Book Review—Blood Island By Deep Haldar

Sukhchand has decided to leave Kadambari (his village); leave East Pakistan and cross over to that new country they call India. Just the name itself is a cuss word here, but this country is no longer safe for Hindus, for his wife and Sachin (his son). It would be their last Durga Puja in the village of their forefathers. ~ Deep Haldar in ‘Blood Island’

I had never read a book that captures oral history of an event or a group of people. Not many news reports have forced me to ponder over the plight of Hindu refugees pouring into India from Bangladesh. When I finished the book, I had a weird feeling. On one hand, I was heartbroken reading the stories of Hindu refugees fleeing Bangladesh. On the other hand, I was not sure if I should believe the story of a massacre in Marichjhapi. Both the sides, the government and refugees, have stories which are plausible.

A summary of the Marichjhapi Story

Bangladeshi Hindu refugees who were put up in camps in Dandakaranya (a tribal region in central India) somehow found about an uninhabited island called ‘Marichjhapi’ in West Bengal and decided to settle in large numbers. They were emboldened by an assurance by CPIM leaders regarding their rehabilitation in West Bengal.

However, the government claims that this island was a part of a reserve forest. A former minister claims that non-refugees had also crept into the island and wanted to usurp land. The authorities tried to force them out of the island by imposing an economic blockade. Refugees starved and suffered because of the blockade. But they decided to stay put on the island.

Since the blockade didn’t work, the police-force allegedly launched a violent eviction drive and burnt huts of the refugee-settlers. The government says that the death toll during the operation was fewer than 10. However, the refugees claim that the death toll was between 5,000-10,000.

My thoughts

I am not sure if I should believe the either of the versions. Though the version of the refugees are moving, none of them provide adequate evidence to the claim that 5000-10,000 refugees died during the Marichjhapi massacre. Such a huge number would have left behind a large amount of evidence on the island.

It’s unclear whether the violent police action had a communal or caste-related motive claimed by the victims in their statements. It is hard to prove or disprove such claims, given the lack of documentation/ proof. The whole affair is still hazy even if we put together all overlapping statements of the people interviewed by the author.

However, the moral issues involved in the book are pretty clear. A mere assurance by the CPIM leaders to relocate refugees in their state does not amount to a formal government sanction to occupy the island. In my opinion, the refugee settlement was illegal for all practical purposes. The author does not highlight this basic fact.

In spite of the illegality of the Marichjhapi occupation, these refugees deserved humane treatment when they were being evicted from the island. The economic blockade and denial of drinking water to the refugees cannot be defended. The government should have heard the grievances of the refugees. They should have tried to understand why the refugees wanted to desert the Dandakaranya refugee camp and flood the island.

If the statements of victims in the book are true, we will have to conclude that the administration, judiciary and opposition parties in West Bengal have failed to handle the refugee crisis in a humane manner. The Indian state needs to treat Hindu refugees from Bangladesh with respect and compassion.

The book can be a starting point for a fresh inquiry on the matter. But the book can’t be used to indict the CPIM government which was in power when the Marichjhapi eviction occurred.

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