In late 1970s, around 1,20,000 Bangladeshi refugees, a large number of whom were marginalized lower castes called Namashudras, came to West Bengal from rehabilitation centers of Dandakaranya and other regions and took shelter in Marichjhhapi, a forested island in the Sundarbans. The West Bengal government, on a temporary basis, provided for their shelter and other basic needs. At the same time, the West Bengal government appealed to the refugees to go back to their respective rehabilitation centers. A majority of the refugees eventually responded to that appeal. However, a few thousand of them stayed back and resisted by force any attempt to repatriate them.
Conflict with the administration intensified. At one instance, the police open fired at a violent mob of protestors that attacked a police camp in Marichjhhapi, resulting in death of two civilians. The Marichjhhapi incident has time and again come up in political discourse, mostly in an attempt to depict Left Front government of West Bengal, and the Left in general, as anti-dalit.
Death: Claims and Facts
There is a great deal of debate regarding actual number of deaths. Dilip Chakraborty, thethen MLA from Bharatiya Lok Dal, claimed that as many as 777 people died in the Marichjhhapi incident. On being asked by Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, about the source of the information, Chakraborty referred to one unnamed police officer and promised to give further details later (Jyoti Basu, West Bengal Assembly speech, 1979). However, there is no record of any further clarification or evidence given by Chakraborty in support of his claim. Jyoti Basu categorically mentioned in his speech that two persons had died in police firing in Marichjhhapi. This could not be contested by anybody on the basis of any credible evidence or report.
The death toll in Marichjhhapi has been brought into discussion again in recent times. Ross Mallick (The Journal of Asian Studies, 1999) claimed that 17,000 people died in the entire episode. The specific number was derived from a PhD dissertation by Nilanjana Chatterjee (Brown University, USA): “at least 3,000 refugees had secretly left Marichjhhapi 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 5,000 families (approximately 20,000 refugees) had failed to return”. From this, the number 17,000 was calculated by simple arithmetic of deducting 3000 from 20,000. Mallick, however, did not provide any reference for the number 3,000. There is no evidence whatsoever of such a large number of people dying, either due to police action or other causes. The numbers being cited by these people are entirely arbitrary.
There were several organisations, which had actively led or backed the mass exodus of over one-lakh refugees into West Bengal. Let us now scrutinize the character of such organisations and the role they played.
The Unnayanshil Udbastu Samiti (UUS) was in the forefront of the refugee exodus and the consequent confrontation with the administration. They played a key role in convincing the refugees to leave Dandakaranya and settle in West Bengal. In 1975, a UUS team visited Marichjhhapi and decided it to be ideal place for refugees to settle. The attempted exodus from Dandakaranya at that time was aborted by the then Congress government. Finally in 1978, the UUS led the refugees to Marichjhhapi. Before coming to Marichjhhapi, there was no consultation with either the state government or the central government.
After the refugees settled in Marichjhhapi in 1978, there are records (Gosaba PS, Case No.9 dated 13.2.1979) which suggest that when the refugees tried to leave the island, they were threatened by UUS volunteers with dire consequences and were forced to stay back (Island of Death, Achintyarup Ray, Times of India 2010).
Jalais (EPW 2005), celebrating ‘entrepreneurship’ of Marichjhhapi refugees, stated that local enterprises were set up in Marichjhhapi along with schools and healthcare centres. It was not mentioned where from the money came for such capital expenditures. We get our answer from a memorandum (dated 22nd March, 1979) submitted by the UUS to a parliamentary team that visited Marichjhhapi. Condemning a police raid, the memorandum unwittingly reveals that during that raid “the refugees ran away leaving their 157 boats behind loaded with timber and firewood costing nearly Rs. 3.50 lakhs including the cost of the boats”. The “loaded…timber and firewood” were collected by illegally cutting trees of the reserve forest; the boats too were made from wood of the reserve forest. The villagers used to fell trees and sell timbers to the UUS (Times of India 2010). Such illegal timber trade was one of the sources of funds for the UUS.
The UUS was also engaged in other illegal activities. In lieu of money, they started ‘distributing’ reserve forestland to the refugees. There were strict guidelines of the UUS: to be eligible for land, one cannot be involved with any political or non-political organization apart from the Samity.
