On the morning of 18 February 1983, over 3,000 Bengali Muslims in central Assam were brutally murdered over a period of just six hours. The massacre came to be known after Nellie, one of the 14 villages where the attacks took place. No action was taken against the perpetrators and no one was ever held responsible. The impunity has since been replicated in many anti-Muslim massacres in Assam—each time, the victims were branded illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, to justify the violence. The last such attack happened in May 2014, when 38 people, including 20 children—the youngest of whom was three months old—were shot dead in Khagrabari village on the periphery of Manas National Park.
The normalisation of such violence pervades Assamese state and society in many banal ways. The justice-delivering mechanism and the many arms of state government machinery have collapsed into each other to formalise what the Assamese chauvinists have been doing for a long time: target and persecute the weakest members of religious and linguistic minorities. The National Register of Citizens in Assam—the final draft of which is due soon—is a direct outcome of this formalised targeting. What is happening in Assam is strikingly similar to American President Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policy, which targets minorities and separates children from their parents. In this, as in others, the Bengali Muslims, disparagingly called Miyas, are the most vulnerable.
I | Detention
Kamala Begam, a woman in her 50s, has been interned at the Kokrajhar district jail since September 2015, when a Foreign Tribunal—a quasi-judicial body established under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order of 1964—declared her a foreigner. She is the only daughter among nine children—Dhani Mia, her father, died in 2003, and her mother Saleman Nessa, is now in her late 80s. Legally, the entire family is Indian but her.
I met them at their home in her native village, Datirbori, more than a hundred kilometres away from the jail, on a scorching day in the first week of June. Weathered faces, sunken eyes and skeletal bodies map out their hard lives. All of them are daily-wage labourers—before she was arrested, Begam worked at a tea stall. For almost two months after her arrest, none of her family members could visit her because they didn’t know where she was. When they found out, money became a problem. By the time they got the money, they had already visited her once, and didn’t have the heart to see her again.