Bijan Setu Massacre of 1982
One of the first things one learns on joining Ananda Marga is about the atrocious attacks carried out on our Organisation by the Communists during their political reign in West Bengal in the sixties, seventies and eighties. Probably the most horrendous of all these attacks occurred on the 30th April 1982 when the CPM (Communist Party) dragged any monk, nun or devotee they could find from our Organisation off a train at Bijan Setu, a bridge in Kolkata, where they beat them with steel rods, doused them in petrol and burnt them alive; the total number of deaths was seventeen –fifteen monks (Dadas), one nun (Didi) and one devotee. The killings were carried out in broad daylight for all to see and still today, approaching forty years on, not one single arrest has been made.
That was the morning, it seems, when killing became completely legal.
I was born and brought up in England and at the time of those killings I was a small child, yet even now I wonder at how that powerful negative vibration must have affected me and those around me, for this was the Organisation with which I was already, unknowingly, closely associated. Though I wasn’t to know anything about Ananda Marga until many years later, I realise now that, even then, it was already a part of me.
Therefore after many years of failing to attend the rally of Bijan Setu on the 30th April, my samskara* to attend finally and unexpectedly ripened this year just a few days before the day itself when I realised I had to go. My time had come to go back to where it all happened in 1982.
*Samskara - destiny
The side wall of the bridge, Bijan Setu where the murders were committed
A song for Bijan Setu...?
“Didi*, did Baba give a song for Bijan Setu?” Saorobh, a boy from one of our Organisation’s Children’s Homes asks me the day before I’m due to leave for Kolkata.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “But I’ll try and find out.”
The very year of Bijan Setu, Our Guru, Shrii Shrii Anandamurtiji, or ‘Baba’ as His devotees call Him, began composing Prabhat Samgiita, His collection of spiritual songs. He continued composing right up until the day prior to His physical departure on 21st October 1990. He left a total of five thousand and eighteen songs. For every subtle nuance of one’s heart a song exists so I realised that there must be a song for Bijan Setu – my mistake was that I’d thought to find the answer through asking people.
I forgot what I’d learnt from my own experience - that when we have an earnest desire to know something worthwhile the answer will come forward itself.
*Didi - big sister
The universe supplies the answers to our deeper questions
The morning of the 30th April 2019
Anyway, the morning of 30th April arrives and, as planned, I find myself at our Organisation’s Ashram in Tiljala, Kolkata. By eleven the convoy of trucks is ready to take participants of the rally to Deshapriya Park not far from Bijan Setu where the rally will then begin its silent march of about three kilometres up to Bijan Setu, the place where the murders were carried out all those years ago.
Though I’ve known for years about the events of Bijan Setu, I realise, as the day approaches, that going back there on the very day it happened is going to be very different to just hearing about it. In fact, a few days before I’m due to leave for Kolkata I begin, for the first time, to make vague enquiries.
“Dada, are you going to Bijan Setu?” I ask rather lightheartedly one Dada (monk) who is posted in the area where I live.
He shakes his head vehemently. “I was there that day,” he tells me. “They dragged one Dada off the train in front of my very eyes – I’ve never gone back there on the 30th April, there’s no way I’ll ever go either.”
I regret my lighthearted tone and begin to realise, though people smile and make light of things, just how deep a scar the events of that day have left inside.
Therefore as I’m crammed into the open truck with the other sisters and Didis (nuns) I’m fully aware how painful the event will be – especially as I’m realising more and more just how many of our Organisation were actually present on that dark day; those who were caught but somehow survived, those who were on that train but whose destiny prevented them from being dispatched into the hands of the murderers, those who were affected by the events and eventually became Sonnyasis (monks or nuns) themselves; all share the burden of pain.
As the truck slowly moves out of our Ashram we all shout for victory for Our Guru as we always do. Normally we shout slogans or sing Kiirtan on our rallies but this day everyone is rather subdued and pensive.
“Didi, why don’t we sing Kiirtan?” I suggest to one Didi who is crushed in next to me. “Is it not done?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” she says forcing a cheerful air though I feel, like me, she’d rather remain in silence this time. “But my voice isn’t very good – someone else can sing.”
A few of the Didis sing Kiirtan softly as the truck moves through the midday traffic of Kolkata. I have a gamscia* wrapped around my head to protect me from the merciless heat which I’ve been dreading all week; now that I’m here the sun hardly bothers me at all and my main concern is that I won’t succumb to the tears inside. As I stand on the truck gazing out at the everyday bustle in the streets of Kolkata, with no one taking much notice of me and my face covered by my gamscia, I’m able to relieve my heart of the weight inside and shed the long overdue tears for the events of that day all those years ago.
However I know that when the rally begins such indulgence is not admissible – we are here to fight for justice.
* gamsia - thin towel
The silent march for justice
Crossing Bijan Setu
As we cross Bijan Setu on our way to the park all tears quickly dry up and a steely determination pervades the air – the small pandal* is already being built on the bridge where, in a couple of hours, the speeches will be given and where the photos of the martyrs will be displayed and garlanded.
I don’t realise it then but the entire bridge will be blocked off for a couple of hours for our gathering – though this is to be expected for a gathering of this kind I feel a little consoled for it does at least show that the authorities do consider it an event worthy of blocking off the road once a year – though it seems strange that the brutal murders of seventeen innocent people who gave up their worldly comforts for the betterment of humanity shouldn’t be an event worthy of closing off the road, still today it’s no guarantee. For, apart from carrying out atrocities on my Organisation, the Communist ruling powers also did their best to blacken the name of Ananda Marga – still today the negative image they concocted remains engrained in some people’s minds.
Naturally these are minds which are not so interested in seriously delving into the truth.
*Pandal - shelter
The truth is just too unpalatable
Trouble in the park
When we reach Deshapriya Park where the rally is to begin I feel this vaguely negative attitude starting to surface as those playing a cricket match in the park start to object to our presence there. Though naturally we’ve obtained permission from the High Court to carry out the rally, the authorities have failed to warn the cricket players not to play that afternoon and all they care about is their beloved match – nothing else matters to them in this moment.
As emotions are high the showdown between cricket players and those on the rally gets intense but at last someone comes up with the simple but effective solution of beginning the rally right then and there so the cricket players can get back to their world of cricket as quickly as possible.
As, by this time, nearly two hours have gone by waiting in the park and most of the rally participants who didn’t come in the trucks have arrived, we all hurriedly grab our flags, banners and such like, the Dadas and Didis grab their pots of flowers and lead the rally for its two circuits round the park before out onto the busy main road.
I’ve been warned beforehand that this is to be a silent rally so I’m very careful to keep quiet as I hold my flag high. Unfortunately just as the rally begins my flip-flops snap and a mini commotion erupts as various sisters fuss over me and suggest me running on ahead of the rally to repair them.
“The road is scorching! You won’t be able to walk!” one sister tuts.
But at this moment I’m not in the mood for fixing my flip-flops, besides, by some stroke of fate I’ve chosen to wear socks that day which, I feel, will be enough to protect me from the scolding tarmac of the road, so I stuff my broken flip-flops into my rucksack and march on. With my gamscia wrapped around my head and my yellow socks I do seem a little like I’ve escaped from a loony bin, however I have no time to worry about that right then.
As the rally halts in the side road waiting for the police to stop the traffic on the main road where it will begin its three kilometre slow march up to Bijan Setu, I try to make myself half-presentable because the rally will be on full display to the whole world, however I’m distracted when a plump, middle aged lady pushes past my line shaking her head and grumbling how ‘they didn’t have permission to do it.’
‘So a High Court order isn’t enough permission for you?!’ I feel like bawling at her, but there’s no time for that now as we’re moving off. Besides, I know what it’s like – unless it was her own son, daughter or close relative who was amongst the victims of that day she’s not going to be interested and will sympathise more with a bunch of cricket players.
I myself before this day only absent mindedly listened to the stories of those killings – only now do they feel real.
So, in short, we walk in silence those three kilometres up to Bijan Setu. In truth, it’s not absolute silence as those on the trucks are shouting on the microphones with all the strength in their lungs to the whole world the facts of what happened that day – how innocent monks and one nun were beaten with steel rods and burnt alive; how not one single arrest has been made – all facts of which, until today, I myself was only half aware.
Those marching on the rally move forward in stony silence holding high their flags and banners; in the front right line the Didis, with faces full of silent outrage, carry the pots of flowers whereas the Dadas, in the left hand line carry flags or march empty handed, quiet and reflective; a few silently distribute leaflets to onlookers. All around people are filming; I can’t help noticing that the photographers stop filming when they get to my part of the line and I’m a little perplexed because they’re usually curious to see an overseas presence, but then I realise that with my gamscia wrapped around my head and my sari all skewiff and crumpled from being transported in the cattle truck whilst marching in my yellow socks I may appear a little odd. In short, I realise they’ve judged it wise to cut me out of the films. As the rally slows down at a crossroad I surreptitiously swap my gamscia for a baseball cap but it doesn’t make much difference - besides, no one can take a person seriously who’s marching in their socks, that’s understandable.
As we’re approaching the bridge of Bijan Setu the steely silence amongst those marching on the rally begins to crack as the slogans of ‘Saptadodhici laha pranam, laha pranam!!!’* ring out from the microphones and, no longer able to contain our outrage, some of us join in the cries.
“Bhulchi na, bhulba na!!!”
“We’re not forgetting, we’ll never forget!!!”
*Heartfelt respect to the seventeen martyrs!!!
On the top of Bijan Setu
By this time we’ve reached the top of Bijan Setu and the people are bustling to find sitting places on the edge of the bridge or on the tarpaulin laid out on the road before the small pandal erected to display the photos of the seventeen martyrs and where the speeches will be given.
Various Dadas, Didis and senior members of our organisation quickly go about offering pots of flowers and garlands to the photos of the martyrs – we have only a couple of hours for the whole event before the road is due to be reopened to traffic.
As all this is going on I observe the photos of my murdered siblings – a few days before I glimpsed those photos on the internet for the first time but seeing them here in front of me is even more shocking. As they’re the photos of after they were killed, they’re, understandably very disturbing. I’m confronted with a reality of which, until now, I’ve only vaguely been aware – that ordinary human beings are capable of performing such immense evil. I do vaguely wonder why the photos of the martyrs are not of when they were alive and healthy, as is usually the case on these commemorations, but I think the answer to that is quite clear – in this way the horrors that these innocent people were subjected to is there for all the world to see; a constant reminder.
Though justice has never been done the sight of those photos is enough to haunt anyone for days on end – for me, the most terrifying position to be in of all is that of the perpetrators of the crime that day. Because the terror of the martyrs ended with their death, upon which, they were welcomed into the loving embrace of their Guru, God; but for the killers, their terror will be with them for the rest of their days and beyond, the memory of those faces will be sealed forever in their psyche, whether they know it or not, and though the material world may turn a blind eye, Prakriti* won’t. Eventually the Cosmic balance will have to be restored - those crimes are verily a noose hanging ready around the killers necks and though God may want to welcome them into His loving embrace how can He even do so when they have such immense debts to pay back?
Therefore the most frightening thing, for me, is to be in the skin of the perpetrators of the crime.
*Prakriti - Mother Nature
No escape from past misdeeds
Afternoon at Bijan Setu
By this time the opening song to the event has begun with one Didi singing a Prabhat Samgiita song followed by a few minutes of Kiirtan.
Everyone sits for Kiirtan but I get up to dance though clutching my umbrella in one hand (for the sun is quite relentless) and still wearing my yellow socks because, naturally, the tarmac road is roasting despite the tarpaulin cover and, though I may look rather peculiar, I realise that my Guru has blessed me with a rare opportunity- to do Kiirtan on the top of Bijan Setu. I know Baba won’t mind that I’m dancing in my yellow socks on the bridge and besides, the most important task is our Kiirtan. It purifies the atmosphere around and I feel our departed brothers and sister are there with us as we sing.
The speeches begin and though I have half a mind to go off to the market and search for some new flip flops I’m rooted to the spot and am unable to tear myself away from the speeches. These are all people who were present either on the scene of the crime or in Kolkata itself that day back in 1982 – though the event is still pretty much unheard of around the world I know that one day it won’t be so; for me, it’s unbelievable to hear firsthand from those who were actually there about those events, for I know they will be remembered a long time into the future. I feel as though I’m actually present that day back in 1982 and can almost see the event playing back before me – the sonnyasis grabbed from the train, their earnest faces full of life, the pain and outrage of the Ananda Margiis that day, the guilt of those who felt they could have somehow prevented the killings from happening – it all drifts in the air that surrounds Bijan Setu and with our gathering I feel, it recounts its own story.
Every now and then my gaze wanders onto the photos of the martyrs. It takes a while before I realise that there are only sixteen photos. One youngish Didi is distributing water and glucose to the crowds near where I’m crouching on the edge of the tarpaulin and, as she stops to rest a little while by me, I ask her why one photo is missing.
“Didi’s photo isn’t there,” she replies quietly after a short pause.
Didi Praceta was the one Sonnyasini (nun) to be murdered on that day and though this Didi distributing drinks may or may not have known her personally, it’s obviously irrelevant – in that instant I understand that for her, being a nun herself, Didi Praceta is her closest, dearest sister and nothing less. I find out later that Didi wasn’t even on the train pulling into Ballygunge Station below Bijan Setu that day – she was out collecting for her Children’s Home and had with her a small child from the Home. I imagine the reason why Didi’s photo is missing is because she was the only female victim of that day and, out of delicacy, people choose to remember her as she was alive.
A few years ago I saw a play performed in one of our organisation’s cultural evenings about Didi Praceta and the work she did with her Children’s Home – only now does the poignancy of it strike me.
The speeches continue - people are unable to speak at great length because of the time restrictions which is all the better because they’re forced to get to the essence of what is to be said. At some point a reporter for some minor television channel comes by in a great flurry talking into his microphone and on seeing me says ‘ah! Ekta bideshii!” (a foreigner), and swoops down to where I’m perched on the tarpaulin for an interview. “Bangla bolun,” (speak Bengali), I tell him, not only because I don’t like being taken for a dosy so-and-so who just arrived yesterday, but also because speaking English here, to me, reeks of colonialism and global capitalism. Anyway, he quickly obliges and asks me how I know Ananda Marga and what is going on here today at Bijan Setu.
“I met Ananda Marga in Italy,” I tell him. “And we’re here because on this day in 1982 seventeen of our monks and nuns were killed by the CPM.”
He moves swiftly away to delve out more information from other members of the crowd as to what happened that day.
The sun is losing its intensity as the penultimate speaker approaches the podium to make his speech – this one is particular interesting for me because it’s my good friend Bibanshu Dada, my neighbour and fellow devotee from Delhi where I used to reside. In fact, it’s not because he’s my friend that I’m particular interested in what he has to say – it’s because he was actually there that day at Bijan Setu; back then he was himself a sonnyasi and beaten senseless alongside those killed; yet his destiny was different and he somehow survived. Today is the first time I hear him speak in person of the events of that day, although I’ve heard vaguely from others what came about, but nothing like this.
On that day in 1982 he was walking along the path that is beneath the bridge where we all stand now, he tells us, when a few people stopped him and warned him –
‘Dada, don’t go that way!’
‘They’re beating Ananda Margiis and setting fire to them over there!’
For a moment he was unsure what to do – should he carry on along the path or flee? Suddenly, he says, the thought came into his head that if he was to flee where on earth would he go without his own brothers and sisters? At that moment, he felt that if he was to die it was better to die with them.
So Bibanshu Dada carried along the path and, he tells, the very instant they saw him the killers descended upon him and beat him with all that they had to hand; the last sight he saw before he lost consciousness, he says, was Didi Praceta engulfed in flames.
Bibanshu’s senseless body was found by the Railway Police and taken to hospital where he passed many months. He tells of how during that time he lost his mental faculty, in other words he became deranged – I wonder if it was really for the terrible beating he received or more for the horrifying sights he witnessed that day. I can’t help feeling it was for the latter.
I wonder at Bibanshu Dada’s decision to carry along that path – naturally many people would judge it wiser to get away for, after all, not everyone will have a samskara to survive like he did. However Bibanshu Dada’s experience provides us with an insider’s account of what actually happened that day. And he must have been the last person of our Organisation to see Didi alive.
By now the day is coming to an end; the sun has lost most of its ferocity and, as we all pile back into our various trucks and retake our positions as human sardines, a Prabhat Samgiita song is going around my head and continues to do so for the days that follow:
‘Jiivane marane, Tomake ami jani,
Aloke andhare, Tomake sudhu cini’
‘In life and death I know only You,
In light and darkness I recognise You alone.’
(Prabhat Samgiita no. 3570)
The next day when I get back to our Ashram in Anandanagar I see Saorobh, the boy from our Children’s Home who asked me whether Baba had composed a Prabhat Samgiita song for Bijan Setu. That evening at collective sadhana* he sings this song and I look in vague surprise because it’s the very song that’s been going round my head since I got back. Not only that, the song really takes off that evening and the boys insist on using the melody for Kiirtan as well. In the end, I never asked anyone if Baba composed a song for Bijan Setu – though I’m sure this is not the song He officially gave, I know it’s the song He gave me for Bijan Setu.
“There you are, you see?” I tell Saorobh. “The universe will supply all the answers to our questions. For us at least that will be the song for Bijan Setu.”
But back to the last evening of that day on the 30th April 2019.
As the truck pulls slowly away from Bijan Setu the road is starting to reopen and before long the bridge will go back to being chockablock with traffic; both bridge and ralliers are reluctant to relinquish those last few minutes of peace and reflection together. With our hearts lighter and eased slightly of their sorrow we head back to our Ashram, this time singing Kiirtan wholeheartedly and shouting our cries of ‘Loha Pranam!’* for the martyrs as the truck moves through the early evening traffic of Kolkata.
After forty minutes or so the convoy of trucks pulls back into our Ashram and everyone tumbles out happy and smiling. My sari is drenched with sweat and I’m still walking around in yellow socks whilst feeling rather hungry because with the heat and tension of the day I haven’t felt like eating. However any hardship I’ve undergone seems completely meaningless in comparison to what those seventeen good people were forced to undergo that day.
“Go and get your flip flops fixed!” one Dada tells me laughing. “There’s a man standing outside the front gate who’ll fix them.”
So I hurry off to get my flip flops fixed outside the gate of our Ashram but the man has, in the meantime, moved on so, by now accustomed to walking around in my socks, I carry on doing some shopping for fruit and such like in my socks because by now, I’m rather hungry, and, in short, the daily demands of life take over once again and the events of the day move into the background.
I succumb to ‘jareri dake’*, the call of matter, for it’s now time to move on. I feel inside that the day has gone well - I know that the martyrs were with us throughout our event; that they’ve attained Supreme Peace and Bliss and are where we all long to be – in the loving embrace of Our Guru; God. I know that our Kiirtan has shone light into the darkness lingering in Bijan Setu and that light will always, ultimately, overcome the darkness, that Dharma will always triumph.
The only real horror left of that day is that which awaits the perpetrators of the crime - for their torture won’t end so quickly. And in no way can those crimes ever be wiped away from the memory of Prakrti. The martyrs’ role in Baba’s Liila* is over.
However in the material world it’s not over.
The words we’ve been shouting all day vibrate inside and in the atmosphere around us as though Prakrti herself is whispering them:
‘Bhulchi na, bhulba na!’
‘I’m not forgetting, I won’t forget!’
*'Jareri dake' from Prabhat Samgiita no. 4682
*Sadhana - meditation and spiritual practices
*Laha Pranam - Heartfelt respect
*Liila - The Divine Play
Jiivane marane, Tomake ami Jani (In Life and Death I know only You:Prabhat Samgiita no. 3570)
- New book: Bijon Setu 1982: Signature of Violence
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