Monday, May 24, 2010

MYSTERY OF MARICHJHAPI

[RECAP: In 1978, a few months after the Left Front came to power in West Bengal  for the first time, there started an exodus from the Bengali refugee camps in the central India. They came in thousands, and in a few months, more than 150,000 people reached the state, according to official estimates. They all wanted to settle here in Bengal – particularly, in the Sunderbans.

The new government might have found the situation difficult to handle, (it’s difficult to believe that it was caught unawares), but by the time it woke up, no less than 32,000 people went to and settled on an uninhabited island called Marichjhapi, on the eastern boundary of the Indian Sunderbans. That was in February-March, 1978.

Initially, the administration wanted to persuade the settlers to go back, but they apparently were adamant. Then began the pressure tactics. On January 24 (according to some chroniclers, January 26), the state clamped prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC around Marichjhapi, “because it was part of a reserve forest”. Also, the police and administration allegedly started an economic blockade. It’s claimed that the police launches that used to patrol around the island, didn’t allow anybody to take food and other essentials to Marichjhapi.

During the ‘blockade’, on January 31, there was a clash between the settlers and police at Kumirmari, the island opposite Marichjhapi (a river called Korankhali flows between the two islands). Police opened fire and people died. According to official records, the toll was two; according to a refugee leader, it was between 14 and 17. Apart from them, two others fell to police bullets in September 1978, claimed the leader. The toll, however, increased manifolds in some newspaper reports, “research papers” and eyewitness accounts.

Today, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find out actually how many people died in police firing. But in the whole process – starting from the exodus from central India camps to settlement in Marichjhapi, the police eviction drive to going back to the camps (or scattering away, as many of the settlers did) – hundreds of people lost their lives. People died of starvation, diseases and exahustion – many of them children and elderly.

There are some missing links in the mystery of Marichjhapi. I tried to find them out and wrote a two-part article for The Times of India, which was published in the newspaper on May 16 and May 17, 2010. Pasted below is a slightly edited version of that article. Also, two phonogram messages, which could not be accommodated in the newspaper article because of space constraint, have been included here.]


ISLAND OF DEATH

Latitude 22°11' North, longitude 88°57' East. Seventy-five kilometres from Kolkata as the crow flies. This is Marichjhapi – the place where thousands of drifting people had anchored three decades ago in the hope of finding a home of their own. But it proved to be an island of death – of human beings and the dreams they had reared in their hearts. Not realising that they were mere pawns in games of politics and greed, these rootless people were lured by those who cared little for their lives.

HOW IT BEGAN

Marichjhapi was just another uninhabited island in eastern Sunderbans, bordering Bangladesh. How it came to be a part of history and political myth is a long story – a story that began on August 15, 1947, at the stroke of midnight.

Ever since the Partition, waves of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (and later, Bangladesh) have swept the shores of Bengal, time and again. Millions of them managed to settle in the state, thousands scattered across India and many more were packed onto ships and trains to rehabilitation centres in the Andamans and central India.

Those who had been sent to Madhya Pradesh and Orissa had to face the harsh nature and an unfamilar way of life. Most longed to return to Bengal. And political parties – mainly the Left – stoked that longing. Reason: the refugee support base.

In 1961, when the government was trying to send the refugees to Dandakaranya, it was the undivided CPI that stood by the unwilling thousands. Party leaders – particularly Jyoti Basu – advocated for settling some of them in the Sunderbans, at Herobhanga Second Scheme. (Ironically, it was Basu who had to force those same refugees back to central India after 18 years.)

The refugees – 25,849 families of them till February 1, 1978, according to official records – were sent to Dandak camps. But leaders of the Left-backed United Central Refugee Council (UCRC) kept in touch with them and some reportedly assured the hapless people that someday they would be brought back to Bengal.

In January 1978, a few months after the Left Front came to power in the state, minister Ram Chatterjee of Marxist Forward Bloc and Asok Ghosh of All India Forward Bloc visited central India refugee settlements. They addressed several public meetings, sharing the dais with Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (UUS) leaders like Satish Mondal, who had been instigating the refugees to settle in the Sunderbans.

