বা ঙা ল না মা

Marichjhapi – Uncovering the Veil of Silence

Posted by bangalnama on August 31, 2009

(Continued from Part 1 : The Silence of Marichjhapi)

Thus a population of approximately 30,000 settled in Marichjhapi and carried on their business, trade and occupation unaided by Government and solely relying on their enterprising skills to sustain themselves. They gave themselves food, clothes, shelter, education, health and other cultural and recreational pursuits ever since April 1978. It was said that they built up smithies for production of agricultural implements, pottery manufacturing units for household units, handlooms for weaving cloth, making of mats from indigenous fibre plants, centres for building of country boats, biri manufacturing, bakeries, manufacture of sweetmeats and condiments, handicrafts for manufacture of bamboo baskets and carpenters woodcrafts, fisheries and bheries, kitchen garden’s etc. They built two local marts (bazaars), schools employing local teachers and a private hospital; four dispensaries were also set up. Manufacturing fishing nets was a regular occupation. In this way, a sizeable population of thirty thousand attempted to rehabilitate themselves by setting up a home away from home. Indeed, Marichjhapi could have perhaps served as an ideal model for refugee rehabilitation in the ages to come.

The State Government however proclaimed that the refugees were in unauthorized occupation of Marichjhapi, which was a part of the Sundarbans Government Reserve Forest, thereby violating Forest Act. “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.”[1] The State Government, determined to oust the refugees, launched a veritable war on 26th January 1979 bordering on economic blockade of the settlement with thirty police launches. The supply of the necessities of life (including drinking water) were prevented from reaching them, defying all principles of law and justice. This is almost reminiscent of the Spartan blockade of Athens following the Battle of Aegospotami, depriving Athens of the ability to import food grains or communicate. It was said that Athens on the verge of starvation was forced to surrender. Marichjhapi, however, still lingered, perhaps due to its sheer determination to continue living a restructured life out of the debris of Partition.

Children were deprived of the supply of milk, the sick and the ailing of their medicine.

On 20th August 1978, at about 3 PM, about thirty steam launches employed by the State Government were found to be illegally blockading and pressing like a ring round Marichjhapi to stop any passage of the inhabitants across the river to the other side for bringing drinking water etc resulting in a famine of drinking water and other essential supplies from the nearest village market i.e. Kumirmari, Mollakhali, Satjelia. It was alleged that the thirty launches carried a large number of police attempting to take back the refugees to Dandakaranya. It was said that the heart-rending cries of children, women and the general populace brought some local volunteers and social workers ont the spot who approached the blockading forces in the steam launches, appealing that drinking water and essential supplies be allowed to the residents of Marichjhapi. However, this was to no avail and the blockade continued till 8 PM. Their persistent presence for fifteen days, however, failed to bring back a single family to Dandakaranya. This was followed by an attack of the police on the refugees. The launches ran over forty-three boats, breaking them into pieces, and the police also opened fire, resulting in the death of two young boys. People of Marichjhapi had no recourse but to leave another one hundred and fifty seven boats behind to be trampled upon by the agencies of the State that had once welcomed them to set up a home at the very place.

On 20th August at around 9/10 PM, when the terrible oppression was continuing, a phonogram was sent to the then Prime Minister of India, Sri Morarji Desai with copies to Shri Subramanian Swami, MP, Shri Sakti Sarkar, MP, Shri Charan Singh, MP and others by Shri S Chatterjee, Secretary, Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha.

“Prime Minister,

Your kind attention drawn to planned massacre of innocent refugees at Marichjhapi, Sundarbans, in your name. Please take realistic stock of situation and kindly allow them to independently establish their stay irrespective of any political compulsion.

About ten thousand built their huts, economic fisheries starting paying dividend regenerating economy locally.

Now seems being brutally uprooted by L.F. Government in connivance with yours who probably is ignorant of exact situation.


Sd. S Chatterjee.
Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha.”

A second phonogram was sent on 21st August by Shri Chatterjee to the Prime Minister and few other members of parliament:

“ Prime Minister,

Humbly appeal—Stop further massacre operation on Marichjhapi Sundarbans refugees. Today all launch services suspended there sine die officially large contingent forces sent not for just return to Dandak. Repeat appeal to P.M. and Morarji must know real situation before making Turkman Gate plus Jallianwalla Bagh blunder….Must…politics rule or Central Government and civilized India. Kindly Act.”

6th September onwards the State Government engaged themselves in calculated aggression systematically, destroying the boats or ramming them with power boats on the open river. Official records indicate that no less than 200 such country boats were thus destroyed and/or seized by the Government.

Earlier in January 1979, when women from Marichjhapi, in three country boats of theirs, were crossing the river to fetch drinking water from Kumirmari on the opposite bank and all the said three boats were attacked by government forces and capsized, the residents of Kumirmari, at the sight of this inhuman act of barbarity, felt infuriated and protested. Their anger was responded with four rounds of tear gas shells being hurled on the boats and five rounds on the assembled people of Kumirmari on the other side of the river. This incident reportedly resulted in the condition of three women becoming precarious.

Thus was carried out a defiance of law and justice by its very own protectors in an unprecedented instance of barbarity.

