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The Morbid Tale of Marichjhapi Massacre and the Betrayal of Dalit Hindus by the Left

Author: Pragya Mishra
Publication: Myind.net
Date: February 1, 2020
URL:    https://myind.net/Home/viewArticle/the-morbid-tale-of-marichjhapi-massacre-and-the-betrayal-of-dalit-hindus-by-the-left

Political violence under Left-communist regimes is not an unusual phenomenon. In fact, it is as common as elections in a democracy. That is why we see ideological cousins of the CPI and CPM fighting in the jungles of Central India, against the authority of the Indian state, and against the rule of law imposed by the Indian Constitution, for over four decades now.

The Dalit Leftist Islamic alliance is also not unheard of in modern Indian politics. Even in the recently held anti CAA protests we saw active participation of Dalit leaders like Chandrashekhar Azad and often we witness All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s supremo Asaduddin Owaisi with his chants of Jai Bheem Jai Meem expressing the solidarity of Islamic ummah with the cause of Dalit movements. While any support for the upliftment and empowerment of any marginalized community is of course praiseworthy, a pertinent question remains as to how seriously do the modern-day Marxists of India believe in the promise of a classless and casteless society and how kindly have their Islamic comrades in arms have really treated our Hindu Dalit brethren?

In a series of articles, I will try to explore these crucial questions, which lie at the heart of identity politics in modern India, while educating you dear readers on some vastly forgotten massacres of Independent India. Here is the first one of the series on the infamous Marichjhapi massacre:

Marichjhapi is one of the 102 islands in the Sundarbans, the delta mangrove ecosystem one-third of which lies in West Bengal, and the rest is in Bangladesh. 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 this largely uninhabited island. 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.

Yesterday marked the 41st anniversary of this unspoken, largely unheard-of massacre in independent India, which has been conveniently brushed under the carpet for far too long. A cold-blooded, planned and horrendous massacre that claimed the lives of over a thousand people, many of them women, children and the elderly. Forget rest of India, few even in Bengal know about or care to remember, this unspeakable travesty of justice and death of humanity.

The events leading to the brutal and inhuman massacre at Marichjhapi, about 75 kilometres east of Kolkata as the crow flies, form a nauseating narrative of the hypocritical ultra-left in India who hired mercenaries to butcher the innocent refugee community from East Bengal while raping their women and burning down entire settlements. This saga of sordid brutality 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. Though the communist often fashion themselves as massiha of sarvahara (champions of downtrodden) yet incidents of such violence stand as direct testimony as to how little the lives of those whose causes they profess to champion, matter to them.

Forced Exodus from East Pakistan

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 is one of the biggest and bloodiest tales of genocides of the past century. While countless were butchered along our Western borders in the then West Pakistan, the plight of our Eastern brethren was no different. The partition violence started in East Bengal even before the fatal date of 15th August 1947 which prompted lakhs of Bengali Hindus to flee from the religious, social and economic persecution in the then East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. 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.

The decision to stay behind of lakhs of lower caste Hindus was also influenced by Muslim League’s Dalit leader Jogendra Nath Mandal who was an ardent advocate of Dalit-Muslim unity, a disastrous experiment that was bound to fail. Yet Mandal not only led these innocents remain in East Pakistan but was even instrumental in influencing significant areas of undivided India to join Pakistan.

After the announcement of June 3, 1947, Assam’s Sylhet district had to decide by voting whether it would become part of Pakistan or of India. The area had almost an equal population of Hindus and Muslims. The results of the election were expected to be non-decisive. Knowing the expected results, Jinnah sent Jogendra Nath Mandal to the area. Mandal went there and swung the Dalit votes in Pakistan’s favour. The area is today a part of Bangladesh.[1]

Yet just 3 years later, an aghast Mandal realised the death knell he had led his fellow community members into, “I shall not be unjustified in stating that Hindus of Pakistan have to all intents and purposes been rendered stateless in their own houses. They have no other fault than that they profess the Hindu religion. Declarations are being repeatedly made by Muslim league leaders that Pakistan is and shall be an Islamic State. Islam is being offered as the Sovereign remedy for all earthly Evils. Leaving aside the overall picture of Pakistan and the callous and cruel injustice done to others, my own personal experience is no less sad, bitter and revealing. On 8th September I was forced to issue a statement of half-truths which were worse than untruths and still weigh on my conscience.”

