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Special articles

Dwelling on Morichjhanpi
When Tigers Became ‘Citizens’,
Refugees ‘Tiger-Food’
In 1978, several hundred Bengali refugees in Morichjhanpi, one of the
northern-most forested islands of the Sundarbans, were brutally evicted by the
authorities for violating the Forest Acts. This paper looks at how the memory of
Morichjhanpi was evoked by the islanders to reveal their resentment about the unequal
distribution of resources between them and the Royal Bengal tigers of the
Sundarbans reserve forest. The government’s primacy on ecology and its use of force
in Morichjhanpi was seen by the Sundarbans islanders as a betrayal not only of
refugees and of the poor and marginalised in general, but also of Bengali backward
caste identity. At the same time, the reasons leading to the Morichjhanpi massacre have
to be understood in relation to the long history which led to the partition of Bengal
and the intricacies of caste, class and communal differences.

I As developed by Ross Mallick,4 the reasons leading to the

Refugees and Bengali Identity Morichjhanpi massacre have to be understood in relation to the
long history which led to the partition of Bengal and the intricacies

ll through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Bengali Hindus of caste, class and communal differences. Briefly, in the colonial
from what had become East Pakistan and subsequently period, the East Bengal namasudra movement had been one of
Bangladesh entered West Bengal in the hope of settling the most powerful and politically mobilised dalit movements in
down. They were however sent to various inhospitable areas India.5 In alliance with the Muslims, they had kept the Bengal
outside West Bengal with the assurance that they would eventually Congress Party in opposition from the 1920s. The exclusion of
be relocated in West Bengal. Soon after the Left Front came to the bhadralok from power led to the Hindu elite and eventually
power, in 1978 they found their refugee supporters return; amongst the Congress, pressing for the partition of Bengal at independence,
them, about 30,000 managed to sail to Morichjhanpi – one of so that at least the western half would return to their control.6
the northern-most forested islands of the Sundarbans – from Partition, however, meant that dalits lost their bargaining power
where they were brutally evicted for violating the Forest Acts. when divided along religious lines of Hindus and Muslims and
Based on nearly two years’ fieldwork in the Sundarbans, this became politically marginalised minorities in both countries.7
paper looks at how the memory of Morichjhanpi was evoked With the partition of India, threatened by their Muslim and
by the islanders to talk about their resentment about the unequal lower-caste tenants, the upper-caste landed elite formed the first
distribution of resources between them and the Royal Bengal wave of migrants from East Pakistan into West Bengal. Subse-
tigers of the Sundarbans reserve forest. This paper looks at how quent migrants were rural middle class cultivators and artisans.
the government’s primacy on ecology and its use of force in If the richest amongst them found a niche amongst relatives and
Morichjhanpi that saw hundreds of refugees dying, was seen by friends in Kolkata and its outskirts, the poorer amongst them
the Sundarbans islanders as a betrayal not only of refugees and squatted on public and private land and tried to resist eviction.
of the poor and marginalised in general, but also, of the Bengali In the 1960s and 1970s (especially after the Bangladesh war of
‘nimnobarno’ identity.1 In fact, the Morichjhanpi massacre was independence in 1971, Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975
considered a double betrayal by the Sundarbans islanders. They and Zia-ur-Rahman’s coming to power) communal agitations
argued that it was because they were considered as lesser mortals started to hereafter be directed against the poorest and low caste
situated at the periphery and marginalised due to their social Hindus who had remained in East Bengal. They now sought
inferiority by the ‘bhadralok’2 – by which is meant the anglicised, refuge in West Bengal.
well-connected, educated, moneyed, essentially Hindu upper Unlike their richer counterparts, who were backed by family
caste, and mainly urban, Bengalis – that tigers, taking the cue, and caste connections, many of these poorer migrants did not find
had started feeding on them.3 a way of living in Kolkata and were sent to various inhospitable

Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005 1757

and infertile areas – most infamous amongst them being Morichjhanpi. Many islanders explained to me that they and tigers
Dandakaranya, a semi-arid and rocky place in east-central India had lived in a sort of idyllic relationship prior to the events of
which included part of Orissa, and former Madhya Pradesh and Morichjhanpi. After Morichjhanpi, they said, tigers had started
Andhra Pradesh, now in present-day Chhattisgarh – thus an area preying on humans. This sudden development of their man-eating
entirely removed, both culturally and physically, from the refu- trait was believed to have been caused by two factors. One was
gees’ known world. The opposition, denounced the Congress’ the defiling of the Sundarbans forest due to government
attempts to evict the refugees from West Bengal and promised violence, the second was because of the stress which had been
that when they came to power they would settle the refugees in put thereafter on the superiority of tigers in relation to the
West Bengal;8 and that this would, in all probability, be on one inhabitants of the Sundarbans. The brutality and rhetoric with
of the islands of the Sundarbans.9 which the refugees had been chased away, coupled with mea-
Many refugees, especially those from Khulna, had sures for safeguarding tigers which the government initiated
preferred settling in the inhabited islands of the Sundarbans – soon after the events of Morichhapi, had, explained the villagers,
where they had erstwhile neighbours and relatives who had come gradually made tigers ‘self-important’. With this increased con-
from Khulna to clear the forests in the West Bengal part of viction of their self-worth, tigers had grown to see poorer people
the Sundarbans during the early part of the century – rather than as ‘tiger-food’.
go to the totally alien area of Dandakaranya. In 1975, many of The anthropomorphisation of tigers in relation to the villagers’
those who had been sent to these camps started to move to a history intrigued me. The essence of one’s ‘bhadra’ identity is
sand band called the Morich chak which was part of often revealed through one’s romanticised vision of nature, in
Morichjhanpi island in the Gosaba police station. It was thought this case of the Sundarbans – which literally means ‘beautiful
to be possible to settle 16,000 families there, another 30,000 forest’ – and of wildlife – here of the Royal Bengal tiger.
refugees in nearby Dattapasur,10 and in other Sundarbans places Bhadralok sensitivity to the Royal Bengal tiger with its associa-
that had ‘cultivable waste land’. 11 However, in their tion to both the regal and colonial images of hunting as well
repeated attempts to settle there they were brutally evicted from as to its current position as national animal has often been
the various train stations where they congregated on their way deployed to mark the urgency of having the Sundarbans named
to West Bengal, were starved of water and food whilst in a World Heritage Site and prime tiger area. But the
Morichjhanpi, and finally were even shot at before being brutally anthropomorphisation of tigers into that of a ‘bhadra’ symbol
evicted from there.12 of national animal (an image I shall not dwell on in this paper)
The growing polarisation of West Bengal and East Bengal was questioned by the islanders through their presentation
as separate ‘homelands’ for Hindus and Muslims respe- of another image of the tiger. Shrugging off the colonial and
ctively, affected most the lower caste, poor, rural population, national drape off this bhadra tiger, it portrayed the animal as
especially of lower Bengal who were not divided so much along one whose gentle inoffensive nature was irretrievably trans-
religious lines as along the cultural and economic divide formed into that of a man-eater following the bloody events
of bhadralok/nimnoborner or ‘nimnoborger lok’. The of Morichjhanpi. Highlighting this transformation of their tiger
contending elements in being both ‘Bengali’ and ‘Muslim’ was a way, for the villagers, of reclaiming the forgotten pages
has often been addressed,13 however, the tension that exists when of a history which had relegated them to oblivion, an injustice
one is ‘Bengali’ but not a bhadralok has been less studied and they felt they had been done by the urbanised elite who believed
needs to be recognised to comprehend why the islanders tigers were more precious than them, the nimnobarner or
believed that they had become ‘just tiger-food’ for Kolkata’s nimnobarger lok.
Though there has been a growing emphasis – especially fol- II
lowing the publication of Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects Brutal Evacuation of Refugees
of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983) and subsequently from Morichjhanpi
in the Subaltern Studies series – on rural communities’ conscious-
ness through the study of rural movements in colonial Bengal,14 In 1977, when the Left Front came to power, they found their
but as Das Gupta argues,15 these studies focus overwhelmingly refugee supporters had taken them at their word and sold their
on the religious discourse of the nimnobarger lok, especially in belongings and land to return to West Bengal. In all, 1,50,000
relation to resistance. While understanding religion is important, refugees arrived from Dandakaranya16 expecting the govern-
privileging it over all else distracts from the equally important ment to honour its word.17 Fearing that an influx of refugees
economic and political spheres, and from alternative, less well might jeopardise the prospects of the state’s economic
known, cultural spheres. In this case the framing of community recovery, the government started to forcibly send them back.
consciousness was not so much undertaken through the valorisation Many refugees however managed to escape to various places
of religion but through a divide along caste/class which was inside West Bengal, one of these being the Sundarbans
expressed through local narratives on Morichjhanpi and tigers where they had family and where they would be able to
turning man-eaters. Here, through the rejection of the tiger as survive by working as fishers. From the month of May the
an animal one needs to be proud of due to its status as ‘national same year about 30,000 SC refugees, under the leadership of
animal’ (of both Bangladesh and India), the islanders’ narratives Satish Mandal, president of the Udbastu Unnayansil Samity, a
of tigers highlighted their perceptions of an unjust history. What former close associate of the Communist Party’s refugee
this paper attempts to underscore is how the Sundarbans islanders programme, sailed to Morichjhanpi and set up a settlement
internalised the injustice they felt had been levelled at the poorer there.18
refugees’ claims for settlement in West Bengal and why they Morichjhanpi, an island in the northern-most forested part of
thought their request had been trivialised. the West Bengal Sundarbans, had been cleared in 1975 and its
Soon after my arrival, I was told that the main reason why tigers mangrove vegetation replaced by a governmental programme of
had become man-eaters could be traced to the violent events of coconut and tamarisk plantation to increase state revenue. However,

