Saturday, September 19, 2009
The hungry tide Bengali Hindu refugees in the Subcontinent
8 The Study
The hungry tide Bengali Hindu refugees in the Subcontinent
The Newsletter | No.51 | Summer 2009
The history of the Indian novel in English reflects the fact that
Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 has been the single
most important determining factor of India’s destiny. From
Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan in 19561 to Shauna Singh
Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers in 1999,2 it seems a new
perspective on the event emerges in each succeeding decade.
Marked by the twin features of massacre and migration,
Partition, however, did not mean the same thing for Punjab
and Bengal. As outlined below, there are three significant
differences which have had a direct bearing on the refugee
movement in these two states:
Firstly, the Punjab Partition was a one-time event that was
marked by a two-way exodus, while the Partition of Bengal
turned out to be a continuing process, with migration
happening predominantly in one direction – i.e. from East to
West Bengal. In other words, there was a more or less equal
exchange of population on the western border in 1947 which
was not the case in West Bengal.
Secondly, compared to the nature of border and boundary in
the West where political, strategic and military considerations
converted the entire Punjab region into two rigid divisions, the
dividing line in the East remained porous and flexible, facilitating
the refugee movement.
The third and most important difference between the Punjab
and Bengal Partition was the attitude of the centre to the
crisis on the two borders at the time it happened. The crisis
in Punjab was seen as a national emergency, to be tackled
almost on a war footing; and as the communal violence in the
West came close to being genocide, the government felt a
moral responsibility to put into immediate effect rehabilitation
measures for the refugees. This sense of urgency was totally
lacking on the Eastern border. The violence there was not of the
same magnitude as the violence in the West. Hindu minorities
in East Bengal were not considered to be in grave danger, and
the flight of refugees westwards was regarded mostly as the
product of imaginary fears and baseless rumours. In fact, well
after it had begun, Nehru continued to believe that the exodus
in the East could be halted, even reversed, provided government
in Dacca could be persuaded to deploy ‘psychological
measures’ to restore confidence among the Hindu minorities.3
This difference in attitude and perception of the Central
government regarding the nature of the crisis facing the two
borders translated itself strikingly into the expenditure on
refugees in the West and the East.4 A difference that would
have permanent, debilitating, economic consequences for the
state of West Bengal,5 and the way it dealt with its refugees.
Amitav Ghosh highlights precisely this aspect in his second
novel, The Shadow Lines (1988).6 He provides vivid glimpses
of what life was like for refugees on both sides of the border,
even at the end of the Nehruvian era. And if we are to go by
the testimony of the narrative of this novel, the Bengali Muslim
refugees who sought shelter in Bangladesh seemed to have
fared much better than the refugees in West Bengal, who were
damned to a life of destitution and starvation in the nation they
had escaped into.
But the problem of Bengali Hindu refugees was not confined
geographically to one state alone. While a substantial percentage
of the refugees who had crossed the Eastern border lived
in West Bengal – mostly in Kolkata and its suburbs – many were
also sent to other states.
The government of West Bengal was of the opinion that the
refugees (who by the 1960s constituted a third of the population
of the state) were a burden to be shared jointly among
the federal government and those of the neighbouring states.
It was in this context that the Dandakaranya project in central
India was conceived as a long-term solution to the problem of
rehabilitation of Bengali refugees.
Its genesis lay in the Rehabilitation Ministers’ Conference of
1956 where it was decided that government relief would be
given only to those refugees who agreed to resettle outside
West Bengal. Subsequently, the Dandakaranya Development
Partition is a recurring theme in Indian Writing in English. Much of the literature
focuses on the experiences of Partition on the Punjab border. Amitav Ghosh
stands out in his choice to write about the aftermath of Partition on the Bengal
border, and his novels demonstrate a continuing engagement with the motif
of migration and refugee resettlement in West Bengal. Rituparna Roy takes
Ghosh’s 2004 novel The Hungry Tide and examines how it traces the trajectory
of Bengali Hindu refugees in the subcontinent.