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 committing 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

Once again following the example of Jogendra Nath Mondal, lakhs of Bengali Hindu Dalits and OBCs of then East Pakistan, began crossing over the Indian border and resettling in the Indian states of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal to escape the atrocities by Muslim fundamentalists of East Pakistan. However, soon the demographic capacity of these states reached its saturation peak and so the then Union Government decided to settle the remaining numbers of incoming refugees in Dandakaranya (which translates into ‘jungle of punishment’), a vast, arid and adivasi-inhabited region comprising parts of present-day Odisha, Chhattisgarh, 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. Most of these belonged to the Namasudra community, the same as that of Jogendra Nath Mondal. The conditions faced by these re-settlers 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 and 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.[2]

The Lure of False Promises to the Refugees

While the Congress governments both at centre and state handled the aftermath of partition violence and the resulting refugee crisis in less than ideal manner yet it was the Communist Party which really betrayed them. The CPM sensed an immense political opportunity in the apathy of the then Central Government to the plight of refugees and by mid 1960s made the refugee crisis a huge vote bank issue by stoking anti State resentment amongst these settlers. Coming out in open support of these refugees, the communists started a movement to scrape the Dandakaranya project and started encouraging the refugees settled in Dandakaranya to return to West Bengal. The moot objective behind this magnanimity was the vote-bank politics to develop a mass base among those who have already migrated to West Bengal. Unsuspecting of the sinister and nefarious agenda of the comrades, lakhs of such refugees were lured by these empty promises of these ultra-leftists.

Jyoti Basu himself  wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and successive chief ministers of Bengal advocated the resettlement of the refugees, who were sent to Dandakaranya in the vast Sunderbans archipelago. Basu also 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.

Reimmigration to West Bengal

When the Left front came to power in West Bengal in mid-1977, many refugees started streaming back to West Bengal and while scouting for islands in the Sunderbans to settle down, the leaders of the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (Refugee Welfare Committee) zeroed in on Marichjhapi.

According to this article by Swarajya editor Jaideep Mazumdar[3], 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 (renamed by them as "Netaji Nagar") 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. Golpata leaves were used to make thatched roofs of their huts. They later learnt that Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram Sangha wanted to help them but were disallowed by the government from reaching them.

 Yet undeterred, by June 1978, about 30,000- 40,000 refugees had settled down in the large island, built nearly 250-kilometre long embankments, a three lane village, set up a beedi-making unit, a carpentry workshop, a bakery, a hosiery unit, a secondary school, a library, a dispensary, a bazaar 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 cupcakes 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. Though access by organizations was still restricted but private individuals like Subrata Chatterjee, a London-returned renowned engineer, visited the island, gave them money and taught them how to construct a tube well to get fresh groundwater. This is the same tube well in which, according to the testimony of some eyewitnesses, policemen would later drop a bottle of poison, killing many of them, much to Mr. Chatterjee’s dismay who had warned these islanders, “Not to trust the communists in power, as he had seen their ugly face in Soviet Russia!”[4]

The Traitorous Treachery

“But here, in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life: rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days. In other places forests take centuries, even millennia, to regenerate; but mangroves can recolonize a denuded island in ten to fifteen years. Could it be the very rhythms of the earth were quickened here so that they unfolded at an accelerated pace?”

― Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide

Having capitalized upon the refugee crisis of East Bengali Hindus, the Communists had by now managed to consolidate their political power in West Bengal and now as is their creed, reneged on all their promises in a dramatic U-turn. Discarding the cause of Dandakaranya settlers, the then Government of West Bengal instead declared that there is no room in the State to absorb any more refugees and heartlessly ordered even the already settled refugees to evacuate.

When the settlers tried to resist, the State Police was tasked to harass and forcibly evict them. They were herded to railway stations and bundled into trains bound for other states. Under coercive threats and beatings, the hapless settlers who had once believed in the Left’s promise of resettlement were now forcibly driven away with their meagre belongings looted and their documents destroyed.

Events Leading to the Massacre

The forced chasing away of the Marichjhapi settlers quickened pace when by the end-December 1978, leaders CPM cadres accompanied with armed policemen, personally started supervising the evictions. Yet tired from continual fleeing and banking upon the communist’s earlier promises of rebuilding their lives in Sundarbans, a major chunk of Marichjhapi settlers now started defying this tyrannical diktat of communist dictators, who in turned upped their ante to even greater heights of inhumanity.