1758 Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005

though this was not an island covered in mangrove forest, the of the Sundarbans – within a few months tube-wells had been
state government was in no mood to tolerate such a settlement. dug, a viable fishing industry, saltpans, dispensaries and schools21
It stated that the refugees were ‘in unauthorised occupation of established, and this contrasted lamentably with the islands they
Morichjhanpi which is a part of the Sundarbans government came from, where many of these facilities were, and are, still
reserve forest violating thereby the Forest Acts’ and that refugees lacking.
had come ‘with the intention of settling there permanently thereby Stories abounded about the spirit of bonhomie and solidarity
disturbing the existing and potential forest wealth and also between refugees and islanders whose similar experiences of
creating ecological imbalance’.19 The government placed pri- marginalisation brought them together to bond over a common
macy on ecology, but this argument, believed the villagers, was cause which was to fight for a niche for themselves; this would
more to legitimise their ejection from Morichjhanpi in the eyes become a metaphor for the reclamation of ‘voice’ in the new
of the Kolkata bhadralok. The argument that this might be a West Bengal. The villagers explained the refugees’ bid to stay
precedent for an unmanageable refugee influx from Bangladesh on in Morichjhanpi as a dignified attempt to forge a new respect-
was also heatedly argued as baseless. Indeed, as Ross Mallick able identity for themselves as well as a bid to reclaim a portion
argues, by then, the last wave of East Bengali migrants had been of the West Bengali political rostrum by the poorest and most
forcefully driven out of the state and those who would have settled marginalised. They had also hoped that this would be taken up
in Morichjhanpi would not have been a financial liability for the by the government as an opportunity to absolve itself of the wrong
state government.20 it had done to the poorer refugees by sending them away from
The refugees from Dandakaranya were joined by people from West Bengal.
the villages of the adjoining Sundarbans islands of Satjelia, Unrepentant, and despite this display of self-help and co-
Kumirmari, Puinjali and Jharkhali. Many islanders, being the operative spirit, the government persisted in its effort to clear
descendants of immigrants from Khulna in East Bengal brought Morichjhanpi of the settlers. On the January 31, 1979 the police
by the British even as late as the 1930s and 1940s to reclaim opened fire killing 36 persons. The media started to underscore
the forest, identified with the refugees. A lot of them also shared the plight of the refugees of Morichjhanpi and wrote in positive
close blood ties with the refugees, ties reignited through visits terms about the progress they were making in their rehabilitation
and gifts of paddy and vegetables. Young landless couples were efforts. Photographs were published in the Amrita Bazar Patrika
urged to settle with the Morichjhanpi dwellers; their intimate of the February 8, 1979 and the opposition members in the state
knowledge of that part of the forest and generous lending of boats assembly staged a walkout in protest of the government’s methods
and dinghies were further recompensed by the refugees’ eager- of treating them. Fearing more backlash, and seeing the public
ness that they too settle in Morichjhanpi to strengthen their case. growing warm towards the refugees’ cause, the chief minister
When narrating their memories, if some of the islanders evoked declared Morichjhanpi out of bounds for journalists and con-
their dismay at finding their ponds emptied of water overnight demned their reports saying that these contributed to the refugees’
