Thirty-Two Years Later, the Nellie Massacre Remains All But Forgotten

Johra Khatun got married just before the Nellie Massacre in 1983. During the massacre, she lost both her parents. While official records state that over 1800 people, most of whom were Bengali Muslims, were killed during the massacre, unofficial estimates put the figure at more than three thousand people. The India Today Group / Contributor
18 February, 2015

Thirty-two years ago, on 18 February 1983, Khairuddin, a resident of Borbori—a village located in the Morigaon district of Assam—could not help but notice the eerie calm of the morning as he woke up to go to work in his fields. “I woke up at 7 am that morning and saw no one around. None of my family members were home. Even the children could not be seen. I got worried and wondered where they all went. I assumed that they had all gone to my sister’s house nearby, but when I reached her place, I saw that there was no one there either,” he recounted. By 8 am, he could see teeming crowds of people carrying machetes and marching towards his village, but there was still no sign of his family. A frantic search across the village ensued, and he eventually found his sons, aged four and six.

Khairuddin remembered the events of that day in vivid detail: the manner in which the mob set fire to his house, while he tried to escape with both his sons on his back; encountering his daughter’s lifeless body as he was running, and his inability to spend even a moment to grieve in his haste to get his other children to safety; the injury that he sustained on his head when someone hit him, just before he watched his younger son being hacked to death; and how he lost his older son while trying to swim away from the mob, across the river Kopili. The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) eventually rescued him and his wife, but she succumbed to her injuries at the Jaggi Road police station—there was a severe paucity of doctors and she did not receive the medical attention she needed. In one day, Khairuddin had lost two sons, a daughter, his wife, his parents and four of his brothers along with their families.

As part of my up-coming documentary film, What the Fields Remember, which revolves around the Nellie Massacre, and looks at the issue of violence, and its relationship to individual and collective memory, I spent the past one year speaking to more than thirty people who had either survived the massacre, were working on it, or had some memory of the event. During these conversations, I encountered a set of diverse responses to the event. Among these were exhaustion and cynicism from victims who had waited in vain for justice, and a sense of indifference from those in Assam who were convinced that the massacre was a part of their collective past that should not be revisited if their society was to move on. But move on for whom? As Khairuddin told me, “I wake up at 3 am every morning. I cannot sleep at nights. Even today, when I close my eyes to sleep, I see the faces of my dead children.”

It has been more than three decades since the Nellie Massacre took place. The attacks, which began at 8 am and went on until 3 pm, claimed around 1800 people according to official records. Unofficial estimates put this figure at more than three thousand. People were driven out of their villages by a mob that was armed with country guns and machetes. Their fields were destroyed, and their homes were razed to the ground. A significant number of those who died that day were women, children and the elderly who could not run fast enough to save their lives. Yet, despite the scale of violence that it resulted in, the Nellie Massacre has been all but erased from public memory, existing only in the minds of people like Khairuddin, for whom the past is something he lives with everyday.

Over time, the killings have been attributed to multiple causes. One of these is the anti-foreigner agitation that was spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) from 1979 onwards. The main demand of this agitation was the expulsion of all illegal migrants from Assam by the state and the removal of their names from the voter list. Despite massive resistance from groups like AASU and the general public, the Indira Gandhi–led government decided to call for assembly elections in Assam in February 1983. In response, the AASU asked the people of Assam to boycott the elections. Spurred by a sense that they were being targeted through the anti-foreigner agitation, Bengali Muslims across the state decided to ignore the boycott and voted on 14 February 1983. To them, voting was the means through which they could effectively prove their claim to Indian citizenship. This was seen as the immediate reason for violence against them.

The Nellie Massacre contains within it the history of fourteen villages that were attacked simultaneously—Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Mati Parbat No. 8, Muladhari, Silbheta, Borbori and Nellie. Places that exist even today, each wrapped in its own tale of violence, loss and memory. The attack was allegedly led by local people belonging to the Tiwa tribes who lived in the same villages as the Bengali Muslims.

