historyofindia

The Marichjhapi Massacre

Why were poor dalit hindu refugees were Massacred in Marichjhapi by Marxists

Background

The Namasudra Movement of East Bengal had been the most powerful and politically mobilized Dalit movement in India during the colonial period that had kept the Bengal Congress Party in opposition from the 1920s, in alliance with the Muslims. However partition resulted in the loss of bargaining power of the Dalits because, being divided along religious lines of Hindus and Muslims, they became political minorities in both countries. Subsequently the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s saw the influx of Bengali Hindus from what had become East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) to West Bengal, who came here with the hope of settling down. They were, however, sent to various uncongenial areas outside West Bengal with the assurance that they would eventually be relocated to West Bengal. 

The first wave of refugees consisted of traditional upper caste elites. 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 (Chakrabarti 1990, 1). If the richest of them found a haven amongst relatives and friends in Calcutta, the poorer sections squatted on public and private lands and tried to resist eviction.  

However, through the 1950s, increasing food prices and 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.

Dandakaranya

Most of them were settled by the government in arid and inhospitable areas like the (comprising of parts of Orissa, former Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in present day Chhattisgarh) – a semi-arid and rocky place where refugees were shunted to; an area culturally, physically and emotionally entirely removed from the migrants’ known world. This resulted in extensive protest by the refugees in almost all camps in West Bengal as a mark of dissent against the measures of the Government to send them to Dandakaranya against their will and under compulsion by service of notice on them with the option of going to Dandakaranya or to quit the camp within a period of 30 days. Hunger strikes were started by two batches of refugees of Kalabani and Sarasanka camps in the district of Midnapore on 6th June 1961, and soon it spread like wildfire.

As late as 1974 Jyoti Basu had demanded in a public meeting that the Dandakaranya refugees be allowed to settle in the Sundarbans. The West Bengal Left Front Minister Ram Chatterjee visited the refugee camps and is widely reported to have encouraged them to settle in the Sundarbans, which had been a long held Left Front opposition demand. What was not foreseen by the refugees was that Ram Chatterjee, belonging to a smaller party in the Left Front coalition, was speaking for current policies rather than the imminent shift in policies as soon as the Left Front would be in power.

They denounced the attempts of the Congress to evict the refugees from West Bengal and promised that when they come to power they would ensure the settlement of the refugees in West Bengal and this would be, in all probability, on one of the islands of the Sundarbans.
During the B.C. Roy Government in the 1950s and early ’60s, Jyoti Basu, then the leader of opposition, had presented their case in the legislative assembly. Thus refugees in huge numbers started relocating to Bengal. They were given land in the un-inhabited islands of Sundarbans. In

1977 June, the Left Front came into power. During the early part of 1978 the first wave of refugees from Dandakaranya started traveling from Orissa’s Malkangiri to West Bengal. They crossed Habra, Barasat, Bali Bridge and finally reached Hasnabad.

Once the number totaled a few lakhs, the then CPM leaders sought to send them back to where they came from. The Left Front government declared that although they had earlier stated that Dandakaranya refugees would be resettled in Sundarbans, under the changed scenario that would not have been feasible. The refugees came to West Bengal from Dandakaranya with the sole intent of settling down in Sundarbans, which was earlier decided to be their new habitat as the Left Front had promised before coming to power. Marichjhapi was one such place. It was the 18th of April, 1978 that more than 10,000 refugees crossed Kumirmari and reached Marichjhapi. 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.
10,000 refugees sold their belongings to disburse for the trip to Marichjhapi. They left Dandakaranya only to find that the refugee policy had changed and many were arrested and returned to the resettlement camps. The remaining managed to slip through police cordons and reach their destination at Marichjhapi island and settlement began.
At Hasnabad, the refugees coming from Dandakaranya camped nearly for two months to find out proper ways of earning, living and to gauge the policy and principles of the State Government towards refugees at Hasnabad. After residing 15/20 days at Kumirmari without any obstruction from local authorities, they entered into the plantation, Bagna, Marichjhapi in 24 Parganas. By their own efforts they established a workable fishing industry, salt pans, a health center, and schools over the following year.

“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 Sunderbans biodiversity and that the villagers were endangering the ecology. The villagers did not… Click To Tweet


“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… Click To Tweet

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’.

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 . The kids had gathered there to make arrangements for Saraswati Puja, which was to be celebrated the next day , 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.

References
The Silence of Marichjhapi

Marichjhapi – Uncovering the Veil of Silence

Why You Need To Know About Marichjhapi, The Massacre That Claimed Lives Of Thousands

What really happened at Marichjhapi?

Team HOI

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