(First published in Insight blog in 2009)
Anoop Kumar, Ajay Hela and Nilesh Kumar
Exactly 30 years ago, Dalits, in West Bengal, came to realize the true nature of Indian state that is being dominated, in every sense, by a tiny section of population but at a great personal cost. It was in 1979, when thousands of Dalits, refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) lost their lives at Marichjhapi, in Sunderbans, for their dream of resettling in the region which they considered part of their motherland.
Marichjhapi is just once incident in the tragic tale of one of the most powerful Dalit Community-Namashudras of Bengal – who first became the victim of Hindu-Muslim communalism during the partition and later became the victims of their castes in independent India.
Moreover, the complete silence of Bengal’s civil society for almost 30 years and the fact that Dalits were killed by Communist government of West Bengal that came in the power in the name of poor and dispossessed, raises some serious questions about representation of Dalits in every sphere, the constitution of civil society and hegemony of few privileged castes over the political power in Independent India.
Apart from these, the Namashudra problem also poses a big question for the Dalits (and Dalit movement) living in other parts of the country about whether they are willing to fight for the rights of their fellow community people who, unfortunately, paid the ultimate price for sending Babasaheb Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly.
In 1946, Constituent Assembly was constituted with the mandate to frame Indian constitution and to function as provisional parliament for independent India. Its members were elected by state assemblies and represented almost all major communities of the country. However, the Congress government in Bombay province, headed by B.G. Kher and under instructions from Sardar Patel, ensured that Babasaheb Ambedkar was not elected.
At this crucial juncture, a very prominent leader Jogendra Nath Mandal ensured his election from the Bengal province. Thus Babasaheb could enter into the constituent assembly and, later, become prime architect of Indian Constitution that guaranteed many rights for the Dalits including representation in education and government jobs.
Who was Jogendra Nath Mandal? How could Babasaheb enter into Constituent Assembly from Bengal being ambushed by Congress in Bombay province and declared persona non grata due to his exposure of Gandhi and Congress as upholders of ‘upper’ caste Hindu domination?
He could enter at the strength of the then untouchable community called Namashudras and Jogendra Nath Mandal was one of the prominent Namashudra leaders of Bengal.
Namashudras were largely an agrarian community well-known for its hardworking nature, agricultural and artisan skills. It was one of the biggest communities of Bengal, with majority of its population based in east part of undivided Bengal (now Bangladesh) with a long tradition of resisting caste-hindu domination and fighting against untouchability practices and other ignominies thrust on them by the caste system.
The Namashudra movement had been one of the most politically mobilized untouchable’s movements in colonial India that, even before Dr Ambedkar, had rejected Congress leadership for upholding the interests of landowning ‘upper’ castes under the ruse of Indian nationalism. The complete monopoly of rich Bengali Bhadraloks (a land owning class of people belonging to three Hindu ‘upper’ castes – brahmins, kayasthas and vaidyas) on congress leadership validated their severe indictment of the policies of the Congress.
Even prior to congress, the Namashudras were the only voice of resistance to much touted Bengal ‘renaissance’ that, in all practical terms, were efforts of ‘upper’ caste hindus to consolidate themselves and aggressively bargain with British colonial government to restrict the benefits of British built institutions like that of education, judiciary, bureaucracy and local governance for themselves.
The success of the Namashudra Movement could be easily measured by the autonomous political space which they were able to chalk out for themselves in Bengal politics and in alliance with Muslims had kept the Bengal Congress Party in opposition from the 1920s. At the strength of this political space only they could get Babasaheb elected to the Constituent Assembly.
This exclusion of ‘upper’ caste Hindus from power in Bengal led Hindu elite and eventually the Congress Party pressing for partition of the province at independence, so that at least the western half would return to their control. So successful they have been in their design that West Bengal is probably the only state in the country where ‘upper’ caste hegemony went completely unchallenged in independent India till today.
It is clearly manifested in every sphere of life there and one hardly comes across any murmur of Dalit assertion ever.
One of the best indicators of ‘upper’ caste Hindu domination over West Bengal would be the number of Cabinet positions enjoyed by them in the successive state governments – the tiny tri-caste Bengali elite (consisting of brahmins, kayasthas and vaidyas) increased its Cabinet composition from 78 percent under the Congress regime (1952-62) to 90 percent under the Communist regime indicating their complete domination over West Bengal.
How this was achieved? What happened to the once powerful Namashudra community that resisted the ‘upper’ caste hegemony in pre-independent India?
The Plight of Namashudras in post Independent India
Marichjhapi is one of the small islands lying within the Sundarbans area of West Bengal. It was here, in 1979, that thousands of Dalits were killed by the communist led West Bengal government. Hundreds were killed directly in police firings but many more died of starvation, lack of drinking water and diseases due to the economic blockade that was imposed on them by the state government and carried out by the police and communist cadres together.
