Tuesday, April 23, 2024

“They slaughtered us”: 41 years on, Nellie massacre survivors now say justice is not for them

Sunen Bhai’o Musalmaan o bosiaya, ki korilam Borbori te asiya, ki korilam Borbori te asiya, Maa harailam, baap haraialm hai re hai, ki korilam Borbori te asiya

(Listen, my fellow Muslim survivors, what did we do now that we were born in Borbori? Lost our mother and father too, What did we do now that we were born in Borbori?)

These are the opening verses from a folk song that Khalilur Rahan composed in the immediate aftermath of the Nellie Massacre narrating the bloodshed and what had transpired afterwards. 

On 15 February, Wednesday, when Rahman, now in his 60s, laboured his memory to sing his song for an uncountable time in his home in central Assam’s Borbori village, Salema Begum, his neighbour, broke down in tears. 

Amar kolinja khafey ei gaan ta huniya (My soul shivers when I listen to this song),” Begum said, tears streaming down her cheeks. 

Forty-one years ago, on February 18, 1983, 10 members of her family, including her parents and siblings were killed by a mob comprising Assamese Hindus, Koch, and people from the Tiwa tribe in the Kopili River that runs along Borbori, over 85 km from Guwahati. 

On the same day, scores of other people, mostly children, and women, numbering 585 were slaughtered out of about 920 people in Borbori. 

Begum’s Husband Abdur Sattar, who swam the Kopili river for over one km protecting her, lost 24 members of his family in the carnage. “They [The mob] killed children first, then the women and elderly, including my parents,” Sattar said, his eyes welling up but a chuckle masked his pain.

“When the screaming hushed down and I looked back, I saw the river Kopili turning red with a sea of dead bodies bleeding, including my parents. They [The mob] were laughing and mocking us by throwing the bodies of dead children from my family,” he added. 

Borbori was not the only village that saw a massacre that day. Thirteen other villages — Alisingha, Khulapathar, Basundhari, Bugduba Beel, Bugduba Habi, Borjola, Butuni, Indurmari, Mati Parbat, Mati Parbat No. 8, Muladhari, Silbheta, and Nellie — were attacked that day.

These villages were part of the Nagaon district until 1989 when a new district, Morigaon, was carved out of Nagaon with these villages falling under its territory now. 

Over 18 km from Borbori and on the other side of the Kopili River, Amsar Ali in Muladhari refuses to leave the memories behind.  

In between pauses and stutters, Ali, who survived the massacre, told Maktoob, “I cannot forget, and neither will the scar on my body let me forget the killings. It was morning, and the Assamese came in large numbers with daggers, machetes, and sharp objects.”

Kech Kech Kech…(Ali imitating the sound of the machete slitting through human flash) I heard as I ran for my life,” the 70-year-old added. 

Ali lost six members of his family that day. Over 2000 Bengali-speaking Muslims were killed, according to official records, However, unofficial records put it to 7000 people from the 14 villages. 

The Prelude to Nellie Massacre

The Nellie Massacre happened towards the end years of an ethno-nationalist movement in Assam that lasted between 1979 to 1985, first spurred on after the Election Commission found thousands of alleged “illegal immigrants” in the state’s electoral roll in 1979. 

Led by two nationalist groups — The All Assam Students’ Union (ASSU) and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AGSP) — the movement, infamously called the Assam Agitation, sought to expel “illegal immigrants” from neighbouring Bangladesh from Assam and expunge their names from the voters’ list.  

Incidentally, in the same year, the two nationalist groups called for a boycott of the Assembly election. 

The Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in the centre, despite resistance from the Assamese nationalist groups, went ahead with the election slated for February 14 that year. 

The Bengali Muslims — Pejoratively called Miyas in the state — feared that their community was “under attack, and voting was the only way” to allay their fears and “prove their Indian citizenship”.

As the election neared, some reports of clashes between the Bengali-speaking community and ethnic Assamese emerged as tension flared in the state.