due to the refugees’ initial dependence on the adjoining islands’ militancy and self-importance and instead suggested that the
pond water for their survival, most islanders also drew on memo- press should support their eviction on the grounds of national
ries of fraternal bonding. Morichjhanpi island, being 125 square interest.
miles, was so big that the refugees were keen that the islanders After the failure of the economic blockade (announced on
join them so as to have ‘hands raise bunds and voices carry our January 26 – an ironical twist to Republic Day!) in May the same
pleas to Kolkata’; to help improve the dire economic situation year, the government started forcible evacuation. Thirty police
of the Sundarbans region as a whole rather than squabble over launches encircled the island thereby depriving the settlers of
land which, being neither fertile nor theirs to distribute, was not food and water; they were also tear-gassed, their huts razed, their
worth fighting over. boats sunk, their fisheries and tube-wells destroyed, and those
The settlers – both refugees as well as islanders who had come who tried to cross the river were shot at. To fetch water, the settlers
from the adjoining villages, initially built some makeshift huts had now to venture after dark and deep into the forested portion
along the cultivated area of the island, beneath the government’s of the island and forced to eat wild grass. Several hundred men,
coconut and tamarisk trees. Most of them survived by working women and children were believed to have died during that time
as crab and fish collectors in the forest, and with the help of and their bodies thrown in the river. The Calcutta High Court
the islanders, by selling their products in the nearby villages. In ordered a two-week lifting of the ban but this was not properly
the memories of their time there, the Sundarbans islanders often implemented.
underlined the fraternal bonding they shared with the refugees Based on Sikar (1982) and Biswas’ (1982) pieces, Ross Mallick
and their immense relief to have finally come across vocal leaders. estimates that in all 4,128 families who had come from
In contrast to the ruling elite of their villages, composed essen- Dandakaranya to find a place in West Bengal perished of cholera,
tially of large landowners who aspired to migrate towards Kolkata, starvation, disease, exhaustion, in transit while sent back to their
they saw the East Bengali leaders as more apt to represent them. camps, by drowning when their boats were scuttled by the police
They explained that this was because they were poor, rural, and or shot to death in Kashipur, Kumirmari, and Morichjhanpi by
low caste and hence not afraid to take up manual work, such police firings.22 How many of these deaths actually occurred
as fishing, and knew, through the twists of fate what it was like in Morichjhapi we shall never know. However, what we do know,
to fight for their rights. As a whole, the refugees were looked is that no criminal charges were laid against any of the officials
up to by the Sundarbans islanders of the islands adjoining that or politicians involved. Even then prime minister Morarji Desai,
of Morichjhapi because they were better educated and more wishing to maintain the support of the Communists for
articulate than themselves and because, having lost everything, his government, decided not to pursue the matter. Many refugees
they were seen as having the moral courage to face the Kolkata and villagers had voted for the government coalition based on
ruling class with their rural concerns. The islanders often ex- their stated commitment to resettling the refugees in West
pressed their awe at the way the East Bengali refugees rapidly Bengal. The refugees saw the brutality of the government as
established Morichjhanpi as one of the best-developed islands one that had been possible because it was backed by the

Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005 1759

bhadralok who perceived the refugees and the Sundarbans the lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity, drinking
islanders as lesser beings who came behind tigers in their classi- water and health centres make it one of the poorest regions of
ficatory scheme of importance. With the betrayal of West Bengal.
Morichjhanpi, the islanders voiced how they felt that the distinc- The Sundarbans region is also referred to as ‘Kolkata’s servant’
tion between the urban as central and the rural as peripheral was (‘Kolkatar jhi’), due to the large number of people from this
reinforced. region working as servants in the houses of Kolkata’s affluent.
Before the introduction of shrimp seed collection in the 1980s
II the islanders had barely enough to eat. For many islanders,
Morichjhanpi: A Double Betrayal especially those who owned no land, working in the forest was
the only way of making a living. Jayanta, reflecting on the hope
In the villagers’ memories, these events were recounted as a the arrival of the settlers had brought them, had longed to start
‘war’ between two groups of people, one backed by state power a new life in Morichjhanpi where for once, the aspirations and
and modern paraphernalia, the other dispossessed and who had rights of the lowest would be established. But he and his family
only their hands and the spirit of companionship. Jayanta, an had barely been there five months when their shack was burned
islander who had gone there as a young man with his wife and down by the police. He wondered why the government was bent
baby child, gave a poignant narrative of the course of events on reclaiming Morichjhanpi for tigers when it wasn’t even part
at Morichjhanpi. He remembered how when the refuges saw of the tiger reserve. The other sore point was that the refugees
their children dying of cholera and starvation they tried to had been promised land in the Sundarbans. He saw the betrayal
break the cordon formed by the police and the military launches. by the government as the proof that for the Kolkata bhadralok
They sent arrows made with wood, aimed pieces of brick and they were just ‘tiger-food’ – disposable people who could be
dried mud from their slings and verbally abused the government shot and killed because they wanted the homestead they had been
officials. The officials urged the police to retaliate by throwing promised.
tear-gas bombs and use firearms. A ‘war’ was on, one group Within the CPIM there were divisions over the way the party
fighting with wooden arrows and stones, the other with tear-gas, leadership had handled the matter. The CPIM cadres felt that
guns, and loudspeakers. For greater protection, the 30 launches the leadership had washed themselves off the responsibility of
were covered with a wire netting and police camps were the poorer refugees in a ‘bureaucratic way’ when it could have
established in the surrounding villages. As one islander put it, used the issue to develop a mass movement against the central
the launches started looking like ‘stinging swarms of floating government’s discrimination and neglect towards Bengali refu-
bee-hives’. gees vis-à-vis the Punjabi ones. However, the CPIM state
The ease and brutality with which the government wiped off committee’s Political-Organisational Report, was keen to close
all signs of the bustling life which had been built there in the the matter and issued a statement saying that there was now ‘no
last 18 months were proof for the villagers that they were possibility of giving shelter to these large number of refugees
considered completely irrelevant to the more influential urban under any circumstances in the state’.23 Accusations were made,
Bengali community, especially when weighed against tigers. In the land revenue minister Benoy Chowdhury made the unsub-
two weeks’ time all the plots had been destroyed and the refugees stantiated allegation that some foreign agencies were behind
‘packed’ off. ‘Were we vermin that our shacks had to be burned Morichjhanpi;24 the CPIM also blamed vested interests, reaction-
down?’ rhetorically asked one of the villagers. The refugees were ary forces, Congress (I), and P C Sen for using the issue for
then forcefully put in launches and sent to Hasnabad where political gain and claimed that it had met the challenge and had
lorries carried them back to Dandakaranya or to the Andamans. ultimately achieved success with the return of the refugees to
Many of the islanders who had been rounded up along with the Dandakaranya in May 1979.
refugees, now fled, often with some of their newfound The islanders had bonded with the refugees not only because
refugee companions from the lorries taking them back to they shared with them a common place of origin which was
Dandakaranya. They came back to their former islands and eastern Bengal but also because they could identify with the
settled along the embankments. Many others built shacks along terrible hardship they had gone through. Stressing his affinity
railway lines or in places like Barasat, Gobordanga, or Bongaon with them, Jayanta recounted how during the time they had
– in West Bengal. settled in Morichjhanpi they had ‘all become one big family’
To understand the identification of the islanders to the refugees, as they had ‘the same hopes, went through the same ordeal,
the social context of life on these islands has to be underlined. fought on the same side’. That was till the moment Kolkata let
The Sundarbans – a cluster of about 300 islands, of which half them down, after that, he said “we each went back to the islands
were reclaimed and inhabited under the British, is situated in or camps we had come from with broken hearts and bloody
the delta of the Ganges, and stretches between West Bengal and hands; a broken, disunited and utterly weakened group”. The
Bangladesh. It is crisscrossed by numerous rivers making access chapter was quickly closed. A few journalists questioned the
to the islands difficult. The forested Sundarbans islands of both capacity of the upper class people, Communists or others,
West Bengal and Bangladesh put together (about 10,000 sq kms) to represent the poorest strata of Bengali society. As noted by
provide the largest remaining natural habitat of Bengal tigers and a journalist in the Bengali paper Jugantar: “The refugees
are home to some 600 of them. With the success of Project Tiger, of Dandakaranya are men of the lowest stratum of society (…)
launched a few years before the events of Morichjhanpi (in They are mainly cultivators, fishermen, day-labourers, artisans,
1973), the Sundarbans’ fame grew phenomenally and has the exploited mass of the society (…) So long as the state
since 1985 been included in the UNESCO’s list of world heritage machinery will remain in the hands of the upper class elite, the
sites. The usual portrayal of the Sundarbans is that of an poor, the helpless, the beggar, the refugees will continue to
exotic mangrove forest full of Royal Bengal tigers rather than be victimised.”25 “Why have our dead remained unaccounted
that of a region which is often referred to as ‘mager mulluk’ for for and un-mourned by the babus of Kolkata, forced to hover
the lawlessness and violence which characterises it; moreover, as spirits in the forest, while a tiger who enters our village and

