Marichjhapi is one of the 102 islands in the Sundarbans, the delta dominated by mangroves cover one-third of which lies in West Bengal, and the rest is in Bangladesh. The Sunderbans with its mangrove forests is not easy to cultivate. The forests are thick with tigers and the rivers with crocodiles. Yet nothing can deter these men and women. In the year of 1978, around 30,000 Hindu refugees were settled in the Marichjhapi Island near the Sundarbans area. The population of Marichjhapi swelled to 40,000 from the initial 10,000. It had become a functional village with three lanes, a bazaar, a school, a dispensary, a library, a boat manufacturing unit, and a fisheries department.
Letter of Shri Jyoti Basu to the State Rehabilitation Minister on the rehabilitation of camp refugees
July 13, 1961.
Sri P. C. Sen
Minister, Refugee, Relief & Rehabilitation,
Government of West Bengal
Dear Sri Sen,
Prolonged hunger-strike by the refugees lasting for more than a month in almost all camps in West Bengal has proved beyond doubt strong reluctance on the part of the refugees to accept the proposal of the Government regarding their rehabilitation in Dandakaranya. As a matter of fact there has been no movement of refugees to Dandakaranya though they have been put to serious hardships and untold sufferings due to stoppage of doles. For more than month refugees in almost all the camps have been on hunger-strike to voice their protest. It is unlikely that there will be a change in the attitude of camp refugees if they are subjected to further hardships and sufferings. Such an experiment is also fraught with serious consequences. Left to their own fate these camps families will hardly be able to rehabilitate themselves properly and will be a burden on the State, I, therefore, urge upon you to reconsider the policy of the Government in respect of rehabilitation of camp refugees to prevent further deterioration in the situation.
The primary issues involved now is not continuation of doles to camp refugees for an unlimited period but their early rehabilitation and restoration of doles till that is achieved. We do not think that the rehabilitation of camp refugees in a manner acceptable to them is so very difficult as is often being suggested by the Government. For example, the families now in Sonarpur group of camps may be easily fitted in Herobhanga Second Scheme. Families now in Asrafabad group of camps may also be absorbed in the camp site which is an abandoned rehabilitation colony, the land of which is already in possession of the Government and in Ashoknagar colony if the families are given facility of changing their category. Coopers Camp can be liquidated in its present site if the government implements the present scheme of converting that into a township with some modification. Families now in Gopalpur and Kaksa camps in the District of Burdwan may also be partially absorbed in Durgapur Industrial area and partially in land elsewhere. Families now in the camps in the district of Midnapur may be rehabilitated in Garbeta Scheme. Such illustration may be multiplied. If the refugees are given due facility for rehabilitation through bainanama scheme as well as change of occupational category in addition to the measures suggested above the rehabilitation of all families is now in camps may be completed within a very reasonable period and with much less cost than in places outside West Bengal. The number of such families is now almost half of what it was earlier and many have found rehabilitation in West Bengal although it was stated by the Government that West Bengal has reached a saturation point. I feel, therefore, that the rest may be found rehabilitation here provided there is willingness on the part of the Govt. The enthusiasm that will be generated among the refugees if such a policy is accepted will be no mean an asset for their proper rehabilitation. It is needless to dwell upon the necessity of restoration and continuation of doles during the period prior to their rehabilitation.
It has been made clear from our side times without number that despite the policy set out above for rehabilitation in West Bengal, there may be families who may be willing to go to Dandakaranya and we do not object to their going.
My views on the problem have been briefly outlined in the previous paragraphs. I believe that there is a scope for discussion on the matter for finding a proper solution to it. I am, however, going abroad for a short period, I shall try to meet you later when I come back. But in the meantime I request you to have discussion with the representatives of U. C. R. C., who will seek interview with you.
Sd. Jyoti Basu
Letter of Shri Samar Mukherjee to the Prime Minister on the rehabilitation camp refugees.
Ref No. 24/61 27th July, 1961
From : Shri Samar Mukherji, M. L. A.,
General Secretary, All India Council
of East Pakistan Displaced Persons,
93/1A, Bipin Behari Ganguli Street,
To : Shri Jawaharlal Nehru,
Prime Minister of India,
Sub : Rehabilitation of East Bengal Refugees now in Camp
1. A grave situation has developed due to continued hunger strike by groups of refugees in almost all the camps in West Bengal. The hunger strike was first started by two batches of refugees of Kalabani and Sarasanka camps in the district of Midnapore on 6th June last. Since then it has spread to almost all the camps and at present there are about 100 refugees on hunger-strike in different camps.
