Event ReportsPublished on Jul 31, 2019
Bloodletting the stateless by the state

A Discussion of Deep Halder's "Blood Island: An Oral History of the Marichjhapi Massacre" held at ORF Kolkata on July 12, 2019.

The discussion on the book Blood Island started with an incisive quotation from Milan Kundera's work, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting which suggested that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In this light, the discussion proceeded to ponder over the unimaginable pathos of the repressed refugees of Marichjhapi in 1979 in the hands of the coercive administrative apparatus of the incumbent ruling dispensation of Bengal that the book records through the oral history accounts of the victims and stakeholders.

It was categorically impressed upon throughout the discussion, with understandable astonishment and despair, that the Marichjhapi incident is an aspect in the modern Indian political history which remained hitherto largely unexplored and largely undocumented. It was succinctly noted in the discussion that despite Kolkata’s history of rich journalism the happenings at Marichjhapi stayed away from the newspaper headlines. One of the speakers asserted that the state repression that was unleashed by the erstwhile ruling dispensation of the state of West Bengal in the process of relocating the migrants from Marichjhapi can only be termed as a ‘mass genocide’.

It was further observed that ironically enough, the heavy clampdown upon the refugees in Marichjhapi by the communist party led government essentially goes against fundamental principle of communism that espouses a caste-less and class-less society. Through the discussion, the panelists raised some pertinent questions regarding the issue that the book addresses. Why did the Left Front government’s administration come down so heavily on this group of harmless men and women settling down in an island? Was it only the environmental concerns as was widely publicized by the then state government?

One of the speakers also suggested that the book reveals that how the dented ego of the leadership that was instigated by the peaceful self sufficient settlement of migrants without any state assistance, propelled the administration to unleash such coercive measures in order to intimidate the migrants. It was noted that the incident showed mirror to the hypocrisy of selective amnesia that the popular culture has mastered and also raised questions about the passiveness of the subaltern scholars during that time. A speaker underlined the dubiousness of the then administration of Bengal as at Marichjhappi, in order to not fell trees, the government of that time felled refugees. The speaker further argued that the Marichjhapi incident negated the very idea behind creation of the state of West Bengal which was to give such refugees a land they can call their very own and live with dignity.

Another speaker noted with caution that oral history is based on the documentation of recollection of human memory. Hence, it is to be read keeping in mind the possibility of erosion of human memory with time. It can be manifested in few anomalies in the recollections mentioned in the book, like the fallacious mention of using plastic before 1982, or the factually erroneous claim regarding Kanti Ganguly being a minister at that time in the Left Front government in Bengal. There is also the unanswered question of how many lives were lost. The number of persons who lost their lives can’t be determined by mere approximation and it has widely varied depending on the purpose behind drafting the narrative.

The speaker further observed that the expanse of the disputed land where the refugees inhabited couldn’t have accommodated more than few hundreds of people.  While, it was noted that the exact number of causalities might be difficult to ascertain, the incident would remain a taint on humanity.  The panel collectively affirmed that the book essentially tries to portray the tussle between ‘manufactured lies’ of the powerful predators and ‘stifled cries’ of the beleaguered victims. The discussion, in its concluding submission, conferred appreciation on the book for making an attempt to make the voices of the 'voiceless' heard.

The discussion was chaired by Dr Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, ORF Kolkata. The chair’s remarks were followed by the introductory comments by Mr Deep Halder, author of Blood Island. The book was further discussed by three speakers- Dr Anirban Ganguly, Director, Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, Mr Santanu Guha Ray, eminent journalist and Dr Anamitra Anurag Danda, Senior Visiting Fellow, ORF Kolkata.

*The Report was compiled by Ambar Kumar Ghosh with inputs from Soumya Bhowmick, Sohini Bose, Mihir Bhonsale and Jaya Thakur.

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