“The Left leaders had told the gatherings, ‘Five crore Bengalis will welcome you back to Bengal extending their 10 crore hands’,” claimed Nirmal Dhali (one of the refugees who settled in Marichjhapi and was evicted, arrested and sent back to Dandakaranya). Asok Ghosh, however, denied this “allegation”. Chatterjee, too, had reportedly denied making any such clarion call to the refugees. But he didn’t protest when at those meetings, Satish Mondal said from the same dais: “India is not anyone’s paternal property and we can settle anywhere we like. The Sunderbans is where we want to settle and so let us go to Bengal. We will die in West Bengal.”

In an interview for a documentary film (Marichjhapi 1978-79, Akranto Manabikota) by journalist Tushar Bhattacharya, former minister and RSP leader Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, too, said: “Some Left leaders had visited Dandakaranya and told the refugees to come back to Bengal. ‘We will help you to settle in Marichjhapi in the Sunderbans,’ they had said.”

While Nirmal Dhali told TOI that the comment, “five crore Bengalis will welcome you back…” had been made by Asok Ghosh, refugee leader Radhakanta Biswas attributed it to Kiranmoy Nanda.

Nanda, however, said when he had been to Dandakaranya with Ram Chatterjee, “Rambabu asked the refugees, ‘Where do you want to go?’ They said they wanted to settle in Marichjhapi. Rambabu said ‘OK’. Then they came to the Sunderbans.” Asok Ghosh was not with them on that occasion.

Coincidentally, a few days after Ghosh and Chatterjee returned from Dandakaranya, an exodus started from the camps there. Thousands left whatever little they had and set off for the Sunderbans. Within weeks, 160,000 refugees deserted their camps and reached West Bengal, according to official estimates.



WHODUNIT

But could just a few meetings addressed by two leaders within three days (January 16-19, 1978, according to Nirmal Dhali) start such a big exodus? Could it have been possible without a concerted and well-organised effort and without several years of meticulous planning? It seems different groups, with different motives – political, and sometimes personal – had been trying to bring the refugees to the Sunderbans (and particularly Marichjhapi) for some time.


THE RECCE

It was not in 1978 that the refugee leaders set foot in Marichjhapi for the first time. Three years before that, in 1975, an Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (UUS) team led by Satish Mondal did a recce of the region and decided that Marichjhapi – not too far from Bangladesh border – was an ideal place for the refugees from Dandakaranya to be brought and settled. Soon after, there was an attempt to stoke an exodus in Dandakaranya, which was aborted by the then Congress government. Some refugee leaders were arrested on their way to the Sunderbans.


SOME NEWS REPORTS

A few weeks after the exodus started in 1978, an all-party team from Bengal, including some ministers, visited Dandakaranya to assess the situation. Here are some news reports filed from Dandak during that time:

“…the refrain (of the refugees is) that ‘we want to die in West Bengal’. But the question is whether the conviction has been created by some instigating agencies as the situation does not seem to justify such a feeling…

“The economic grievances listed by the refugees at every village the delegation visited were low yield of the land and unremunerative prices for the produce... Interestingly, the grievances listed in the memoranda received in far flung villages were all couched in the same language and even the grievances listed in the same order…

“At different places refugees did not deny that people had urged them to leave for West Bengal.” – The Statesman, March 27, 1978

“Though many people talked of outside instigation, none identified the persons. The situation is intriguing and after a hectic tour of the area they (the all-party team) were convinced that there was an instigating group who wanted the settlers to leave. Though none of the ministers identified the group, they so strongly criticised the Udbastu Unnayansil Samiti that there was no doubt who the instigators were”. – The Statesman, March 26, 1978

Another newspaper reports after a few days:

“According to official estimate the total number of deserters in and around Raipur station is 10,000. Their refrain is, we will die in Bengal. Railway officials state that during the last four-five days nearly 3,000 tickets for Calcutta have been sold… I spoke to many deserters. Each one of them are eager to reach Calcutta and all of them have tickets. Each ticket costs Rupees 25.36. They are, however, unwilling to disclose as to who paid for their tickets.” – Anandabazar Patrika, April 2, 1978


STRANGE COINCIDENCES

Was the UUS too close to the Forward Bloc? “No,” says AIFB general secretary Asok Ghosh. And the rumour that Ram Chatterjee had asked the Dandak refugees to come to Bengal had no element of truth in it, says former 24-Parganas SP Amiya Kumar Samanta. But a study of the incidents before and after the exodus throws up some strange coincidences.