‘Hindu Homeland’ & ‘Bengalistan’
Apart from the UUS, there are two other organizations that were involved in the refugee movement; Amra Bangali (We the Bengalis) and Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha (All Bengal Citizens Association). Amra Bangali helped the refugees with donations. The Sangh, according to Intelligence Bureau, distributed route-maps from Kolkata to Sunderban among the refugees (in 1978). They also distributed a map of Marichjhhapi island (Times of India 2010).
As declared in the website of Amra Bangali (www.amrabangali.org), a sister organisation of right-wing Ananda Marg, the stated objective of the organization is to establish Bengalistan or a Bengali homeland, comprising parts of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Andaman, and of sovereign nations like Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The objective of Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha is to establish a separate ‘Hindu Homeland’. The Sangha gained notoriety in recent times when they disrupted inauguration of Maitrei Express, a train connecting Kolkata and Dhaka, on grounds that India should not have cordial relationship with Bangladesh when Hindus in that country are “persecuted”. The police also alleged that the organization is responsible for planting three bombs on the train route (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7345724.stm).
However, after bringing into conflict the administration and poor mass of people, who in the eyes of the administration were violators of the law of the land (because of illegal timber trade and occupation of reserved forest land), the very individuals who ‘led’ these people deserted them. On May 1979, the three prominent leaders of UUS – Satish Mal, Raiharan Barui and Rangalal Goldar - vanished from the island (Times of India 2010). The hapless refugees were left to face the consequences of the actions masterminded by such people and organisations.
Role of the Left
It has been portrayed that the experience of Marichjhhapi demonstrates anti-dalit casteist character of the LF government of West Bengal. However, it is West Bengal government that initially provided for shelter and other things when over one-lakh dwellers settled in Marichjhhapi in 1978. The government had spent Rs 4 crore for that purpose (Jyoti Basu, West Bengal Assembly speech, 1979).
The Left has also played a crucial role in ensuring basic rights of the Namashudras. Namashudras are recognised as Scheduled Caste (SC) in West Bengal. In 2007, a convention was organised by the CPI (M) demanding SC status of the Namasudra, Pod (Pondra), Maji and other similar castes among Bengali refugees, in states where they are not recognized as SC. In sharp contrast, on June 6, 2007 the Mayawati led BSP government in U.P. withdrew the recommendation of an earlier state government for inclusion of Namashudras, Pod and Maji castes in the SC lists of the state (Peoples Democracy, 9 September 2007).
We are all aware about the land reforms programme of the LF government in West Bengal. West Bengal, which has only 3.5% of total agricultural land in the country, accounts for nearly ¼ of land distributed in the entire country under land reforms programme. But what did it mean for the Dalits in the state? It meant a lot: West Bengal alone accounts for nearly 50% of total number of schedule caste beneficiaries of ceiling-surplus land distribution in the country. Also, NSSO data show that West Bengal ranks second, next to Tripura (another Left governed state), in the ratio of the proportion of agricultural land owned by Dalits to their proportion in the rural population.
Enjoying political space is another aspect that influences social and economic conditions that the people live in. Decentralisation of democratic-political power, an important characteristic of Left Front government of West Bengal, can give that rightful political space to the deprived sections and the marginalised. In West Bengal, 33% of the members of the Panchayat Samiti are SCs; in the Zilla Parishad, nearly 30% of the seats belong to the SCs; and in the Gram Panchayats, 34.6% of the seats belong to the SCs; their share of representation in these grass-root democratic institutions is in fact more than their proportion in the population of West Bengal.
Involvement of the reactionary separatist forces and illegal activities of the UUS, that includes use of force on the refugees to stay back in the island, reveals a nefarious attempt to carry out a rightwing divisive political agenda in the state of West Bengal. For their narrow political goal, such forces took advantage of the pitiful condition of the poor refugees, which caused immense suffering to these people. In a few anti-Left propaganda-narratives, the real story has been glossed over, and the Left is deliberately depicted as an anti-dalit and anti-refugee force. The truth regarding Marichjhhapi reveals an entirely different story.