1760 Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005

then gets killed puts us all behind bars?” asked Jayanta voicing schemes launched by the government. “As we are treated as
a general bitterness.26 lesser beings, we act as is expected of them” said one of the
IV After Morichjhanpi, the tigers’ importance only kept increas-
New Repository of Bhadralok Violence ing. All through the 1980s, various experts argued in the
leading Kolkata dailies over the Sundarbans tigers’ ‘natural’
Royal Bengal Tigers propensity for man-eating.27 The government devised ruses
to thwart the tiger’s predilection for human flesh. Between
Now half-broken embankments and the few fruit trees planted November 1986 and October 1987, it took up the project of
by the settlers during their stay remain as the only vestiges of digging fresh-water ponds inside the jungle, placing four
previous human habitation on Morichjhanpi, the rest has been electrified dummies dressed in used clothing (to give them a
reclaimed by the forest. We shall never know exactly how many human smell) in strategic spots in the forest, and distributed
people lost their lives. According to many of the islanders only 2,500 plastic masks free of cost among honey-collectors and
25 per cent of those who had come to Morichjhanpi left the island wood-cutters permitted to work in the buffer zone of the
alive. This figure is important more because it reflects what the Sundarbans. The main intention for digging these ponds was
villagers feel rather than for its factual veracity. The main thrust to ‘sweeten’ the nature of tigers. The dummies were installed
of the argument about the bloody events of Morichjhanpi was with the belief that the tiger would stop attacking humans after
that the people of the Sundarbans felt that they had been betrayed it had received an electric shock (a safety fuse and a low current
by the government and the Kolkata urbanites. In many ways, of 20-25 milliamps ensured that it was not fatal to the animal).
Mujib’s assassination was seen by the villagers as marking the Each dummy was connected to a 12-volt battery through an
end of the new-found friendship between India and Bangladesh, energiser that delivered a current of 230 volts. The masks, were
Hindus and Muslims, bhadralok and nimnobarner lok, people to be worn front-side back as it was believed that the tiger –
and tigers. The villagers explained that tigers, annoyed at the in his custom of attacking from behind, on seeing another pair
disturbances caused by the unleashed violence in the forest had of eyes peering at him would leave his target puzzled and
started attacking people and that this was how they ended up chastised. These were believed by the villagers to be baseless
getting a taste for human flesh. Others argued that it was the preventives because they did not address the real issue, which
corpses of killed refugees that had floated through the forest was that there were increasing numbers of people killed by tigers,
that had given them the taste. Morichjhanpi was a turning point because the existing means of livelihood was the only mecha-
after which man-eating became part of the tiger’s ‘nature’ or nisms the poorest could rely on for their subsistence. The current
‘behaviour’. average is of 150 people killed per year by tigers and crocodiles
If in the early days, explained the islanders, tigers, to keep in West Bengal alone.
a balance with their fellow human neighbours did not Getting killed by a tiger in the Sundarbans in the 1980s was
reproduce quickly, it was believed that now their reproduction a terrifying prospect for family members, co-workers, even the
rate had gone up because the government gave them fertilising entire village, of those who worked in the forest. The victim’s
injections in the hope that they would reproduce faster. “Yes, body had to be abandoned in the forest for fear that the forest
and they have created hybrid tigers which are even more dan- officials would get to know about it. The new widow and the
gerous; fearing a mass revolt the government hides the true victim’s children were forbidden to cry and taught to say that
figures of tigers and always quote ridiculously small numbers” their father had died of diarrhoea because if exposed, the family
said an islander. It was often expressed that the government members were exhorted to pay for the dead trespasser, and were,
was happy as long as the tigers thrived, and that in contrast, in effect, treated like criminals.
whether the islanders lived or died, as had been the case
for the refugees, made no difference, because they were just V
‘tiger-food’. Conclusion: Reclaiming Voices Subaltern
These measures – which were believed to reflect the
government’s inherent conviction about tigers being more im- Faced with people getting killed by tigers, the only remedial
portant than the fishers, honey-collectors and wood-cutters of procedures the West Bengal government could come up with,
the Sundarbans – were taken to be one of the more important were geared towards changing a tiger’s ‘nature’ – a ‘nature’
reasons for tigers turning man-eaters. ‘After Morichjhanpi, tigers understood along the bhadralok’s views of tigers and nature.
had become ‘arrogant’,’ I was often told. As an old woman There was absolutely no engagement with the local ways of
explained, tigers initially were fine animals that were afraid of understanding the reasons for tigers having become man-eaters.
people. They were compassionate and were agreeable to the fact Such a privileging of one understanding of tigers’ nature over
that the products of the forest and rivers were to be shared another continues to establish hierarchical divisions between
with people. But now, she lamented, due to the legitimising peoples. In other words, a discourse on tigers’ man-eating nature’s
of killings in their name, they had turned egotistical and did not ‘naturalness’ was (and still is) a way, as the villagers explained,
hesitate to attack people. Now tigers were no longer the of legitimising, by the bhadralok leftist government, the relative
neighbours with whom the forest had to be shared but ‘state- unimportance of the nimnobarner lok, especially when measured
property’, and backed by the ruling elite they had begun to treat against the tigers. The decline of the namasudra movement, which
the islanders as ‘tiger-food’. In a final show of desperate anger, started with the bhadralok’s call for the partition of Bengal,28 and
the refugees had cut down the government plantation of coconut which led to the death of thousands of refugees, not only marked
and tamarisk before leaving the island of Morichjhanpi; just as a growing unequal access to West Bengal in general, and Kolkata
now, every time the islanders were angry with the representatives in particular, and the associated disparate resource distribution,
of the state they destroyed public property – cut down trees, but also revealed a dilemma of a greater order – that of being
broke solar lights and looted greedily from the various a Bengali, yet not a bhadralok. The proof to this lies in the fact

Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005 1761

that those killed in the Morichjhanpi massacre are yet to find thesis, Australian National University, Canberra; Ahmed Rafiuddin
justice, and their stories yet to appear in histories. EPW 1981, The Bengal Muslims 1871-1906: A Quest for Identity, Oxford
University Press, Delhi; Oxford; Mustafa Nurul Islam 1973, Bengali
Muslim Public Opinion as Reflected in the Bengali Press 1901-1930,
Email: Dhaka (Bengali version: Samayik Patre Jiban o Janamat 1901-1930/
Life and Public Opinion in the Periodical Literature.
Notes 14 See studies by Tanika Sarkar 1985, ‘Jitu Santal’s Movement in Malda,
1924-1932’ in R Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies IV, Oxford University
[This piece is dedicated to the victims of the Morichjhanpi massacre. It Press, Delhi; Tanika Sarkar 1987, Bengal 1928-1934: The Politics of
was first presented as part of the American Anthropological Association Protest, Oxford University Press, Delhi; Gautam Bhadra and Partha
Conference panel: ‘Forgetting Bengal’ which was held in Chicago in Chatterjee (eds) 1997, Nimnabarger Itihas (The History of the Subaltern
November 2003. I warmly thank Nazes Afroz, Partha Chatterjee, Mita Classes), Ananda Publishers, Calcutta; Swapan Dasgupta 1985, ‘Adivasi
Datta, Amitav Ghosh, Anjan Ghosh, Ross Mallick, Amites Mukhopadhyay, Politics in Midnapur, c 1760–1924’ in R Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies
Ralph Nicholas, Johnny Parry, P K Sarkar, Murali Shanmugavelan for IV: Writings in South Asian History and Society, Oxford University
helpful comments or encouragements and to Bimal Biswas for publishing Press, Delhi; Adrienne Cooper 1988, ‘Sharecropping and Sharecroppers’
an early version in Adal Badal. Inaccuracies though, remain my own.]
Struggles in Bengal 1930–1950’, K P Bagchi and Company, Calcutta;
1 ‘Nimnobarno’ literally means ‘inferior varna’ or caste. It denotes those Pradit Bose 1993, Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital: Rural Bengal
belonging to occupational castes considered inferior such as leather since 1770, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York.
workers, those who deal in liquor, boatmen, fishermen, i e, those classified 15 Das Gupta Sanjukta 2001, ‘Peasant and Tribal Movements in Colonial
as ‘untouchables’ in British Bengal. Though Joya Chatterji (in her Bengal: A Historiographic Overview’, pp 65-92, in Bengal: Rethinking
seminal book Bengal Divided, 1994, Cambridge University Press, refers History, Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (ed), Manohar, International Centre for
to them as ‘chhotolok’ – literally ‘small people’, I refrain from using Bengal Studies, New Delhi; here p 76.
it as it is a derogatory term commonly used as an abuse. Nimnobarno 16 Visharat et al, p 8 in Ross Mallick (1993: 100).
is interchangeable with nimnobargo. 17 As noted: ‘Now that the Congress Is Out of Power, Would the Refugees
2 The term bhadralok (gentle-folk) is widely used and well understood be far Wrong in Expecting the CPI(M) to Practise What They Preached?’
in Bengal. It refers to the rentier class who enjoyed tenurial rights to Kalyan Chaudhuri, ‘Victims of Their Leader’s Making’, EPW, July 8,
rents from land appropriated by the Permanent Settlement. This was 1978, pp 1098-99, in Ross Mallick (1993: 100).
a class that did not work its land but lived off the rental income 18 Ibid, Ranjit Kumar Sikar, ‘Marichjhapi Massacre’, The Oppressed Indian,
generated. Shunning manual labour the ‘babu’ saw this as the essence July (1982: 21), in Mallick (1993: 100).
of the social distance between himself and his social inferiors. The 19 Letter from the deputy secretary, Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation
title ‘babu’ – a badge of bhadralok status – carried with it connotations Department, government of West Bengal addressed to the zonal director,
of Hindu, frequently upper caste exclusiveness, of landed wealth, ministry of home affairs, office of the zonal director, backward classes
of being master (as opposed to servant), and latterly of possessing and ex officio deputy commissioner for scheduled castes and scheduled
the goods of education, culture and anglicisation (Chatterji, ibid 1994:5). tribes, eastern zone, subject – ‘Problems of Refugees from Dandakaranya
3 This however, is not seen as being the only reason why Sundarbans tigers to West Bengal’, No 3223-Rehab/DNK-6/79, in Mallick (1993:100).
have turned man-eaters. Amongst the other reasons mentioned were the 20 Mallick (1993:100-1).
