The India we know today is the product of British influence in the region, from the establishment of the East India Company in 1612 until the partition of India in 1947, which gave birth to India and Pakistan and, more recently, Bangladesh. The partition divided Bengal and Punjab on the basis of the religious majority of their provinces – a division whose repercussions on Indian politics and on Indo-Pakistani relations can still be felt to this day.
In a book of haunting poetry, photographer Soumya Sankar Bose revisits a complex and taboo chapter of history: the 1979 Marichjhapi massacre, perpetuated by the Bengali police and a Communist militia against refugees legally occupying the eponymous island, in eastern Bengal. Like an anthropologist, he went searching among the erased vestiges of the tragedy and talked with survivors in order to tell a story that history has forgotten. His work, a combination of portraits, archives, official documents, testimonies and reenactment, allows victims to be heard before their voices are extinguished forever. “I grew up hearing about this massacre of which the Indian government has tried to erase all traces, from the press to official documents. For me, the most important thing was that the survivors be able to die with peace of mind, knowing their story has been told,” he explains. In the book, an archival photo of fifteen people transparently covers the portrait of a lone man, the last of their witnesses to the massacre.
Revealing the social reasons behind the tragedy
While it’s difficult to sum up the event in a few words, it should be noted that it was a forced and violent eviction, combined with a blockade, that is believed to have claimed the lives of 4,128 families, according to the photographer. Official government accounts report only two deaths, while the rare texts about it put the death toll at several thousand. In a number between those two figures, Bose has dedicated each page of his book to a victim, whose name appears vertically on the edge of the pages, as unchanging as the pagination. “I don’t think of myself as an activist, but as a photographer without any power. The government will never recognize this event. It will never be included in the history books, but I think it’s the duty of our generation to tell this story,” he says.
“So that the next generation sees them as people and not as victims.”
How did the Indian government come to commit an act of such terrible violence? Because of its caste system, which values animals more than the poorest classes in society. In a poignant essay attached to the book, anthropologist Annu Jalais recounts how ‘They [the tigers] changed with Marichjhapi, when they realized they were ‘first class citizens’ while we islanders were ‘second-class citizens.’ “
The families affected by the massacre were indeed from the poorest classes, part of the second wave of refugees – the wealthier classes arrived in India in the years following the partition, while the poorest arrived only later, following the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. While the former were able to buy land and settle near Calcutta, the latter were locked up in camps in a mountainous region where both the language and the environment were foreign to a people who had always primarily lived off fishing and farming. After the Communist Party, which had promised them freedom of movement, was voted into power, they began to migrate to an area surrounded by water, namely to Marichjhapi Island, where eight months later they were killed by the police or forced to throw themselves in the tigers’ den to escape.
Telling the story in order to turn the victims into heroes
In his depiction of this tragedy, Bose has turned the survivors into heroes, “so that the next generation sees them as people and not as victims.” In his portraits, the subjects stand upright and strong, their eyes sometimes closed, their minds filled with their memories and aspirations. “What goes on in the mind is just as important to me as the event itself,” he explains. This is the reason why his images are silent and metaphorical rather than brutal.
Soumya Sankar Bose himself is a descendant of the partition refugees and still suffers the consequences of this troubled history to this day. “With the new citizenship law introduced by the government at the end of 2019, I’m not sure I can hold on to my citizenship, since there is no way to prove that my grandfather was a refugee,” says the photographer. Bose only refers to the contemporary consequences of history via little nods, by making young people of his generation replay the memories of survivors. “I wanted to work with young people and ask them to imagine this event with their contemporary references. So we went to an island next to the site of the massacre and tried to reenact the story together,” he explains.
But the reason he makes others reenact the memory of the survivors is also to protect the latter, so as not to torture them over and over again. Throughout the book, his field notes record the course of his investigation. And when he comes back to talk to a man who hesitates to speak to him, he writes: “Why have you come back? I told you everything I could. Images of my last visit came back to me, with a sharp twinge in my heart. He was reluctant to divulge anything. The past is the past. Everything that’s gone is gone. Walking down the path of a memory that’s almost 40 years old would bring only fire and blood. Some voices echoed that. Fire and blood. He had seen his house burn down.”
By Laurence Cornet
Laurence Cornet is the Paris-based editorial director of the organization Dysturb, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent art curator.