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BJP turns spotlight on 1979 killings of refugees in Bengal

KOLKATA: Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders on Monday paid homage to the refugees from Bangladesh, who were allegedly killed in police firing in West Bengal’s Marichjhapi on January 31, 1979. The refugees arrived in India during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and a bulk of those allegedly killed were Dalits.

The homage came as Dalit Matua leaders of the BJP’s Bengal unit have been demanding immediate implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The law was passed in 2019 to fast-track the citizenship process for non-Muslims, who have arrived in India before 2015 from neighbouring countries including Bangladesh. The demands for CAA’s implementation have led to dissension in the BJP’s state unit.

The Centre has said it is in the process of framing laws for the CAA, which Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has opposed as divisive. A month before the assembly polls last year, Union home minister Amit Shah announced in Thakurnagar, the headquarters of the Matua Mahasangha, the Centre will enforce the CAA once the vaccination across the country is over and the Covid-19 pandemic ends.

All India Matua Mahasangha president Shantanu Thakur accompanied Narendra Modi during the Prime Minister’s visit to Bangladesh shortly before the March-April polls. Modi offered prayers at a Matua temple near Dhaka.

When Thakur, who has been demanding the CAA implementation, was made the Union minister, it was seen as the BJP’s attempt to retain support among the Matuas.

On Monday, BJP’s Agnimitra Paul and two lawmakers from the Matua community, Ambika Roy and Ashok Kirtania, who are known to be close to Thakur, visited Kumirmari island near Marichjhapi to address a gathering and lay flowers at a “martyr’s column”. “Only the BJP can solve the problems of the Matuas,” said Roy.

Four Matua community legislators and Thakur left all WhatsApp groups of the West Bengal BJP on January 4. Thakur said his community was not properly represented in the organisational committees formed on December 22.

Kirtania said they did not visit Marichjhapi under anybody’s instruction and were there to project the apathy faced by Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. Paul said Sudip Das, the new president of state Scheduled Caste Morcha, took the initiative to pay homage. “The homage was paid in every district of Bengal. (Chief minister) Mamata Banerjee has cheated the Hindu refugees. In 2011, she promised to set up an inquiry commission to probe the massacre. Nobody knows what happened after that.”

The Left Front government, which ruled Bengal from 1977 to 2011, maintained there was no massacre of the refugees. Unofficial accounts, novels and research papers circulated over the years have put the death toll from the alleged massacre at anything between “a few hundred” to “over 1,000.”

Chief minister Jyoti Basu told the state assembly in February 1979 that only two people died when refugees attacked policemen while they were being evicted for encroaching land and destroying the mangrove vegetation of the Sunderbans. Before the alleged killings, Basu wrote to Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister accusing two Janata Party legislators, including Haripada Bharati, and a Member of Parliament of helping the refugees. A year later, when the BJP was formed. Bharati was made the first president of its Bengal unit.

The Centre earmarked Dankaranya, a forested area spread across Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, for settlement of the refugees. After the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M)-led Left Front came to power, some of its leaders, including Ram Chatterjee, visited Dandakaranya and asked the refugees to settle in Bengal.

Gopal Mondal, a local resident, said a police camp was set up at their primary school three months before the alleged massacre. “The refugees had to come to the mainland in small boats to buy food. Police restricted their movement,” said Mondal. He added on January 31, 1979, police took control of all the mechanised boats in the area. “Despite warnings, some refugees started coming towards Kumirmari. We heard shots going off every 10-15 minutes. I saw a man getting hit in the leg. Policemen asked us to go home. We did not see any dead body,” Mondal said.

CPI (M) leader Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya said it is well known that Marxists led a movement for refugees across Bengal. “BJP is politicising an old incident by distorting facts. There was no massacre. The government had to evict the people to save the ecology,” said Bhattacharya.

Dipak Bhattacharya of CPI (M)’s United Central Refugee Council said the Congress and TMC earlier alleged bodies were thrown into the rivers and that is how Bengal tigers got the taste of human flesh. He accused the BJP of now starting a misinformation campaign with an eye on a vote bank. “We will start a counter-campaign,” said Dipak Bhattacharya.

Political scientist Amal Mukhopadhyay said one of the Left leaders encouraged the refugees to come to Marichjhapi but the Left Front government used force against them. “It is a black spot in history. But not all the refugees were Dalits. Saying that would be a misrepresentation of history,” said Mukhopadhyay.

TMC leader Kunal Ghosh asked the BJP to focus on its internal problems while maintaining the state government was doing its best for refugees.

Hindu Dalit voters, including the Matuas, played a significant role in the BJP’s performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when the party won 18 of Bengal’s 42 seats. In the 2021 assembly polls, the BJP won 77 of 294 seats as the TMC swept back to power for the third time.

Political observers said the BJP is focusing on the alleged massacre in view of the civic polls this month.


    Tanmay Chatterjee has spent more than two decades covering regional and national politics, internal security, intelligence, defence and corruption. He also plans and edits special features on subjects ranging from elections to festivals.
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