After the partition of Bengal in 1947 many lower caste Bengalis who fled East Pakistan were aggressively sent to the infertile, inhospitable lands of central India. In 1977, the Left Front government came to power promising to resettle the refugees in West Bengal and they subsequently moved to Marichjhapi Island. But the government reneged on its promise, fearing that an influx of refugees might jeopardise the prospects of the state’s economic recovery, and started to forcibly send them back to central India. Survivors claim that on the morning of 31 January 1979, when some women tried to row their boats to the neighbouring island to fetch drinking water, food grains and medicines, the police rammed their launches into the boats and drowned them. People who took their boats into the river to save the drowning women were fired upon by the police. That night the police and local political goons forcefully entered the island and openly fired upon the refugees.

Thousands of refugees seeking their final home stayed at Marichjhapi for the next year and a half. It is close to impossible to trace the precise number of people who died in the process during the exodus from central Indian camps to the settlement in Marichjhapi, and the eventual police eviction drive sending them back to the camps. But many academics put the total deaths between two thousand and three thousand.

Unfortunately, this inhuman and shocking incident is still very relevant. We need to look around the present scenario in India to realise that matters have not changed at all; that the partition and the massacre were just the beginning in a long line of similar incidents. The current issues concerning the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India will prove the point. Moreover, caste hierarchy is still an issue at present just as much as it was in the past.

Bose, over the last few years, has been researching and re-enacting memories of the survivors in specific locations, as there is almost no written record of the incident. Through the intricate weaving of facts and fiction of existing oral histories of the real survivors, he brings to light several perspectives of the same narrative, forming a cryptic framework of this problematic history that is facing slow erasure from collective memory.

For further reading :
Archives & Research Materials

-Ross Mallick’s Development Policy of a Communist Government: West Bengal Since 1977, 1993, Cambridge University Press and his seminal article ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre’ in The Journal of Asian Studies, 58: 1 (February 1999): 104-125.

-‘Dwelling on Morichjhanpi: When Tigers Became “Citizens”, Refugees “Tiger-Food”’ by Annu Jalais in the Economic and Political Weekly 40, no.17 (April 2005).

-‘Jyoti Basu’s speech on 9th February, 1979 in State Legislative Assembly of West Bengal’ from the book “Chinna Desh Chinna Itihas” by Madhumay Pal, 2000, Kolkata.

-Tushar Bhattacharjee, Aprakashito Marichjhapi, Second Edition: January 2015. -Jagadish Chandra Mondal, Marichjhapi Naiswabder Antorale, 2002, Kolkata. -Amrita Bazar Patrika, 1979, Kolkata.

-Jugantar, 1979, Kolkata.

This Project was supported by Magnum Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, India Foundation for the Arts under the Arts Practice Programme and The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (under the aegis of Amol Vadehra Art Grant).

About the artist

Soumya Sankar Bose is an Indian documentary photographer. In his practice he uses photography, archival material, text and film to explore desire, identity and memory. His first book Where the Birds Never Sing (2020) is on Marichjhapi massacre, the forcible eviction in 1979 of lower caste Bengali refugees on Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, India, and the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease. The Book was shortlisted for the First Photobook award in the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards 2020. Bose was awarded Magnum Foundation’s Social Justice Fellowship for Full Moon on a Dark Night. In 2018, he received Magnum Foundations’ Migration and Religion Grant. He has received other grants from The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art's Amol Vadehra Art Grant, Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan's Five Million Incidents, Henry Luce Foundation. He is a three-time recipient of grants from the India Foundation for the Arts grant. In 2019, he was one of the participants of World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass. Born and brought up in Midnapore, a small town near Kolkata (India), Bose now lives in Kolkata and is represented by the Experimenter Gallery.

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