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.