Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Amra kara? Bastuhara!

Annu Jalais' article on the Morichjhapi incident -- Dwelling on Morichjhapi -- is the leading article of the latest issue of Economic and Political Weekly. Morichjhapi is an island in the Sundarbans, and the Morichjhapi incident refers to the forced eviction of 'illegal settlers' there, in the late seventies, in which hundreds are believed to have been killed. Amitav Ghosh's 'The Hungry Tide', about which I had a post some time back, deals a lot with the Morichjhapi massacre. Nirmal, whose diary is a main thread in the novel, had worked among the island settlers; Kusum, perhaps the central figure of the novel, died in the Morichjhapi violence, etc. In fact it's in the acknowledgements section of 'The Hungry Tide' that I came across Annu Jalais' name for the first time.

The paper, in the author's words,

    looks at how the memory of Morichjhapi was evoked by the islanders to talk about their resentment about the unequal distribution of resources between them and the Royal Bengal tigers of the Sundarbans reserve forest.
It also looks at
    how the government's primacy on ecology and its use of force in Morichjhapi that saw hundreds of refugees dying, was seen by the Sundarbans islanders as a betrayal not only of refugees and of the poor and marginalised in general, but also, of the Bengali nimnobarno identity.
This paper, in some sense, is the first of its kind. The Subaltern school, pioneered by Ranajit Guha, has emphasised on rural communities' consciousness through the study of rural movements in colonial Bengal, but Annu Jalais contends that the focus was overwhelmingly on the religious discourse of the oppressed, especially in relation to resistance.
    Privileging religion over all else distracts from the economic and political spheres, and from alternative, less well known, cultural spheres,
and the thrust of Annu Jalais' article is to bring in this latter perspective.

'Dwellings on Morichjhapi' describes, in some detail, how the would-be inhabitants of the island were promised this land, and how they were betrayed later. It also talks about the spirit of bonhomie and solidarity between refugees and islanders "whose similar experiences of marginalisation brought them together to bond over a common cause which was to fight for a niche for themselves" while they occupied the island. This was "an experiment, imagined not by those with learning and power, but by those without", as Amitav Ghosh writes in 'The Hungry Tide'. (Indeed reading this article refreshes one's memory of reading 'The Hungry Tide'. For instance, Annu Jalais quotes a villager: "Were we vermin that our shacks had to be burned down?". In 'The Hungry Tide', Kusum's anger is very similar: "the worst part is to sit here and listen to the policemen making announcements that our existence is worth less than dirt or dust".)

All said and done, I must add that I find the "anthropomorphisation of tigers" theory that Annu Jalais seems to be endorsing, a bit unpalatable. This theory argues that tigers initially were fine animals that were afraid of people, that they were compassionate and were agreeable to the fact that the products of the forest and rivers were to be shared with people. But due to the legitimising of killings in their name, they had turned egotistical and did not hesitate to attack people. Now tigers were no longer the neighbours with whom the forest had to be shared but 'state-property', and backed by the ruling elite they had begun to treat the islanders as 'tiger-food'. That explains the man-eating nature of the Bengali tigers! I'm willing to be persuaded though, for, Annu Jalais, otherwise succinctly portrays and convinces me of "the dilemma of being a Bengali, yet not a bhadralok" faced by the Dalit settlers of Morichjhapi.

Amitav Ghosh's handling of Morichjhapi is of course much subtler. As Amardeep Singh wrote, "the specific political actors and discourses that lead to events such as the massacre at Morichjhapi are downplayed" as

    Ghosh's view of history makes it impossible to render such atrocities as events that might have been avoided, or for which some historical responsibility might be assigned to particular actors.
Annu Jalais does try to fix responsibilities, somewhat convincingly too. In any case, the answer to Kusum's question -- who loves animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? -- is even more clear after reading Annu Jalais.