From forcing the traders in neighbouring islands into economic boycott of the selling wares– fish, breads, cakes, garments and cane products – of the residents of Marichjhapi to floating wild stories ascribing sinister motives to the settlers, the Communist leaders left no stone unturned to make the lives of these poor settlers a living nightmare.

Also, as Jaideep Mazumdar’s, heart wrenching article describes, the treachery ran really deep, as 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.[5] Unfounded allegations of external funding, setting illegal arms manufacturing units and planning an armed rebellion added fuel to fire, contributing as hasty excuses by the then State Government to later justify use of excessive force. Many of these unfounded allegations find circulation even today in articles written by communist stooges[6] penned to justify, play down and even deny the massacre.

The Blockade of Marichjhapi

Once the communist rulers of Bengal realised that the settlers in Marichjhapi were bent on defying their diktat, they decided to increase the pressure to unspeakable heights of brutality. In motorised country boats, the state police with communist cadre leaders began patrolling the waters around Marichjhapi island and harassing the islanders, snatching away their day’s catch of fish and other merchandise thus making it impossible for them to earn their living. 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.

Suryakant Mondal, son of one such hapless victim Potibhai Mondal narrates the horrific ordeal faced by his mother in Deep Haldar’s book “Blood Island: An Oral History of Marichjhapi massacre” in these spine chilling words: “Our huts were set on fire, my mother was sleeping in a corner. We tried to salvage as much as we could, taking away belongings and waking up the children from their sleep. I thought my mother had also come out, but later realized she hadn’t. I rushed into the burning hut and carried her out to safety but a portion of her hand and a large portion of her breasts had already got burnt by then.”[7]

When even such harassment failed, the cops and cadres imposed an economic blockade on the island. A documentary[8] providing a vivid description of the brutality and inhumanity of the police personnel and (CPM) cadres describes how 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.

For a fortnight, Marichjhapi settlers cried out desperately for food, medicines and other essentials. Scores died of starvation and diseases. Finally, on the brink of death, the desolate and starving settlers of Marichjhapi decided to brave the blockade and sail to Kumirmari to procure supplies. As journalist turned author, Deep Haldar’s 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 Baying for First Blood

Yet the very next day, at Kumirmari bazaar, the poor islanders were identified by policemen and comrades of the CPM cadres and badly brutalized. The policemen even attempted to snatch away their precious little savings and sustenance provisions, not even leaving baby food and rice cakes they had bought from Kumirmari. When the settlers tried to resist, a clash broke out with the cops and cadres. In this ensuing conflict, police fired indiscriminately on the defenceless islanders resulting in the death of a dozen. But alas, these poor souls were not even accorded the dignity of a proper cremation as per Hindu rites and rituals. But rather their mangled bodies were unceremoniously disposed into the crocodile-infested waters of the Korankhali river that ran between Kumirmari and Marichjhapi. While injured islanders were arrested and taken away.

Outrage at the news of these heartless killings, the Marichjhapi settlers decided to consolidate and fight back further against such state brutalities. A series of hushed meetings led to a quick plan of sending 16 women volunteers via boats towards Kumirmari to procure clean drinking water, grains, medicines and other essential life supplies. Sarkar, an eyewitness from the community says, “Our leaders, Satish Mondal and Rangalal Goldar, said women would row boats, as surely the uniformed policemen will let them pass safely.”[9]

But the islanders were wrong in assuming that the policemen, 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.

The Stifling of Last Vestiges of Humanity

On 31st January 1979, at the first crack of dawn 10 Marichjhapi country boats with women peddlers rowed out. The West Bengal state police asked them to turn back but when the frightened island women continued to push across for their survival, the police motorboats were rammed into their fragile dinghies causing them to capsize. The women jumped into the river to swim towards the shore for safety but alas even the comforting waves of river goddess could not provide them safety and succour as the policemen fired into the water and killed two of them.

