It was the mother of all Nandigrams. If there was one Nandigram on March 14, 2007, then perhaps there were dozens of Nandigrams during the three-day cleanse-Marichjhapi operation in January 1979.
“It was Saraswati Puja. The police were just raining bullets as soon as the refugees landed in our village! Like everybody else on the road, I, too, fled for safety as I could see people falling either injured or dead,” said Nital Mondal, who is now the Kumirmari local committee secretary of CPI(M).
Now, 32 years after the massacre that no one talks of anymore, when the wind is blowing the other way, the dead of Netaji Nagar — a burgeoning village with a school, a health centre, well- laid-out roads, a bakery, a good number of tube-wells and a few thousand residents — seem resurrected to avenge their cold-blooded murder.
This autonomous and outlawed village of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, who lived on the island of Marichjhapi for barely nine months, were cleared out to maintain the ecological balance of the Sunderbans. The death count could never be confirmed but different accounts have put it anywhere between 50 and over 1,000. The official toll was two.
The boatman & the teacher
Everyone knows the case of Saphalananda Haldar, a refugee who managed to evade the police cordon to swim across the Korankhali river and reach Kumirmari from Marichjhapi. He had survived the firing and, while seeking shelter at Kumirmari, met a journalist who got his story published the next day. The police then picked him up.
But then there are too many cases like Haldar’s and no one has bothered to speak to the press about Marichjhapi. We were well-briefed. Don’t talk about it publicly; rather, speak individually, and casually, almost like tourists.
But the times seem to have changed a lot. “You want to know about Marichjhapi? Come to our village, meet one of my friends, Achintya Jotdar, who fled Marichjhapi and now lives in our village,” said an elderly man in dhoti-kurta, waiting for the boat like us. He had just overheard snatches of our conversation.
Meet Bholanath Raptan, the headmaster of Chargheri Primary School. In the 1970s, he was a Youth Congress volunteer helping the refugees resettle in the camps set up for them. At the time of the firing at Marichjhapi, Raptan was in his mid-twenties and witnessed the massacre from No. 10 Chargheri on the other side of the island on the banks of Gomor.
“No one has spoken for them or taken up their cause — neither our party nor the Left. It was a gory sight,” said Raptan, introducing us to Sushil Sarkar, the boatman at Tipli ferry ghat from where we were to cross Dutta river to reach Lahiripur, where some of the Marichjhapi victims live.
“It was bloody. No one knows how many refugees died in the police firing or how many died when the country boats they were escaping in were sunk by the police,” said Sarkar, now 65. He was a fisherman in 1979.
The Jotdar family
Achintya and Malati Jotdar will never admit to any outsider that they had ever been in Marichjhapi. The latter, a 52-year-old mother of a 25-year-old son, fills in the gaps when her 65-year-old husband falters while recalling their journey from Bangladesh to Hasnabad in the North 24-Parganas and then to Kurd refugee camp in the hilly, dense forest of Dandakaranya (now in Chhattisgarh), and the return to Hasnabad via Kharagpur. “We were completely unaccustomed to hills and forests. The water was so bad… there were too many mosquitoes… and malaria, diarrhoea and other killer diseases. Above all, it was not Bengal and the locals did not know the language. We rushed back to Bengal, selling off all we had there,” Malati Jotdar said.
But the couple fumbled while giving an account of their journey from Hasnabad to Kumirmari on the opposite bank of Marichjhapi. They try to skip the chapter at Netaji Nagar and how they fled in a boat during the police operation to find shelter in Kumirmari.
The woman, quite indifferently, speaks of how she lost all her three children at Dandakaranya and three more after Marichjhapi. This was not the end and her husband lost his mental balance and fled, leaving her alone, traumatised by the events in Marichjhapi. “I took shelter at a relative’s place in a village nearby. But my husband came back after two years and found me,” she recalled, betraying little emotion.
