Revisiting the State-Sponsored Genocide of 17,000 Bengali Hindu Refugees in Marichjhapi

 Revisiting the State-Sponsored Genocide of 17,000 Bengali Hindu Refugees in Marichjhapi

The story of Marichjhapi is a saga of despicable tribulation and continuum of a grotesque past – that had long been suppressed in the annals of dialectics and political discourses of postcolonial India. Though this mayhem was long done and dusted in 1979, it survived and recurred in the memory and socio-political imagination of a rootless people – the East Bengali Hindus. 

The state-led massacre of nearly 17,000 Bengali Hindu Namasudra refugees, who fled Dandakaranya only to settle in Marichjhapi, was engineered in a whirlpool of criss-crossing identities and it is difficult to ascertain as to what exactly prompted such a hurried and stern repression – was it because they were ‘Hindu’ or ‘Bengali’ or ‘lower-class’, or because, they, quite emphatically, ‘defied the communists’ and ‘struck at the ego of Jyoti Basu’? I shall leave that for the readers to contemplate upon. 

On 26 January 1979, the communist government initiated economic blockade of the island. It culminated in the monstrous police firing on 31 January, leaving 1,700 refugees dead. The poor refugees retaliated by all means in an attempt to thwart the eviction. But the atrocities continued. An estimated 17,000 refugee people perished in the island, in the coming four months, as a consequence of police firing, torture, rape, and hunger and illness caused due to the blockade. In this article, I shall narrate the trajectory of events that made possible one of the worst genocides in the history of mankind. 

Partition and Exodus of Hindus refugees

In 1947, the eastern Bengal districts had an overwhelming Muslim majority – close to 70 per cent. But the majority section within the Hindu minority in eastern Bengal, were the Scheduled Castes, primarily the Namasudras and Rajbanshis. The Hindu Scheduled Castes, who accounted for 7 million of the eastern Bengal population, were concentrated heavily in the districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Rajshahi, Dacca, Bakarganj, Khulna, Jessore and Mymensingh. All these nine districts were traded off to Pakistan and the survival of the Hindu Scheduled Castes trapped in an Islamic nation, came under threat. 

Soon after the Partition, the Caste Hindu elite of eastern Bengal started flocking to India in large numbers. This first batch of refugees had the wherewithal in education, financial assets and social capital, and barring nasty encounters for survival, some time upon their arrival, they found no difficulty in starting afresh an existence in West Bengal. Back in East Bengal, the near-total departure of the Caste Hindu landed elite and urban middle classes meant that Islamic fundamentalist agitation had to be directed against the Hindu Scheduled Castes who remained. After December 1949, the refugees therefore came from the lower classes, who lacked the means to survive on their own and became dependent on government relief. 

By the beginning of 1951, following the anti-Hindu genocide in East Pakistan, about 15 lakh Hindu refugees were documented to have migrated to West Bengal. By 1956, this figure rose to 21 lakh and after the 1964 riot, further 4.19 lakh came over to West Bengal. A police intelligence report in 1952 claimed that of all the documented refugees, 95 per cent were Namasudras. Lacking the family and caste connections of the previous middle-class refugees, the Hindu Namasudra refugees had to accept the government policy of dispersing them to other states, on the false claim that there was insufficient vacant land available in West Bengal. In this period the left-dominated opposition took up the case of the refugees and demanded the government settle them within West Bengal rather than scatter them across India on the lands of other peoples. 

Relocation of refugees to Dandakaranya

The government quite perfidiously argued that there was not enough vacant land in West Bengal to resettle the Hindu Namasudra refugees. So it decided to rehabilitate them in the neighbouring provinces of Assam, Bihar and Orissa, and further off in the Andaman Islands and in early 1956 announced the Dandakaranya Scheme of rehabilitating the Hindu Namasudra refugees in a region consisting of 78,000 square miles of inhospitable un-irrigated land in the tribal areas of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Worksite camps for such refugees were set up, like as in, Koraput and Kalahandi in Orissa, Malkangiri in Andhra Pradesh, Raipur and Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur in Maharashtra, etc.

