Soumya Sankar Bose’s Where the Birds Never Sing (2017- ) is a body of work on the Marichjhapi massacre, the forcible eviction in 1979 of Bengali lower caste refugees on Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, West Bengal, India and the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease.
After the partition of Bengal in 1947 many lower caste Bengalis who fled East Pakistan were aggressively sent to the infertile, inhospitable land of Central India. In 1977, the Left Front government came to power promising their refugee supporters to settle in West Bengal and they subsequently moved to Marichjhapi Island. But the government reneged on its promise, fearing that an influx of refugees might jeopardise the prospects of the state’s economic recovery, and started to forcibly send them back to Central India. Survivors claim that on the morning of 31 January 1979, when some women tried to row boats to the next island to fetch drinking water, grains and medicine, the police rammed their launches into the boats and drowned all three. People who took boats into the river to save the drowning women were fired on by the police. That night Police with local goons entered the Island and openly fired on refugees.
Thousands of refugees seeking their final home stayed in Marichjhapi, for the next year and a half. It is close to impossible to trace the precise number of people that died in process during the exodus from central Indian camps to settlement in Marichjhapi, and the eventual police eviction drive sending them back to the camps.
Unfortunately, this inhuman and shocking incident is still so relevant. We need to look around the present scenario in India to realise that matters have not changed at all; that the partition and the massacre were just the beginning in a long line of similar incidents. The present condition concerning the citizenship law and The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in India will prove the point. Moreover, Caste hierarchy is still an issue at present just as much as it was in the past.
Bose, over the last few years, has been researching and re-enacting some memories of the survivors in specific locations, as there is very little written record of the incident. Through the intricate weaving of facts and fiction of existing oral histories of the real survivors, he brings to light several perspectives of the same narrative, forming a cryptic framework of this problematic history that is facing slow erasure from the memory of people.