Blood Island – A Book Review

By Sreya Sarkar

In his non-fiction debut, Deep Halder embarks upon an arduous journey of uncovering the truth about the merciless state-sanctioned brutality unleashed on an island called Marichjhapi and its refugee inhabitants. The island, tucked away in the remote, marshy terrain of Sunderbans, far away from Calcutta’s critical eyes, witnessed a horrific tragedy in the month of May in 1979 as around 10,000 people were forcibly evicted and at least 7,000, killed in cold blood by the police.

The author’s primary purpose is exhuming the cause behind Jyoti Basu led Left Front government’s strong resistance against the Marichjhapi refugee settlement. The reason remains as disturbingly elusive at the end of the book as it was in the beginning but the testimonials recorded in it, hint at a number of possibilities that are just as unsettling. The official reason offered is that the refugees were destroying the ecology of the island by cutting down trees but to torch an entire village and shoot at unarmed men, women, and children to clear an island—all in the name of protecting nature seems like a rather twisted state policy, or perhaps a lack of one altogether. Going by this logic, the farmers of Haryana and Punjab should be asked to leave their lands as well, hopefully in a less violent way than Marichjhapi, so that Delhi can breathe cleaner air. Some have blamed the government for showing caste bias as the refugees were mostly Namasudras, a Dalit sub-caste. Others state that the trouble started when the Left Front asked Udbastu Unnayan Samity representing the refugees to function as its branch and the organization refused. Basu’s ego took a bad hit and he felt belittled and rejected by these nowhere men and women. So, he decided not to support them. The self-sufficient, fiercely independent spirit of the settlers was a threat to the Left Front’s core policy, which was helping the needy, the downtrodden in exchange for their support, vis-à-vis votes.

The book’s nine chapters are nine stories. They are stories of a few Marichjhapi survivors, of journalists who had covered the incident, of the lawyer who had fought the settlers’ case against the State, of the Left Front minister who was in charge of the Sunderbans at the time and of a Dalit activist whose family was on the island.

Halder cleverly chooses the method of “oral history” to unearth details about the incident from the victims and the people who tried to help them. He allows the survivors’ voices to speak for themselves instead of imposing a voice-over narration. In this unique ‘show but don’t tell’ style he seamlessly patches together the history of an event deliberately left uninvestigated and undocumented by the Left Front government.

All the chapters reveal a part of history shrouded in oblivion but there are ones that truly stand out. Chapter three on Shukhoranjan Sengupta, an eminent journalist who covered Marichjhapi is a particularly hard-hitting part of the book that uncovers how vacating the island had become almost a full-blown war operation, the police forces later boasting that only the armed forces could clear the island, the way they did. The government used a law to protect forests against the settlers in Marichjhapi as a justification for all their heinous actions like poisoning the drinking water on the island, torching the huts, firing bullets to stop people from escaping, and later not offering the injured any treatment. Chapter six is about Mana Goldar. It ties the entire book together and explains why the author has chosen to write a book on the Marichjhapi incident. Twelve-year-old Mana had come to stay with the author’s family when the author was a child. She and her stories had stayed on in the author’s mind and later inspired him to become a journalist—“to tell stories the powerful want hidden.” Chapter eight is about the prickly Left Front ex-minister Kanti Ganguly, who is rather cross with the author for his decision to write about Marichjhapi. He blames the central government for not taking an active interest in the resettlement of the Bengali refugees. When asked if the refugees were meted out a rougher deal than usual because they were Dalits, as claimed by an Oxford University research paper, he denies vehemently and then immediately follows it up by stating that the Namasudras had a lot of anger towards higher caste Hindus. He does admit in the end that the Left Front government did promise rehabilitation to all the refugees before it came to power, and that was a wrong thing to do given the state’s fragile economy and lack of capacity.

The book is relevant and timely as refugee management and settlement is an issue India has grappled with ever since its inception and continues to do so. Handling swarms crossing over sporadically over borders is a difficult and messy process but since human lives are involved, callous decision making resulting in inhumane policies cannot be defended. The book also shows how sometimes the State can completely disregard civil society and turn authoritarian if its power goes unchecked.

The book serves as a cautionary tale for present and future Indian politicians revealing a need for a transparent refugee settlement policy in the country. It will also benefit the social science scholars who have a skinny shelf of academic and literary work to refer to when it comes to this topic. It is sure to inspire future journalists who are interested in investigative journalism.

There are nonfiction books that document important events accurately but at the cost of sounding cold and detached. This work is not like that. It is precise and informative but also compassionate and sincere. The author successfully holds his readers’ attention and takes them along with him on his quest to Marichjhapi.

About the Author:

Sreya did her undergraduate studies in Political Science from Kolkata’s Presidency College and graduate studies from JNU in New Delhi. After a short stint as a journalist, she set off for her second Masters at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She worked as a public policy analyst in U.S. think tanks and published numerous non-fiction articles and op-eds for newspapers and policy blogs. She is currently working with the Red Ink Literary Agency to get her first full-length novel published.

2 Comments

  1. Dr BikramSarkar says:

    Your review is a continuum of the treatment of the subject of the book bringing out and strengthening the spirit behind the narration of history suppressed by the power ruling in West Bengal four decades ago. Hard hitting and excellent review. Thanks

  2. BikramSarkar says:

    This review is a continuum of the story( or his – tory ) Deep Halder has bruoght out in his book. It has ably analysed the raison d’etre behind the ‘ oral histoty’ of Marich jhapi kept untold for four decades. The review is bold and hard hitting.
    Dr BikramSarkar

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