In the weeks before the Nellie Massacre, a killing spree took place in the state’s Khoirabari, Nagabandha, and Chaulkhowa and other places where hundreds of people, mostly Muslims of Bengal origin, were killed by agitating Assamese mobs. 

These incidents, Rahman says, made the community aware of impending violence against them, so they decided to seek police protection. 

Two days before the massacre, a delegation consisting of Rahman met the Officer-In-Charge, Bhadra Kanta Chetia, of Jagiroad Police station under which their villages fell. 

“We were assured of police protection. Chetia said several companies of the Central Reserve Police Force were stationed in Jagiroad,” said Rahman. 

But on an eventful day, Rahman’s community kept waiting for the troops.

“No one came when the killings started. If anything came, it was death staring at us. The mob ran riot, setting our houses on fire, killing our children, and looting our assets.”

The killing did not happen in a vacuum, according to Anjuman Ara Begum who teaches law at the Assam Royal Global University, Guwahati.  

“It was the marginalisation and the vilification of the Bengali-speaking Muslim community through narratives which ignited hatred against them,” the professor said. 

So, the majority community, Begum added, “Perceived that the Bengali Muslims were a threat to their culture and that they should get rid of them.”

Was RSS involved with AASU? 

Critics say AASU was directly involved in the spate of massacres, including Nellie that took place in February 1983.

Incidentally in the Chaulkhowa massacre, the brother of AASU leader Joynath Sharma, Dayanath Sharma, was allegedly killed after he launched an attack on the Bengali Muslims and Hindus. 

In an India Today article, Swagata Sen and veteran journalist and former Union Minister Arun Shourie wrote that “the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is believed to have played a very active part in the massacre”. 

“But ask the then AASU leader and later Assam chief minister Prafulla Mahanta about it, and he would like people to believe that it was a simple clash of ethnic differences between the two communities.”

A member of Parliament from the Congress party in Assam who requested anonymity told Maktoob that AASU was “directly involved in the massacre”.

“The Tiwas and Assamese were just instruments,” they added. 

Japanese sociologist Makiko Kimura who spent two months in the 14 villages for her research on the massacre in 2001 also mentioned the nationalist group’s involvement in the killings.

In her book, Nellie Massacre: Agency of Rioters she noted that a lot of rumours showing the Bengali Muslim community in a bad light were legitimized by the AASU. 

Critics also point out Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) indirect involvement in fanning the anxieties in the Assamese community emerging from a purported affront on their culture and land from the Bengali-Muslim Community. 

According to a report published by India Today, Joynath Sharma was directly involved with Sangh which caused infighting in the AASU camp, and the leadership “was threatened by communal divide.” 

At a secret conclave held at J. Baruah Law College in Gauhati the Muslims among the AASU leadership “issued an ultimatum which gave AASU leaders a fortnight to correct what it called ‘a pro-Hindu communal tilt caused by pro-RSS elements’” the report said. 

Shourie who was reporting the massacre for India Today at that time also in an article quoted a government assessment report that warned of a “link-up of RSS elements” indicating a “strong possibility of much communal disturbances…just prior to the election or immediately after the election”.

“The whole massacre was hatched up by the RSS,” The Congress MP said, adding, “Look at the speech that Vajpayee made.”

In February 1883, days before the massacre, Vajpayee, a staunch member of the RSS, standing before the Assam assembly said, “Foreigners have come here and the government does nothing. What would have happened if he had come to Punjab instead? People would cut them into pieces and throw them away.”

“His inflammatory speech became fodder for the massacre,” the MP said. 

Tewary commission 

In the aftermath of the massacre, the then-Assam government ordered an inquiry into the massacre. The charge of the inquiry was given to T.D Tewary, an Indian administrative service officer, from Uttar Pradesh.

Tewary’s commission reportedly submitted its report a year later in 1984. However, the report was never made public to date by successive governments in Assam until a few years ago when the Center for Equity Studies obtained the 547-page report after they filed an RTI. 

