The Hungry Tide

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Literature History Human Rights


Alexa Weik von Mossner,  University of Klagenfurt 

Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) explores a complex web of interconnections and antagonisms between environments, animals, and humans. On its broadest level, it is a story about the Sundarbans, a unique ecosystem located in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal, now considered endangered under the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems framework. One of the novel’s two main focalizers – the Indian American cetologist Piya Roy – offers readers the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider on this environment as she travels to the Sundarbans to study Orcaella brevirostris, a kind of river dolphin. However, the novel is also a story about environmental and social injustice in a postcolonial space as it pits humans against animals in more than one way. Not only do individual people regularly fall prey to the fierce predators populating the region – among them crocodiles, snakes, and the mighty Bengal tiger – but those animals also pose a more indirect threat to them. Some of the refugees who found a precarious home in the Sundarbans after they had been forcefully displaced from places like Bangladesh are now being evicted or killed in the name of environmental protection. It is in these conflicts – conflicts that arise when efforts to protect the Sundarbans from overfishing, poaching, and species extinction clash with the needs of its human population – that the novel most obviously engages with Indian history and human rights issues.

The central conflict highlighted in The Hungry Tide is the West Bengal Left Front government’s 1979 massacre of “illegal” settlers on the island of Morichjhãpi. As we learn in the novel, a wealthy Scotsman named Daniel Hamilton tried to create a utopian cosmopolitan society, made up of all races and religions, in the middle of the Sundarbans. This utopian project clashed, however, with the nationally and internationally funded Project Tiger – one of the most successful wildlife preservation projects in India. In 1979, thousands of Bengali settler families were brutally evicted by the government because they had violated the Forrest Acts protecting the mangrove forests and the Bengal tiger. In the process of the controversial eviction, hundreds of people were injured or killed. A substantial part of The Hungry Tide is dedicated to the story of this eviction, told retrospectively through a notebook left behind by a character who has already died at the beginning of the story. Readers encounter this notebook through the eyes of the novel’s second main focalizer, Kanai Dutt, who is a translator, interpreter, and businessman from New Delhi. Kanai has been summoned to the Sundarbans by his aunt Nilima after she found a package that her late husband Nirmal had addressed to Kanai. Nilima hopes that the package is filled with Nirmal’s literary manuscripts, but instead it contains his account of the massacre on Morichjhãpi. In part due to of his own life story—originally a refugee from Dhaka, Nirmal had to leave Kolkata for the Sundarbans because his radical leftism was unpopular in the tense political climate of the 1950s – Nirmal was fascinated by the commune-like life of the refugee-settlers on the island of Morichjhãpi, and horrified by the way it ended. With the story of the massacre told retrospectively through Nirmal’s notebook, Ghosh dips deeply into an all but forgotten moment in Indian history.

Conflicts between ecological conservation and social and environmental justice involve both human and non-human needs and rights. The crucial task, readers are led to understand in The Hungry Tide, lies in acknowledging and balancing these concerns. One of Ghosh’s key achievements is that his writing not only evokes a brilliantly alive and vivid storyworld that allows readers to imagine what it is like to travel into the heart of the Sundarbans. By inviting them to empathize with the diverse set of characters that populates this storyworld, from the highly educated cosmopolitan outsiders Piya and Kanai to the illiterate fisherman Fokir and all the other seemingly local people – people who often can point to their own histories of displacement – The Hungry Tide allows for a visceral understanding of what’s at stake in these human-nature conflicts. It also invites an appreciation of the complexity involved in weighing competing claims regarding human rights violations and ecological preservation.


The Marichjhapi Massacre

The Marichjapi Massacre (1979) and its aftermath form an important backdrop to The Hungry Tide. Following Partition, hundreds of thousands of refugees were displaced. Following promises about the rights of refugees from the Left Front, who would come into power in 1978, many of these refugees started their journey back to Bengal. Many of them decided to settle upon the island of Marichjapi, under the leadership of Satish Mandal, then-president of Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (Refugee Development Organization). Numbers vary, but estimates seem to suggest that between 4,000 to 10,000 families settled on the island.

The Government claimed Marichjapi fell under the Reserve Forest Act, and thus called for the refugees to return to the refugee camps in Dandakaranya. They refused, opting instead to cultivate the land, build infrastructure and homes. This did not sit well with neither the Government, nor those arguing for the conservation of the island for the purpose of safely preserving the tiger population. In January of 1979, the conflict between the refugees and the authorities heated up, with the Government enforcing an economic blockade on the island.

As narrated in The Hungry Tide, police boats started patrolling the waters surrounding it, even ramming into boats leaving to gather supplies according to some reports, causing the drowning of several people. Then, on the evening of January 31, the police started firing upon the refugees, allegedly in response to refugees attacking a police encampment.

The blockade itself would last for months, separating the refugees from the outside world and denying them essential resources and access to medical services. Ross Mallick, acknowledged by Amitav Ghosh as one of the few scholars to have written about the massacre at the time The Hungry Tide was published, writes: “Though some of their number died of starvation and disease, the refugees would not give up. When police actions failed to persuade the refugees to leave, the State Government ordered the forcible evacuation of the refugees, which took place from May 14 to May 16, 1979.

Muslim gangs were hired to assist the police, as it was thought Muslims would be less sympathetic to refugees from Muslim-ruled Bangladesh” (110). In his 2019 book Blood Island. An Oral History of The Marichjapi Massacre, Deep Halder interviewed activists, eye-witnesses, and survivors of the massacre. One of them, Jyotirmoy Mondal, told of how the Government kept tormenting the refugees well into late spring:

“But between 14 and 16 May 1979, in one of the worst human rights violations in post-independent India, the West Bengal government forcibly evicted around 10,000 or more from the island. There was rape, murder, and poisoning. Bodies were buried in the sea. Countless were killed even as some escaped, too afraid to tell the tale. At least 7,000 men, women, and children were killed.”

The incident itself has remained a dark stain in Indian history post Partition. And Mallick points out – no one has been held to account: “no criminal charges were laid against any of those involved nor was any investigation undertaken. Prime Minister Desai, wishing to maintain the support of the Communists for his government, decided not to pursue the matter” (111) Even to this day, survivors and activists are fighting for the recognition of this event for what it was: a massacre and a massive violation of human rights.

Ross Mallick’s article can be accessed in full here, and you can read more about Deep Halder’s Blood Island. An Oral History of The Marichjapi Massacre here.

   Human Rights

Climate Refugees

Climate change has long been destroying the livelihoods, infrastructure, and communities worldwide, forcing people from their homes, towns and even countries. Around 23.5 million people were displaced due to extreme weather-related disasters in 2016 alone. This does not include the people forced to flee their homes as a consequence of slow-onset environmental degradation, such as droughts, sea level rise and melting permafrost. Bangladesh is on the frontline of these impacts, due to its low elevation, high population density and inadequate infrastructure, along with an economy that is heavily reliant on farming. As such, the people of Bangladesh have always coped using migration. However, as conditions intensify under climate change, more people are being driven from their homes and land by more frequent and severe hazards. Sea level rise, storms, cyclones, drought, erosion, landslides, and flooding and salinization are already displacing large numbers of people. It has been estimated that by 2050, one in every seven people in Bangladesh will be displaced by climate change. Up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea level rise alone.

Super-cyclone Amphan kills up to 20 in India and Bangladesh

Up to 18 million people may have to move because of sea level rise alone. It is important to remember that large scale climate crisis are not just things of the past or the future; they are happening right now, during a pandemic. One such recent event is the super cyclone Amphan (formed 16th of May 2020, dissipated the 21st of May) the first super cyclone to form over the Bay of Bengal since 1999, with winds gusting up to 185km/h at sea. Unfortunately, widespread relief that the evacuation of more than 3 million people from coastal villages had averted the horrific death tolls of past storms was tempered by fears of the coronavirus pandemic spreading in crowded shelters.

Authorities in both countries sent masks and sanitizer but social distancing was virtually impossible as families packed into reinforced schools, government buildings and community halls. The West Bengal capital, Kolkata, awoke to flooded streets with some cars window-deep in water, as much of the city of 15 million people was plunged into darkness as transformer stations exploded, and millions across India and Bangladesh were left without power. Bangladesh officials said the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans had borne the brunt.


Slow Violence: Environmental degradation

Rob Nixon, a professor in the humanities and the environment at Princeton University, is the author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2014). The term “slow violence” refers to violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, and that is typically not viewed as violence at all. This slow violence includes, for example, the process of salinization, which has also been exacerbated by rising sea levels. This has led to coastal drinking water supplies being contaminated with salt, leaving the 33 million people who rely on such resources vulnerable to health problems such as pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, acute respiratory infections and skin diseases.

Likewise, agriculture, the backbone of the regional economy, is also badly affected and crops damaged by rising salinity are doubly at risk from the resulting soil degradation. Many regions have already suffered large losses of produce resulting in significant price reductions. In 2018, the non-profit news organisation Democracy Now hosted an interview with Nixon, focusing on how inaction from governments negatively impact the world’s poorest. His forthcoming book is a collection of essays on environmental justice in the Anthropocene, which refers a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.

Sex trafficking

Climate refugees are not the only ones suffering at the hands their governing system. As the novel touches on, sex trafficking amongst young women and children is commonplace. Though the novel takes place decades ago, these issues of trafficking and sexual abuse of both adults and minors are just as relevant today, especially since prostitution was legalized in Bangladesh in 2000, but trafficking and forced labor were not. A 2020 report on human trafficking in Bangladesh by the US Department of State shows that The Government of Bangladesh does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, but is making significant efforts to do so.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s brothels are filled with underage girls who have either been taken while in vulnerable or bought, sometimes even by the girls’ husbands. Poor enforcement of legislation in a country where women and girls are easy prey means traffickers act with impunity. These girls are held captive by phantom debts, and their employers frequently lie about their ages, as 18 is the legal age for sex work. Reports and witness testimonies validate that law enforcements are easily bribed to look the other way, reflecting a deep seeded systematic corruption of justice. These girls are viewed as disposable, and high suicide numbers have even led to private graveyards by the brothels. Though there is little mental health support for these women and girls, there is evidence that when it’s provided, it helps. One organization working to rescue and rehabilitate underage trafficking victims is the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers’ Association.