The front cover of journalist Deep Halder's "Blood Island".
One of India’s most handsome editors has reminded many that the ubiquitous Bengali bhadralok is not actually a 'bhadralok' (it means a person who is suave, well-educated and intellectual), but often seen as a cloaked crook, very, very lethal. Deep Halder, now a top editor with India Today, must have shuddered a million times while finishing his brilliant book, “Blood Island”, that recounts the deaths of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh which took place in Marichjhapi in West Bengal in January 1979.
While a little over 1,000 died of bullet wounds and hunger, the official figure in the files of the Bengal government is a pathetic ‘two’. Worse still, it happened when Bengal was celebrating Saraswati puja; the bullets fired by police turned the routine into horrible and the horrible routine. And then, a great ‘operation cover-up’ started — a trend that is till date synonymous with anything and everything that happens in Bengal. Incidents happen, people die, and then it is instantly brushed under carpet.
So what prompted the three-day-long cleansing operation pushed by the then West Bengal government led by the CPI(M)? Halder’s meticulous investigation shows the cold-blooded murder was planned at the red-coloured Writers Building in Calcutta (not Kolkata then); the Left Front government argued that Marichjhapi is an autonomous and outlawed village, and that the refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, who lived on the island for barely nine months, must be cleaned out to maintain the ecological balance of the Sunderbans — known for its tigers that has a strange tag of Royal Bengal. That the ecological balance of Sunderbans continues to be dis-balanced even today is a different story altogether.
So, was it a devious plot to kill the refugees? The book says ‘yes’. Halder’s account is very touching; he has meticulously researched the subject and met up with the survivors, including those who were tortured by the police the moment they spoke to journalists. It is evident that the then Left Front government wanted to brush away the intensity of the horror of the killings.
The book, chapter after chapter, highlights why and how it was a gory sight in Marichjhapi. The families were a famished lot; they had travelled from Bangladesh to Hasnabad in the North 24-Parganas and then to Kurd refugee camp in the dense, hilly tracts of Dandakaranya (now in Chhattisgarh), and then back again to Hasnabad because of multiple issues, such as contaminated water, deadly tigers and mosquitoes in the hills. And then, they undertook another journey from Hasnabad to Kumirmari, which is on the opposite bank of Marichjhapi. And this was not liked by the Central government, and also by the Left Front government of West Bengal. In the Sunderbans, no one accepted the refugees from their hearts.
First, there was an economic blockade to drain out ration from the homes of Marichjhapi residents; and when the residents got agitated, the heavily armed policemen picked them up as easy targets. The operation continued for three more days. Kolkata did not blink; it was 1979 and the Left Front did not had any opposition, so Marichjhapi was not even an election issue; and the only television was state-run Doordarshan. There were no whirring cameras and the madness of breaking headlines; the absence of visuals of blood-soaked dead bodies failed to trigger the much-needed debate.
And then, the Bengali Bhadralok went back to wear his starched Dhoti and Kurta and discuss Marx. And there emerged Halder to pen this well-crafted book. Buy it, read it, you will realise why a government felt a tiger project was more important than refugees. For the records, the Sunderbans tigers are still in an abysmal state, many have turned man-eaters. The animals are often in the headlines, but not the men, women and children who once lived close to those mangrove forests.
Marichjhapi lives with its pain. You can also visit the place if you are in Bengal; it’s not like Mandrake’s Xanadu, it’s a sleepy hamlet where you could smell the mud used to make roads and huts. Once this very mud was soaked with blood; Marichjhapi was ‘Blood Island’. No one goes there, but Halder did. Probably he wanted to kiss the earth and say sorry for those who committed what is, arguably, Bengal’s most gruesome crime.