Book Review: Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre


Book Review: Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre
Mana Goldar, a survivor of the Marichjhapi massacre (Photo Courtesy: Blood Island)

A new book delves deep into a refugee saga lost in history

By Tirtho Banerjee

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 14 Jun 2019, 2:00 AM

A tragedy's poignant brush paints a child's intrigue and its stifled whispers get deeply etched in his memory. It continues to haunt and assail his consciousness for years. And then the overpowering urge to unravel the truth takes shape. Thus is born Deep Halder's Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre.
Blood Island is more than just a book; it's a personal journey of the author to revisit and penetrate into the pages of an ugly chapter of an almost forgotten history which left chilling, unanswered questions. While setting out on the path of seeking reality behind the "dark secret", Halder tries to unknot a web of controversies.

Unspeakable violence
It all happened four decades ago in January 1979 when brutal violence was unleashed on the inhabitants of Marichjhapi - an island in the Sunderbans - 75km east from Calcutta in the Indian state of West Bengal. The bloodshed - orchestrated by the CPI (M)-sponsored police forces to drive away Hindu refugees (from Bangladesh) who had found a foothold in the barren land by sheer toil - left around 5,000 dead in 72 hours or so. Sadly, there is no account of the exact death toll as the then ruling Left Front government hushed up its "worst misdeed" and projected distorted figures, putting the count at less than 10. But Halder sets the record straight by talking to eyewitnesses of that pogrom and to those who followed it up from close quarters.
When one visualises the horrific atrocities carried out by the forces, barbaric becomes an understatement. The narrations reveal how the merciless marauders set more than 6,000 huts ablaze, violated women at will, shot men in the head, put their bodies in sacks and dropped them into the river so the corpses didn't float. They even silenced the cries of kids with bullets. However, no probe was instituted following the 'operation'.
Some of the victims that Halder interviews tell him that before the massacre, the economic blockade and lockdown had hit their backbone, as it prevented them access to drinking water (a tubewell was even poisoned), food and essentials.
Crux of the row
It's a story of defiance in the face of betrayal, political lies and caste bias far more than ecological degradation, as it was made out to be. When the CPI (M) was in the opposition, it had promised the moon to the same refugees. Marichjhapi was a reserve forest and the settlers were blamed for large-scale felling of trees. However, as the narrators in the book reveal, no activity that could be termed as ecologically-unbenign was carried out. They contend there were no coconut or palm plantations on the land, as the Left government claimed.
The reason behind the massacre was hidden elsewhere. It lay in the stiff resistance of the Marichjhapi people - mostly low caste Namasudras who were despised - to serve the dual purpose of the Left Front to make them 'development guinea pigs' and also garner their votes. The 'independent' settlers transformed a no man's land into a small bustling township, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit inculcated in the refugees by their leaders and funds pooled in by individuals and activists, one among them being the author's father.
High points
Halder's strong emotional connect with the incidents imprinted in his mind adds to the book's incisiveness. The good thing is that he has not attempted to recreate or deconstruct the event, but let the narration with those who lived through the nightmare speak for itself. The tragedy is documented through these gripping commentaries, which are punctuated with Halder's subtle observations and taut remarks. When some survivors speak out in the no-holds barred conversations, their grief becomes evident, reflecting in their sense of helplessness to fight against the blatant injustice.
The most intense moment of the book, however, is when Halder himself steps on the land that has roiled in his brain for 40 years. When it's before his eyes, he goes into a trance-like state. Time turns for him. He pictures: "There are thousands of women and men, with small children and big bundles. They are gathering on the island, making small groups, cutting trees, clearing forests and building huts. There is sweat, tears and smiles in between. Someone is singing a song of hope..." Nostalgia stabs Halder, but he is nudged back into the present.
With 68.5 million people having been forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016, the contemporariness of Blood Island is undeniable and doesn't need any explanation. The United Nations says that there are also 10 million stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights, such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. The relevance of Halder's book against the backdrop of such a crisis is more pronounced than ever. Marichjhapi should be a lesson in rehabilitation for policy-makers and those who call themselves peoples' leaders.
Blood Island digs deep to exhume facts - even though some skeletons will never speak.

More news from