Four Decades of Nellie: Isn’t an Apology Due?

The Nellie massacre of 1983 killed thousands in Assam. In the larger Assamese society, the tragedy is either underplayed or justified.

Today, the Nellie massacre completes 40 years.

On the morning of February 18, 1983, thousands of Bengal-origin Muslims were massacred near Nellie in central Assam – not when the night was dark but when the sun was up. In the larger Assamese society, the tragedy is either underplayed or justified.

I decided to approach 13 individuals from the state with one question: is an apology due for Nellie?

“I have no direct answer to the question. Had it been committed by the government, the answer would have been yes,” says Professor Akhil Ranjan Dutta, a well-known social scientist in the country who has commented extensively on the region’s political past and present.

“The Nellie massacre was the outcome of chauvinism, propaganda and communal hatred. Those who committed it were also victims of the same ills. Imposing an election in such an emotionally volatile situation was a mistake on the part of the government. Will the government tender an apology? Not the incumbent government as the ruling party was not there during that period. If an apology had to be tendered, it would have to be by those who led the movement and subsequently formed the government, to be precise (the ex-chief minister) Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and his colleagues. Assamese people as a whole are not responsible as there were divisions within the Assamese society regarding the movement and its strategies.”

‘Deliberate memoricide’

For the scholar Angshuman Choudhury, though, such an apology should come, first and foremost, from the Assamese society at large.

“But to decide who or what the ‘Assamese society’ is can be a complex exercise in itself. In my view, it is the mainstream Assamese political, intellectual and cultural class that needs to face the victims of Nellie and apologise for the unimaginable violence inflicted upon them in the name of protecting their homeland. This does not, of course, mean that all of those who apologise directly took part in the violence, but that they were – and continue to be – active stakeholders of a certain body politic that enabled the violence either by commission or omission. They also need to apologise for the structural violence that followed the physical violence of Nellie – the systematic, and often, deliberate memoricide of the event, the refusal to talk about the perpetrators, and the pushback against those who tried to talk about the victims,” says Angshuman, who is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Both he and Dutta seem to agree on a point regarding the parties that led the governments in question – Congress at the state and the Union when Nellie happened, and the Asom Gana Parishad soon after it.

“Many of the leaders of the Assam Movement are still alive and are members of the political fraternity and civil society in Assam today. They, especially, need to participate in this act of apology for allowing the dominant sentiments within their movement to be violently directed against a vulnerable ethno-religious minority. I also believe that the Indian state owes an apology to the victims of Nellie. It needs to apologise for not fully preempting the violence and also, abjectly failing to prevent it. The day’s government – ideally in Assam, but also in New Delhi – needs to do that on behalf of the state. I also believe that much like in the case of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the Congress party, which was in power in the state and centre at that time, needs to apologise to the victims of Nellie for not doing enough to save them from the machetes, arrows and sticks that changed their lives forever. I hope Rahul Gandhi, if and when he marches into Assam as part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra’s second leg, does that on his party’s behalf. It would be the morally upright thing to do,” believes Anghsuman who has regularly written on the state’s ethnic complexities.

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Acknowledgement, dialogue, memorialising

Most of the people who I spoke to for this article emphasised on the need for reconciliation rather than an apology.

Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer trained in the University of Texas and based in Guwahati, says, “The only way forward is justice and reconciliation. Not even one person has been punished for killing thousands of innocent people in Nellie. Although four decades have passed, there must be an attempt to punish the guilty, only such an attempt will pave the way for reconciliation.”

Bonojit Hussain, an independent researcher and activist, feels that the first step for such an exercise towards ‘truth and reconciliation’ is acknowledgement. “First, the acknowledgement that so many people were killed will have to come clearly. After that, the process for a dialogue, a sorsa, can begin. The third point is to institutionally memorialise the episode,” Hussain listed.

This is an argument which resonates with the author Mayur Bora. “A fitting memorial must be built for all the victims,” said Bora adding that they must also be treated as no less than martyrs.