2. We do not propose to deal with the various problems of other sections of refugees which are nonetheless acute. We like to restrict us here only to the problems of camp refugees because their solution brooks no further delay.
3. The hunger strike by the Camp refugees was started as a mark of protest against the measures of the Government to send them to Dandakaranya against their will and under compulsion by service of notice on them with the option of going to Dandakaranya or to quit the camp within a period of 30 days. It is far from truth that the purpose of the present movement is to continue payment of doles eternally and to delay the liquidation of camps. On the contrary, the main aspect of the present movement is for the demand of their quick rehabilitation in different schemes started or proposed in West Bengal by the Government and through bainanama scheme together with the facility of changing their occupational category.
4. Such demands by refugees are not only realistic but also can be implemented within a very reasonable period and at a cost lower than that for schemes outside West Bengal. This will be borne out by the following illustrations. There are about 1000 families now in Sonarpur group of camps. All these families may be rehabilitated in Herobhanga 2nd scheme which was announced by the Govt. long ago but has not yet been implemented for reasons best know to them. About 600 families of Asrafabad Camp may be rehabilitated at the present site of the Camp which is the site of an unsuccessful rehabilitation Colony as well as in the nearby Ashokenagar Colony where a large number of plots are lying vacant. Coopers Camp may be liquidated in its present site if the Goverment implements the proposed scheme of converting the camp into a township with some modification. Families now in Gopalpur and Kaksa Camps in the district of Burdwan may be absorbed in Durgapore Industrial area. Families now in the camps of Midnapur District may be rehabilitated in Carbeta Scheme where it was proposed to accommodate 1500 familes. But only 350 families have been sent there uptill now. It will not be out of place to mention that in reply to a memorandum submitted in 1958 the West Bengal Government said that about 13,000 families may be settled on fallow lands in Garbata. Such illustrations may be multiplied without any difficulty. We can dare say that if the refugees are given due facility for rehabilitation through bainanama Scheme together with the facility for change of category in addition to the measures stated above their rehabilitation in a manner acceptable to them will not prove so difficult as is often suggested by the Government. It should also be mentioned here that the West Bengal Government stated in 1959 that of the 39,000 bainanamas executed by the camp refugees 21 thousand would be implemented. But not more than 50% of those have been implemented. These along with other measures were suggested to the state Government long ago. If these were adopted in time the camps would have been liquidated long ago and the present undesirable situation would neither have arisen nor the question of rehabilitation of camp refugees in Dandakaranya.
5. It should also be made clear that despite such a policy there might be families who may like to go to Dandakaranya. There can be no objection to that. It will thus be clear that the present movement has nothing to do with opposition to the Dandakaranya project as a whole. The movement only opposes sending refugees to Dandakaranya against their will when there is sufficient scope for their rehabilitation in West Bengal in a manner desired by them. It should also be mentioned here that the Chief Minister of West Bengal, as well as the Governor of the State, gave assurances in categorical terms that no refugee will be sent outside West Bengal against his will.
6. It will be seen that the coercive methods adopted by the Government for sending refugees to Dandakaranya have failed in as much as only 5% of families served with notices have gone to Dandakaranya. A stalemate has reached in respect of rehabilitation of camp refugees. Any further experiment with such a policy is fraught with serious consequences. Left to their own fate these camp families will be hardly able to rehabilitate themselves properly and will ultimately be a burden on the meager resources of the State. A rethinking of the whole question has, therefore, been necessary both for the proper solution of the problem and on human considerations.
7. It is high time that you should intervene immediately into the matter to prevent further deterioration in the situation which will result in loss of life of a few refugees and untold sufferings to many others as well as for a satisfactory solution of the problem.
Sd. Samar Mukherjee
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. In 1974 Jyoti Basu had demanded in a public meeting that the Dandakaranya refugees be allowed to settle in the Sundarbans. The Dandakaranya rehabilitation plan was conceived in early 1956 to resettle the East Pakistani refugees as West Bengal was groaning under the huge burden of rehabilitation. The West Bengal Left Front Minister Ram Chatterjee visited the refugee camps and encouraged them to settle in the Sundarbans, which had been a long-held Left Front opposition demand. 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. In 1977 June after the CPI(M)-led Left Front came to power in West Bengal, the migrant started to come to West Bengal. During the early part of 1978 the first wave of refugees from Dandakaranya started traveling from Orissa’s Malkangiri to West Bengal. They crossed Habra, Barasat, Bali Bridge and finally reached Hasnabad. After winning the election the left government suddenly changed its position and asked the refugees to go back.
