I visited the Sundarbans about four years ago, with a touring company. We lived on the boat, anchored at safe places during the night, and walked during the day through the mud where we would sink up to our knees along routes which were equally safe. Safe from the danger of crocodiles and tigers, although forest guides armed with guns would sometimes show us a pug print or scratches on trees and claim a tiger had been there recently. We were told lovely stories about the protector of the forest, Bonbibi. On a beach ravaged by Sidr and populated with only the barks of trees, we were shown clay pots: the same ones the Portuguese who once lived here used for making salt, we were told. The Sundarbans was a trove of heritage where we city-dwellers went for a change of air. This was before Rampal had become a cause of worry, and even before I had heard of the Morichjhanpi incident of 1979.
Sundarbans and the spread of Islam
It was in Richard M. Eaton's book, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, that I first learned of the history of this marshy land. Eaton's book, as the name suggests, is a study of how Islam came to be the dominating religion in this part of Bengal. Written in beautifully accessible language, Eaton comes to the conclusion that contrary to some popular beliefs, Islam did not gain popularity in Bengal through the sword, but because those who came to preach this new religion, also led the reclamation of land. The Sufis and Pirs of the delta are still associated with bringing agrarian economy to the deltaic marshland, especially in the south and the east -- clearing forests and setting up permanent human habitations.
Here Eaton brings up the Sundarbans to show how the forest was a place associated with stories of Muslim holy men who had made peace with the tigers. In colonial literature of the Gazetteers of Bengal, he traces the tales of Sufis and Pirs whom the tigers feared and revered. From the 24 Parganas in India, to the coasts of Bangladesh, similar stories abound. Speaking of this relation between these men and tigers, the Scottish geographer, zoologist and botanist Francis Buchanan wrote in 1833:
The tiger and the Faquirs [holy men] are therefore on a very good footing, and the latter... assures the people that he [the tiger] is perfectly harmless towards all such as respect the saint, and make him offerings.
The stories of the Sufi holy men highlight the spread of Islam in the 1200s and its link with agricultural expansion in the delta. But, these were not the only human settlements in the forest. Tales of wealthy kingdoms, from before and after, thriving in the Sundarbans can be found, as can be remnants of buildings. But these perished when the place became infamous as the land of Portuguese and Arakan/Marma pirates, who lived off their plunder and salt-making (apparently using the clay pots washed ashore that I had seen). The popular idiom Moger Mulluk, literally meaning Land of the Mogs (Arakan/Marma), is a reference to the anarchy the Sundarbans was associated with.
From 1765, the East India Company began the process of inhabiting these islands, and by mid-nineteenth century, inhabitants from places ranging from Chotonagpur and Jharkhand to the Arakan coast of Myanmar were settled here: to reclaim the land, and for revenue. Incentives, including tax breaks and cheap land, were provided. Many, especially those who had little else, took up their homes and livelihood in the forest.
Sir Hamilton's Islands
One such initiative to populate Sundarbans is that of Sir Daniel Hamilton. The fascinating history and importance of this Scotsman working in colonial India is wonderfully described in Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide and in Annu Jalais' ethnographic study Forest of Tigers: People, Politics & Environment in the Sundarbans. In the early 1900s, Sir Daniel Hamilton, having become very prosperous had bought the islands of the Gosaba Block (in present day West-Bengal, India) to build a utopian cooperative society. He invited indentured labourers to his islands. Here, selling or buying the land was forbidden, and religious differences were to be cast aside (pork, beef and alcohol were all prohibited). He started his own one-rupee currency for commerce, and those he settled on these islands were expected to live off the land. He established dispensaries, schools and non-formal training institutes. He wanted to create a just and economically unhindered society, which locals even today remember with pride. However, in the late 1950s, the administration of Hamilton's islands was taken back by the Indian government, who claimed that it had practically become a zamindari. Many islanders believe that the scheme was doomed to fail: Hamilton had based his utopia on the ownership of land. Land, to the people of the Sundarbans, was essentially corrupting.
Betrayal of trust
Both Amitav Ghosh's and Annu Jalais’s books are based on Hamilton's islands. For both the authors, along with the history of these islands, another incident, much more brutal, is central.
What the British started, continued till the 1900s. Since 1947, refugees had come to the Sundarbans from all parts of Bengal — the last of them arrived during the Liberation War of 1971. The communists who were the opposition then, gave these refugees assurances of permanently settling them in the Sundarbans.
By the time they came to power, about 30,000 to 35,000 east Bengali refugees sailed to the Sundarbans island of Morichjhanpi. But, the island had been reclaimed for tamarisk and coconut plantation by the government, and the refugees were asked to leave.
In 1979, the government forcefully evicted these refugees in the name of conservation of the forest, fearing that allowing them to stay would cause another influx of refugees. First an economic blockade was launched, and then came state force, as guns were fired and houses were burnt. Although there are no exact records, official count puts the number of those dead somewhere between 50 to 1000.
The story was never pursued, the government never held accountable, and therefore the claims of islanders that hundreds had died while trying to flee never confirmed.
The land of stories
The two stories presented by Annu Jalais and Amitav Ghosh, though presented in two different contexts are essentially the same. Ghosh tells the story of Piya, an Indian-American cetologist, who travels to the Sundarbans in search of the Irrawady Dolphin; Annu Jalais is more concerned with the way the islanders of Satjelia (part of Hamilton's islands) navigate their social and political realities, providing a “frame of reference to understand social relations in the Indian subcontinent.”
Central to both books is the respect and authority Bonbibi commands over the Sundarbans. In Sundarbans lore, Bonbibi is the forest's protector, sent by the Islamic God. Abandoned in childhood by her father, she is reared by a deer. Her battle with Dakkhin Ray, the tiger demon is essentially the early battle between the settlers and the untamed forest. When Bonbibi triumphs, Dakkhin Ray complains to her that if men keep coming into the forest, soon there would be no forest left. She then commands that no one is allowed to take from the forest any more than they need and all who enter the forest, must do so with a pure heart. In this way, she ensures not only the survival of man in the tiger's lair, but also that the forest is not exploited. The inhabitants, both Muslim and Hindu, revere not only Bonbibi but also Dakkhin Ray.
Weaving stories into everyday life
Bonbibi had made men and tiger brothers; in the modern social and political landscape these relations needed to change. When prawn-seed collection was introduced in the Sundarbans, it meant economic stability for many, with little investment. On the other hand, prawn-seed collection is ecologically harmful. The urban view of the Sundarbans, given its World Heritage Status, had turned it from being an uninhabitable place to that of a treasure that needs to be protected. The tiger, national animals of both India and Bangladesh, now needed to be conserved. At the same time, it was felt that the number of tiger attacks on humans had increased too.
The islanders of Annu Jalais' book explain this change through the stories of Bonbibi. She had equalised all men, and protected them in the forest. The tigers too had become compassionate to the islanders' hard life. But the conservation efforts, and the massacre of Morichjhanpi, were to the islanders an indication that to the city-folk, their lives had no value.
This explained the recent ferociousness of the tiger. The tigers were no longer equals, and the islanders were now merely tiger food, since the city bhadralok cared more for the former. The islanders told tales of how the new tigers were government engineered, more ferocious, with a penchant for human blood; or how the tigers now saw themselves as superior beings.
So the islanders too resort to new beliefs, maybe more mainstream versions of Islam or Hinduism. Explaining these changing stories of the tiger and Bonbibi in the context of the social hierarchy and politics of the island, Jalais puts forward an important challenge: the social aspect of ecological conservation. In an article along the same vein, she writes:
They argue that while the world is becoming a global village where people all over the world are increasingly brought to relate to the tigers of Sundarbans forests, their options to make a decent livelihood are shrinking and their very presences seen as illegitimate or even criminal in what has become a transnational World Heritage Site.
Prawn-seed is bad for the Sundarbans, but take it away, these people, living on the margins of society, would fall prey to economic exploitation. Women, who mostly carry out the collection of prawn-seed, would lose the empowerment this has brought. In the same way, lives and livelihoods of the locals cannot be endangered in ecological bids to save the tigers. The very designation of the Sundarbans as a World Heritage Site was a concern for the islanders of Satjelia. The urban view of the exotic Sundarban was as similar to the colonial concerns for “regal” tiger and forests' resources, and far from what the local saw as their home.
But the wildlife of the Sundarbans is not limited to the Bengal Tiger either; Amitav Ghosh's book is a testament to the rich diversity of the life it sustains, such as the rare Irrawady Dolphin.
It is futile to say, as many have, that these islands should never have been reclaimed. The concerns of the people need to be given as much importance as the flora and fauna; otherwise all efforts of conservation will always be seen as alienating.
The writer is a journalist working for the Editorial Department, The Daily Star.