i) The exodus from Dandakaranya began a few days after leaders of two Forward Blocs – AIFB and Marxist Forward Bloc – visited the area.

ii) The settlement in Marichjhapi was named ‘Netajinagar’ by the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti.

iii) In early 1979, when the administration clamped Section 144 around Marichjhapi and started a virtual economic blockade, a writ petition was filed in the Calcutta high court by Sakya Sen and Niharendu Datta Majumdar. While Sen was affiliated to Amra Bangali (he later fought a Lok Sabha election from Kolkata South on an Amra Bangali ticket), Datta Majumdar was a Forward Bloc veteran. (He was a close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose. In 1948, after he was released from jail, he joined the Congress. He became a member of the BC Roy cabinet. Later, he quit that party and joined Subhashwadi Forward Bloc. Even in 1980, he approached the Election Commission of India, claiming that he represented the real Forward Bloc.)


HOMELAND INSTIGATIONS?

a) Amra Bangali had helped the refugees in Marichjhapi in more ways than one. If those who had settled on the island are to be believed, the organisation had provided financial and other assistance to the refugees. Says former Marichjhapi dweller Nirmal Dhali, “With the help of Amra Bangali’s Subrata Chatterjee, we had sunk seven tubewells in five sectors on the island.” (We would like to remind the reader that the ultimate announced goal of the organisation is the creation of “Bangalistan”, covering West Bengal, Tripura, the Andamans, parts of Assam, Meghalaya, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Nepal and Myanmar and the whole of “Swadhin Bangladesh”.)



b) There were other organisations involved in the Marichjhapi episode. According to intelligence reports, a Kolkata-based outfit, Nikhil Banga Nagarik Sangha, distributed hundreds of copies of the route map from Kolkata to Marichjhapi and a rough sketch of the island among refugees in Dandakaranya before the exodus started in February, 1978.

Around the same time, the leaders of the organisation, S Chatterjee and Dr Kalidas Baidya, along with some volunteers, staged several demonstrations – a couple of them in front of the Bangladesh deputy high commission office – demanding a “Hindu homeland”, says Amiya Kumar Samanta, who was the 24-Parganas SP during the Marichjhapi operation. Baidya was arrested during one such demonstration, but Chatterjee managed to give police the slip and maintained contact with the UUS, Samanta adds.


On August 20, 1978, S Chatterjee sent a phonogram to the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai, which read:

“Prime Minister,
“Your kind attention drawn to planned massacre of innocent refugees at Marichjhapi, Sundarbans, in your name. Please take realistic stock of situation and kindly allow them to independently establish their stay irrespective of any political compulsion.
“About ten thousand built their huts, economic fisheries starting paying dividend regenerating economy locally.
“Now seems being brutally uprooted by L.F. Government in connivance with yours who probably is ignorant of exact situation.
“Request immediately stop Marichjhapi operation tomorrow and respect whole cultural Bengalis heart.”

The day after, Chatterjee sent another phonogram to the Prime Minister and a few MPs:
“ Prime Minister,
“Humbly appeal—Stop further massacre operation on Marichjhapi Sundarbans refugees. Today all launch services suspended there sine die officially large contingent forces sent not for just return to Dandak. Repeat appeal to P.M. and Morarji must know real situation before making Turkman Gate plus Jallianwalla Bagh blunder….Must…politics rule or Central Government and civilized India. Kindly Act.”

Why was the Sangha interested in settling the refugees on an island close to the Bangladesh border? Was that because of its dream to create a Hindu homeland, which will cover several districts of Bangladesh? The organisation began its movement on August 15, 1977. And on March 25, 1982, it officially declared the formation of Bangabhumi, covering the districts of greater Khulna, Jessore, Kushtia, Faridpur, Barisal and Patuakhali of Bangladesh.

The organisation also formed an ‘armed wing’ called Bangasena, with Kalidas Baidya as its commander. Some ‘soldiers’ of Bangasena were also active members of the volunteer force at Marichjhapi in 1978-79. One of them, Jadab Haldar, who now stays in a shanty on the outskirts of Kolkata, admitted that to this correspondent.


