July is Hindu Persecution awareness month. Where everyday cases of Hindu persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are on a rise, we have to talk about the oppression of Hindus that happened in our nation, which was also defined as one of the worst “human rights violations” in post-independence India by a rights activist Jyotirmoy Mondal; the “ Marichjhapi Massacre”.
Just like how many of us were oblivious about the history of the “Marichjhapi Massacre”, even I was only aware of what happened at the surface; ignorant about why, where, when and how. Until I read the book, “Blood Island”, written by the journalist Deep Halder, I had not realised that justice to those thousands of Hindu refugees still seems far away, then in the hands of the CPIM government and now Mamata Banerjee’s TMC government.
This brings us to the forgotten, heart-wrenching, spine-chilling story of approximately 1.5 lakh Hindu refugees who came to settle from Bangladesh to Marichjhapi but were greeted with the feeling of betrayal and detestation by Jyoti Basu’s Left Front Government in 1978.
With eyes full of dreams and smiles delineating hope, men, women and children settled in Marichjhapi to start their new lives. However, when power takes over humanity, then dictatorship and fascism prevail. The dream-filled eyes of the Hindu refugees were haunted by tears, the hopes swamped into a shriek of horror after the CPIM government turned its back on the refugees.
What were the promises made by the Left Front Government?
“Tomra banglar manush, amra banglay tomader basati debo”- You are the people of Bengal; we will give you homes in Bengal. Once there was a promise made by Jyoti Basu, that when their Government would come into power, they would welcome the refugees with open arms. But, it was not the open arms that greeted the refugees; instead, it was police brutality in the form of lathis and teargas and the atrocities of the West Bengal Government through the economic blockade that succumbed the refugees to rely on poisonous leaves and undrinkable salty water.
Not even women and children were spared; the police under the Left Front’s government would rape the women mercilessly, widows would be taken away and gang-raped, and the children would be left to starve to death. When all of these measures seemed futile to defeat the mental and moral strength of the refugees, their huts were set on fire in the middle of the night, and many islanders were shot in the head, until May 1979, when the Marichjhapi island which was at one time, echoing with life and laughter, was cleared out by the CPI government.
The lakhs of refugees remained undeterred by the many enormities of the Left Front Government, and amongst them arose a hero, Santosh Sarkar.
“I am no hero. But yes, I would never hesitate to jump into the fire, for what I thought was right.”, said Sarkar in a conversation with Deep Halder for his book, “Blood Island”.
Sarkar then recalls the forlorn day of 26th January 1979, where the economic blockade was ordered by the Jyoti Basu Government for almost 7 days, “Every household in the island fell victim to dysentery. Death knocked on our doors every day. Naked bodies of children were strewn around the bank of Karankhali River as their mothers wailed.”
“Around thirty police launches and two B.S.F steamers had circled Marichjhapi on 26th January, preventing islanders from fetching food, water and other essentials from neighbouring islands.”
But the islanders have had enough and decided to fight back.
“On the morning of 31st January, we came up with a new plan.” They decided that women would rowboats to the neighbouring island to fetch some grains and clean drinking water, thinking that Police would not attack women. However, no humanity was shown towards women as well, as those police officers thrust their launches into the boat, making all the three boats drown.
Sarkar had just sat down to have his lunch when he heard the screams of the women. Leaving all he had in hand, he ran to the spot to rescue them. The men at the island, ignoring the tear gas thrown by the police, decided to save the boat from drowning. “Few of us picked up the drowning women and rowed back to Marichjhapi. Others, including Sarkar, rowed ahead to Kumirmari to finish the task that our women had set out to do.”
After collecting rice and dal, and pots full of drinkable water from the villagers, the problem arose about how they would travel back to Marichjhapi? This is when they devised another plan, where one boat would be full of rice, water and medicines with four boatmen in it and the other boats would guard them against any police launches. This routine was carried out till 3.30 pm by 400 refugees, and every time police would try to attack, the men threw their sharpened branches at them.
Soon it started to seem like “Khondo Juddho”, a full-fledged war. “They spotted a huge battalion of almost 500 policemen, armed with rifles, coming towards them in launches.”
Sarkar, who has been Swami Vivekananda’s true admirer, felt like his spirit had entered his body that day. “Brothers, this is no time to run and hide. They do not treat us, refugees, as humans. Ever since we, the Hindu refugees, have come to this country, the state has treated us like dogs. Today, let us fight back. If we have to die, let us die with dignity.”
These words of Sarkar touched the hearts of the refugees and instantly transformed the drained mass into a fully-equipped mob. They picked bows and arrows when policemen opened fire at men in the boats. “One of them fired at me from a distance of no more than twenty or thirty feet. I couldn’t understand what happened and fell to the ground.”
Later, Sarkar came to know that a Superintendent of Police in charge, took him and many injured to the Basirhat hospital.
Sarkar was told that reportedly, on 31st January 1979, more than 1700 were killed because of Police’s brutality; the day he lost his leg. He was later informed that the CPIM goons, who came to Marichjhapi, killed, looted, and raped the refugees.
To clear all the signs of killings, the policemen threw all the dead bodies in the river, and many who were injured were killed by the police in cold blood.
After Sarkar was released from the hospital, he was taken to Dum Dum Central Jail, along with 300-400 other islanders. By the time he got out, the island didn’t have any sign of a single refugee.
But why did the Left Front Government turn away from the promises they made to the Hindu refugees coming from Bangladesh?
While there was an argument put forth that many refugees belonged to the lower caste, it was also stated explicitly that Jyoti Basu welcomed Bangladeshi Muslims, and penetrated the killing of 1000s of Hindu refugees.
Other arguments state that it was the self-sufficiency of the refugees that posed a threat to CPI’s policy of helping the needy in exchange for their votes because the islanders were not looking for any support from the government, just a place to stay.
In a conversation with Deep Halder, the advocate Sakya Sen, when asked about the cruelty of the CPI government said, Jyoti Basu was like a dictator and couldn’t digest the fact that refugees were not obeying his orders, “It was his hurt ego, nothing else.”,stated Sen
What happened after Marichjhapi Island was cleared of refugees?
Even though the refugees were defeated by the fascist government, they could not conquer the refugees’ spirit to live their lives.
After the West Bengal Government violently evicted almost 10,000 refugees, many of the islanders gathered donations and bought one bigha plot to restore a few families and established a colony in Pather Sesh, near Calcutta.
Mamta Banerjee’s fatal promise about a judicial investigation in the Marichjhapi massacre
Mamta Banerjee who came to power in 2011 with the slogan “Maa Mati Manush” (Mother, Homeland and People) forgot all about the massacre of Hindu refugees. For every life lost, and for all the dignities shattered into misery, Mamta’s Government fixed the price with rice at 2 Rs Kilo and a special ration card.