking system of fishing was laid down. Huts, with thatched roofs and mud walls and bamboo support, were built, and dwellings were uniformly arranged.
The society which the Dalits built, evading the surveillance of the government, exuded utmost industry and admirable diligence. To shape a civilisation out of purely natural means. The society that shaped Marichjhapi within a mere sum of weeks alone, is not commemorated or recorded widely within any official record. But one can efficiently rely on one’s sense of acuity, that the civilisation which Marchijhappi housed would not have been much different from the utopic vision which Hamilton saheb might have dreamed of. Marichjhappi, however, did not see the realisation of a mere dream of a single white man; instead, it was the materialisation of a dream that numerous natives, people of the home, dreamt of - and worked together, beyond the radar of the government - to collectively constitute.
However, the near-utopic state of affairs seemed to have been built in doom, for as fast as it saw proliferation, it saw, with equal rapidity, a drastic decline. The Marchijhappi islands, despite witnessing the marvellous feat, were not without qualms; They belonged to the Forest Departments, which only meant that the Government would soon intervene to evict the people, whom they would identify as ‘squatters’.
Intervene the CPIM do indeed. But what went down in the CPIM’s brutal attempt in evicting the Dalit refugees rarely have found expression in the official records or historical recollections; it has rarely been put forth before the common people’s knowledge and instead has been pushed beneath the carpet, overlooked, overwritten and eventually forgotten.
January 26, 1979. In an ironic twist of fate, on Republic Day, the CPIM brought down an economic blockade upon the Marchijhappi settlements, with thirty police launches surrounding and isolating the island out. The community was brutally tear-gassed. Their huts were vandalised; wells, tube wells, irrigation facilities and every other facet of livelihood was destroyed.
The following day, on the 27th of January, the government pulled the Forest Preservation Act into force; simultaneously Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code was invoked, prohibiting the movement of five or more people together at the same time. The boats of the refugees were sunk and destroyed. Their dinghies were masaccred. With their boats and bhotbhotis, the only communication linking them to the mainland, shambled, the community lost all ties with the outer world. The food and water resources were depleting, and rice and drinking water in their stores were rapidly shrinking.
On the 31st of January ‘79, the police opened fire on the refugees’ settlement, killing around 36 people in the wake. No official count exists of the incident.
Radical Journalism, specifically on the pages of Jugantar and Amrita Bazar Patrika - renowned Bengali dailies - was adept at reporting aggressively on the events occurring at the Sunderbans. Sensing potential threats from the power of media, the Jyoti Basu-led government soon declared Marichjhappi out of bounds, preventing the movement of journalists in and out of the islands. To distort the situation further, CPIM urged them to write in support of the eviction program, keeping in mind the ‘national interest’ and deemed the reportage on the massacre a mere act of sensationalism.
Isolated, alienated and cut off from the larger world, the Dalit community found itself without powerful allies. They had appealed to the national untouchable federation of the BAMCEF, but to any avail. Even the central government at the time, led by Morarji Desai, refused to issue commentary on the matter, maintaining their support for the Communist Party.
The people back in Calcutta, in support of the refugee movement, appealed to the High Court and had their cause championed. While the Calcutta High Court did rule in favour of the refugees’ cause, and against the party's attempts at evicting them, CPIM outright denied the occurrence of any blockade before the court. Despite the court’s judgement, the party continued their eviction mission and brutal attacks, going under the radar.
With the unceasing treatment the government subjected the refugees to, the refugees remained boldly formidable in their resistance in the face of barbarism. Scholarly research work carried out on the matter, much later in the day, indicates how numerous people, children included, meanwhile fell victim to death by cholera and other diseases; many perished out of starvation. In a final unravelling of events, the State Government of Bengal ordered the forcible evacuation of the refugees from the islands.
May 1979. This program lasted three days, taking place from May 14th to May 16th, 1979. Targeting the religious sectarianism in mind, gangs of Muslim men were employed to assist the police in evacuating the heavily Hindu-dominated refugees out of the Marichjhapi isles.