Eyewitness accounts of survivors speak of the attackers coming in from different sides to trap the villagers in the middle, until they had nowhere to run. As Haji Sirajuddin, a survivor who lost forty-seven people in his extended family, all but one daughter, recounted to me, “I remember seeing dead bodies strewn across the paddy fields. The stagnant water in the fields had turned red because of the amount of blood flowing in it. Only human beings are capable of inflicting this kind of violence on each other.” Those who managed to escape could do so only by jumping into the river Kopili, which runs along the villages. Some of those who survived had pretended to be dead bodies floating in the river.

The survivors of the massacre lived in a makeshift refugee camp in a government school in Nellie for the first two weeks after the massacre—because of which it is referred to as the Nellie Massacre—before shifting to refugee camps across different villages, where they stayed for a duration of four months to a year. Indira Gandhi, who was the prime minister at the time, and Zail Singh, then president of India, visited the refugee camps within a couple of weeks, and promised both adequate compensation and an investigation into the violence. The victims eventually got compensation of around Rs 5000 for deceased next of kin, Rs 3000 for those who were injured, and two bundles of tin sheets to rebuild their burnt homes. This compensation reached the victims two months after the massacre.

So how was this carnage reduced to an event that seems to hold little significance in the public memory today? The answer may lie at the nexus of questionable political decisions, an ineffective legal system, an indifferent media and the lack of political representation for Bengali Muslims in Assam.

The police filed charge sheets in only 299 of the 688 First Information Reports (FIRs) registered. None of those charge-sheeted were prosecuted. Popular narrative has it that the Assam Accord, signed in 1985 by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, leader of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)—the latter day, electoral avatar of the AASU—and who was later elected as the chief minister of Assam that year, had declared amnesty to the perpetrators of the Nellie Massacre. On the contrary, the accord stated that the central government and the state government was to

Undertake review of detention cases, if any, as well as cases against persons charged with criminal offences in connection with the agitation, except those charged with commission of heinous offences.

Clearly, heinous offences were no part of the Accord, and by any reckoning, murder is a heinous offence.

In 1983, the Tiwari Commission was set up to enquire into the matter, and it submitted a report of its findings in May 1984 to the state government. But the report was never tabled. A few civil society organisations obtained copies of the report through the Right to Information Act, but for all practical purposes, this 600-page document remains out the public consciousness to date. Over a period of time, the survivors of the massacre have tried to regroup and file petitions seeking compensation and reopening of the criminal cases in the Guwahati High Court and the Supreme Court of India. In fact in 2007, Khairuddin was one of the people who tried to file a case in the Guwahati High Court against the state of Assam to look into the question of inadequate compensation for victims’ families. But all the cases have been dismissed so far.

The massacres in Nellie and the thirteen other villages have barely been written about in the media. Save for exceptions like Hemendra Narayan’s monograph 25 Years on…Nellie Still Haunts and Makiko Kimura’s book The Nellie Massacres 1983: Agency of Rioters, the Indian media has been conspicuously silent on Nellie. Hemendra Narayan who was with the Indian Express at the time, was the only other journalist apart from Bedabrata Lahkar from the Assam Tribune and an unidentified video journalist, to witness the massacre as it was taking place. He was one of the first people to file a story on the massacre. In 2008, he wrote the monograph as a form of catharsis. In his words, “It was a release for me. There was something in my head and I had to release it. People did ask me why after twenty-five years? I said that I lived with it and now I had to get over it [by writing about it].”

In my own experience of working on the documentary, every time the question of justice and accountability for the Nellie Massacre came up, it was mired in phrases like “but the situation in Assam was complex at that time,” “there was violence all over” or “the Muslims living in those villages were from Bangladesh.” It is as if justice and acceptance of Assam’s complex political history are mutually exclusive.

Our collective memories have conveniently forgotten it, because to revisit what happened on 18 February 1983 makes us accountable too, not just for what happened in Nellie and those thirteen villages, but for all other places and people whose histories we have wilfully chosen to forget.

Subasri Krishnan is a filmmaker who is working on a documentary film on the Nellie massacres produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). She also leads the Media Lab at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS)