“Around this time, committee leaders came to know of Marichjhapi, an uninhabited island in the heart of the Sundarbans. There was a rumour that some Leftist leaders had showed them the island as a possible habitat for the thousands of refugees deserting camps and reaching Bengal. Others say committee leaders themselves had discovered the island during their excursions to the Sundarbans. I don’t remember the exact day or month, but sometime in the middle of 1978, we hired boats and set off for Marichjhapi.
“Our dream home was a mud island filled with shrubs. There was a thick forest of useless shrubs and, unlike the rest of the Sundarbans, there was no plantation in the island.
“So it was a bloody lie told by the Left Front government that we destroyed a reserve forest to set up home in Marichjhapi. There was nothing to destroy!
“Around 200-300 boats had reached Marichjhapi that day. I was in the first lot that set foot on the island. I felt like an astronaut on a new planet after an arduous travel through space and time. Hundreds of boats would arrive here in the next few months. We cleared shrubs, evened land and began town planning in all earnest. The more intelligent amongst us made a site map for a village housing society; we called it Netaji Nagar.
“Those were magical days. We slept in open fields under a sky full of stars. We lit fire around us to keep insects and animals away. During the day, we built huts from logs that we got from neighbouring islands. Golpata leaves were used to make thatched roofs. Residents of neighbouring villages got us food and other essentials, and we pooled in money we had saved during our Dandakaranya years.
“We learnt that Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram Sangha wanted to help us but the government did not allow them. By this time, outsiders were becoming aware of our existence. We toiled night and day with limited resources and the will to make Marichjhapi our home. Social workers and public intellectuals like your father, Dilip Halder, visited us and gave us money to sustain ourselves.
“We had our work cut out for us. I was not good at construction work, so I was made a messenger between mainland Calcutta and Marichjhapi. My job was to carry letters to our well-wishers in the big city with a list of things we needed for the island. I delivered those letters and brought back money and material. In the months that followed, we set up a school and appointed a teacher from amongst us. A refugee doctor set up a dispensary. I carried back medicines from Calcutta to stock up the dispensary.
“In Calcutta, I used to stay at 136, Jodhpur Park, in the house of Subrata Chatterjee, a renowned engineer. This London-returned engineer travelled with me to the island many times, helped us in planning Netaji Nagar and encouraged us. He, and several others including poet Sunil Ganguly, held citizens’ meetings across West Bengal to highlight our struggle for existence.
“Chatterjee told us not to trust the communists in power. ‘I hate these bastards,’ he would say. ‘I have seen the ugly face of communism in soviet Russia. You should not rely on the government and build an island community on your own.’
“And we did. Over time, the population of Marichjhapi swelled to 40,000 from the initial 10,000. It had become a functional village with three lanes, a bazaar, a school, a dispensary, a library, a boat manufacturing unit, and a fisheries department even! Who could have imagined that so much was possible in so little time? Maybe all those wasted years in Dandakaranya had given us superhuman will.
“Obtaining drinking water was a big issue. Marichjhapi water was salty, so we had to travel to Kumirmari, the next island, by boats and bring water back in big pots. We had to ration water. When I told Chatterjee this, he came to the island, gave us money and told us how to build a deep tube well that would get us drinkable water from below the ground. This is the same tube well in which policemen would later drop a bottle of poison, killing many of us!
“We were attacked thrice. Memory fails me now, but I do remember that the most horrific of the police actions on the island was the economic blockade when supply lines were cut off and we were left to starve without food, medicines and other essentials. Anandabazar Patrika journalist Sukharanjan Sengupta came to visit us a few times and heard our story. It was through his articles in Anandabazar Patrika that a wider population became aware of us, though that did not really help our cause.
“The government made every effort to stop NGOs and missionaries from reaching us. Only sympathetic private citizens escaped police patrol and came to us with money and essentials. That, too, stopped during the blockade.
