Editor's note: : In 1978, when almost 1.5 lakh Hindu refugees from Bangladesh settled in an island at Sundarbans, Marichjhapi, little did they know that by May 1979, the island will be cleared by the West Bengal government. Survivors of the Marichjhapi massacre claim that from economic blockade to police violence, the leftist Bengal government of the time allegedly caused several deaths. While the official record states that there were only ten victims, survivors claim thousands of people were killed during that time.
In Deep Halder's latest book, Blood Island: An Oral History of Marichjhapi Massacre, the journalist turned author explores the truth behind the forceful eviction of the refugees by the communist government of Bengal. Through survivors accounts, reports of erstwhile journalists, as well as government officials, Halder tries to understand the kind of violence these refugees faced.
Here are some excerpts from the book:
From Halder’s interview with Sukhoranjan Sengupta, who reported on the Marichjhapi incident in 1979.
Forty years ago, Sukhoranjan Sengupta filed his last dispatch on Marichjhapi. He says he remembers every shriveled body, every pair of hollow eyes he saw that day. It took me some effort to track this septuagenarian in Kolkata and convince him to talk about Marichjhapi. Sengupta has been mentor to some of my seniors and I hide my awe as I
furiously jot down his story.
Sengupta is quite the Bengali bhadralok with his impeccable manners and neat kurta- pajama but, funnily, he reminds me of that infamous American gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, who spent his life documenting sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in Vegas’ dirty alleys and elsewhere. Thompson brought in an experiential style of journalism where
reporters involve themselves in the action to such a degree that they become central figures of their stories.
Sitting in the sparse drawing room of his two-bedroom government apartment as he goes back in time, this appears to be true for Sengupta as well.‘The report came out in Anandabazar Patrika, along with her photograph, on 21 May
1979. Her name was Phonibala Mandal. ‘In my report, I mentioned what Phonibala Mandal’s son, Suryakanta Mandal, had told me. He said that when their huts were set on fire, his mother was sleeping in a corner. They had tried to salvage as much as they could, taking away belongings and waking up the children from their sleep. He had thought his mother had also come out, but later realized she hadn’t. He 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. In
that condition, they were forced into the launch.
‘I went to meet other refugees too. In the Dudhkundi camp, Bashmoni Mandal told me that her husband Durgapada had gone missing, and so had their twelve-year-old daughter Bishakha. In the missing persons’ list, there were Makhan Halder, Pranay Halder, Dipak Sarkar, Subhash Mandal, Anil Bachar, Santosh Sarkar [who had been shot in the leg in the January firing in Marichjhapi and the leg had to be amputated], Ramkrishna Joardar, Kalipada Roy, Hajari Mandal, Sudhir Mandal, Basanti Mandal, Kalipada Mandal, Prabash Mirdha, Gyanendra Halder, his two sons Prasanto and
Prakash, and many, many more.
‘The camp residents said if they were sent like this to Dandakaranya, they would face more hardship because only names of heads of families were noted in the Dandakaranya refugee camp registers. In cases where the heads of the families had gone missing, Dandakaranya authorities might not recognize other family members. What would they do then? Where would they go?
‘There were more refugees sitting under the trees than inside the Dudhkundi camp. That evening, trucks and buses came to take them to Kharagpur from where they would be sent to Dandakaranya by trains, but they were not ready to go. They threw stones at the trucks and buses, which went back, but police personnel and Left party workers
forced around 500 refugees into trucks and buses late at night and sent them to Kharagpur. A party worker told me they had worked tirelessly to provide food and water to those ungrateful refugees at Dudhkundi.
‘The refugees told me they would come back and search for their missing relatives. They said around 3,000 refugees had escaped the police and hid in various parts of Sundarbans. They would never go back. ‘This was my last report on Marichjhapi for Anandabazar Patrika.’
From Halder’s interview with Sakya Sen, who, at thirty, had fought for the Marichjhapi victims and tried to give them justice.
It’s been almost four decades since the massacre. Does Marichjhapi continue to haunt him? ‘I used to fall short of words when I spoke to people about Marichjhapi. My government killed my people, and I could do nothing legally. It doesn’t haunt me anymore. Failure has left me numb.’
Why did the Left Front government do what it did in Marichjhapi? ‘Why the government suddenly became desperate to send refugees back to Dandakaranya remains a mystery. Jyoti Basu was like a dictator. He probably couldn’t digest the fact that they were disobeying his orders. It was his hurt ego, nothing else.’
The interview is almost over, yet I can’t help but ask Sen one last question. ‘In recent past, West Bengal has seen violence in Singur and then in Nandigram, the latter bringing Left rule to an end. Do you think the Jyoti Basu government could have done what it did in Marichjhapi in the new millennium?’
‘No, it couldn’t have. The media is powerful now and, more importantly, people are stronger. The aam aadmi will not tolerate this. ‘Although I have to admit that even when the issue came to light, there wasn’t an outpouring of support from the general public. Some people fought for the refugees, but they were too few in number. It was a failure, not only of the legal system but of a generation – my generation – then in their twenties and thirties. We lacked collective conscience. We destroyed Marichjhapi – all of us.’
From Halder’s interview with Jyotirmoy Mondal, an activist, who knows of the horrors of Marichjhapi first hand.
‘But between 14 and 16 May 1979, in one of the worst human rights violations in post-independent India, the West Bengal government forcibly evicted around 10,000 or more from the island. There was rape, murder and poisoning. Bodies were buried in the sea. Countless were killed even as some escaped, too afraid to tell the tale. At least 7,000 men, women and children were killed.’ ‘But what about those who escaped the carnage?’ I asked him.
‘You know some of them, don’t you?’ he replied.
The following excerpts from the book, 'Blood Island: An Oral History of Marichjhapi Massacre' written by Deep Halder has been published with permission from HarperCollins, India. The paperback of the book costs Rs 399.