Fig. 1 (above)
Fig. 2 (left)
The Study 9 The Newsletter | No.51 | Summer 2009
Authority (DDA) was established in 1958. DDA was responsible
for developing an area of 78,000 square miles, known as
Dandakaranya, in the Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa,
and the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh.
In The Hungry Tide (2004),7 Amitav Ghosh chronicles the saga
of just such a group of refugees who were sent by the West
Bengal Government to Dandakaranya in Madhya Pradesh in
1961, but who left the place and returned to West Bengal in
1978, only to be massacred and evicted again.
Recovering lost histories
Ghosh’s writing has never had a strict demarcation between
‘fi ction’ and ‘non-fi ction’. He has always combined several roles
– that of novelist, journalist, scholar and historian, and one of
his fundamental preoccupations as a writer has been to recover
lost histories. The Hungry Tide attests to this, with the novel
intertwining accounts of the Morichjhapi Massacre of 1979 in
the Sunderbans and the history of riverine dolphins (Orcaella
brevirostris) which are an integral part of the island’s history
and ecology. The discussion in this article will be confi ned to
the massacre in the Sunderbans.
Ghosh dramatises the last phase of the refugees struggle in the
Sunderbans. But life had been di- cult long before – ever since
their forced migration to India. They had moved to West Bengal
after partition, hoping for a better life there. That hope proved
utopic as they were later, in the 60s, pushed further inland
from their deltaic origins into central India. Dandakaranya
was conceived as a long-lasting solution to their problem. But
ironically enough, it increasingly turned out to be ‘a land of
banishment rather than the haven of hope it had been made
out to be by rehabilitation administrators.’8
The refugees felt alienated and between 1965 and 1978 more
than 12,000 families deserted the settlement. In mid-1978,
there was a new wave of desertions under the leadership of an
organisation called the Udavastu Unnayansheel Samiti. The press
at the time talked of a ‘migration in reverse gear.’ The West
Bengal government managed to send a lot of these refugees
back, but about 25,000 managed to return to West Bengal and
build a settlement on the island of Marichjhanpi.
The West Bengal government was averse to the idea of old
refugees returning back to the state and deeply unhappy with
this development. It wanted a solution, once and for all, to the
vexed refugee problem that the state had been facing for more
than three decades. It declared the Morichjhapi settlement an
illegal encroachment by ‘deserters’ on forest land in an area
earmarked for the protection of endangered tigers. The refugees
were given an ultimatum to evacuate the island by 31st
March, 1979; when that proved futile, the government started
an ‘economic blockade’ that severely a ected the refugees; and
the state police fi nally cracked down in mid-May 1979. O- cial
estimates claimed that only 36 refugees were killed in this
action, the actual number, however, ran into several hundreds.
In the Hungry Tide, the Morichjapi Massacre is traced through a
witness, Nirmal, and his diary to his nephew (Kanai). In Chapter
19 of the novel, we come to know the facts of the incident from
Nirmal’s widow. Nilima runs a hospital and a trust in Lushibari
and is known as ‘Mashima’ (or aunt) to all. She tells her nephew
Kanai of the events leading up to the massacre and of her
husband’s involvement in it.
‘…In this place where there had been no inhabitants before
there were now thousands, almost overnight. Within a matter
of weeks they had cleared the mangroves, built badhs and put
up huts. It happened so quickly that in the beginning no one
even knew who these people were. But in time it came to be
learnt that they were refugees, originally from Bangladesh.
Some had come to India after Partition, while others had
trickled over later. In Bangladesh they had been among
the poorest of rural people, oppressed and exploited
both by Muslim communalists and by Hindus of the
upper castes’ (p.118).
