Protected areas and the stateless
The marichjhapi massacre remains elusive in history. Perpetrated in 1979 under the Left Front government in West Bengal, it was hardly recorded in the state archives.
Nor did the the erstwhile leftist "subaltern" academics write about it to save their political leaders the blushes from being called "mass murderers."
The cover ups
It vaguely appeared in the press, but did not receive the attention that an incident entailing mass genocide, allegedly running in the thousands, should have received. Marichjhapi was later taken up by many social anthropologists with notable accounts by Ross Mallick, and later even got popular citation in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide.
The most recent addition to this list is Deep Halder's Blood Island. Yet, a common man on the streets of Kolkata is often found asking: What actually happened in Marichjhapi? Marichjhapi is one of the 102 islands in the Sundarbans, the delta mangrove ecosystem one-third of which lies in West Bengal, and the rest is in Bangladesh. The Partition of India in 1947 led to the creation of the Hindu majority West Bengal in India, and Muslim-dominated East Pakistan, which subsequently became Bangladesh in 1971. This led to massive influx of Hindu population from East Pakistan, and subsequently Bangladesh, to India. Allegedly, while Kolkata (then Calcutta) and its neighbouring areas became inhabited by the educated Hindu upper castes of the Hindus, a large component of the lower castes were made to move to camps in Dandakaranya, located in the inclement terrains of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Around the mid-1970s, the main Opposition party in West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), argued for the rehabilitation of Bengalispeaking refugees within West Bengal. It went to the extent of promising that once in power, it will arrange for their settlement in the state. The moot objective behind this magnanimity was the vote-bank politics to develop a mass base among those who have already migrated to West Bengal.
After the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power in West Bengal in 1977, a largescale in-migration from Dandakaranya started in 1978. There were push and pull factors working here. Firstly, the Bengali refugees were more accustomed to agriculture in the fertile Bengal delta than the unceremonious topographies of Dandakaranya. Secondly, 'Bengali' identity played a role here, with West Bengal being more relatable to them than Dandakaranya.
Third, the initial invitation from CPI(M) simply added fuel. They chose to settle down in Marichjhapi.
The Left Front government did not support these moves and reneged on their initial position. Amid severe resistance, a massive group of refugees reached the island of Marichjhapi and settled there. However, by May 1979, the government's iron hand took over and the area was vacated through force, torture, and killings, with dead bodies allegedly dumped in water, as per various accounts. Yet, there is no confirmed number of deaths existing in any record. Globally, Communist regimes have been accused of many instances of mass killings, often classified as genocides (for example, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; deaths under Leninism and Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Maoism in China). Is Marichjhapi an addition to this list? The official line that the refugees destroyed the ecology of the Sundarbans has been vehemently opposed by those who allege caste bias practised by the government. While the issue of caste politics is definitely in contravention to the positions taken by 'bhadralok' Marxists with their indomitable faith in classless, and eventually casteless, society, the caste prejudice hypothesis of Communists has been discussed in various contexts by activists and academics working on the Marichjhapi issue.
A larger debate
But the ignored layer of the Marichjhapi discourse is the conservation-livelihoods debate. Given today's concern around the dying delta, it is a fact that the increasing population of the Sundarbans is creating pressures on its ecosystem. Many of the islands are disappearing due to sea-level rise. There is a lack of soil formation due to paucity of sediment feeding from the upstream due to the Farakka barrage and other constructions inhibiting flow regimes. Today, Marichjhapi is part of the forest area of the Sundarbans ecosystem which houses fauna like the Bengal Tiger. It is also a fact that encroachment happened in the protected area of Marichjhapi in the 1970s. If this happened unabated, by now a large part of the Sundarbans eco-region would have probably been occupied by humans. From a conservation perspective, this would have led to more human-wildlife conflicts, shrunk the space for wildlife and, possibly, destroyed the natural ecosystem and its various functions and services.
This brings us to a very normative line of critical thinking: nature vs humans. Conservation of nature cannot justify the plight of people in Marichjhapi. The solution lies in addressing the problems of human settlements and their needs. Conservation goals, by all means, must have a human face. From that perspective, Marichjhapi genocide will always be recknoned as a reminder of state repression and a big blot in governance, where humanity was made to die in the name of nature!
(The writer is is director, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal.)