The harrowing tales of Dandakaranya

To protest the forced deportation of Hindu Namasudra refugees to central and western India, the refugee front-organisations, from 1959, started satyagrahas in the encampments of Calcutta and the districts. The refugee leaders did not altogether reject the proposal of relocation but urged that only interested refugees be sent. The lands the Hindu Namasudra refugees were settled on in Dandakaranya were forests in the traditional territory of tribal peoples, who resented this occupation. The crops and agricultural works of the refugees were periodically destroyed or harvested by tribal peoples. 

“The soil is poor and there is no irrigation. Our crops are looted by the local Adivasis (tribals), whom we cannot fight because they shoot with bows and arrows, but even more so because they get protection from the police, which is anti-refugee”, alleged a refugee group. Moreover, the Namasudra refugees who were accustomed to a semi-aquatic, plain-land agriculture and moisture-laden climate of Bengal, found it increasingly difficult to eke out a living in the rugged terrain, shallow soil and dry climate of Deccan. Little integration took place, and the refugees were often given inadequate relief supplies, when these were not misappropriated by corrupt government officials. 

Prior to their resettlement, refugees often spent many years in prison camp conditions under capricious and corrupt camp administrators. Protests were often met with killings by police or with imprisonment. Narrating their detestable condition, Atharobaki Biswas writes, “Very few among the intelligentsia are aware that out of the 42,000 families who had been dragged and deported there, already nearly 27,030 families have perished; and only now 15,000 families somehow linger on below sub-human level!”. There is virtually unanimous agreement that the conditions in many resettlement camps were deplorable, as numerous inquiries and official documents attest.

While the Caste Hindu squatters were getting their colonies legalized and services provided, the Hindu Namasudras became exiled to states in central India where they faced often hostile local (tribal) populations. Even the affirmative action programs for which, as ‘Scheduled Caste’, they would have been eligible in West Bengal, were not recognized in the states in which they were settled, as their caste was not native to those states. 

Towards Marichjhapi

These grievances led to the organisation of refugees within the resettlement colonies. The movement began in the Mana group of camps near Raipur in Madhya Pradesh (presently in Chattisgarh), where the refugees had been held for twelve years as virtual “prisoners of war” and “serfs” under military officers. In 1970, the refugees formed their own organisation, the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (UUS) that continued to press the refugee demands. In 1975, the organization decided to launch a national movement for resettlement in the Sunderbans area of West Bengal. 

In May 1976, representatives of the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti in Mana went by launch from Hasnabad to Marichjhapi in Gosaba police station in West Bengal, and reached to a conclusion that it would be possible for 16,000 refugee families from Mana to settle just on the island of Marichjhapi, and nearby at Dutta Pasur another 30,000. However, when the refugees started walking along the railway tracks to West Bengal they were arrested by the Congress government. When the leaders were released from jail after a year they found the Dandakaranya dispersal had been accelerated, but now the Left Front had taken power in West Bengal.

Refugees make Marichjhapi their home

One Cabinet Minister, Ram Chatterjee, who hailed from a junior Left Front ally Forward Bloc, visited the refugee camps in Dandakaranya and is widely reported to have encouraged them to settle in the Sunderbans, which had been a long-held Left opposition demand. Having sold their belongings to pay for the trip, 1.5 lakh Namasudra refugees left Dandakaranya in 1976-78.  They would trek through treacherous paths all along the rugged terrain and unfavourable climate of Deccan, and reach West Bengal, only to discover that Left Front policy had changed now that the Left coalition was in power, and many refugees were arrested and returned to the resettlement camps. The remaining refugees managed to slip through police cordons, reaching their objective of Marichjhapi Island, where settlement began. In the succeeding months, thousands of more such refugee families would come to settle in their chosen habitat. 

Refugee Life in Marichjhapi

In less than a year, they transformed this no man’s land into a bustling village. There were rows of huts, a fishing co-operative, a school, salt pans, a health centre, a boat manufacturing unit, a beedi-making factory and a bakery, with money pooled from their individual savings and some help from writers, activists and public intellectuals sympathetic to their story. The West Bengal government extended no help. In the evenings, they would congregate to share their daily experiences and participate in Hari-Nama-Sankirtana. For the Namasudras, these salvific gatherings of kirtan sessions offer the experience of an intense feeling of community and immersive solidarity in times when physical hardship and isolation become unbearably oppressive. It gave them a sense of homogeneity and dignity through a shared experience of devotion. 