Their settlements in Marichjhapi were completely bulldozed, destroyed and hundreds of women raped leaving behind only the dead bodies of the Dalits to be either dumped in the water bodies or to be eaten by the beasts of nearby jungles in one of the biggest genocide carried out by any state in independent India.
The people who survived were driven out of West Bengal to continue living with the tragic memories of their lost loved ones and perpetual longing for the soil that once constituted parts of their motherland.
What happened at Marichjhapi is just one incident in the long tragic history of this particular Bengali Dalit community that started with the partition of the country and is continued till today. They have been living in their own country as second grade citizens, being forcefully scattered throughout the country.
These helpless victims belonged to a Dalit community called Namashudras and were refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) who were dispatched to different parts of the country by the state government citing the lack of space in West Bengal but took no time and least efforts to provide maximum possible relief and rehabilitation to the ‘upper’ caste refugees.
Apart from this, these refugees illegally occupied large areas in and around Kolkata and other major cities of Bengal and got it regularized but when it came to Dalit refugees, the then Congress Chief Minister B.C. Roy wrote to Prime Minister Nehru that ‘we have no place for them, send them to other states’.
Then these Dalit refugees, despite their vociferous protests, were dispatched to inhospitable and far flung areas of states like Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Uttaranchal, Assam to live in completely alien environment. They were driven down to these places packed in government vehicles as cattle, under strict police supervision. Later many of their settlements in different states, like Mana camp in Orissa, were turned into concentration camps as government employed the services of Indian army to guard the camps for 12 long years, lest these people would escape to West Bengal.
Marichjhapi massacre of Dalit refugees by Left government in Bengal is just one incident. Even before Marichjhapi there were numerous incidents where many Namashudra refugees got killed by police while demanding for better provisions in the camps where they were being forcefully kept.
Apart from being persecuted by the state, the Namashudras, settled outside West Bengal, also suffered enormously from various other factors. They continuously faced hostility of local populace that strongly resented the presence of outsiders in their surroundings. Most of the camps were in the areas that were not fit for agriculture and being primarily an agrarian community, totally different type of climates and soil conditions made them handicap.
Also even the reservation provisions for which, as Dalits, they would have been eligible in West Bengal, were not recognized in the states in which they were settled, as their castes were not native to those states. Despite all the difficulties, Namashudra refugees settled in different states kept their dream alive of returning back to the environment/culture/land that they belong to.
The Great Communist Betrayal
During this period, in late 1960s and till mid-70s, the Bengali communists led by CPI (M), which was in opposition then, took up the case of these refugees and demanded the government to settle them within their native Bengal rather than scatter them across India on the lands of other peoples.
The communist, again its leadership monopolized by ‘upper’ caste, started raising their voices in the support of Dalit refugees and promised to provide them rehabilitation in West Bengal. The sites they mentioned in West Bengal for resettlement were either the Sundarbans area of the Ganges delta or vacant land scattered in various places throughout the state. The party leaders went around various Dalit camps campaigning for their return to West Bengal, simultaneously promising full support after coming in power.
Particularly one, Mr. Ram Chatterjee, who later became minister in the CPI (M) led government, exhorted the Dalit refugees by thundering, “The 5 crore Bengalis by raising their 10 crore hands are welcoming you back.”
In 1977, when the Left Front came to power, they found that the Dalit refugees had taken them at their words having disposed off whatever their meager belongings were and have marched towards West Bengal. In all, 1, 50,000 refugees arrived from Dandakaranya region of what is now Chhattisgarh expecting the communists to honour their words.
Instead the Left Front government started sending them back forcibly citing the lack of space in the state – the same reason that was cited earlier when the Dalits arrived from East Bengal during the partition. It was a rude shock for the refugees who were depending on the newly elected Left Front government. When they opposed this, Dalit refugees were brutally evicted from various railway stations, being fired upon by the West Bengal police and were denied food and water.
Still many refugees managed to escape and reached Marichjhapi, an island that lies in the northern part of the Sunderbans. Thousands of other Dalit refugees also marched to Marichjhapi on feet along the railway tracks, avoiding the police.
By the end of the year 1978, there were 30,000 Dalit refugees in the island of Marichjhapi who rapidly established it as one of the best-developed islands of the Sundarbans. Within a few months tube-wells had been dug, a viable fishing industry, saltpans, dispensaries and schools were established. In short, in just few months, the hard working Namashudras built a thriving local economy without any government support in the region that is considered the poorest in West Bengal.