“The new Left Front government in West Bengal, that had come to power
with the refugee vote, now urged these people to go back to Dandakaranya, refusing
to entertain their demand of settling in West Bengal. Many refugees were sent back
but around 10,000 Namasudra refugee families under the leadership of Satish Mandai,
president of the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti, set sail and settled in Marichjhapi”.
West Bengal Government dominated by CPI(M) abruptly started their propaganda against them by stating that the ‘Marichjhapi is a part of the Sundarbans reserve forest’ and Bangladesi refugees were ‘violating the Forest Acts and thereby disturbing the existing and potential forest wealth and also creating ecological imbalance’. The fact to be noted that most of the refugees were belong to the Namasudra class. Gradually Government atrocities were started to publish in media, Jyoti Basu, then chief minister of Bengal, shamelessly, termed it as ‘CIA conspiracy’ against the newly elected communist government of Bengal and exhorted media to support the government in ‘national interest’. Arrested people were thrown in Sundarbans – People said that tigers became maneater after that.
On January 26, 1979, India’s Republic Day, then Left Front chief minister Jyoti Basu announced an economic blockade of Marichjhapi. Thirty police launches surrounded the island; the refugees were tear-gassed, their huts, fisheries, and tube-wells destroyed. Those who tried to cross the river in makeshift boats were shot at. The refugees, armed with carpentry tools and makeshift bows and arrows were no match for the government forces. “On 14 June 1979, it was all over for us. The police came, set fire to our huts and forced the remaining ones out of the island. It was the end of the Marichjhapi dream. One year of dying by the dozens, yet carrying on with fire in our souls”- an eyewitness reported the incident.
Another fact that by the time Emergency was proclaimed in I 975 by Indira Gandhi, the Naxal movement had petered out. When the CPI (M) came back to power to form the Left Front, the euphoria was high, but then Marichjhapi happened.
After five months of inhuman brutality by police and destroying all the huts, markets, schools and all other visible development by Namashudra settlement. In May 1979 Jyoti Basu’s information minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced that the island had been cleared of ‘illegal occupants’. Due to this Government-sponsored operation out of 14000 families, 10000 families returned back to either Dandakaranya or Bangladesh.
Shaktipada Rajguru wrote a Bengali novel Dandak Theke Marichjhapi (1980-81) is the only full-length description of the circumstances of that time. The novel comes to an end when the settlement in Marichjhapi is attacked and destroyed by the police in 1979.
“Thirty police launches surrounded the island; the refugees were tear-gassed, their huts, fisheries and tubewells destroyed. Those who tried to cross the river in makeshift boats were shot at.
The refugees, armed with carpentry tools and makeshift bows and arrows were no
match for the government forces. A conservative estimate gave the dead as several
hundreds men, women and children who died either through starvation or who were
shot at and their bodies thrown into the river. Marichjhapi became out of bounds to
visiting journalists, opposition politicians and even a Parliamentary Committee who
came to investigate police atrocities faced harassment at the hands of the Forest
Department officials. The silence surrounding Marichjhapi’s massacres was to
continue for some time except stray efforts that tried to expose the lies, deceit and
betrayals that came to signify Marichjhapi. Rajguru’s novel is the only fictional work
that talks of Marichjhapi with such candour. That makes it exceptional given the
silence that has surrounded Marichjhapi.”
“They have no more strength to fight. So much pain, bloody days of hunger and
death have depleted all their strength. History has never written this story of
facing impossible odds, of fighting to the bitter end with their lifeblood. All the
words that would have described their lives will be lost, may be, it will be
written one day from another distorted standpoint. But in the eternal story of
humankind’s struggle this story will be written again and again. The love of
life of these refugees and their struggles will remain etched in that history
forever ….. but today they have been defeated. They have lost their all.”
Trinomial Congress in 2009 declared investigation of the Marichjhapi Massacre, but we have listened nothing in this direction after it has come into power.