The crackdown begins

The state government was not disposed to tolerate such settlement, stating that the refugees were “in unauthorised occupation of Marichjhapi which is a part of the Sunderbans Government Reserve Forest violating thereby the Forest Acts”. It is debatable whether the CPM placed primacy on ecology or merely feared this might be a precedent for an unmanageable refugee influx with consequent loss of political support. 

When persuasion failed to make the refugees abandon their settlement, the West Bengal government started on January 26, 1979, an economic blockade of the settlement with thirty police launches. The community was tear-gassed, huts were razed, and fisheries and tube wells were destroyed, in an attempt to deprive refugees of food and water. 6,000 huts were allegedly set on fire by the police. Journalists were creating a problem for the government by reporting positively on the efforts of the refugees to rehabilitate themselves. The government therefore declared Marichjhapi out of bounds for journalists, a move which only served to alienate the press.

However, the Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, convinced that the media was indulging in sensationalism and contributing to the refugees’ militancy and self-importance by reporting on their activities, suggested instead that the press should come out in support of their eviction in the national interest. This was accompanied by attempts at censorship and accusations against the “bourgeois” press for colluding with the refugees and opposition. There was no doubt the issue served to divide the Left Front coalition parties and could potentially alienate them from the 20 percent of the state’s electorate who were Hindu Scheduled Castes. However, they, unlike the Namasudra refugees, were largely illiterate and since the radio and TV were government-owned, the resident Scheduled Caste voters of other castes (Poundras, Bagdis, Chamars) around the Island were ‘less of a problem’ than might be supposed.

On January 27, 1979, the government prohibited all movement into and out of Marichjhapi under the Forest Preservation Act and also promulgated Section 144 of the Criminal Penal Code, making it illegal for five or more persons to come together at any given time. However, the refugee supporters appealed to the Calcutta High Court, which ruled against interference in the refugees’ movements and in their access to food and water. The government then denied the refugees were subject to any blockade and continued the blockade in defiance of the High Court. Since the police union was under CPM control, the court system had been effectively bypassed in this instance. Though some of their number died of starvation and disease, the refugees would not give up. 

31 January Killings

According to the eye-witness account of one Santosh Sarkar, a Namasudra refugee-survivor, on 31 January 1979, the police enacted the worst killing. That day, at 9.00 am, few refugee women of Marichjhapi rowed three boats to fetch food, water and medicines to the neighbouring island of Kumirmari. Sarkar saw the police watching them from the shore but they were sure that the police launches would not ram into boats carrying women. “But we were proven wrong. Those bastards in police uniforms did not care for our women either. They rammed their launches into the boats and drowned all three boats”, recalls Sarkar. 

Ignoring the tear-gas shells lobbed by the police from the launches, 400 refugee men were mobilised by Sarkar who would take out boats to rescue the drowning women. They were able to rescue some, while others were lost in the waters, never to be found again. They would know later that a few refugee-women were picked up by the policemen themselves on the launches. They were taken to the nearest police station, gang-raped for days and then released.

“Something snapped inside us. The policemen were in launches, armed and dangerous. We were on the shore. All we had were the thick branches of goran trees we had sharpened to use as spears. We threw them at the bastards who had drowned our women. They were taken aback by this sudden retaliation, which gave us the opportunity to take boats into the river”, said Sarkar. 

“…But we were in no mood to stop”. Meanwhile, some of the men rescued the drowning women while the rest would row boats back to Kumirmari to finish the task their women had set out to do. Sarkar, who accompanied the latter group to Kumirmari saw that the local residents had shut their doors in fear. But the men who had faced bullets were not to be deterred by closed doors. After receiving assurances from the men, the locals provided them with the required essentials like daal, rice and pots of water. 

The refugees then devised a plan to row the boats back to Marichjhapi. Sarkar recalled boarding one of those many boats that would shield one boat, having 5 men and the essential items, from all four sides, to protect it from police firing. The refugees threw small axes and sharpened branches of goran tree called chenga at the police from their boats. “We knew if they opened fire, there was no chance of us surviving. But that day we were willing to die for our people back in Marichjhapi.” Till 3.30 pm, those bravehearts did this again and again as the police lobbed tear-gas shells at them. The police continued to drown their boats and the river had become a battlefield for the day.

