Dec 15, 2008

Columnists - Harsh Mander;Nellie: India’s forgotten massacre (V.G.Read)

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.

Enormous suffering

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.


Hemendra Narayan said...

.Those reading Mr Harsh Mander's article on Nellie might find the folllowing link as good additional information. The link is to my book- 25 years on ...Nellie still haunts- on google books. I along with two other journalists were eyewitness to the part of the mayhem on the fateful day. The book was released by Mr Kuldip Nayyar and Mr K P S Gill (one of the IGs of Assam in 1983 on Feb.18 this year ie exactly 25 years of the tragedy.

A Journalists' Travails

The traumatic events of the day keep coming back. The horrific images are stuck. This volume contains along with the eye witness account of the Nellie massacre on February 18, 1983; documents both government and non-official which put the distressing Assam events in perspective. The recoil of memory recalls bordering on guilt.25 years on.. Nellie still haunts

(1) Review of "25 years on..Nellie still haunts"

The main piece of the book is more of personal impression of the author, than a hard news story by a professional. Hemendra Narayan, the journalist- who more by instinct than design – became a witness to the terrible mayhem of February 18, 1983, in central Assam. The traumatic incidents at Nellie still haunt him, and it comes out unmistakably in the chapter - Woman in the Green Sari. The woman, who had seen death all around and escaped, produced a 'surreal scream'; he says -- and adds, "The horrific images are still stuck in my mind."

The magnitude of death and destruction that unfolded before them in an open clear picturesque setting - they were three media persons - would have overwhelmed anyone. It was an eerie setting because of the 'kill-burn-slay' psychology of the hundreds of armed men.

The February 1983 Assembly elections were held to fulfil a Constitutional 'obligation'. The logic was that the polls could not be stopped because the President Rule could not be extended beyond one year, and that deadline was fast approaching. The supporters of movement against 'foreign' nationals were not only boycotting, but opposing the elections aggressively as well.

As the election(s) process got going, "It was a strange scenario across the Brahmaputra valley -- right from Dhubri to Dibrugrah; depending on the population profile -- the killing lust had surcharged the atmosphere," the slim publication says in its preface.

The toll around Nellie villages officially stood at 2,191.

Mr B G Verghese, doyen of Indian journalism -- who has a special interest on the affairs of the North–East, says in his foreword remarks, "India must care and ponder over what happened, and we must all learn our several lessons as distinctive groups, wider communities, the Government..."

The booklet, apart from being of interest to journalists even 25 years on -- should be of relevance to the students of contemporary history. Some of the documents used helps in understanding the overall situation in proper perspective. The documents in the publication, which includes that of the Lalung Darbar, the Election Commission and the report of the non-official Justice Mehta Commission, would be of great significance for some one, studying the Assam and India's history of the period.

Review(2) - 25 years on...Nellie still haunts

Some events in history just refuse to fade from public memory. The partition of India and Pakistan, for instance. That bloody event in history continues to inspire several novels, academic studies and even films — even now. But there are some dark chapters in independent India's history that many people — protagonists, by-standers and even those who had nothing to do with the event per se — want buried in the sands of time. The infamous Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983 is one such gory episode.

There are conflicting figures about exactly how many people — women, infants and men — were killed on that fateful day of 18 February 1983, but no one disputes the fact that at least 2,000 people lost their lives. For years, the Nellie massacre became a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong with Assam over the past three decades. Those who worry about the unabated influx of foreigners from across the international border say Nellie was a manifestation of the pent up anger among the indigenous people.
Others, apologists for the migrants, portray the victims of the Nellie massacre as just that — victims.
But the reality of the violence of that day, and several days preceding it lies somewhere in between. And bringing that to the fore is reporter, Hemendra Narayan, now with The Statesmen but who 25 years ago was with The Indian Express. He was one of three journalists to witness the carnage first hand. For a quarter century, he carried the memories of that particular day with him but finally decided to come out with a small booklet detailing the events of that day. It was as if he was liberating himself after such a long gap. A catharsis in a way for Narayan the human being, if not Narayan the reporter!

The writer, I am sure, in 25 Years on... Nellie still haunts, had no intentions of opening any old wounds or hurting anyone. But it can be said that the Nellie massacre still remains a deep wound on the collective psyche of Assam! Narayan has indeed recounted the events of that period with some objectivity and with the benefit of hindsight

In the 52-page "slim publication", as BG Verghese describes it, he says in the Foreword, "Narayan has recalled various versions on offer, including his own of what happened on 18 Februrary, 1983. The narrative reads like the Japanese play, Rashmonon."

Narayan has indeed included an array of material in an attempt to give all possible sides to the real story of Nellie. He has his own dispatch of that day as the starting point.

It includes a memorandum by the Lalung Darbar, presented to Indira Gandhi, who in many ways should be blamed for creating the circumstances that led to the Nellie massacre. The Lalungs, who are often portrayed as aggressors of that day, have stoutly denied their hand in the violence. Then there are documents, both official and non-official, as also the Election Commission's logic in holding the elections that ultimately resulted in unleashing the violence that culminated in Nellie.

Like a true reporter, Narayan has attempted to raise the real question: What is the real truth of Nellie? Like many events in independent India's history, the correct answer will never be known — not at least in our lifetime, as Tribuhwan Prasad Tewary, who conducted an official enquiry into the massacre (and whose report has never been made public), told Narayan.

But in writing and publishing an account of Nellie, 25 years after it happened, Narayan has done a signal service to historians and students of contemporary history. The mystery of Nellie will never be completely solved but at least, through Narayan's efforts, each of us can make an attempt to find our own little answers.
(Rekha Goel)

Hemendra Narayan
401,Dalibagh Apartments,
Butler Road,
Lucknow 226001
Mobile: 9793433334


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