Nellie Massacre; ‘Though impossible to describe, I will try’

A still from the film What the Fields Remember.What the Fields Remember is a documentary film based on the Nellie massacre

On this day 38 years ago, a massacre of thousands of Muslims took place in Nellie in central Assam during a six-hour period in the morning of 18 February 1983.

The massacre claimed the lives of 2,191 Muslims (unofficial figures run at more than 10,000) from 14 villages—Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Dongabori, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Muladhari, Mati Parbat no. 8, Silbheta, Borburi and Nellie—of Nagaon district.

In terms of brutality committed just in few hours, probably this is the highest figure of people killed with crude weapons.

All Assam Students Union (AASU) is believed to have played a very active part in the massacre. Elements of RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) involvement cannot be ruled out in the Nellie massacre. Sources say RSS and agitators of Assam movement maintained a cordial relationship.

Although a total of 688 cases were filed in relation to the massacre, the police filed charge sheets in only 310 cases that were eventually closed. All these cases were dropped by the Government of India as a part of the 1985 Assam Accord; and, as a result, not a single person received punishment.

Hemendra Narayan, a journalist from The Indian Express wrote an eyewitness account “Horrible doesn’t describe it. How many deaths difficult to say” on 19 February 1983.

Read the full text:

“Horrible doesn’t describe it. How many deaths difficult to say”

Jagirod, Nowgong, Feb 18: It was absolutely horrible. Though impossible to describe, I will try.

A large number of immigrant Muslims were killed ten km from here today in what appeared to be a planned attack by a mixed group of tribals armed with traditional weapons. A few also had guns.

In a systematic manner, the houses of Muslim settlement at Demalgaon five kms north of the Gauhati-Nowgong highway were burnt. Earlier the Hindu tribals in hundreds collected at Nellie Mokaria, shouting war cries like Jai Aaee Assom Aaee Assom. The tribals, mostly young, with bows and arrows, jattis ( a sort of spear), posa ( a multi-point spear), daos ( matchets) ran in a frenzy towards the Muslim settlements. Initially, three houses on the outskirts of Mokaria village were set on fire- it looked to be a job done to arouse passion and boost the morale of the attackers.

Leaving these houses burning the tribals rushed, screaming the battle cry shouting for everyone to join. “We will kill all these bideshi mians. They have made us bideshis in our own country.”

As I rushed behind them, hundreds more out spaced me. Soon one by one the houses on the Demalgaon were on fire.

First, a bit of whitish smoke; then thick black smoke bellowed up. In half a minute, it was a red glare and within five minutes, the bare skeleton of the houses remained.

This was repeated with forty other hoses. Only one house having a better concrete structure escaped. There was no need for kerosene. The thatched roofs were inflammable enough and the rest were taken care of by the strong southerly wind of mid-day.

The entire picturesque green hill range was covered with thick black cloud of smoke, which even the mid-day sun failed to penetrate. It was darkness at noon.

The immigrants fled to cross Demal Bil (rivulet) to be in Muladhari village. They had removed the three bamboos, which had served as a sort of bridge. A small boat was also left on the other bank.

As the houses burnt, all the tribals assembled on the high bank. The immigrants could be seen assembled across the rivulet in Muladhari. Others from Alisingha, Silcherri, and Bihati were already there. Arrows and stones were exchanged across the Bil. The shouts and screams reached a crescendo.

The tribal groups used their a few guns, which scared the immigrants. There was no return of fire. The bil separated both the groups for nearly 45 minutes. The situation took a turn when another group of tribals appeared from the eastern side of Muladhari.

This two-prolonged attack the Muslims had not visualised. As the second group neared, the other tribals crossed the bil in waist-deep water.

This was the start of the killings- children, women, and all. Again systematically the houses of Muladhari went up in flames.

Vastly outnumbered the Muslim had no other choice but to run. But they were trapped. On one side was Demal River and further north another river Kopil. They ran to the west to the Bhutnimara village on the foothills.

In a desperate dash for survival, the women and children could not keep pace with the men. One by one they were hacked to death by hundreds of rampaging tribals. So, they were first to be hacked with daos. Standing on the other bank of Demal I could count 22 women lying on the already harvested paddy fields. A woman tried to cross Demal. She was speared.

The cries and groans mingled with the cracking of burning bamboos that sounded as rapid action bullet fire.

Shouting the wry cries both groups where after the feeling Muslims. I ran along the bank of Demal. The immigrants ran for their lives, but the hunters were faster. What happened to them is not difficult to guess. The faster must have got them sooner or later. Number of dead? Difficult to say but does it matter.

Shaken with heavy heart I plodded back. Cries of baby could be heard but not seen. The crying baby probably lying beside his/her mother. Or the heat of burning hut bothering the baby? Thirty meters away on the other side of Demal one could only conjecture.

While returning you see, a group of CRP jawans moving towards the noise the charging group of tribals were making. They were late by fatal hours.

Guided by a few survivors the CRP men walked briskly toward the noise. They were asked to help a crying baby. One of the jawans shouted back “you are talking of one baby. The whole village has been butchered.”

Amidst this death and destruction, there were however some lucky survivors. As I move towards the road, I saw a woman in green sari, with three children running towards the West terrified, her cries made unusual sound. She appeared to have forgotten how to cry.

At Mokaria village, the shocked inhabitants were inquisitive. They wanted to know as to what happened as if they did not know. There was no sense of grief. The continued to work and unconcerned.