Indomitable spirit of resistance

The refugees decided to put up a last fight when they discovered 500 additional policemen with rifles coming towards them in launches. Santosh Sarkar now addressed the refugees:

“Brothers, this is no time to run and hide. Even if you run, the police will open fire on you. They do not treat us refugees as humans. If they did, they would not have drowned our women. Ever since we, the Hindu refugees, have come to this country, the state has treated us like dogs. Whether in the refugee camps or outside, we have been shown no dignity. Today, let us fight back. If we have to die, let us die with dignity.”

His words acted like an instant drug and transformed the tired mass into a battle-ready mob. The refugees gathered bows and arrows, lathis, bricks and stones, whatever they could gather from their benefactors in Kumirmari and rushed to the shore to put a gallant fight. The policemen opened fire, both at the men in boats and those gathered on the shore of Kumirmari. Bodies fell off boats as screams of the injured filled the air. But this was not a day for retreat. The brave refugees stood their ground.

Sarkar would know later that CPM cadres had landed in Marichjhapi that day, fired at, killed and raped islanders and looted their belongings. The mayhem continued for the whole day. He would also hear later how the police did not even spare children. Bayonets had been thrust into fifteen school kids – aged between five and twelve – who had taken shelter inside the thatched hut that was their school. Their skulls were crushed. The kids had gathered there to make arrangements for Saraswati Puja, which was to be celebrated the next day. The policemen had smashed Saraswati’s idol before they left. Though the figures varied, Sarkar would be told later that no less than 1,700 were killed that day.

The final eviction

In order to ensure press coverage after the blockade, a refugee, Saphalananda Haldar, evaded police patrols and swam to the mainland where he informed the Calcutta press of police firing in Kumirmari. They published the story along with his name, which resulted in his arrest. Police shooting and killings of the refugees in various places were causing adverse comment in the press. The refugees were not without sympathisers in the outside intelligentsia and even in the government administration and Left Front cabinet itself. Intellectuals and sympathisers raised funds and supplies, and some officials colluded in efforts to get these to the refugees.

When police actions failed to persuade the refugees to leave, the State Government ordered the forcible evacuation of the refugees, which took place from May 14 to May 16, 1979. Muslim gangs were hired to assist the police, as it was thought Muslims would be less sympathetic to Hindu refugees from Muslim-ruled Bangladesh. The men were first separated from the women. “Most of the young men were arrested and sent to the jails and the police began to rape the helpless young women at random”. By May 17, 1979, Marichjhapi had completely been steered clear of refugees.

No criminal charge was laid against any of those involved, nor was any investigation undertaken. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, wishing to maintain the support of the Communists for his government, decided not to pursue the matter. The CPM congratulated its participant members on their successful operation at Marichjhapi and made their refugee policy reversal explicit stating that “there was no possibility of giving shelter to these large number of refugees under any circumstances in the State”.

The suppression of casualty-figures

The Left Front government was accused of suppressing the casualty figures. According to official sources, only 2 refugees were killed. But the refugees themselves complained to visiting Members of Parliament that 1,000 had died of disease and starvation during the occupation and blockade. Atharobaki Biswas writes, “Out of the 14,388 families who deserted (for West Bengal), 10,260 families returned to their previous places . . . and the remaining 4,128 families perished in transit, died of starvation, exhaustion, and many were killed in Kashipur, Kumirmari, and Marichjhapi by police firings”.

The lack of an investigation means that various estimates of the killings continue to circulate years after the event. Nilanjana Chatterjee indirectly corroborates the figure put forth by Atharobaki Biswas. Dr Chatterjee states that by the time the eviction was completed on May 17, 1979, at least 3,000 refugees had secretly left Marichjhapi and scattered across West Bengal. . . . At the end of July 1979, a spokesman for the Dandakaranya Development Authority announced that of the nearly 15,000 families who had “deserted,” around 5,000 families (approximately 20,000 refugees) had failed to return. The final deadline for them to re-register with the project was extended yet again to 31 August 1979 and the matter was considered officially closed.