Deeply humiliated by the successful resettlement of Namashudra refugees in Marichjhapi, the Left Front government started their propaganda against them by stating that the ‘Marichjhapi is a part of the Sundarbans government reserve forest’ and therefore Dalit refugees were ‘violating the Forest Acts and thereby disturbing the existing and potential forest wealth and also creating ecological imbalance’.
This was a blatant lie as Marichjhapi did not fall under government reserve forest at all. The Bengali Bhadralok leadership of Left Front had to resort to such lies and take up environmental concerns as an excuse as the Marichjhapi exposed their earlier lie too regarding ‘lack of space in West Bengal’.
The West Bengal government launched a full frontal assault on the Marichjhapi and the Dalit refugees. It started with the economic blockade. The police cordoned off the whole island, cutting every communication links with the outside world.
Thirty police launches encircled the island thereby depriving the settlers of food and water; they were also tear-gassed, their huts razed, their boats sunk, their fisheries and tube-wells destroyed, and those who tried to cross the river were shot at. Several hundred men, women and children were believed to have died during that time and their bodies thrown in the river.
And those who tried to defy this economic blockade by swimming across to other islands in search of food and water were brutally shot. On the January 31, 1979 the police opened fire killing 36 people who were trying to get food and water from a nearby island.
It was not that the media was not aware of the sufferings and police brutalities on hapless Namashudras. When the reports of Marichjhapi started appearing in the media, Jyoti Basu, then chief minister of Bengal, shamelessly, termed it as ‘CIA conspiracy’ against newly elected communist government of Bengal and exhorted media to support the government in ‘national interest’.
Jyoti Basu justified the police actions by accusing Namashudra refugees of being agents of foreign forces and using Marichjhapi as arms-training centre. Moreover, Jyoti Basu declared the whole area to be out of bound for media and thus effectively silencing any dissenting voices or reporting of the killings of Dalit refugees.
It took more than five months and killings of thousands of Dalit refugees for the West Bengal government to effectively crush the Namashudra resistance in Marichjhapi. Totally devastated by the government brutalities the rest of the Namsahudras were packed off, as prisoner of war, back to Chattishgarh and Andaman.
After destroying all the huts, markets, schools and all other visible markers of Namashudra settlement, West Bengal government declared, in May 1979, Marichjhapi ‘finally free from all refugees’.
Regarding the total lives lost during the West Bengal government’s assault on Marichjhapi we will quote from one of the earliest writings on this incident by A. Biswas who wrote, in 1982, that ‘…out of the 14,388 families who deserted [for West Bengal), 10,260 families returned to their previous places . . . and the remaining 4,128 families perished in transit, died of starvation, exhaustion, and many were killed in Kashipur, Kumirmari, and Marichjhapi by police firings”. [A. Biswas, 1982, “Why Dandakaranya a Failure, Why Mass Exodus, Where Solution?” The Oppressed Indian 4(4):18-20.]
Memories in the black hole
Exactly thirty years have passed by of this fateful event that took place in Marichjhapi but not many from outside are aware of the communist government’s genocidal acts against Dalits. There has been complete silence even from the Bengali civil society that claims to be very progressive and free from caste biases.
The Bengali scholars, Marxist or otherwise, rule the Indian academia and write, articulate on all the problems that plague this earth. But none of them broke their silence ever on the merciless killings and eviction of people who belonged to the same Bengali society but were Dalits. Marichjhapi was soon forgotten, except by the Dalits themselves.
The communists who keep on harping on fighting for the poor and dispossessed took no time in killing the same people soon after occupying the state power.
Perhaps this was apt revenge from the Bengali Bhadralok, (that completely monopolizes the Bengali civil society, it’s so called scholarly class, communist and congress leadership) against Namashudra community that once successfully challenged ‘upper’ caste hegemony in undivided Bengal. So successful is the revenge that the community now lives in complete oblivion and scattered across the country without anyone standing for their rights or speaking about what actually happened in Marichjhapi in 1979.
While writing this article, we have drawn heavily from following two research articles among the very few that are available on the tragic tale of one our Dalit communities. We are reproducing both the articles for the benefit of our readers so that we all become more aware of the tragedy and are able to fight for justice. We are taking the liberty of posting the articles in all good faith despite the possibility of infringing copy rights.
1. Mallick, Ross, ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre‘, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 58, No. 1. (Feb., 1999), pp. 104-125.
2. Jalais, Annu, ‘Dwelling on Morichjhanpi: When Tigers Became ‘Citizens’, Refugees ‘Tiger-Food’, Economic and Political Weekly, April 23, 2005
Images courtesy: The documentary ‘Marichjhapi Massacre‘ and the internet.