The commission in its report revealed that a wireless message warning of a mob build-up with arms around these villages was sent to the then Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police of Nagaon. The Officer-In-Charge of Nagaon Police Station, the report unveiled, had omitted the message. 

But Tewary, in the report, pinned the blame on M.N.A Kabir, the 5th commandment of Assam Police Battalion, who was also in charge of law and order in Morigaon, Promod Chetia, the sub-divisional police officer of Morigaon, and the officer in charge of the Jagiroad police station Bhadra Kanta Chetia who received the message. 

Chetia, the Officer-In-Charge of Jagiroad, the report revealed, visited Borbori a day earlier from the massacre. The locals requested him to send armed deployment to the village, but he declined saying he did not have enough men. 

The next day Chetia was apprised of trouble at Nellie at 10:45 am. He sent two platoons of the CRPF, but he followed hours later claiming he did not know the path to Nellie and he had to save a drowning man from the river. 

The report also mentioned the “Lower formation of the police force had a soft corner for the agitation” and the force was “demoralized” from years of policing the agitation. 

Chetia was later suspended and the government ordered disciplinary action against him. The sub-divisional police officer from Morigaon was suspended for 10 days but then reinstated. There is no record of action taken against the commandant.

The police in the years that followed the massacre filed 688 First Information Reports (FIR) out of which 299 chargesheets were filed for Nellie Massacre. But not a single man has been prosecuted to date. 

Two years later in 1985, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Hitesher Saikia’s Congress Government of Assam and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, leader of AASU. 

Mahanta, who later formed the political party Asom Gana Parishad, and was elected as the chief minister of Assam that year, had declared amnesty to the perpetrators of the Nellie Massacre.

‘He fought for justice till he breathed his last’

Abdul Khayer lost 30 family members in Borbori in the six-hour-long onslaught on Friday, February 18, 1983. Two of his children — both sons — were cut into pieces while he was taking them across the Kopili River for safety. 

This tore him from within and he left Borbori a year after the massacre to settle in Bheloguri in the Hojai district over 60 km from Borbori. 

For 30 years, Khayer moved from pillar to post seeking justice. To him, it would be dehumanising for those killed in his family to not get justice. His son, Abdul Karim, from the second marriage, said, “My father has just one motive: justice for the family members. He was determined that he would get justice.” 

Karim added, “He even leased out his land to cover the expenses of the legal battle to fight for justice.”

However, Khayer on December 26 last year, passed away aged 73. Even on the deathbed, he told Karim, his son, about the documents that he had obtained “to continue my legal battle”.

“He fought for justice till he breathed his last,” Karim said, sobbing. 

Khayer was also featured in Subasri Krishan‘s documentary on the Nellie Massacre titled, ‘What The Filed Remembers’ where he spoke of justice.

Khayer even tried to reopen the case in the Gauhati High Court seeking compensation. But the High Court in 2007 dismissed his petition citing that the compensation had already been given.  

The Indira Gandhi Government handed down 5000 rupees next to the kin of those who were killed, 3000 rupees for those who were injured, and two bundles of tin sheets soon after the massacre. 

People this reporter spoke to say the compensation “felt like rubbing salt to our injuries”. 

“How was this fair?” asked Ajijul Haque, who lost all his family members in the massacre, and still sees flashbacks of the bloodshed in his sleep. “Those who came to kill us and died in retaliatory actions were paid over 5 lakh rupees,” he added.

When asked if they have any hope for justice even after 41 years of the massacre, a pin-drop silence permeated the atmosphere that accompanied sniggering from a gathering of people. 

“They slaughtered us as Bangladeshis, but those who killed us are called martyrs,” Haque said.

Each year on December 10, the Assam government observes Swahid Divas (Martyrs Day) in memory of some 850 Assamese youths who died during the Assam Agitation. Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, even launched a 5-crore corpus fund for the Assamese affected by the agitation movement. 

“What did we receive? Nothing except hate and ignominy,” Haque said, adding, “Now we leave everything at the hands of Allah for justice. ”


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