Three Decades On, the Nellie Massacre Wounds Are Far From Healed

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Hutments are still made of bamboo mats, the inflammable material that made them burn so easily that fateful day in February 1983. Image credit: Abantika Ghosh/Indian Express
Hutments are still made of bamboo mats, the inflammable material that made them burn so easily that fateful day in February 1983. Image credit: Abantika Ghosh/Indian Express

Abantika Ghosh of Indian Express visits Nellie in Assam that witnessed the horrific massacre of more than 3000 Muslims in February 1983 and finds that wounds are far from healed as the Congress and BJP lock horns

Abantika Ghosh | Indian Express

[dropcap]1[/dropcap]800 or 3000. Thirty-three years on, Nellie is still debating how many people died in the massacre that brought it national and international notoriety. Every election season, that debate acquires a fever pitch. The disparity between the official and unofficial figures of victims of the Nellie massacre has provided political capital to parties across the divide in the reserved constituency of Jagiroad.

But on the ground in the half moon arc around the stretch of Kolong river between Aamlighat and Dharampul, nothing much has changed from that February day in 1983 when Bengali-speaking people, many of them Muslims, were targeted in central Assam. Hutments are still made of bamboo mats, the inflammable material that made them burn so easily that fateful day. Only, every second man one now meets has a tale of horror and often a scar to show from then.

Showing a sickle-shaped scar on his hand and another deeper scar on his back, Ataur Rehman says, “I don’t remember how old I was but I hadn’t even started growing a beard when it happened. They beat me up, attacked me with an axe, killed my mother and sister. There was a mob surrounding us and all they would say is ‘Kill the Bangladeshis’. I haven’t walked straight since that day. We got Rs 5,000 for getting killed, those that killed us got Rs 50,000.”

Anger still simmers among locals. Veterinary doctor Mohammed Saidul Islam points out a hillock in what is now a paddy field, where a group had been surrounded by attackers who were “armed to the teeth”.
Another field, some distance off, is where the relief camps were set up after the massacre. From the initial 668 FIRs, charges were filed in 299, most of which fell apart for lack of evidence and witnesses. Some cases were withdrawn after the Assam accord. But despite the outrage, the conversation turns surprisingly mundane when it comes to poll preferences.
The victims of Nellie massacre laid out on a mass grave for burial in February 1983. Image credit: India Today
The victims of Nellie massacre laid out on a mass grave for burial in February 1983. Image credit: India Today

As Abdul Malik, a shop owner, sums it up, “Everything we have got here is from the Congress. We did vote for the BJP during Lok Sabha elections but we have not even seen the candidate since then. Forget providing us work, the BJP does not even give us a bottle of whisky before elections.” Does Congress give whisky? “As we told you, everything we have is from the Congress.

The candidate comes to campaign, and when he calls we go for their meetings. I am headed for one right now,” says Islam. Many around him are headed to the same meeting of Congress candidate Bibekananda Dolui, wearing Congress scarves and headbands. They may swear by the Congress — they still mention Indira Gandhi’s visit after the killings — but the party doesn’t seem to have given them much. Monsoon is yet to arrive but large parts are already inaccessible except on foot.
“Boka hoishe (there is mud and slush)” is a common refrain. The area is a mosquito den and there is a perfunctory medical facility that doesn’t offer much. There is electricity, though just for a few hours of it every day. And after the massacre, Nellie got a police outpost. The massacre is what brings politicians and media to this difficult to access stretch. But the more immediate concern now is the “D” designation in the voter list.
According to some estimates, the total number of D or doubtful voters in the area could be up to 50 per cent of the 10,000-odd registered voters. “There are people here whose names were there in the 1951 NRC, yet they have been designated D voter. How can that happen? This is yet another trick of the BJP-AGP combine. They are the ones who had attacked us back then and now they want to disenfranchise us too,” says Malik.
There is another reason why BJP candidate Pijush Hazarika has not come campaigning, says Imrajul Islam. He is one of those MLAs who has shifted from the Congress to the BJP along with Himanta Biswa Sarma. “He does not even belong here you know, he won the last elections from neighbouring Raha, which is also a reserved constituency. How can he fight from there now on a BJP ticket? So he has shifted here. Himanta first looted the state on behalf of the Congress and now he and his cronies want to do that from BJP,” Islam says.
They talk of voting rights guaranteed to them under Indian law but there are many who doubt their “Indianness”. “These are Bangladeshis, they are not good people,” says the driver, a local Hindu, who got us here. A long and bumpy ride away from this cluster is one of the many camp offices of Hazarika. The man himself isn’t there but those manning it are confident that “change” is imminent in Assam.
“There are issues — roads are bad, there are four rivers on which bridges are needed, there is rhino poaching at Pobitora wildlife sanctuary. Congress did not do anything, that is why BJP will win,” says Pabitra Sarma, a retired schoolteacher. He shows us the way to where the massacre took place but sounds a note of caution. “Don’t believe everything they tell you or all that you read. Most of it is noise, you know. People were killed but not as many as they claim.”–c.Indian Express

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