Former WB CM Jyoti Basu
Former WB CM Jyoti Basu
Wikimedia Commons

West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu ran the state for a good 23 years. People who grew up in CPI(M)-led West Bengal have mixed opinions. While there was a time when people supported CPI(M) till the very end, things started changing when the Trinamool Congress became a force in the state. Now, with the upcoming elections, the TMC, which is the single-largest party in the assembly followed by the Congress, there is a chance that by the time the 2021 elections happen, the CPI(M) may fall behind even the Congress and BJP in the state.

This was not in Basu’s lifeline, however, and wherever he is, people will remember him for the affluent lifestyle he led despite his communist upbringing. What many people won’t bring up is the 1979 massacre of Dalit refugees at Marichjhapi island. In an article written in The Wire, columnist Debjani Sengupta says that the Marichjhapi incident is one of that the government is in ‘denial’. “Marichjhapi constituted a watershed moment in West Bengal’s political life that demonstrated the state’s track record of complicity in the brutal killing of its citizens. It also underlined the tenuous but significant links between state-sponsored violence, civil uprising and issues of normative justice that have often remain unaddressed even at present moments of the state’s history,” she wrote in the column.

Dilip Mandal of The Print called it a ‘Jallianwala Bagh-type situation’

What exactly happened?

On January 26, 1979 on the orders of then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, several state police patrol boats and BSF steamers circled the Marichjhapi island in the Sunderbans, enforcing an ‘economic blockade’ on Dalits, whom the state government had termed ‘illegal occupants’.

When the islanders protested, they were fired at for days. Some say up to 10,000 people, which included women and children were killed during the incident.

Incidentally, these ‘illegal occupants’, as coined by the West Bengal government, were also victims of the 1947 partition. When the partition took place, they chose to stay in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) fearing that they would be persecuted if they went to then West Pakistan. However, they were marginalised by the Muslim-majority East Pakistan and returned to India, where they sought refuge in Marichjhapi island. This was after they were promised homes by the Left, who assured them they would be welcomed back in India, after the Left gained power in the state.

However, with the development of the island came the protection of the Sunderbans. The Jyoti Basu government then ordered the massacre of the Dalits, and thanks to the Left’s power in the state for the next two decades, not too many people talk about that incident, which is a huge blot in West Bengal’s history.

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