Monday, March 17, 2008

Morichjhanpi Massacre

The Left Government in West Bengal is not new to Mass Murder of Innocent Citizens. Nandigram is just the latest in the series. Before Nandigram it was  the Morichjhapi massacre of the 1970s, featured in Amitav Ghosh's Hungry Tide. There, it was East Bengal refugees in the Sundarbans who were cordoned off, fired on and the survivors evicted. The cost in lives is still unaccounted, but it is likely that thousands were killed.

In the 1960s and 1970s (especially after the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975 and Zia-ur-Rahman’s coming to power) communal agitations were directed against the Hindus who had remained in East Bengal. Hounded out of East Bengal,  Bengali Hindus from East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh entered West Bengal in the hope of settling down. They were however sent to various inhospitable areas outside West Bengal with the assurance that they would eventually be relocated in West Bengal. Ironically, during that time CPM Led opposition, denounced the Congress attempts to evict the refugees from West Bengal and promised that when they came to power they would settle the refugees in West Bengal and that this would, in all probability, be on one of the islands of the Sundarbans.

In 1977, when the CPM Led Left Front came to power, they found the refugee had taken them at their word and sold their belongings and land to return to West Bengal. In 1978 a group of refugees fled from the Dandakaranya camp in Madhya Pradesh and came to the island of Morichjhapi in the Sundarbans with the intention of settling there. In all, 1,50,000 refugees arrived from Dandakaranya1  expecting the government to honour its word. Morichjhanpi, an island in the northern-most forested part of the West Bengal Sundarbans, had been cleared in 1975 and its mangrove vegetation replaced by a governmental programme of coconut and tamarisk plantation to increase state revenue.

The state government was in no mood to tolerate such a settlement. It stated that the refugees were ‘in unauthorised occupation of Morichjhanpi which is a part of the Sundarbans government reserve forest violating thereby the Forest Acts’.  However, according to journalist Niranjan Haldar, who extensively reported and researched the carnage, the refusal of the Udbastu Unnayansil Samity, an association of refugees, to merge with the CPI(M) led to their eviction.

On the January 31, 1979 the police opened fire killing 36 persons. The media started to underscore the plight of the refugees of Morichjhanpi and wrote in positive terms about the progress they were making in their rehabilitation efforts. Photographs were published in the Amrita Bazar Patrika of the February 8, 1979. Fearing more backlash, and seeing the public growing warm towards the refugees’ cause, the chief minister Jyothi Basu declared Morichjhanpi out of bounds for journalists and condemned their reports. The repeated pleas from the dwellers of the island did not reach the mainland owing to the iron fisted control of the left front, over the media. The plight of the refugees was supposed to be published in parts in the Bengali Daily Jugantar,25th July, however after the first part, it had to be discontinued. Later the editor Amitava Chaudhuri wrote, how the CPM led government forced him to back off from carrying forth the further publications, in spite of the declaration of the forth coming 2nd part in the 25th July issue itself.

After the failure of the economic blockade (announced on January 26 – an ironical twist to Republic Day!) in May the same year, the government started forcible evacuation. Thirty police launches encircled the island thereby depriving the settlers of food and water; they were also tear-gassed, their huts razed, their boats sunk, their fisheries and tube-wells destroyed, and those who tried to cross the river were shot at. To fetch water, the settlers had now to venture after dark and deep into the forested portion of the island and forced to eat wild grass. Several hundred men, women and children were believed to have died during that time and their bodies thrown in the river. In all 4,128 families who had come from Dandakaranya to find a place in West Bengal perished of cholera, starvation, disease, exhaustion, in transit while sent back to their camps, by drowning when their boats were scuttled by the police or shot to death in Kashipur, Kumirmari, and Morichjhanpi by police firings. How many of these deaths actually occurred in Morichjhapi we shall never know. However, what we do know, is that no criminal charges were laid against any of the officials or politicians involved.


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