The agitation that rained down was no less than a ‘misplaced’ war. No records or accounts of the same of reliable vigour exist across scholarly and academic circles. Annu Jalais’ report suggests how the refugees battled the government forces till their last breath. With all their resources either destroyed or depleted, the islanders battled the officials with arrows made of wood; they attacked them with bricks of dried mud and the like. The government official, making up the other end countered the islanders with tear gases and guns. Police camps were set up in the neighbouring villages, and their launches were all puffed up with wire netting for protection.
With such ferocious intent, the CPIM-led officials were successful in ridding the Marichjhappi islands completely of the refugee settlements. The men were first separated from the women and the children and were escorted out by the officials. The women and children were reported to have been subjected to the brutal rape and assault carried out by the police. The corpses of the refugees - nearing several hundreds - were dumped into the river to be washed out by the tide.
Within about two weeks’ time, all signs of thriving civilisation that the Dalit refugees had put together over the span of 18 months were demolished.
It is impossible to conclude with proper accuracy the number of people who succumbed to death over the brutal span of the evacuation program. However, what is conclusively known is that no officials, no government ministers or members of the police were ever confronted, investigated or arrested with regard to the large-scale open massacre that was carried out. The official Marichjhappi file, as Ross Mallick notes, carried evidence in the form of newspaper clippings, about nearly 236 men, women and children who were killed by the police, before the incidents of May. However, while compiling the annual report, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Commission of the Central Government stated that there were no atrocities committed against the Dalits in Bengal.
The left further went ahead to state that the eviction was put into action, citing that the occupation was “disturbing the existing and potential forest wealth and also creating ecological imbalance.” From an excruciatingly objective point of view, such a cry for environmentalism does seem appropriate. However, when it is the lives of thousands of living and breathing human beings of flesh and blood pitted against the animal rights and claim for natural reservation, it becomes a daunting task to decide on the behalf of whom the scales should tip. The CPIM, having called themselves the People’s Government, seemingly failed to stand by its own people.
In an intriguing and equally infuriating unfolding of events, having driven the Dalit group of refugees off, the CPIM arranged for the settlement of its own supporters upon this land. They made use of the facilities left behind by the evacuated refugees, and suddenly, the government’s strategically-motivated drive for environmental conservation was relegated to the backseat.
The unfolding of events at Marichjhappi saw the emergence of a truly Marxist utopia as Ghosh’s Hamilton Saheb would have imagined; but this utopia was short-lived, and it was, ironically, the communist party-led violence upon the poorest and most underprivileged of people who had to sacrifice their lives and livelihood to privilege the cause of fauna and natural assets.
Flagrant and deliberate attempts, both at the state and the central level were made to cover up the left-led massacre brought on upon the economically and socially backward, achieving the extent of blatantly denying the occurrence of any such violence. Silence loomed equally among the Intellectual circles of Bengal Academicians. No detailed scholarly work or appropriate academic study was conducted regarding the matter for the first thirteen years of the incident. The most prolific study which does exist, came over a decade later, in the form of an unpublished doctoral thesis by Nilanjana Chatterjee. Valid accounts of the same came later from Ross Mallick and Annu Jalais. While the incident did receive regional press coverage (very limited), no appropriate coverage was aired at the national and international levels. Much later, Amitav Ghosh, in his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide heavily references the incident, crafting his tale in the backdrop of the same.
The question that haunts us, as a nation, in the wake of an incident such as in Marichjhappi and numerous others of the same vein - some of which receive recognition and some don’t - is this: The preservation of wildlife and forest resources certainly is of value, but can they attain a priority when they come at the cost of the lives of human beings? In an attempt to give an answer to this, although highly theoretical in nature, Ross Mallick writes :
“Unless environmentalists are prepared to spread the costs of preservation so that the poorest people are not the only ones to pay the price, there will continue to be resistance to the imposition of alien values on these marginalised people...Unless prior arrangements for alternate livelihoods are made and compensation paid, the pursuit of a preservationist agenda will result in human tragedies.”