Ghosh eloquently summarises the events at Morichjhapi
in 1979 through Nilima’s narrative. His fi ctional representation
of the event keeps very close to what actually
happened, and he has successfully shown the various
ways in which Morichjhapi was markedly di erent from
other refugee settlements. The refugees there were
trebly displaced people – they had moved from East Pakistan
to West Bengal, from West Bengal to Madhya Pradesh and
then again from Madhya Pradesh to the Sunderbans. Yet in
Morichjhapi they had found a place where they were no longer
at the mercy of the local people or even the government,
initially. They found vast tracts of free land in the Sunderbans
and created a world of their own. However, the refugees
coming to the tide country was premised on a false assumption
– they chose this place because they thought that the new Left
Government in West Bengal would sympathise with their cause.
there were now thousands, almost overnight. Within a matter
of weeks they had cleared the mangroves, built badhs and put
Actually, the government falling short of the expectations of
the refugees – not being able to meet their needs or not being
sympathetic to their problems – was not a new story in West
Bengal. But what happened in 1979, the way they were forcibly
evicted from the island, was a gross betrayal by the Left.
As Prafulla Chakrabarti demonstrates in his classic, The Marginal
Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal
(1990),9 there was a symbiotic relationship between the
refugee movement and Left Politics in West Bengal in the early
years of Independence. In fact, the political ascendancy of the
left in West Bengal owes a great deal to the refugees and their
struggles for rehabilitation in the 1950s.
Chakrabarti argues that the Communists provided the
refugees with leadership in their struggle for rehabilitation,
and in return, the refugees became the striking arm of the
Communists, providing them with the mass support which
enabled them to entrench themselves in the city of Calcutta,
and later, catapulted them to power. But in 1979, in a most
ironic and tragic turn of events, the Left Front Government in
West Bengal was turning against the very cause which it had
championed for over two decades and which had been key in
bringing it to power.
The refugees at Morichjhapi showed initiative and organisation
in their attempt to build a new life. To borrow a phrase
from Nilanjana Chatterjee’s well-known essay on East Bengali
refugees, theirs was ‘a lesson in survival.’10
And they put to rest, once and for all, the false stereotyping
that had gained currency in o- cial discourse against the socalled
‘non-enterprising, lazy, parochial’ East Bengali refugees
(contrasted with their solid, hard-working, self-respecting West
The Hungry Tide’s protagonist Nirmal writes of the refugee
initiatives in his diary:
‘Saltpans had been created, tubewells had been planted, water
had been dammed for the rearing of fish, a bakery had started
up, boat-builders had set up workshops, a pottery had been
founded as well as an ironsmith’s shop; there were people
making boats while others were fashioning nets and crablines;
little marketplaces, where all kinds of goods were being sold,
had sprung up. All this in the space of a few months! It was
an astonishing spectacle – as though an entire civilization had
sprouted suddenly in the mud’ (p.192).
But even while the Morichjhapi refugees gave shape to their
dream, their feet were fi rmly planted on the ground. They
tried, as far as possible, to be self-reliant, but at the same time
they were conscious of the need to garner social and political
support for their work. To this end the refugees held a feast,
and invited dignitaries to the island to see their enterprises
fi rst hand. On the face of it, it proved to be a great success. It
is interesting that the group actively sought the
support of the establishment. But they were
cheated. In the novel, Ghosh shows that the big
shots who came from Calcutta, despite their lofty
speeches, actually already knew that these settlers
would eventually be evicted.
But the settlers at Morichjhapi, trebly displaced as
they were, proved to be a defi ant lot. Till their last
breath, they fought the injustice of the government.
And in the very last phase of their struggle, when they
were being forcibly evicted by a 1500-strong policeforce
(who were specifi cally deployed for the purpose),
their battle-cry became:
‘Amra kara? Bastuhara. Morichjhapi chharbona’
‘Who are we? We are the dispossessed. We’ll not leave
Morichjhapi, do what you may.’
Hearing this, Nirmal remarks in the novel:
‘Standing on the deck of the bhotbhoti, I was struck by the
beauty of this. Where else could you belong, except in the place
you refused to leave’ (p.254).
