Soumya Sankar Bose's Photoseries Reconstructs A Brutal & Forgotten Atrocity In Bengal

'Where the Birds Never Sing'
'Where the Birds Never Sing'Soumya Sankar Bose

Is it possible for a photographer to document an incident that happened before he was born? The cursory reply to this question will be a resounding no. However, Soumya Sankar Bose (b. 1990, Midnapore, India) redefines the scope and purpose of photography as a medium through his intriguing series, 'Where the Birds Never Sing' (2017- 2020). This body of work focuses on the Marichjhapi massacre in 1979, where Bengali Dalit refugees were forcibly evicted from Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, West Bengal, India, and subsequently, thousands of them were sent to their deathbeds by police gunfire, starvation, and disease.

Following the second partition of Bengal in 1947, many lower-caste refugees who escaped East Pakistan were forced to relocate to harsh, unproductive lands in central India. In 1977, the newly elected Left Front government promised to resettle these refugees in West Bengal. Many of them then moved to Marichjhapi Island. However, the government went back on its word. Fearing that a large influx of refugees would hinder the state's economic recovery, they initiated a forced repatriation program back to central India.

'Where the Birds Never Sing'
Soumya Bose's 360° VR Exhibition Channels Memory & Trauma To Explore Post-Partition Bengal

Survivors allege a horrific event on the morning of January 31st, 1979. Women attempting to reach a nearby island for supplies on boats were deliberately rammed and sunk by police launches. Those who tried to rescue the drowning women in their own boats were met with gunfire. Later that night, police and local political thugs stormed the island and opened fire on the refugees.

Thousands of refugees clung to Marichjhapi Island for the following year and a half, hoping it would be their final home. The exact number of deaths throughout this ordeal remains unclear. It's difficult to track fatalities from the initial exodus to central India, the resettlement in Marichjhapi, and finally, the forced eviction back to the camps. Nevertheless, many academics estimate the total death toll to be somewhere between two and three thousand.

"Unfortunately, this inhuman and shocking incident is still very relevant. We need to look around the present scenario in India to realize that matters have not changed at all; that the partition and the massacre were just the beginning in a long line of similar incidents. The current issues concerning the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India will prove the point. Moreover, caste hierarchy is still an issue at present just as much as it was in the past."

Soumya Sankar Bose

There are almost no records of this brutal incident of state atrocity. Bose worked over many years to produce a series of photographs, primarily portraits, that weave together re-enacted memories of survivors in specific locations. Through the intricate piecing together of the facts from the existing oral histories of the real survivors, he sheds light on the pluralistic perspectives of the same narrative, forming a cryptic framework of this dark historical event that is slowly being blotted out from collective memory.

Click here to view the photoseries in its entirety.

Follow Soumya Sankar Bose here.

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