From: Shiva Shankar <email@example.com>
Date: Thu, Jul 15, 2010 at 5:35 PM
Subject: Marichjhapi and the Revenge of Bengali Bhadralok: The story
of a Dalit Genocide that remains untold
Marichjhapi and the Revenge of Bengali Bhadralok
The story of a Dalit Genocide that remains untold
By Nilesh Kumar, Ajay Hela, Anoop Kumar
[Nilesh and Ajay are pursuing their Masters in Social work, TISS, Mumbai]
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
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
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 upholder 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
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
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
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
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
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 the 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 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 the 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
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