The refugees’ case was also unique in another respect – in that
it was intimately linked up with an environmental issue. For the
rehabilitation debate, in their case, basically boiled down to
the question: what is more important – conserving forests for
animals or allowing humans to live?11
In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh uses the testimony of a Morichjhapi
settler and victim, Kusum – as told to Nirmal during the fi nal
phase of the islander’s clash with the police – to articulate the
peculiar predicament of the Morichjhapi refugees:
The worst part was… to sit here, helpless, with hunger gnawing
at our bellies and listen to the policemen say…
‘This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its
animals… it is a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project
to save tigers…’
Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much
that they are willing to kill us for them? (pp.262-63)
While I have sought to demonstrate the distinctness of the
Morichjhapi settlers and their experience from that of the other
refugees who sought shelter in West Bengal, their trajectory covers
all the important phases of refugee infl ux into West Bengal
(until 1979) and the accompanied problems of rehabilitation. In
fact, with their experience, they trace the curve of West Bengal
politics (vis-a-vis refugee rehabilitation) from 1947-79.
In his earlier novels, Ghosh dealt with some of the major phases
of refugee infl ux into West Bengal and their immediate and
long-term consequences for the state. In a way, all of them
come together in The Hungry Tide. For, the history of the
Morichjhapi incident can be traced back to all of these phases:
starting with the original refugees from Bangladesh (1947),
who were resettled fi rst in West Bengal (1947-late’50s), then
moved to Dandakaranya (in 1961), from where they escaped
and came to the Sunderbans (1978) only to become the victims
of state-sponsored violence a year later (1979).
The un-preparedness and inadequacy of the state government
to deal with the deluge from the east, their subsequent plans
to rehabilitate the refugees from East Pakistan elsewhere in the
country, the monumental failure of that plan in Dandakaranya,
the fi nal e ort of the refugees to rehabilitate themselves in
the Sunderbans, and the unexpected reprisal from the new
Left Front Government – all of this can be traced through their
The Morichjhapi massacre is but one aspect of a wonderfully
rich and complex text. But it is very signifi cant in that it
refl ects the wider experiences of Bengali Hindu refugees in
the subcontinent. And through it, following on from what he
started in The Shadow Lines (though in a much more direct
way), Ghosh draws our attention to the aftermath of partition
on the Bengal border.
1. Singh, Khushwant. 1956. (1988) Train to Pakistan.
New Delhi: Ravi Dayal.
2. Baldwin, Shauna Singh. 1999. What the Body Remembers.
3. See ‘Introduction’ to Bagchi, Jasodhara & Subhoranjan
Dasgupta (eds.) 2003. The Trauma and the Triumph:
Gender and Partition in Eastern India. Kolkata: Stree.
4. There is a detailed discussion of this much-neglected aspect
of the administrative consequences of the Partition of 1947
in Joya Chatterjee’s ‘Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief
and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947-50’ in The Partitions
of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, edited by
Suvir Kaul. (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001).
5. Chatterjee explores this theme in great detail in her book,
The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967. 2007.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
6. Ghosh, Amitav. 1988. The Shadow Lines. New Delhi:
7. Ghosh, Amitav. 2004. The Hungry Tide. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal.
8. Kudaisya, Gyanesh. 2000. ‘Divided landscapes, fragmented
identities: East Bengal refugees and their rehabilitation in India,
1947-79’, in Kudaisya, Gyanesh & Tai Yong Tan (eds.),
The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (Routledge Studies in the
Modern History of Asia), 156. London & New York: Routledge.
9. Chakraborty, Prafulla. 1990. The Marginal Men:
The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal.
Kalyani: Lumière Books.
10. Chatterjee, Nilanjana. 1992. Midnight’s Unwanted Children:
East Bengali Refugees and the Politics of Rehabilitation. Brown
11. For a discussion of this aspect of the novel, see Mondal,
Anshuman. 2007. Amitav Ghosh, 176-178. Manchester
& New York: Manchester University Press.
willing to kill
us for them?’
Fig. 3 (above right)