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How West Bengal’s Left government committed genocide on Dalits

How West Bengal’s Left government committed genocide on Dalits

July 29, 2016, 3:33 AM IST Abheek Barman in Folk Theorem | Edit PageIndia | ET

Irom Sharmila will step out of confinement after 16 years in Imphal, the capital of Manipur. She will fight elections and most likely win. She will get to be — unfettered by prison regulations — with the love of her life, Desmond Coutinho.

Sharmila spent nearly 16 years fasting, and being force-fed through her nose, because she was witness to what’s called the Malom massacre. It happened one day in November 2000. For no particular reason, a posse of Assam Rifles, a heavily armed colonial creation, shot at and killed at least 10 people at a bus stand. Their later, lame excuse for this atrocity was that they thought they were under attack. Their victims included children and old ladies.

Sharmila is a global icon. Because of her name, a small industry of globetrotting human rights activists flourishes. But that’s really not the point here. The point is one of independent India’s biggest genocides is least reported. It was executed ruthlessly by people who call themselves communists, the best friends of poor folks. It happened under my nose, though I was maybe a little young to notice it.

It is poorly documented, apart from three sources. One is the novel, The Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh. The other is research — that Ghosh graciously attributes — to Annu Jalais. Jalais is a scholar who does her fieldwork in West Bengal and Bangladesh. The third is Ross Mallick who has researched Bengal politics for decades.

What happened, unequivocally, was that a gigantic influx of refugees came from what was then East Pakistan to West Bengal. The numbers are in tens of millions and people are still scratching their heads to get the exact figure. A rough estimate from 1947 to 1971 is 19 million. That is around the combined populations of Portugal and Sweden.

No matter. The then-West Bengal Congress sarkar decided to deport most of these new arrivals to Dandakaranya, a parched place between modern Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. So, an entire population of riverine fishing folk was transplanted to what to them seemed like a desert.

Mallick tells the story well. A peculiar coincidence: all the folks kicked out to Dandakaranya were Namasudras, Bengali Dalits. The upper castes had managed, thank you.

Then our comrades got into action. Ram Chatterjee, a Forward Bloc leader, visited these guys and promised them refuge in the rivers and estuaries of south West Bengal. They agreed readily, and so started a stream of people coming back to West Bengal. Marichjhhapi, a sort of island in the Sundarbans, was selected for them. All this happened just before the Left came to power in 1977.

Home bitter home: Drawing by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, from This Side That Side: Restorying Partition

Home bitter home: Drawing by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, from This Side That Side: Restorying Partition

So, before 1977, the Left had invited Bengali refugees, abandoned in no-man’s-land, to come back to West Bengal. What happened thereafter is beautifully described by Ghosh and Jalais. In 1977, the Left came to power, the refugees came back from Dandakaranya to what they thought would be their waterful haven. They started salt pans, prawn and fish ponds, schools and clinics.

Within two years, the Left — by then in power — turned around. The statistics are clouded but Mallick probably has the best estimate: roughly 4,200 families killed. Assuming four people per family, that is more than 16,000 people. In the Sundarbans, it’s easy to dispose of corpses. Dump them in the water.

But the most important question is this: why did the Left invite all these people over, just to kill them? Jalais has an explanation, which says once in power, the Left got overwhelmed about global concerns about ‘tigers versus people’.

Actual news reports from the time indicate no such concerns. Complete outsiders were sent to raze settlements to the ground. Police shot at boats trying to take people away, and sank them. Entire villages were tear-gassed first before being shot to pieces. So why did they do this?

Jalais tries to make the ‘man versus tiger’ her central argument about Marichjhhapi. The Sundarbans is home to tigers, so a lot of encroaching fishermen were not welcome. It’s probably fractionally correct. If only the data agreed with this. The most plausible explanation is again from Mallick. He argues that almost all the folks who came from Dandakaranya to Marichjhhapi were Dalits: we call them Namasudras in Bengali.

Now this is my observation. The Bengal Left leadership, mostly high caste, took up tigers as an excuse to commit genocide on Dalits. Then, of course, numbers show the place was quickly repopulated. By people who were not Namasudras and, as Mallick points out, were committed party slaves.

This is the tale of India’s biggest organised genocide. But why it resonates and should be remembered by our children is this: if you’re a minority, tribal or Dalit, who will you call a friend when in trouble?

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