Since then, the Jotdars have been living at Shantigachhi village of Lahiripur in Gosaba block of South 24-Parganas. Their only surviving son was born here.
But Achintya Jotdar is still afraid. He fears arrest or worse — being sent back to Dandakaranya if their Marichjhapi link is discovered. “It has been a difficult time for us,” said Achintya Jotdar, who was rendered homeless after Aila. “You are like my mother!” said colleague and photojournalist Samir Jana, affectionately putting a hand around Malati Jotdar’s shoulder while adjusting the lens of his camera. And she broke into tears.
A Marxist foot soldier
Throughout his 60-year life, Nitai Mondal, now the Kumirmari local committee secretary of the CPI(M), has learnt to swallow many bitter pills. Mondal had fought tooth and nail with coalition ally RSP to establish his party’s hold in the area. In doing so, his house was looted thrice, allegedly by RSP cadres. Despite that “in the larger interest of the Left Front government”, he also sought votes for the RSP candidate in every assembly poll held in the last four decades.
Sitting in front of his dispensary, the quack whose political journey began as an activist of Students’ Federation of India in the early Seventies when he was doing his MA in Bengali from Calcutta University, is candid about what happened in Marichjhapi.
“No one here could accept it from their hearts. We always had an undercurrent of love and affection for them since most of us here also hail from East Bengal,” said Mondal, who had been to Marichjhapi many times and had also treated several refugees.
Mondal recalls, in breathtaking detail, how they were putting the finishing touches to a Saraswati Puja pandal in front of Tapoban Sangha, a local club, when on January 26, after three days of an economic blockade of the village, the Marichjhapi residents, armed with wooden weapons charged towards the police cordon in front of Kumirmari in handmade boats. The heavily armed policemen picked them up easily and Mondal even treated some who had taken bullet injuries. The operation continued for three more days.
But why was there no reaction or protest at that time? The answer was prompt and sharp: “It was 1979, the Left Front’s prime and there was no opposition,” Mondal said.
“Marichjhapi niye uu ki bulbe? Uu to CPM-e achhe. Sob kete chhete bolbe! (What would he say about Marichjhapi? He is a CPI(M) man after all! He’ll give you a censored version!),” interrupted Rampada Mondal, Nitai Mondal’s elder brother, emerging from his room. “No! You listen to me and see if I’m suppressing anything!” Netai Mondal roared back.
If the Opposition comes to power and forms a judicial committee — as they have promised — to probe the massacre, there will be no shortage of witnesses to tell the truth.
At Kumirmari, Baburam, Jairam and Shabar Munda are waiting for the probe. Their mother Meni died in the police firing and is the only death the government has officially admitted.
Other witnesses include Tuku Gayen at Bidhan Colony near Kagmari Bazar and Sunil Mondal at No 10 Chargheri.
At Dayapur, there are enthusiasts Mukunda Gayen and Shyama Prasad Baidya, who have travelled across all villages around Marichjhapi in search of victims.
At Hemnagar in Hingalgunj area of North 24-Parganas — a 2.5-km journey from Marichjhapi to the other side of Raimangal river — where the residents ventured for water during the economic blockade at Kumirmari, Manindra Mondal and Jatin Mistry still have fresh memories of the firing.
Is Marichjhapi an election issue? Trinamool Congress graffiti has been scrawled on several walls, demanding punishment for the culprits of all massacres during the 34-year Left regime, a list that begins with Marichjhapi.
“Now, with an anti-incumbency tide, everybody is blaming us and the Opposition is trying to cash in on Marichjhapi too,” said Nitai Mondal, speaking for the first time like a true comrade.
“The tiger reserve project at Marichjhapi is more important and the refugees should not be allowed everywhere. But the government should have behaved humanely. After all, when in opposition during the mid-70s, we were the ones who cried hoarse for refugee resettlement at Marichjhapi. Unfortunately, everything changed once we came to power,” he said.