Home / Opinion / Columns /  A pogrom whose memory only literature has kept alive

We know 30 January as Martyr’s Day, the date on which Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. But 31 January also marks a terrible pogrom carried out by the Indian state. Few outside West Bengal—or who have not read Amitav Ghosh’s marvellous novel The Hungry Tide—would have possibly heard of the little island of Marichjhapi in the Sunderban delta. Here, on 31 January 1979, the state police carried out an operation to evict thousands of helpless people who sought refuge there. When they resisted, they were butchered. No one knows how many were killed that day in police firing or trying to swim away to safety. The official casualty count is a ridiculous two. The actual number may be over a thousand.

In the aftermath of Partition, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis from East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—were forced to flee to West Bengal. The state was swamped by the influx. The well-educated ones—among them, my father—were able to get jobs and start a new life in Calcutta or other cities. But the peasants and fisherfolk who had arrived had no means of livelihood.

However, B.C. Roy, then chief minister of West Bengal, was a man of ideas. He offered land in the Terai region of what is now Uttarakhand, the Andaman islands and in Dandakaranya in central India, where refugees could settle and rebuild their lives. But the Communists, led by then-firebrand Jyoti Basu, virulently opposed the move. They demanded that all the refugees be settled in Bengal. A bureaucrat in the Andaman islands administration once recounted to me how Basu would come to the Calcutta docks and convince people who were about to board the ship to Port Blair to return to their makeshift shanties.

Many of the descendants of those who did go to the Andamans and the Terai are well off today. Those who went to Dandakaranya were less fortunate. The region is mostly semi-arid shrubland and agriculture is tough and unsustainable.

Then, in 1977, the Communists came to power in West Bengal. Basu became chief minister. The wretched of Dandakaranya suddenly saw hope. After all, it was the Leftists who had promised them homes and livelihoods in the state. Many thousands of refugees sold their landholdings and arrived in Calcutta. But the West Bengal government was no longer interested. It was unwilling to listen to their pleas.

Rebuffed in every corridor of power, about 15,000 of them settled in the island of Marichjhapi. In less than two years, they managed to create a sustainable community with a school and a healthcare centre, without seeking any government aid. Then Basu declared that this was illegal occupation of government land and the refugees must return to wherever they had come from. This from a leader who, ever since Partition, had encouraged refugees to squat on land—both government and private-owned—in Calcutta, which led to a proliferation of slums whose inhabitants became a Communist vote bank.

On 24 January 1979, the West Bengal government clamped Section 144 on Marichjhapi, prohibiting any gathering of four or more people on the island. The island was also blockaded by the police, cutting its people off from food, medicines and other essential supplies. Infants, the elderly and the sick began to die. On 31 January, a massive police contingent, along with “volunteers"—Communist cadre—on a flotilla of motor launches attacked the island and began indiscriminate firing on its residents—men, women, children.

As mentioned earlier, no one knows the actual death count. It will never be known. It was not only bullets that killed. Many terrified victims jumped into the river and either drowned or were claimed by crocodiles that are common in the waters in the Sunderbans. The bodies that the police collected were dumped in the river or in mass graves in the forest No criminal cases were filed against any policeman or politician involved. The survivors were rounded up, brought to Calcutta, and then packed into special trains, whose doors were sealed from outside, and sent back to Dandakaranya.

The story of Jews in Nazi Germany was re-enacted after a gap of four decades. The only bit missing was the gas chambers.

And this was done under a Communist government, which, by definition, is supposed to stand for economic and social justice. The people that it betrayed, slaughtered and sent away were at the bottom of the income ladder, mostly deprived of quality education and from the so-called “lower castes". In other words, they belonged to precisely the marginalized and unempowered classes whose rights the Left has for long publicly agitated for. The Marichjhapi massacre remains horrifically unique in the history of Independent India. Yet, it is largely unknown or has been forgotten.

Writes British-Canadian political scientist Ross Mallick, who researched the carnage: “The election of the Left Front in 1977 was the high water mark of Communism (in West Bengal) as thereafter they never launched a social movement let alone a political one, and gradually descended into corruption and terror, rigging elections, and dispensed state patronage to remain in power for decades." The Left’s successor, the Trinamool Congress, now in power for nearly 12 years, has not been any better. After Marichjhapi, all pretences to lofty ideology were dropped. The people of West Bengal would henceforth be governed by the jackboot.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
More Less
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsWatchlistFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout