39 years of Nellie: memory and politics


‘I am 76 years old. Calculate how old I would have been then, 39 maybe. And it is already 39 years of that fateful morning. Thirty-five of my extended family were hacked to death. It all began at 8 in the morning. Everyone remembers these details. Dates and numbers, that is all that survives. In this case even the numbers are missing. (sighs)

I encountered the mob racing towards me at the junction and started running mindlessly when I suddenly saw both my sons hiding near the pond. The mob was howling ‘Joi Ai Asom’, the rallying slogan of the agitation. I picked up one on my back and held the other and ran for our lives. We ran and ran and then I felt a thud on my back like a sharp weapon hitting me. I half turned my head and saw my son’s skull split into two halves. He died instantly. I dropped him and kept running with the other son till we reached the river. Again, a sharp weapon hit me. They pinned me with a spear and hacked my other son.I jumped into the water and lay there as corpses floated by the Kopili. Thousands died that day. I have all the names. Yes, all the names but they don’t even admit anything happened.’

Nellie, 18 February 1983. Officially 1800 dead. Unofficial estimates counted more than 3000 bodies. There is no data on how many were injured. Newspaper reports suggest more than 10,000. One commission of enquiry headed by T.P. Tewary in 1983 (that was never made public till recently made available under RTI). The Indian Administrative Service officer didn’t find any reason to attribute a communal angle to the violence. 688 FIRs (First Information Report) were registered. 299 chargesheets were filed. All cases dropped. No one was ever punished or held accountable. The narrative of this violence is well known, but it is important to remind ourselves how easily and how soon we bury the truth with the dead. In this case the truth was never out. But if remembrance is truth, then we know what happened and why it happened.

Abdul Khayel refers to it as ‘tirashi’, meaning 1983. That is how tumultuous events in this subcontinent are remembered – through dates and often ritualistically mourned or celebrated. Except, this event has no chronology, no literature, no memorial tombs or parks or reconciliation committees or even monetary compensations. Even intellectuals have disowned it though they often mention it as post-independent India’s worst massacre.

I have visited, reported, filmed, written about Nellie like many others and each time I have felt a certain uneasiness of not having adequate words or emotions to describe it. How does one measure ‘the worst massacre’? What depths of horror does the word ‘worst’ contain? I invoke Eli Shafak writing in the New Statesman about the pandemic victims and how in her country grief is momentary and people are expected to ‘move on’. Abdul and his kin were expected to move on.

‘We were quite well off. We owned 52 bighas. But how does one go back to the same land where I buried my family and till the land? Today we are poor, but we are still Indians. This land was purchased in 1935, my father was born here, even my grandfather died here and they came after us calling us Bangladeshis. We have proof of voting in each and every election. And we were killed like dogs only because we voted in that election. Just for a vote a few thousand killed?’

In 2001 on the day of polling for the Assam state assembly, I met a Nellie orphan who turned eighteen and was on his way to cast the ballot. Without making it obvious, he paused before the mound of the dead while crossing the fields. He told me, ‘We have moved on.’ What else can they do?After the killings Abdul remarried and has a large family. He too moved on. Except, how does one really move on? There is no closure yet. They are still outsiders to their land.

At the tea shop near the Nellie police station, I once met Narayan Radu Kakati of the Tiwa Autonomous Council. He may have been part of that murderous gang and admits he has no idea of how they got involved in this massacre. He too has moved on. Such is the banality of Nellie.

Nobody knows for certain what happened. There was a riot in Gohpur where the Assamese Hindus clashed with Bodo tribals. In Nellie, dead bodies of five Tiwa children were reportedly found near Lahorigate. The Lalungs or Tiwas accused the Bengali Muslims. A day later three Muslim children were found dead. This was February 17.

The cover photo of the February 1983 issue of India Today should be etched in everyone’s mind. This is perhaps the first time Assam featured on the cover of a national magazine. It was in colour and massacred children were lined up for burial.

There are several unverified accounts of the massacre but the one that I recall is of the eyewitness account describing Tiwa men reveling in the slaughter while their women were cooking by the side in open fields. After a round of killings, they would take turns to drink and eat and resume the carnage. It was literally an orgy of violence.

The India Today cover story started with an epigraph from Macbeth, ‘Blood will have blood’. Assam was already on the boil. The ground reports were macabre; ‘The slaughter and arson occurred mainly in a tiny delta between the small rivers Kopili, Killing and Demal. The land is very marshy, and the fleeing villagers had no chance. The reason why, as it was later estimated, 80 per cent of the dead were women and children were because men ran faster. As the daos or machetes rose and fell with monotonous precision, the women and children tumbled in heaps in the rice paddies. Mothers were still clutching their babies – both slashed and chopped about like hunks of meat on a butcher’s slab.’

The report ended with an evocative description of death; ‘Today, Nellie is a graveyard, with all the attendant sights, smells and sounds of death: the ghastly hulks of gutted houses, the stench of rotting flesh, the sound of relatives mourning their mutilated dead. ’Nellie remains an eternal graveyard.

Hemendra Narayan from The Indian Express and Bedabrata Lahkar from The Assam Tribune and one Mr. Sharma, a video journalist shooting for the American Broadcasting Corporation were the only eyewitnesses documenting the inconvenient truth. Narayan could not forget; twenty-five years later Narayan wrote a slim volume ‘25 Years: Nellie Still Haunts’ and the opening chapter, Woman in a Green Sari has a searing account of what he saw point blank. He says the morning was ‘eerie and grotesque’ even as the preparation of mass murder was underway. He refers to the dao wielding herd as ‘marauders’ chasing their ‘target’ down the bank of Demalbeel where he stood numbed watching the carnage. He later counted 370 orphans, 2191 men, women and children dead.

Narayan’s dispatch that day which he dictated to a teleprompter in Shillong carried the headline ‘How many deaths? Difficult to say’ and his opening lines were, ‘It was absolutely horrible. Though impossible to describe, I will try.’ In 2015 he died but his account bear witness.

What has become part of our bloody history is actually not one but 14 villages that were attacked at the same time – Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Mati Parbat No. 8, Muladhari, Silbheta, Borbori and Nellie.

Nellie and the 13 villages are physically still there. Some survivors have returned. Others like Abdul only visit the graves. Tiwas don’t invoke this story. The murderers have never been booked. The alleged instigators remain unknown. The smokescreen of violence during those months where communities were killing each other has obliterated any truth telling.

Ram Deuri, a Tiwa revivalist, was then working in the Assam Spun Mills Ltd. Today he is candid about what happened: ‘We were triggered by the agitation leaders, they said if you hound them out the land will be yours. Later, we the Tiwas were blamed for being communal. As a community we admit it has been wrong. The perpetrators regret what happened.’ Deuri claims that Tiwas were used as a weapon. The Tiwa youth refuses to engage in this conversation while the Muslims can’t forget. Numbed by the immensity of the experience, many survivors refused to move out because no place could ever be safe. If neighbours kill neighbours then where does one go?

The idea of justice is cryptic and ambiguous. Nellie is not unique to the problem of dealing with a divisive past of large-scale violence. Forgetting may have been important to carry on day-to-day activities, but we also recognize that collective remembrance is a powerful tool of conflict resolution. Nellie is synonymous with communal massacre; it has eyewitness accounts and survivor tales and a somewhat vague counter narrative. Could there be a relation between personal memories, collective memorialization and forgetting? If that is historical justice, then Nellie must be remembered in more ways than one.

The problem here is the religion of the victims versus the perpetrators, Muslims versus tribals who practice the Hindu faith and backed by a movement that was led by caste Hindus. Assam has not had any reconciliation committees because for the Assamese this is an irreconcilable issue. The Miyahs or the Muslims are ‘outsiders’ and a ‘threat’. History may provide a context to this animosity, but it does not give justice. To begin with, the truth may help. Nellie as many in Assam would echo doesn’t have a single truth because it is still not believable to the Assamese at large that this was possible. Yet, the fact is this was made possible simply by triggering hatred and weaponizing an ethnic tribal group.

Reconciliation can begin with an acknowledgment of what happened. But that requires the truth and knowledge of the wrongs and in this case the wrong of being a Bengali Muslim seems to be getting reinforced by political machinations. Historical justice can happen only when accompanied by the recognition of historic wrongs but that seems an unlikely encounter. No political parties of any hue want to dig the truth. The truth, however, is available but deliberately forgotten. It was easy to bury the dead because since 1983 the state has been staring into an abyss of terrorist and state violence and justice has often been retributive. In many such cases there is not even an opportunity for historical justice.

Since the 1983 election that is considered the immediate cause for this mass killing, 2021 was the 8th time Assam voted to elect its 15th assembly. Nellie has never featured as an issue in the election campaigns in the last 39 years. The student body allegedly responsible for instigating the massacre became a political entity and went on to win elections for two terms and is now an ally to the BJP dispensation that has been targeting Muslims with impunity.

The former student leader and a longtime Congress minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma is now the belligerent Hindutva face of the region. While the anti-Miyah sentiment (justified as a movement against illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators) polarized tribals and non-tribals against the Bengali Muslims,
a century long campaign targeting a single community has been hugely detrimental to Assam’s own development. According to the Assam government, the Human Development Index is at ‘half of its desired level’– much worse than the neighbouring Bangladesh it has been protecting itself against.

Elections fought on communal divide are not new to India or to Assam. It started in 1946, when the Congress wanted to ensure a ‘secure future’ for the Assamese people. The Congress was then fighting the Muslim League led by Maulavi Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadullah, who formed the government thrice after 1937 in pre-Partition Assam. In 1985 the battle lines were again drawn following large-scale communal massacres including Nellie. 2021 rekindled the hatred driving a wedge between communities who had been trying to heal in their own ways.

Since 2015, there has been a new momentum by the Assam government to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a move that was directed to weed out suspected infiltrators. Despite recognizing the challenge of identifying citizens that could easily fall prey to clerical errors, the Supreme Court monitored process disenfranchised millions of people. The contentious Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, suspected people were thrown into detention camps; many died while some committed suicides. This act would change the country in unimaginable ways. Protests erupted and the louder it became the government came down more heavily. People across states, mostly Muslims, started arranging land and citizenship documents as the central government threatened to update the NRC in all states. Assam became the model of this Islamophobic experiment. The pandemic temporarily halted the machinery but the 2021 elections in five states revived the agenda.

Politically, Nellie is witnessing a remarkable change. Suleman Ahmed Qasimi was fourteen when he witnessed his family hacked; twelve members including both his parents died that day. Suleman is now a BJP worker and claims to have influenced his community to vote for the BJP that won the seat in the last election. But he explains himself: ‘If we don’t vote for the BJP we will be targeted. We are anyway vilified so what is there to lose? Congress has played with Muslim blood. They had so many opportunities to compensate us, give us justice but they failed to protect us each time. Now most of us have our names in the NRC. Yes, we impulsively joined the BJP because it is best to join the enemy to ensure our own safety. Maybe, even a little justice may be served.’

The survivors of Nellie are ready to try anything. Meanwhile, some Assamese voices have begun to question the past.I spoke to Parasher Baruah, a filmmaker based in Mumbai who wrote and filmed Nodir kul Nai, a pean to Miyah poetry and paargeet (boatman’s song) embedded in the slur and uncertainty of the shifting sands of the Brahmaputra where many Miyahs reside.

‘The whole issue of illegal immigration has been a large part of who we are as Assamese and what our politics has been about. I grew up being affected by it, even though I’ve stayed away in Mumbai. Or probably because I’ve been away in Mumbai, I’ve gained a new perspective on this issue. When the NRC issue came up that got me thinking of my basic claim as an Assamese. When that itself was being questioned about who and what makes me an Assamese or rather the fact that you now have a committee set up to decide who an Assamese is. The fact that I am an Assamese, that very existence got questioned. That got me thinking about how it was so difficult for me to prove who I am because of this whole NRC process and how difficult it is for a community who anyway has been historically vilified and othered. For whatever reason.’

Nellie carries the weight of remembrance. The discourses around memory are not new and often its effectiveness is questioned. But the human rights movement and the rights regime privileges the politics of memory. However, the simple and obvious reason to memorialize is to be able to connect the present to the past. How does remembering Nellie serve as justice in today’s world? Memory is fragile and the law is inconsistent. Yet it has been the most widely used mode to dispense justice. Memory is dynamic but it acknowledges stakeholders of the past. While the tension between memory and justice will always accompany human rights, it is also essential to secure rights for the future.