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.
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.
Privileging religion over all else distracts from the economic and political spheres, and from alternative, less well known, cultural spheres,
'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.
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.