harsh geography, a supposed long and difficult history of migration, and 21 This concords with the information provided by Mallick (1993:100).
the more recent governmental experiments to help thwart what is seen 22 Sikar, ‘Marichjhapi Massacre’, (1982:22); Atharobaki Biswas, ‘Why
as their unnatural taste for human flesh (details in Jalais, PhD thesis, Dandakaranya a Failure, Why Mass Exodus, Where Solution?’, The
University of London 2004). Oppressed Indian, July, (1982:19) in Mallick (1993:101).
4 ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal 23 Communist Party of India (Marxist), West Bengal State Conference,
and the Marichjhapi Massacre’ in The Journal of Asian Studies, 58, Rajnaitik-Sangathanik Report (‘Political-Organisational Report’) adopted
no 1, (February 1999): 104-125; here page 105. 14th Plenary Session December 27, 1981-January 1, 1982 (Calcutta:
5 Mallick uses the term ‘untouchable’. As this group excludes the non- West Bengal State Committee, Communist Party of India – Marxist,
untouchable scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and other backward 1982), p 14.
castes (terms given by the government of India to classify groups of people 24 The Stateman, February 19, 1979.
belonging to low castes and tribes in order for members of such groups 25 Sikar, ‘Marichjhapi Massacre’, p 23, quoting Jugantar, May 29, 1979.
to be eligible for positive affirmative action), I prefer using the more 26 The way government policies have produced competition between people
widely used term dalit – which means ‘oppressed’ and widely recognised and tigers in the Sundarbans forms the basis of another piece which
both by dalits and non-dalits in the political sphere. will be published in the near future.
6 Ross Mallick (ibid: 105). This is in line with the arguments made by 27 M K Chowdhury and Pranabes Sanyal 1985b, ‘Some Observations on
Sekhar Bandopadhyay 1997, Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial Man-Eating Behaviour of Tigers of Sundarbans’, Cheetal. 26(3/4):32-40;
India: The Namasudras of Bengal 1872-1947, Richmond, Surrey, Curzon Kalyan Chakrabarti 1986, ‘Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in the Mangrove
Press, England and Joya Chatterji (ibid). Forests of Sundarbans – An Ecological Study’, Tigerpaper. 13 (2): 8–11,
7 Mallick, ibid. V Rishi 1988, ‘Man, Mask and Maneater’, Tigerpaper. 15 (3): 9-14;
8 EPW, April 1, 1967, p 633. who all developed their findings based on the first study of its kind which
9 During the B C Roy government, in the 1950s and early 1960s Jyoti was undertaken by Hendricks in 1975. Scientists came to the conclusion
Basu, then the leader of the opposition, had presented their case in that the Royal Bengal Tiger is the only tiger species that attacks man
the legislative assembly. As late as 1974 he had demanded in a public ‘naturally’. They have argued that this might be because the rivers of the
meeting that the Dandakaranya refugees be allowed to settle in the western part of the Sundarbans, i e, those of West Bengal have gradually
Sundarbans. In 1974-75 leading members of the subsequent Left turned brackish and that drinking the saline water of the mangrove has
Front government, including Ram Chatterjee, the minister of state for made game animals’ meat salty thus forcing the tiger to compensate with
home (civil defence), had assured the refugees that if the Left Front some ‘sweeter flesh’, i e, that of humans’; the other reason given is that
came to power they would arrange their resettlement in West Bengal generally tigers like to mark their territory, but with the tides washing
and at a meeting of the eight Left Front parties in 1975 it was resolved away boundaries the Sundarbans tigers may have fixed for themselves
that the refugees would be settled in the Sundarbans. these tigers do not know boundaries and this makes it prone to swim
10 Ananda Bazar Patrika, June 23, 1975. into inhabited spaces. Whatever the reasons for the tiger’s fondness for
11 UCRC, ‘Report of the 4th Conference’, Cooper’s Camp, Calcutta, 1957, human flesh, what seems strange are the half-hearted procedures which
in ‘Refugees in Dandakaranya’, K Maudood Elahi, International have been adopted not with a view to save ssome 100-150 victims each
Migration Review, Vol 15, Refugees Today (spring-summer, 1981), pp 219-25. year but with the intent to transform this assumed ‘natural’ trait of theirs.
12 K Maudood Elahi (ibid:224). 28 After MacDonald’s Communal Award of 1932 and the Poona Pact
13 Roy Asim 1970, ‘Islam in the Environment of Medieval Bengal’, PhD (Chatterji 1994:15; 33).

1762 Economic and Political Weekly April 23, 2005