On or about this time, an application was filed under Article 226 of the constitution of India in the High Court, demanding a direction to the state and the central government to refrain from interfering with ‘the peaceful existence, life and living, occupation, trade and business of the inhabitants and citizens, residing at Marichjhapi’ and ‘to lift the illegal and arbitrary blockade and warlike acts of oppression and allow them free egress and ingress from their place of residence and business without hindrance of any kind whatsoever.’ The Court passed an ‘interim injunction’ against the State. The Government then denied that the refugees were subject to any blockade and continued the blockade in defiance of the High Court.

The 3-member committee consisting of MPs that had visited Marichjhapi submitted its report to the Prime Minister. The report candidly mentioned the excessive use of force by the State and blamed the State Government for the atrocities committed at Marichjhapi. The Report also slammed the State Government’s allegation that the residents of Marichjhapi were attempting to run a parallel government.

In the meantime, polarization between factions of political dissent on the Marichjhapi issue understandably only made matters worse. The refugees also approached the national untouchable federation BAMCEF[2] led by Kanshi Ram. However it was not a powerful organization in those days. Institutions of the Central Government such as the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Commission that owed an obligation to defend their rights sadly did not intervene. The Press was alienated.

The refugees refused to give up although some of their number died of starvation and disease. When police actions failed to persuade the refugees to leave, the State Government ordered the forcible evacuation of the refugees. May 14 to May 16 were the tragic days.

“Muslim gangs were hired to assist the police as it was thought that Muslims would be less sympathetic to 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. At least several hundred men, women and children were said to have been killed in the operation and their bodies dumped in the river.”[1]

The refugees themselves had asserted to the visiting members of the Parliament that 1000 had died of disease and starvation during the blockade. 10,260 families returned to their previous places; 4,128 families perished in transit, died of starvation, exhaustion and many were killed in Kashipur, Kumirmari and Marichjhapi by police firings.[3] Dr. Nilanjana 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 5000 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.”[4]

CPM excused itself by making a statement to the effect that “there was no possibility of giving shelter to these large number of refugees under any circumstances in the State.” However, in a twirl befitting the duplicity, the CPM settled its own supporters in Marichjhapi, occupying and utilizing the facilities left by the evicted refugees.[5] Issues of environment were conveniently overlooked.

Memory of Marichjhapi gradually died a natural death.

Subsequent silence in the Bengali intelligentsia regarding Marichjhapi has been unnerving in some ways. A crime against humanity has been lost in oblivion when international laws in the 80s have settled that there shall be no time bar for bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to trial.

“১৯৭৮ সালে খমের রুজ শাসনকালে ক্যাম্বোডিয়ার গণহত্যার জন্য পোল পট (Pol Pot) এবং তাঁর সঙ্গীদের বিচারের ব্যবস্থা হয়েছে। অ্যামনেস্টি ইন্টারন্যাশনাল-এর প্রাক্তন সেক্রেটারি জেনেরাল থমাস হ্যামারবার্গ নিজে ক্যাম্বোডিয়াতে গিয়ে গণহত্যার মামলার জন্য প্রয়োজনীয় তথ্য সংগ্রহ করেন। ক্যাম্বোডিয়াতে আলোচনা চলছে যে বিচার রাষ্ট্রপুঞ্জের আন্তর্জাতিক অপরাধ-বিচারালয়ে হবে, না ক্যাম্বোডিয়ায় হবে। এই প্রসঙ্গে স্মরণীয়, মরিচঝাঁপিতে গণহত্যা হয়েছিল ১৯৭৮ ও ১৯৭৯ সালে।”

–অধ্যাপক সুজাত ভদ্র

This year marks the thirtieth year of a massacre lost in people’s memory. Marichjhapi still lives in silence today.

জলের ভিতর থাকে জীবন
এসবই জেনে ফিরে গেছে মরিচঝাঁপির
আশ্রয়হীন তৃষ্ণার্ত জনগণ
মনোহরদাস তড়াগ-এর পানাভর্তি
জল ঘঁেটেছিল
উনিশশ’ আটাত্তরের তিলোত্তমা শহর কলকাতায়।

–সুশীল পাঁজা

End notes:
[1]Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre; Ross Mallick; The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 58. No. 1 (Feb 1999), pp. 104-125
[2] All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees’ Federation
[3] Biswas Atharobaki. 1982. “Why Dandakaranya a Failure, Why Mass Exodus, Where Solution?” The Oppressed Indian 4(4):18-20
[4] Chatterjee, Nilanjana. 1992. “Midnight’s Unwanted Children: East Bengali Refugees and the Politics of Rehabilitation.” Ph.D diss., Brown University.
[5] Interview with IAS Secretary of the West Bengal Government by Ross Mallick (Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre)
[6]Video: Courtesy, Tushar Bhattacharya. The full documentary is available on Youtube.

– By Jhuma Sen

12 Responses to “Marichjhapi – Uncovering the Veil of Silence”

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    Would like to see this video with english subtitles

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    Baal. Saala nijer matribhashaye video dekhte subtitles laage??!!

  3. amit said

    am not bengali and neither do i understand it 🙂

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