In an interview by Deep Haldar, author of Blood Island – An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre, Sukhoranjan Sengupta (who reported on the Marichjhapi incident in 1979) is described as quite the Bengali ‘bhadrolok’ with his impeccable manners and neat kurta-pajama, carrying an uncanny resemblance with the American gonzo journalist, Hunter Thompson, who spent his life documenting sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the dirty alleys of Vegas and elsewhere. Thompson brought in a style of participatory journalism where the author immerses himself in his object of study to such an extent that he himself becomes one of the central figures of their stories. This appeared to be true of Sukhoranjan Sengupta as well, whose report for the Marichjhapi incident came out in Anandabazaar Patrika on 21st May, 1979.
It was the personal testimony of Phonibala Mandal’s son Suryakanta Mandal regarding his family’s plight during the Marichjhapi incident. Suryakanta had talked of their huts being set to fire when his mother was sleeping in a corner. According to Sukhoranjan Sengupta, Suryakanta had also revealed how a portion of his mother’s hands and a large portion of her breasts were burnt in the process, even before she could be rushed out of the burning hut. The number of dead were estimated at several hundreds of men, women and children who died either through starvation or were shot at, with their bodies being thrown into the Raimangal river. He was talking about the Marichjhapi Massacre. It was the forcible eviction of around 1000 Bangladeshi refugees (who occupied legally-protected reserve forest land on Marichjhapi island in the Sundarbans, West Bengal), by the Communist government of the state in 1979, and the subsequent deaths of those refugees due to police atrocities, malnutrition and disease.
The division of Bengal into East Pakistan and West Bengal after independence had led to a huge influx of refugees from East Pakistan into Bengal. This division of Bengal was along communal lines, when many Hindu-Bengalis fled East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and ventured into Bengal. The first flow of refugees were mostly the Hindu upper and middle classes, who easily got to settle in West Bengal. But the latter inflow of poor, majorly Dalit Hindus apparently could not be accommodated in the state, and hence were forcibly sent to the rocky, inhospitable land of mostly Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, called the “dandakaranya”.
Initially, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of East Pakistan had no inclination of moving to India, as their leader Jogendranath Mandal, a minister in the East Pakistan Cabinet, had assured them with security. However, through the 1950s, increasing food prices and frequency of communal riots in Khulna and Jessore led them to move into West Bengal in huge numbers, and settle in the riverine regions of Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans. Unfortunately, they were then evicted from the region and forced to shift to “dandakaranya” which was a vast area of primeval forests, uneven rainfall and stony land inhabited by Adivasis like the Bonda, Gond and Bhil people, to name a few.
It was a blunder by the Communist government of West Bengal to compel a community reared in the wet, fertile riverine regions of East Pakistan to settle in a dry and arid area such as this. Moreover, the eviction was done in a manner which was grossly inhumane, and has gone down in history as one of the worst human rights violation in post-independent India. Around 10,000 or more were evicted from the Sundarbans, of whom many were raped and ruthlessly murdered. There was an economic blockade launched by the police and the district administration. Thirty police launches patrolling the island prevented anyone from providing food or water to the residents of the island. The forcible eviction led some of the survivors to settle in “dandakaranya”, while some others settled in the Marichjhapi Colony near Barasat or the shanties near the railway tracks in Sealdah. Some of the survivors resettled themselves in Hingalganj, Canning and nearby areas.
Amitav Ghosh’s novel ‘The Hungry Tide’ (2004) has given Marichjhapi a representational space in the English-speaking world, but the other, older Bangla narratives have been pushed to the background.
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