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The Wounds of Nellie

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Has anything changed three decades after the infamous massacre?

“Heavy heart.” This is how Suleiman Ahmed Qasmi describes his feelings on the current cycle of violence in Kokrajhar and its adjoining districts in Assam. It brings bile to his mouth, he says. It reminds him of the tragedy that befell him and so many others, about three decades ago.

Qasmi was a young student of theology, studying in a madrassa, when someone brought him the news. His village in Nellie, about 40 kilometres from Assam’s capital Guwahati, had been attacked that morning. By the time he rushed home, there was no home left. The tide of killing had swallowed 12 members of his family, including his parents.

On the morning of 18 February 1983, thousands of people of the Lalung tribe had descended on Nellie and adjoining villages. Carrying machetes, swords, spears and whatever else they could lay their hands on, they came in like hunters, shouting war cries. Out of fear, the villagers rushed out of their huts, and started running towards a large field.

But the hunt had been planned. The hapless people of Nellie and 15 other villages found themselves surrounded. Most of the killings—official figures say 2,191 people died—happened in and around that field.

Ataur Rehman had turned 15 two days ago. Like others, he too ran towards the field but fell. “I turned to run when six people attacked me.” They attacked him with a 12-inch dhau (machete) and left him for dead. He survived, but his mother, sister and brother were not so lucky. The lacerations on Ataur’s neck and back tell the tale. Shahid Ali, then five, was carried by his maternal uncle on his shoulder. They killed his uncle, but he survived. His younger brother, Inas Ali, who was just two, was stabbed in the chest and died three days later in hospital.

Many survivors say the murderous rabble was accompanied by policemen. “They fired the first shots,” says 60-year-old Mohammed Akil, one of the survivors.  Most of those killed were Bangla- deshi immigrants.

Tension was palpable in Assam from the late 1970s onward over illegal immigration from erstwhile East Pakistan. The brewing resentment led to the formation in 1979 of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), which was set up with the sole purpose of saving the Ahomiya identity from outsiders. The heavy influx of immigrants suited the ruling Congress party, which encouraged it to extend its electoral domination. Assembly elections were held in February that year, against the advice of many who knew the situation on the ground. The AASU demanded that elections be postponed till all illegal immigrants in the state had been identified and their names struck off electoral rolls. But the Congress government was keen to go ahead, assured as it was of immigrant votes. On 15 February, the people of Nellie voted in large numbers for the local Congress candidate, Prashant Dalai.

Three days later, they paid with their lives.

The massacre continued unhindered for several hours. A company of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had reached the road head, but, according to eyewitnesses, the police wouldn’t tell them how to get in. One woman, who lives across the highway, reached there and heard one of the CRPF commanders (rank unknown) asking a police officer: “Raasta kahan hai, sahab?” (Which is the way, Sir?). The woman, now 80, says she banged her fist on the bonnet of the CRPF truck and told them she would show them the way. The CRPF troops finally entered at about 3 pm.

As they saw the CRPF approach, the killers’ rearguard shouted at them to retreat. But for the CRPF, the death toll that day would have been much higher.

The Congress government announced an ex-gratia of Rs 5,000 for every dead victim. “Only a year later, the same government announced a compensation of Rs 7 lakh for victims of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi,” points out Qasmi. The irony is, says Qasmi, that some of the families did not even get the five thousand—a portion of it was pocketed by local government officials.

A total of 680 criminal cases were filed in the Nellie massacre. Chargesheets were filed in 310 of these, the rest were closed on lack of evidence. In 1983, the Congress government won the elections and Hiteswar Saikia became Chief Minister. In July, Saikia announced the institution of the Tewary Commission to probe the massacre. In January 1984, the Commission submitted its 600-page report. But the Congress had got what it wanted—victory in the elections. It couldn’t be bothered even tabling the report in the Assembly. It still hasn’t been. The government’s paranoia about the facts of the massacre was evident years later, when in 2004 it stopped a Japanese scholar, Makiko Kimura, from speaking about it at a seminar in Guwahati.

In 1985, after the Assam Accord, the Asom Gana Parishad (formed from the AASU) came to power. Immediately after he became Chief Minister, AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta dropped the cases against those chargesheeted in the massacre. He then went on to valorise as martyrs the few Lalung tribals who had been killed that day by the people of Nellie while defending themselves. He also announced additional relief of Rs 30,000 for the families of these tribals.

Today, the village of Nellie has expanded. More settlements have come up on both sides of the Kapili river. Qasmi now runs a small madrassa for the children of Nellie. “I want to give them modern education—math, science and computers. But for that I need money. Who will give me money to buy computers?” he asks.

It’s mid afternoon in Nellie. An old man sits outside a small shop with a hand-held loudspeaker, urging the faithful to go offer their prayers. The fishermen sit in small boats, hoping their nets will catch enough to feed their families. But the wounds of that day remain, carved in their minds and on their bodies under those soiled polyester shirts.

Looking at developments in Kokrajhar, will the people of Nellie vote some other party in the next elections? “Who do we vote for, except the Congress? Do we have an alternative?” asks Qasmi.

The people who have gathered around Suleiman Qasmi fall silent. Perhaps with a  heavy heart.