From these figures (20,000, minus 3,000) it can be estimated that as many as 17,000 people died, and if based on her calculation of four per family, this represents 4,250 families (17,000 refugees), which is almost exactly the figure given by Atharobaki Biswas. Though these people are missing and presumed dead, no breakdown of how or where they died was ever undertaken. An IAS Secretary of the West Bengal Government who worked with the Ministers involved in the eviction decision said the bodies of the victims at Marichjhapi were dumped in the Raimangal River to be washed out by the tide. This will make the exhumation of bodies as was undertaken in Bosnia and Cambodia impossible, and in this macabre sense the refugees’ selection of the Sunderbans was to prove not only unfortunate in their lives but in uncovering their deaths as well, since there were no human settlements downstream to observe the bodies.

Environmental priorities?

The Chief Minister declared that the occupation of Marichjhapi was illegal encroachment on Reserve Forest land and on the state- and World Wildlife Fund-sponsored tiger protection project. Jyoti Basu stated that if the refugees did not stop cutting trees the government would take “strong action.” There appears to be nothing on record indicating any pressure on the government for eviction from any environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or other non-state groups. But in a final twist to the episode, the CPM settled its own supporters in Marichjhapi, occupying and utilizing the facilities left by the evicted refugees. The issues of the environment and the Forest Act were forgotten.

Justice denied

Though Indian Administrative Service Secretaries of the West Bengal government, who worked on a daily basis with the Left Front Ministers, revealed the killing and raping, the hiring of Muslim gangsters, the resettlement by CPM supporters, and divisions in the Cabinet over the eviction, they did not have the names of the gangsters and policemen who actually committed the atrocities. The failure of the government to investigate what happened meant that this information was never compiled. Had the Left Front government felt it was being unfairly maligned by the atrocity reports, it could have ordered an independent inquiry to exonerate itself. The accuracy of the allegations and the involvement through acts of commission and omission by the Chief Minister and Prime Minister Desai, among others, make such an investigation unlikely.

No doubt these poor Scheduled Caste refugees squatted on alien property. But so was the case with their elite middle-class counterparts who did the same in Calcutta, but still managed to get their colonies regularised by law, at the behest of their class-members who were well-represented and exerted immense influence on the state machinery. The Hindu Scheduled Caste refugees had no such influence, despite the support of a few officials and intellectuals. Hence, their grievances remained unheard and their undocumented story of persecution soon faded from public discourse. Marichjhapi could have been a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit of a band of Bengali Scheduled Castes. Instead, it has become a forgotten story of one of the worst pogroms of post-Independent India, bigger than the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi for the sheer scale of the violence and the number of deaths and rapes.

The Indian State was a coequal contributor to the suppression of this dastard atrocity. The Union had, from the beginning, been notoriously indifferent to the plight of the Bengali refugees from East Bengal. While rehabilitation for the Sikh and Hindu refugees from West Punjab was facilitated by this same government, the Bengali refugees received zero or name-sake support from the government and were soon pushed into the arms of the left parties. Despite being exiled once from their natural habitat, these refugees were, through forced exiles in distant locations like Dandakaranya and killings in Marichjhapi, embroiled in a quicksand of apathy and conspiracy on part of the Indian State.

After the bedlam, the Indian Left, that till date boasts to be the champion of civil rights and defender of subaltern interests, came under the radar of licit allegations that dismantled its long-held concerns to such claims. The communists left no stone unturned manipulating evidences and in suppressing the actual casualty-figures. But as Providence destined, the Marichjhapi Massacre was rescued from the dregs of oblivion and has resurfaced once again, with the debates surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, that is yet to be implemented.

For Sri Rama, his unavoidable exile to Dandakaranya was the enactment of a divine leela, inevitable for fulfilling a larger purpose i.e., destruction of evil. But even destiny was cruel to the Bengali refugees who faced unwanted and avertable exiles in untraversed lands like Dandakaranya where many perished and the rest were left at the mercy of evil frailties of nature. Even after the passing of 42 long years, the departed souls of 17,000 refugees killed in Marichjhapi await justice.


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Avik Sarkar

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  • This is a heart wrenching tale. Wish it is made into a documentary / movie some day to reach mass audiences

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