Aghast at the police brutality against their mothers, wives and sisters, the helpless islanders from the shores of Marichjhapi gave a roar of protest. Sarkar explains, “Something snapped inside us. The policemen were in launches, armed and dangerous. All we had were the thick branches of goran trees we had sharpened to use as spears. But that day we were willing to die for our people back in Marichjhapi”

The 400 islanders quickly mobilised for a rescue mission. Ignoring the teargas shells lobbed by the police from the launches, the men decided to take out boats to save the drowning. Some they were able to rescue, others were lost in the waters, never to be found again. They would know later that a few women were picked up by the policemen themselves on the launches. They were taken to the nearest police station, gangraped for days and then released in a forest on another island.[10]

This ultimately resulted in a confrontation between refugees armed with crude implements like bows and arrows, lathis, bricks and stones, on one hand, and the police on the other.[11] The brave resistance by the island settlers was taken as a convenient guise by the police and CPM cadres to land in Marichjhapi and fire at, molest, rape and kill the islanders and loot their belongings.[12] The mayhem continued for the whole of January 31.

As per the testimonies of various eyewitnesses, described in Deep Haldar’s books, hearing the firing and cries of their elders, 15 scared kids, between the ages of 5-12, had huddled inside their school, a thatched hut, cowering in fear. Yet even these innocent children were not spared by the merciless state butchers as bayonets were thrust crushing their skulls. The kids had gathered there to make arrangements for Saraswati Puja, which was to be celebrated the next day.  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.

In February 1979, the Calcutta High Court passed an injunction order, asking the government to lift the blockade. Even as a case was pending in the HC, West Bengal police, along with CPI(M) cadres, unleashed further mayhem on Marichjhapi on May 14. Scores of men were butchered; even babies were not spared; women were dragged out of homes and raped. In an overnight operation, around 6,000 huts were set on fire. The night sky had turned blood red, the colour of the CPI(M) flag, recalls a survivor, “They took the islanders as prisoners, shot them in the head, put them in sacks, tied them to rocks and dropped them deep into the river.” It is said the tigers of Sunderban turned maneaters after feasting upon the dead bodies of the fallen at Marichjhapi.

On May 17, 1979, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the then state information minister, declared at Writer’s Building that Marichjhapi has been cleared of refugees. The death toll is reported to be between 7,000- 10,000, even as a government estimate came out with figures as low as 10. 40,000 refugees were overall forcibly evacuated.

How did the CPI(M) justify the event? It maintained that Marichjhapi is a “protected island” and the refugees were “endangering the ecology”. But the place where the refugees were staying was outside the core forest area.[13]

In the words of Safal Haldar, another survivor, “Our dream home was a mud island filled with shrubs. There was a thick forest of useless shrubs and, unlike the rest of the Sundarbans, there was no plantation in the island. So, it was a bloody lie told by the Left Front government that we destroyed a reserve forest to set up home in Marichjhapi. There was nothing to destroy!”[14]

The cover ups

Globally, Communist regimes have been accused of many instances of mass killings, often classified as genocides (for example, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; deaths under Leninism and Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Maoism in China). Is Marichjhapi an addition to this list?

Sadly, no! The marichjhapi massacre remains elusive in history. It was hardly recorded in the state archives. Nor did the erstwhile leftist "subaltern" academics write about it to save their political leaders the blushes from being called "mass murderers."

It vaguely appeared in the press, but did not receive the attention that an incident entailing mass genocide, allegedly running in the thousands, should have received. Before publication of Deep Haldar’s book, Marichjhapi only figured in some studies of social anthropologist Ross Mallick, and a popular citation in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide. Even now the tragic life stories of the sufferings of survivors are sporadically published in the media[15], and are barely remembered even in Bengal, let alone outside the State. The entire pogrom is so well hidden from public knowledge that even a search on Google maps of Marichjhapi yields no results! The island is officially known as Hamilton Islands!

Mamata Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal, before coming to power in 2011, promised a judicial probe into the Marichjhapi massacre (and all other killings by communists in Bengal). And yet even after 9 years of her rise to power, the massacre remains uninvestigated...

Till today, the Marichjhapi settlers and their descendant’s hollow eyes and traumatic tears ask a heart piercing question, why did the then leftist government of West Bengal lure them in with dreams of empty promises of resettlement like a sacrificial goat to the altar only to slaughter and abandon them later? Was their identity as a Hindu somewhere a defining factor of this betrayal? There will perhaps be no answers to this deafening question.

Special thanks to Soumyadip Saha for his invaluable inputs.

















Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. MyIndMakers is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information on this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of MyindMakers and it does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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