Nellie Massacre -by Teresa Rehman

THE
HORROR’S NAGGING SHADOW

Twenty-three
years after 3,300 men, women and children were massacred in Nellie,
survivors want to bury memories that won’t go away. The State’s
callous indifference to their continuing plight hasn’t helped

Teresa
Rehman

Nellie, Assam
Memories
of another day:
The paddy field near Bugduba Habi village
where Muslims were slaughtered
 
When the TD Tewari
Commission submitted its report on the massacre, the Congress government kept it under wraps, as did
the AGP government that came to power in December 1985

The noisy table
fan provides relief from the sweltering heat as 25-year-old Babul Ahmed
is bent over his sewing machine. His small tailoring shop in the nondescript
town of Nellie in Morigaon district in Assam is situated right next
to the mosque on the national highway. “Have I heard of the Nellie
massacre?” he says with a half-smile.

He is a soft-spoken
man. “Why won’t I know about it? I lost my parents and a
younger brother that day. I was two years old. One of our maids ran
away with me and saved my life.” His maternal grandfather raised
him and he studied up to class nine. Now he pays Rs 300 as rent for
his small tailoring shop. “I was too young then to realise what
had happened. But I was orphaned on that day. I was scarred for life.”

Babul says there
are many like him. “Every family in my village on the banks of
river Dimal, has a horror story to narrate,” he says. Bugduba
Habi, his village, is inaccessible by car. “You will have to walk
a long way; I don’t think you will be able to make it though.
It’s a harsh life for us here.”

The survivors of
the Nellie massacre, possibly the worst pogrom in the history of independent
India, live in difficult terrain which is submerged under floodwaters
half the year. The mud-track that connects Bugduba Habi with the national
highway breaks off midway at a nullah, which has to be crossed by a
makeshift bridge consisting of a bamboo pole laid horizontally. Though
situated just a few kilometres from the national highway, Bugduba Habi
and the surrounding villages have no electricity. The dilapidated boundary
wall of a graveyard built as a memorial to the massacre victims is an
apt reflection on the state of things.

It has been 23 years
now, but the marshy field near Dimal river still brings back memories
of that fateful Friday — 18 February, 1983, when 3,300 people
were killed in a six-hour-long attack. The massacre took place shortly
after an election was held in Assam, an election opposed by the All-Assam
Students’ Union (AASU), the student body leading the movement
against “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh. More than 500
AASU volunteers had been killed around election time. Polling was held
on February 14 and voter turnout had been low. On February 18, villages
under the jurisdiction of the Nellie police outpost, inhabited by “illegal
immigrants” of Bangladeshi origin, became the scene of a ghastly
mass-murder.

Altogether 14 villages
— Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi,
Borjola, Butuni, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Muladhari, Mati Parbat no.
8, Silbheta, Borburi and Nellie — were devastated. Mohammad Muslimuddin,
a 65-year-old farmer from Basundhari village, recalls the day, his eyes
becoming wet. “It was around 8am in the morning when, attired
in white dhotis and kurtas, they came from all directions with machetes,
guns, bows and arrows. I hid myself at a linseed field till around 3pm
when the crpf men came. I shudder when I think of that day, when I lost
my sister and mother in the carnage.”

Ruhul Amin, who
was eight years old at the time, had a narrow escape when a bullet grazed
against his neck. His father Mohammad Akbar Ali, 55, says that his mother
and three sisters died that day. “We are not Bangladeshis. We
are very much Indians. We have been staying here since ages,”
he says It seems that barring the victims’ families and the survivors,
everyone, including the Assam government, wants to forget Nellie. “Why
are you trying to flog a dead horse,” replies a senior bureaucrat
when asked about Nellie. When the TD Tewari Commission submitted its
600-page report on the massacre to the Assam government in May 1984,
the then Congress government headed by Hiteswar Saikia decided to keep
it under wraps. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government that came
to power in December 1985 also kept it confidential.

In November
2004, the Assam government stopped the Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura
from giving a talk titled “Memories of a Massacre: Competing narratives
of the Nellie incident”. The lecture had to be called off 30 minutes
before it was scheduled to start after the State Home Commissioner and
Secretary faxed a letter to the okd Institute of Social Change in Guwahati,
asking it not to hold the lecture “without consultation with the
state government”.

Scarred:
Rahul Amin (left) and Abul Hussain show the bullet injuries they
sustained
 
All
the Nellie massacre cases were dropped when the Asom Gana Parishad
came to power under the chief ministership of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta.
For government authorities now, the chapter is closed

The records
at the Jagiroad police station say that while 688 cases had been filed
in connection with the Nellie killings, the police submitted chargesheets
only in 310. The remaining 378 cases were closed after a final report
said there was no evidence. However the chargesheet cases did not go
very far. All cases were dropped when the Asom Gana Parishad, the political
party representing AASU, came to power under the chief ministership
of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. For government authorities now, the chapter
is closed.

But for the survivors,
even after 23 long years, coming to terms with reality is still a daily
struggle. Reliving the memories has made the atmosphere at the Bugduba
Habi village square, near the ramshackle lower primary school and the
local mosque, surcharged.

Resentment surfaces
as soon as there is talk of February 18, 1983. A young man from a corner
says, “Don’t add salt to our wounds. Please go from here. It
hurts to talk about our past.” In the blistering heat, other villagers
in the square murmur in agreement.

Thirty-five-year-old
Fatema Khatun’s anger and outrage reflects the mood among the
survivors. Waving a handmade fan to beat the scorching heat, she says,
“3,300 of us were killed on a single day and the rest of us are
being made to die everyday — with no schools, no electricity,
no roads, no infrastructure whatsoever. Look at this school here with
450 students and only two teachers who are invariably absent. Our blood
boils when we think of what happened on that day and what we are made
to endure everyday. Aren’t we human beings?”

She did get the
survivor’s compensation — Rs 2,000 and three bundles
of tin to build a new house. The compensation for every person who died
was Rs 5,000 and every wounded person got Rs 1,500 (in many cases a
percentage of the amount was palmed off by middlemen).

As curious young
children gather around businessman Abdul Aziz, he shows the scars on
his body left by numerous spear wounds. A sturdy youth of 18 then, his
was a case of survival of the fittest. But the memories of the
day when he lost 10 members of his family leave him stricken. “It
has been 23 years now. Different people come and take reports and do
nothing to improve our plight. It’s sad that we had to undergo
such agony simply because we decided not to boycott the elections as
rightful citizens of a democratic country. But we did not even
get a hearing in the court of law,” says Aziz. He was among a
group of 200 who tried to hide in some bushes. “We were attacked
with spears. Somehow I managed to escape. We were killed like dogs and
we were compensated with meagre amounts.”

These survivors
do not know about the recent package of enhanced ex-gratia and relief
and rehabilitation assistance to the victims of 1984 anti-Sikh riots
granted by the Union Cabinet, amounting to Rs 715 crore. This enhanced
ex-gratia for the victims of the anti-Sikh riots might set a precedent.
Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, working president of the Assam United
Democratic Front (AUDF) formed recently to represent the interests of
the minority says, “We have been demanding publication of the
Tiwari Commission report as the culpability and responsibility of the
horrific crime lies in it. Other things are undisputed but we need the
commission report to fight their legal battle. We are planning to file
a pil on behalf of the survivors to make the report public.” 

Witness
to the carnage:
Khudeja Bano with grandchildren
 
In 2004,
the Assam
government stopped a Japanese scholar from giving a talk on Nellie,
30 minutes before it was scheduled to start

In Nellie the survivors
are tired of repeating their experiences. Taizul Haq’s mother,
two sons, younger brother’s wife and daughter were hacked to death.
“When Indira Gandhi came to visit us, we told her that we
do not want to come back here. But she assured us that she would provide
us with everything, right from a lamp to light our houses. But
we have been waiting and are still waiting,” he says.

Mohammad Shahabuddin
had gone to Naogaon on some official work that day and escaped the carnage.
But his wife and son were not as lucky and he did not even get to see
their bodies. “Nobody has cared for us and I don’t expect
anything more,” he says. He points to Mohammad Nurjamal,
who was only a year old then. For two days he remained in his dead mother’s
lap. The 22-year-old young man never went to school and now earns his
livelihood as a daily-wage labourer. He is known to behave peculiarly
at times. He pounces on the photographer, “Let me see my photo.
Let me see my photo.”

Khudeja Bano, a
grandmother now, says she saw the Dimal and Basundhari Beel (pond) turn
red. She did get a compensation of Rs 5,000 for her dead child after
staying in the relief camp for nearly a year. “My two-year-old
son was in somebody’s hand and fell down and died in the melee
that followed. Houses were burning and people were being hacked to death.

I don’t know
why and where they killed us,” she says.

Things look peaceful
now. The area has many people from the Tiwa tribe and falls under the
jurisdiction of the Tiwa Autonomous Council. Komal Chandra Pator is
the former executive member of the autonomous council. “It was
like a storm which had swept everyone. People came from all sides, and
most of them were outsiders. Many children had died and 80 percent of
them cultivated in my land. I had seen them since my childhood and they
are not Bangladeshis,” he says. “A lot of these bodies were
buried near my field. Sometimes I see women coming and shedding tears
in remembrance near these mass graves. But now everything is calm.”

However, that old
tensions and divides still exist is clear from what Rama Deuri, an executive
member of the council says: “These people, who are mostly from
the Muslim community do not fall under our jurisdiction. We are not
responsible for development of their area.”

With everyone passing
the buck, life for the survivors of the massacre is still difficult.
There are only four lower primary schools in this region — in
Basundhari, Alisingha, Muladhari and Mati Parbat villages. For further
education, children have to traverse to Nellie or Dharamtul on foot
during the dry season and by country boats during floods.

Sixty-five-year-old
Nurjahan Begum’s husband Mohammad Mumtazuddin died in her arms
of a neck wound inflicted by a machete. “Even today, when we think
of the incident, my body starts shaking and legs start to tremble. I
did receive Rs 5,000 as compensation for my dead husband, but it seems
like a brutal joke.” Her son, Abdul Jalil, a rice merchant,
says,
“On
that day, I felt that even the life of a fish was worth more than that
of a human being. My father was hacked to death. I touched his neck
but not a drop of tear fell. I felt numb.”

The Nellie survivors
wage a daily fight to numb their senses and their pain — a fight
they will perhaps have to wage every day of their lives. And the grim
reality that is their present does not offer much succour as they grapple
with the demons of the past — no infrastructure, no development,
a meagre compensation and no justice. They all ask the same thing: “As
human beings, don’t we deserve a fair hearing in the court
of law and a compensation that is adequate given the magnitude and enormity
of our suffering?”

Writer’s
e-mail: rteresa@rediffmail.com

Sep
30 , 2006

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