A lifetime is much too short to forget.
It was November 26, 2008, the day that was to become etched in India’s history for the audacious and traumatic terrorist commando attack on the country’s commercial capital Mumbai. I happened to be on that day at a location as distant as possible from Mumbai — psychologically, politically and socially — at Nellie in Assam, the site of one of free India’s most brutal forgotten massacres in 1983. I had been invited by the survivors to sit with them as they recalled and commemorated the events that had unfolded in this distant impoverished corner of the country 25 years earlier.
Journey into the past
We gathered in the soft sunshine of early winter in an open courtyard. A crowd quickly gathered: the older men with checked lungis and beards could easily be distinguished as people of East Bengali Muslim origin. The women and younger men dressed like anyone from an Assamese village. There were the initial courtesies of traditional welcome, as they offered us customary white Assamese scarves with exquisite red embroidery.
Senior officials of the State government who accompanied me had gently dissuaded me from the visit, questioning the wisdom of re-opening wounds of painful events of such a distant past. People have moved on long ago, they assured me. What purpose then would our visit serve? It would only revive memories that have long been buried. The same advice came from many non-official friends who worked in development organisations in the State. They added that the visit would stir issues that were too bitterly contested in the region. But the survivors persisted in their resolve that they wanted to be heard. It was impossible for me to refuse them.
On February 18, 1983, in the genocidal massacre organised in Nellie, just 40 km from Guwahati , 2,191 Muslim settlers originally from Bangladesh were slaughtered, leaving 370 children orphaned and their homes in 16 villages destroyed. As the survivors spoke one by one before our gathering a quarter century later, all of us who heard them — including officials, academics, social workers — were completely stunned, and shamed, by the enormity and immediacy of their suffering today, which retained an urgency as though they had only very recently suffered the unspeakable cruelties that they gave words to, not 25 years earlier. The bodies of many were twisted and deformed by inadequately treated injuries from the assaults by machetes and daggers; others pulled back their clothes to expose frightening scars of the attacks of a generation earlier.
Hazara Khatun, with scars of a dagger attack on her face that she survived in 1983, sat on the ground before us and pointed to her empty lap. “I was cradling my child here”, she said in a low voice. “They chopped him into two, down the middle”. Another widow Alekjaan Biwi, was far less calm. Her body was twisted, and we could all see that she had lost her psychological equilibrium. Eleven members of her family were slaughtered in the massacre, and she acted out for us how the mob had attacked them, how she had cowered and hidden herself, how she was discovered and wounded, and how she survived even though scarred and deformed for life. “I have no one in the world,” she concluded quietly.
Deluge of grief
In his early thirties, Mohammed Monoruddin began to cry inconsolably as soon as he sat before us. “My brothers, sisters were all killed, hacked into pieces,” he recalled. “I was seven years old then. I saw my parents slaughtered in front of me. I saw another woman being killed and her child snatched from her hands and thrown in fire. I wept in terror all day. The CRPF came in the evening and rescued me. Later we came to know that our house was torched. Nothing was left. All our belongings and stores of rice were gone in the fire. My elder brother, who was in Nagaon, brought me up. But I feel so lonely.”
Many others spoke of their loneliness. Noon Nahar Begum was 10 years old, and when the killings started, she tried to run away but was attacked and badly wounded. She was hospitalised for two months, and her mother and four siblings were murdered. “They were butchered here in the place where we are standing today,” she said, adding: “I have found no peace of mind for the last 25 years. I need justice for my peace. Justice is important because it was such a terrible crime. I feel lonely and miss my family…” Babool Ahmad, a tailor, was two years old when he lost his parents. He was brought up by his grandparents, whereas his sisters were raised in an SOS village.
And so the stories flowed, like a deluge of muddied waters of grief — long unaddressed and denied — gushing from a breached dam. The forgotten massacre in Nellie in 1983 established a bloody trail of open State complicity in repeated traumatic bouts of ethnic cleansing and massacres both in Assam and in India. It was followed by similar State-enabled carnages, in Delhi in 1984, Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1993 and climaxed in Gujarat in 2002.
Series of incidents
Assam in turn has seen a series of violent ethnic clashes between various oppressed communities, each bitterly and ferociously ranged against other ethnic groups which may be as dispossessed, if not more so. The accord brokered by government with militant Bodos in 1993 assured them autonomous control over regions where their population was in a majority. The government therefore itself laid the foundations for ethnic cleansing. Bengali Muslims were driven out of their settlements by murderous attacks and the torching of their homes in 1993, and this scenario was repeated for Santhal and Munda tribals (called Adivasis) — many of whom are descendants of tea garden labour imported by the British two centuries ago — in 1996. Thousands of them continue to languish today in camps, some for 15 years, as they are still terrified to return home. Assam remains a tinder box of ethnic hatred, with recent attacks on Bihari migrant labour, Jharkhand agitators in Guwahati, bomb explosions and recent clashes between Bodos and Bengali Muslims this year, which left many dead and thousands in camps seething with hate.
The worth of lives
The government gave the survivors of Nellie compensation for each death of as little as 5,000 rupees, contrasted for instance with Rs. 7 lakhs that have been paid to survivors of the Sikh carnage of a year later in 1984. Six hundred and eighty eight criminal cases were filed in connection with Nellie organised massacre and of these 310 cases were charge-sheeted. The remaining 378 cases were closed due to the police claim of “lack of evidence”. But all the 310 charge-sheeted cases were dropped by the AGP government as a part of Assam Accord; therefore not a single person has even had to face trial for the gruesome massacre. Some lives are clearly deemed by the State of being of little worth compared to others.
The Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 has witnessed an upsurge of understandable public anger, because a partisan and weak State leaves each of us unsafe. But States have long failed abjectly and shamefully to protect ordinary citizens and uphold justice. The lives lost in Mumbai’s Taj Hotel are precious. But the lives extinguished in distant hamlets of Nellie — and indeed the streets of Delhi, Bhagalpur, Gujarat and Malegoan — are no less valuable. A day must come when our rage and our compassion responds equally to each of these tragedies. We can be safe only by standing — and caring — together.