September 25, 2006

Nellie revisited : 23 years on . . .

September 30 , 2006



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

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”.

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.”

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