THE VOLUNTEERS

So, what was the role of the volunteers in Marichjhapi? Former SP Amiya Kumar Samanta writes: “There was no semblance of state authority in the island as the entry of the police and administrative officials was stoutly resisted by armed volunteers.” The volunteers also allegedly forced people to stay back on the island if they wanted to leave. According to Samanta, “On 13 February one Manindra Roy of Marichjhapi reported to a police patrol that one Mahesh Baroi and 10/15 volunteers threatened him and the members of his family with dire consequences and kept them confined in their houses (Ref. Gosaba PS Case No.9 dated 13.2.1979).”

Jadab Haldar didn’t deny. “Yes, we had to force the refugees to stay back. Otherwise, people would have left and that would have diminished our strength. Sometimes, we even had to beat up people to prevent them from leaving Marichjhapi,” he said.

Khagen Mistri of Gosaba, who had gone to settle at Marichjhapi in the hope of getting some land there, too said: “I had a good rapport with the UUS, but when I was leaving the island with my family after the police firing in Kumirmari, the volunteers tried to prevent me as well. Many people had to flee on the pretext of bringing water from the other side of the river.”

The volunteers didn’t have firearms (“The Naxalites had offered to supply us with guns, which we refused,” says Haldar), but they were armed to the teeth with traditional weapons. Apart from lathis, tangis and choppers, they had spears and poisoned arrows (“the poison was so strong that just one arrow was enough to finish off a policeman,” Haldar adds) and chengas – small wooden sticks sharpened like pencils at both ends that the refugees could throw with lethal precision. “One of the chengas had pierced through the helmet of a policeman,” says Samanta.

But these traditional weapons could definitely not have been as lethal as the .303 bullets used by Samanta’s policemen.



HIRED GOONS?

If the UUS had its volunteer force to keep the cops at bay, police too had hired locals to help in the eviction. Most of them had been hired from Kumirmari, the island separated from Marichjhapi by the Korankhali river. It is often said that police and CPM cadres together had attacked the refugees in Marichjhapi, but those hired by police were quite unlikely to be CPM cadres. For, CPM was almost non-existent in Kumirmari and nearby islands. The strongest political party in the area was RSP, which apparently was sympathetic towards the refugees.

“Police offered us Rs 80-100 per day and we were supposed to destroy the houses there and make people board the launches with their belongings," Kalipada Gayen, a resident of Kumirmari told this correspondent. "Many villagers from Kumirmari had been hired by police as labourers. By the time we reached Marichjhapi, most male members of the refugee families had been taken out by police. I saw women crying and could not force them or damage their huts. I came back to Kumirmari and did not go back. Nor did I take any money from the police,” said Kalipada.

In Tushar Bhattacharya’s documentary, another Kumirmari resident, Dinabandhu Mondal, says: “It was us, the common people, who drove the refugees away. Police gave us money for that.”

In the same documentary, villager Rabi Mondal describes how he and four others snatched a boat from the Marichjhapi settlers to stop the ferry service between the two islands. “Then a launch (of the BDO or the DM) picked us up and the officials interrogated us. They asked us who had stopped the ferry service. As we told them that it was us, they said ‘well done my boys’ and gave us Rs 500 each.”



DEATHS

How many lives were lost in the process of settling in Marichjhapi and the forced eviction that followed? There is no clear answer. While the government claimed that only two people died in police firing, some ‘researchers’ claim that the total number of deaths – in police firing, starvation and during transporation – was around 17,000. None of these, however, appears close to the real figure, which is almost impossible to find out today.

While police and government claim only two tribal villagers of Kumirmari died in firing, one is bound to become a little suspiscious. According to the then SP Amiya Kumar Samanta, on January 31, 1979, police had opened fire at Kumirmari, when a police camp was attacked by volunteers armed with spears, choppers and chenga. “There was a small house belonging to a local adivasi family near the embankment… As the attack was coming from the side of the house, the police fired in that direction killing two adivasi women who were totally innocent… No deserter was killed in police action,” writes Samanta.

But when a police force is firing to “ward off” a crowd of armed volunteers, isn’t it unlikely for the killer bullets to miss all of them and hit only two innocent locals?

According to the people of Kumirmari, however, only one local resident, Meni Munda, had been killed by police. The other victms were all refugees. “The day Meni Munda was killed, this place was swarming with police. They were firing bullets and tear gas shells. Several of us got stuck in the house of Baburam Biswas, a villager. From there, we saw policemen pulling the bodies by their legs onto the launches. The bodies had been dumped on the char (sandbar) near Rabi Mondal’s house. We didn’t go to see how many bodies were there,” Kalipada Gayen says. “The toll must have been more than two. The policemen were firing at the refugees… it was like shoot-on-sight. Since everybody was running around, the cops couldn’t always aim correctly and that’s why a stray bullet hit Meni Munda.”

In Tushar Bhattacharya’s documentary, villager Rabi Mondal says: “I think 30/35/40 people had been killed. The bodies were stacked beside my house, near the pond.”

Panchayat member of Kumirmari, Basudeb Mondal, also an eyewitness, says in the same documentary, “I guess around 25 to 30 people were killed.”

Meni’s younger brother Nitai Munda, who was also at the spot on that day, told this correspondent: “They held the refugees by their hair – irrespective of their gender — pressing them against the byne trees on this char and hacked them. It all happened in front of our house. Then they took the dead and the injured to the Kalindi on their launches and threw them away in the river. The policemen even forcibly took away the body of my sister, which we never got back. They must have killed at least 150 people. It’s my guess. I didn’t see the bodies myself. I was sitting inside my house, in front of the door.”

Former Marichjhapi dweller Nirmal Dhali – who was not in Kumirmari at that time – claimed more than 150 people had been killed on that day.

But these figures seem exaggerated, since UUS secretary Raiharan Baroi himself wrote in a memorandum (submitted to a team of MPs visiting Marichjhapi): “The police became angry and opened fire indiscriminately resulting in death of 15 refugees and two local people including one woman.” That makes the toll 17. But in the list of the victims’ names submitted with the memorandum, he mentions 14 people (including two locals)!

On March 22, 1979, a team of MPs visited Marichjhapi (to whom Raiharan had submitted his memorandum). The next month (April 25, 1979), Anandabazar Patrika wrote that Janata Party leader Murli Manohar Joshi published the report submitted by the MPs. The report said 10 people died in January 31 police firing.

According to Amiya Kumar Samanta, it was only on that day (during the entire Marichjhapi episode) that police had to open fire. But in his memorandum, Raiharan claims: “On 20 August 1978… (police launches) ran over 43 boats, breaking into pieces and opened fire resulting deaths of two young refugee boys.”

Regarding this incident, Samanta writes: “I was in the SP’s launch in front of Sandeshkhali Police Station and all actions were taken under my order and within my view. There was no need to fire either bullet or teargas shells as there was no resistance.”

But bullets were not the only killer in Marichjhapi. Many more died of hunger and diseases. And this was not only during the period when the administration clamped prohibitory orders around the island under Section 144, CrPC, and started a virtual economic blockade. The prohibitory orders were clamped on January 26, 1979, almost a year after the refugees came. By then, many people – mostly children and the elderly – died of starvation, diarrhoea, dysentry and other diseases. Almost every former dweller of Marichjhapi this correspondent spoke to said many people died before the “blockade”. “As soon as we set up the hutments, the food crisis began. People used to sell wood from small trees in nearby villages, used to beg for money and food, ate whatever little they could arrange,” says Nirmal Dhali.

Former volunteer Jadab Haldar, who had quit his job (the monthly salary was Rs 300 in 1978) in Dandakaranya to come to Marichjhapi, says: “Many people died, even before the blockade.”

Monoranjan Mondal of Kolkata suburbs, Madhabi Bahadur and Kanchan Tapali of Gosaba all said that people started dying like flies much before the blockade began.

Madhabi, who had gone to settle in Marichjhapi with her family in the hope of getting some land, had left the island before the police firing. “When we went there, we found the place full of small shacks. And everywhere there were bodies – bodies of young and old, dumped under trees, beside houses, beside the canal… They didn’t cremate bodies. They just left them there to rot.”

So, the claim that it was because of the blockade that people died of hunger and diseases is not true. And the refugee leaders, who in their enthusiasm had lured thousands of people to an island not yet fit for human habitation, were no less responsible than the administration for the loss of lives.

According to an unpublished PhD dissertation (Brown University), by Nilanjana Chatterjee, “at least 3,000 refugees had secretly left Marichjhapi 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.”

It’s not clear how the figure of 3,000 (those who secretly left Marichjhapi) was arrived at. Based on this paper, another researcher has done a simple arithmatic: “From these figures (20,000 — 3,000) it can be estimated that as many as 17,000 people died…” – a toll which not even any refugee leader has ever claimed. It’s true that many people had sneaked out of Marichjhapi, eluding volunteers and police. Many of them settled in different islands of the Sunderbans, including Jharkhali, Mollakhali and Gosaba. No effort has ever been made to find out their number.

Also, while the refugees were being taken back to Dandakaranya from Marichjhapi, many gave the authorities the slip and scattered across south Bengal. Jadab Haldar is one of them. There are many others like him who live in Kolkata, Dum Dum, Patipukur, Barasat and Basirhat. Today, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find out their exact number.



MISSING LEADERS

The three most prominent leaders of the UUS – Satish Mondal, Raiharan Baroi and Rangalal Goldar – mysteriously disappeared from Marichjhapi before the final police crackdown (in May, 1979). They left behind thousands of people whom they had lured to this island with a dream. “As soon as police landed in Marichjhapi, the leaders just vanished from the scene,” says Nirmal Dhali. The hapless thousands remained on the island to fend for themselves – to face the police force and their “hired labourers”.

Satish Mondal later went back to Madhya Pradesh to pursue his business, Raiharan reportedly fled to Bangladesh, got arrested there and spent two years behind bars. Later he came back to India. His family is now settled in Patipukur near Dum Dum. Rangalal was helped by some intellectuals and politicians – including Gourkishore Ghosh, Ram Chatterjee and Gobinda Naskar – to settle in a village near Ghutiari Sharif in today’s South 24-Parganas. The refugee leader named the small village “Pather Shesh” – End of the Road.



ECONOMY OF MARICHJHAPI

In February-March 1978, around 30,000 homeless, penniless refugees reached Marichjhapi and built their shacks (kunji in local dialect) on the island. And within three to four months they built several “factories”: a bidi factory, bakery, carpentry workshop, a hosiery factory – an achievement unheard of anywhere else in the Sunderbans, neither before, nor after the Marichjhapi episode. Where did the capital come from? Apparently, one of the major sources of capital was timber business. Not only small shrubs, as claimed by some leaders, the refugees reguarly felled trees from the forest and did brisk business in timber. Middlemen (phore) from different islands used to come to Marichjhapi to buy timber, says a former settler.

Amiya Samanta too writes: “The wood trade became so widespread that the merchants of Canning and Basirhat advanced money to the deserters for supply of wood.”

Asked how he used to make ends meet while in Marichjhapi, Manoranjan Mondal (who now stays in a shanty on the outskirts of Kolkata) smiled hesitantly. “I used to steal wood from the forest. With other dwellers of the isand, I used to go to different blocks of the forest and cut big trees. Then we sold those to the samiti (UUS). I can’t say what the samiti did with the timber.”

In his memorandum, Raiharan himself wrote: “The refugees ran away leaving 157 boats behind loaded with timber and firewood costing Rs 3.50 lakhs.”

The UUS set up a “big market” in Marichjhapi, according to Kumirmari villagers. “They used to bring foodgrains, cloth, garments and hardware items from outside. Their market was bigger than the one in Kumirmari. Sometimes, we used to get things there which were not available in any other island nearby,” says Kalipada Gayen of Kumirmari.

But that doesn’t mean that the common refugees were well off. They could not grow any foodgrain there because of high salinity. “Only if they allowed us to stay there for another year or two, we could have grown paddy,” says Madhabi Bahadur.

“We couldn’t grow anything there,” says Nirmal Dhali. “So, people had to eat jodu palong, a kind of grass, during the blockade. Some of us used to call it Jyoti palong,” he adds.

“There was no farming or cultivation. The land was salinated,” says former settler Manoranjan Mondal.

According to Bharati Mondal of Gosaba, who had gone to Marichjhapi with her family, “The refugees used to beg for food… they used to disturb us a lot (khub jwalaton korto khabarer jonye).”

Kanchan Tapali, who too went with Bharati, says, “The refugees used to beg for rice starch (bhater phyan) from us.”