Update (May 13): Annu Jalais writes in:

    You are not the only person who finds 'my' 'anthropomorphisation of tigers' problematic. What I need to do now is argue, following Philippe Descola's work, that people have different understandings of what an animal, or a 'non-human' is. In my next piece, I intend to highlight how the Sundarbans islanders' understanding of 'what is a tiger' is just as valid as yours or mine. This will lead me to look at the issue of authority i.e. who is allowed to speak in the name of Bengal tigers? Is science only the sum of results based on empirical research? As have argued Shiv Viswanathan, Bruno Latour, etc I will develop how science is also a mouthpiece for authoritarian politics. It is in relation to this argument that I found the Sundarbans islanders' interpretations of why tigers have become man-eaters so appealing.

8 Comments:

At 10:22 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

Annu Jalais seems rather biased against the Bhadralok, who (1) partitioned Bengal and (2)left the 'real' victims of this partition to be either herded off to remote wastelands or shot down by the police or mauled by tigers.

The story of 'Dwelling on Morichjhapi' is certainly commendable in its brave critique of the left government's allegedly inglorious role in the tragedy played out in the Sunderbans (even here, the fault is implicitly laid at the Bhadralok roots of the leftist top-brass but...). But this narrative also leaves too many gaping holes, especially on the role that must have been played by Bangladesh; and the issue of the sea change(over a few decades)in the Muslim - Nimnabarno equations has been left unexplained. One cant help the conclusion that Amitav Ghosh's view of history (as reflected in YOUR quote) seems more pertinent.

Anyway, with this post, you have provided yet another reason to read 'The Hungry Tide'.

 
At 10:51 PM, Blogger Anand said...

Yes, I too admire Annu Jalais not just for her original research, but also for her choice of the topic. I guess this is part of her PhD dissertation. Incidentally after reading 'The Hungry Tide', I had asked a couple of Bengali friends of mine about Morichjhapi. They had heard about the incident but they were also pretty dismissive about the whole thing. Perhaps the relatively recent Muthanga episode in Kerala can be thought of as a miniature version of Morichjhapi. There too, the middle class and the media were generally dismissive of adivasi claims. All these stories "are yet to appear in histories", as Annu Jalais writes.

 
At 11:13 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

Yes, more such histories ought to be written. Whether Annu Jalais is being even-handed or not is probably a lesser issue - the anonymous mass of victims of a major human tragedy have found a voice in her work. And yes, Muthanga seems now largely and (sadly) forgotten.

 
At 2:59 AM, Anonymous Annu Jalais said...

Hi Anand, I found your webpage very enlightening and your blog very helpful. You are not the only person who finds 'my' 'anthropomorphisation of tigers' problematic. What I need to do now is argue, following Philippe Descola's work, that people have different understandings of what an animal, or a 'non-human' is.
In my next piece, I intend to highlight how the Sundarbans islanders' understanding of 'what is a tiger' is just as valid as yours or mine. This will lead me to look at the issue of authority i.e. who is allowed to speak in the name of Bengal tigers? Is science only the sum of results based on empirical research? As have argued Shiv Viswanathan, Bruno Latour, etc I will develop how science is also a mouthpiece for authoritarian politics. It is in relation to this argument that I found the Sundarbans islanders' interpretations of why tigers have become man-eaters so appealing.
Hi R. Nandakumar,
Thank you for your blog too. I agree that there are gaps - but one can't write about everything. In relation to the Muslim-Nimnoborno equation and the Bhadralok politics which led to the partition of Bengal please look up Joya Chatterji's excellent book 'Bengal Divided'.
I very much look forward to your comments on my next piece.
Annu

 
At 3:11 AM, Blogger Anand said...

Annu -- Thanks a lot for your comments. I look forward to reading your essays in this series. 'Anthropomorphisation' is a totally new concept to me. I guess it's only natural to take time to digest new stuff. I do agree that it's very appealing nevertheless as a concept.

 
At 6:31 AM, Blogger Amardeep said...

Great post, Anand.

 
At 10:47 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said...

Perhaps, anthropomorphisation is a universal phenomenon - and Gods like Ganapati and the Nagas are manifestations of this mechanism. One hears hill farmers of Kerala, whose crops are perpetually threatened by wild elephants say 'well, the Elephant is Ganapati, so we dont harm him and only try to scare him off. We hope he too will only take what he desperately needs and otherwise, will protect us!'. This kind of a 'deal' with divinity might well be strange to plainsmen but seems to work for both 'concerned parties'.

 
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