“My leaders told me I’d have to tell people in Calcutta how Marichjhapi has been turned into a police state. Letters were written for Chatterjee and others, folded, put inside plastic bags and handed to me. At night, I took out a boat and decided to try my luck. It was a crazy thing to do as police launches had surrounded the island. The idea was to slip through the launches as the policemen snored, and reach the shore. We had gone a little distance into the river when we came under the searchlight. There were three other boys with me.
“’Should we turn back?’ they asked; I told them there was no turning back. Since the letters were in plastic bags tied to our waists, we deserted the boat, jumped into the river and started swimming.
“I do not believe it myself when I think of what happened that night, but we actually swam the river and reached Kumirmari. However, we did not know there was police presence there as well. A policeman came and started questioning us. He slapped me hard and asked me if I was from Marichjhapi.
“I lied that I was from Kumirmari and had gone to Marichjhapi to see what was happening there. I also badmouthed the people of Marichjhapi, saying that they should be left to die. The policeman let us go.
“We did not rest. Sleepless and tired from hours of swimming, we walked across Kumirmari and took a boat to Satjelia village. We stayed the rest of the night there, woke up early and walked all the way to Canning. The currency note I was carrying in my pocket had become soiled and useless, so all day I walked without food or water, and finally reached Canning. There, I had some food at a dhaba for free and boarded a train for Jodhpur Park without a ticket. In the evening, I knocked on Subrata Chatterjee’s door. It was 31 January 1979.
“Chatterjee telephoned a journalist. I had no idea who was on the other side but I told the journalist everything. I told him I had letters from committee leaders with me, and that I would hand them over to him if he would publish our story. The man on the other side asked me to read out the letters to him. I did. I could barely keep my eyes open after that. Chatterjee asked me to rest and I fell into deep sleep. When I woke up next morning, I was a hero.
“Chatterjee told me my story had been carried in the papers and that everyone knew of me and my people now. There would be pressure on the government to call off the economic blockade. That day, I went to several newspaper offices and showed the letters I was carrying with me.
“I also met Shakya Sen, a junior lawyer, on Chatterjee’s instruction and showed them to him. We stayed the night at Chatterjee’s house. Sen would later fight for us against the government in court.
“I set off early next morning as one of the boys had to go to Taldi village to meet a relative. We had taken a couple of steps and were outside Jodhpur Park post office when we felt we were being followed. Four men surrounded us. We got into a police jeep parked on the other side of the road and were taken to Jadavpur thana.
“We were questioned all day, after which they let my companions go. They knew I was the one the newspapers had quoted. I was kept in police custody for four days. On Day 5, I was sent to Alipore Central Jail, where I spent twenty-seven more days. I came out and went straight to Marichjhapi to a hero’s welcome. The economic blockade was over, thanks to the letters I had carried with me to Calcutta and the newspaper articles that came out because of them.
“The next few months were a blur. I mostly stayed outside the island at my relative’s house, away from Sundarbans, and tried to find myself a job. I went back to Marichjhapi whenever I got time, even as a case carried on in the Calcutta High Court with lawyer Shakya Sen fighting on our behalf.
“The newspaper articles and the court case against the government halted the economic blockade but could not alter our fate. Time and again the government sent goons in khakis to attack us, arrest our men and torture our women. People started leaving Marichjhapi in large numbers; some went back to where they came from, to the refugee settlement in Dandakaranya, while others travelled far and wide in West Bengal looking for new homes.
“Non-stop police action had demoralised islanders. One night, someone came and dropped a bottle of poison into the tube well. Thirteen people died the next day. Babies were dying like rats from diseases, and women were afraid to venture out for fear of being raped by policemen. There were several incidents of our boats being hit by police launches and sunk mid-river.
“On 14 June 1979, it was all over for us. The police came, set fire to our huts and forced the remaining ones out of the island. It was the end of the Marichjhapi dream. One year of dying by the dozens, yet carrying on with fire in our souls.”
Excerpted with permission from Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre, Deep Halder, HarperCollins India.
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