“Incidents of theft had risen in Kumirmari during that period,” says Biren Mridha, a private tutor based in Kumirmari.

Apart from timber trade, the UUS used to distribute land patta in lieu of money.

Amiya Kumar Samanta writes: “The UUS distributed the land of Marichjhapi island by issuing written and signed documents of right to individuals or groups. Besides the settlers, their friends and relatives living in Khulna and the neighbouring island of Kumirmari also received such papers.”

Local RSP leader Prafulla Mondal, the then panchayat pradhan of Kumirmari, was sympathetic to the refugees. He was even called by Jyoti Basu to Kolkata and pulled up for “helping the settlers”. Mondal told this correspondent: “My brother had paid Rs 25,000 to the samiti in the hope of getting land on Marichjhapi. Had I known that, I wouldn’t have allowed him to lose the money.”

Says Bharati Mondal: “My husband Dinabandhu sold one bigha of land in Gosaba and we took the money to Marichjhapi. The samiti charged us Rs 150 for nine bighas there. We never got back the money.”

Then there was outside help. “Some of us contacted different voluntary organisations for food and money. Besides that, many outsiders used to help us personally,” says Nirmal Dhali.

“The refugee leaders sometimes held meeting at Pulin Mondal’s house in Kumirmari,” Biren Mridha says. “Occasionally, relief would come from outside and used to be distributed in those meetings.”

Mridha has an interesting story to tell: “Refugee leader Raiharan used to call me ‘bondhu’ (friend). One day, he sent news to me that somebody would spend the night at my place. After the evening, the person came. He was a sannyasi with flowing beard and ochre robe. He was carrying a jhola (sling bag) with him, which was full of money. The next day, before dawn, the mysterious man went away.”



PERSONAL GAINS?

Did any of the leaders make any personal gain from the whole affair? Yes, claim some former settlers of Marichjhapi. One of the most prominent UUS leaders used to hoard tins of milk powder which he refused to give to anybody, not even when children were dying of hunger, says Subhasini Goldar, widow of UUS leader Rangalal Goldar. What did he do with the milk powder then? “How am I supposed to know?” says Subhasini. Former settler Shefali Mondal is more straightforwrad: “He must have been selling the milk powder outside.”

“That person had made a lot of money,” says Subhashini. “When he fled Marichjhapi, he took away a sackful of money with him.”



END OF THE ROAD

So here is how the Marichjhapi movement came to an end. The road ended back in Dandakaranya for thousands, in shanties along railway tracks of Kolkata and suburbs for many, in Madhya Pradesh for Satish Mondal, Patipukur for Raiharan’s family and for Rangalal, it was at the village called Pather Shesh.

4 comments:

  1. The perpetrators of the mass scale massacre at Marichjhapi should thank their stars that at that point of time, there was no audio-visual media. Otherwise, this plight of those hapless refugees would have reached every drawing room of every Indian. Perhaps they could have been saved from this mass homicide. It was just a search of one's roots and search for survival support. But the refugees fell pray to the two - pronged vested interest of the Government as well as the opportunist refugee leaders. Those leaders had the dream of making Bangabhoomi??? Never. It was just an utopia and they used it as the food dangling from Sukumar Ray's Khuror Kal. Nobody really bothered for them. Administration paying for murders of poor, hungry refugees - nothing can beat this! Is it the same Left Front Government whose cadres keep on distributing illegal ration cards to illegal immigrants from Bangladesh - a ploy to expand their mass base? They why is this contradiction in the 70's? But misdeeds cannot be buried for long. Some day or other they will be dug out and people will get to know about the stark reality. Though our generation do not identify with the refugee issue in the post independence era, but stories and anecdotes heard from our parents need to get a more factual basis. Thanks to the writer for letting this mystery out in daylight.Thanks for helping us to see those childhood memory of titbit anecdotes in real perspective. Thanks a ton!

    ReplyDelete
  2. dear friend ,
    U removed the fulcrum to nowhere .

    It is Basically The Incapability of Being Able To Accept The Acceptance For Which Some Politicians Tried Their Dices In Secret .This Shows the Diseased Mind of The Satanic Marxists Of West Bengal .

    ReplyDelete
  3. Tomar bangla blog kothay dekhbo!

    ReplyDelete

Followers