Sanjoy Hazarika, who has authored multiple books on the northeast, wondered whether one can ask the question of apology 40 years later. “A new generation has come up and people need to live with dignity. It’s not the question of an apology but acceptance that a terrible thing happened,” Hazarika opined, stressing the need for counselling so that the affected families can finally lay the nightmares to rest.

“Their rights need to be respected and upheld, new livelihoods created, skills taught as many are still at a subsistence level.”

Larger implications

Just like Professor Dutta who was wary that the seeking of an apology will only help forces who have been propagating a theory of a ‘clash of civilisations’ – largely implying the BJP government – Professor Hazarika, too, asked, “Would it not open old wounds?”

Also read: Don’t Foresee Change in Immigrant Issue: M.S. Prabhakara on BJP’s Assam Win

Angshuman Sarma, an academic from Jawaharlal Nehru University and one who has worked closely with the Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam, also felt that the more urgent need is to create a space for a heterogeneous and harmonious society where ‘all communities have a dignified position and collectively work for real social issues’.

Sarma also asserted that not all Assamese people were complicit. “There always was a section of people, cutting across community lines, who not only advocated a pluralist society but also fought for it and gave their lives. Progressive people from Assam opposed the semi-fascist nature of the Assam Movement and had to sacrifice lives for it (including my maternal uncle),” he sighed.

The political scientist Nani Gopal Mahanta, also the education adviser to the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government in Assam, while condemning the massacre, remarked, “However, during 1983, at the peak of the Assam Agitation, there were a number of incidents in which people from all walks of life had to pay a heavy price. Assam is a unique mélange for ethnic mobilisation and identity movements which are both violent and non-violent. If we make a list of all armed violence (by ULFA, NDFB, BLT, etc), ethnic violence and ethnic displacement from 1983 to 2011-12, the list will be endless.”

“Who will forgive whom, who will be forgiven and who craves for forgiveness?” he asked.

Sanjib Pol Deka, an eminent writer of fiction in Assamese, tends to be of the same mind.

“Firstly, the killings of Nellie cannot be compared to the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, nor to that of the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Nellie and similar incidents were not related to the central leadership of the Assam Movement. Some communal forces with vested interests exploited the sense of insecurity and fear that had existed in the minds of the local people for 60-65 years because of unprecedented migration of Muslims from east Bengal to the Brahmaputra valley in the 1920s and perpetrated incidents like Nellie and Chaulkhowa. But who attacked the Bodos in Gohpur? What was the role of the state that imposed an election amid the tensed situation of 1983?” Deka too asked.

He maintained that all relevant issues like the suspicious ways of the right-wing, the role of the regime and the history of migration must be discussed so that such incidents can be prevented in the future.

‘Moving on’

Mirza Lutfar Rahman, a radio announcer and a storyteller who belongs to the victims’ community, said that “bhul swikar aru kshama” (conceding and apologising) can indeed be the right step to accelerate the process of the formation of a larger Assamese jaati (nation/identity).

Rehna Sultana, also from the community and an assistant professor of Assamese literature, minced no words in calling it ‘rather unfortunate in a democratic country like India’ that no perpetrator was convicted.

But, true to Sanjoy Hazarika’s observation that some may have ‘tried to move on’, Amin Nozmul Islam, a young singer, was more irreverent in his take. “I am not willing to give much importance to the question of apology,” he snapped.

How will the reconciliation be realised?

“In a multiethnic society like Assam, we require a transformative peace building exercise whereby Track II and Track III civil society initiatives could be undertaken for reconciliation and the peace process. A process rather than an event that will focus on listening to each other and carving a space for inter- and intra-group dialogue is the need of the hour. Even our universities and colleges could undertake such an exercise,” Mahanta answers.

Dutta, who recently published the book Hindutva Regime in Assam: Saffron in the Rainbow said that what one needs to understand is how this process takes place at the ground level. “How have the two parties – the perpetrators and the victims – re-built the relationship and how have they been co-habiting despite the catastrophe of the past?…How are they doing it, and why are they doing it? Meta narratives should not drive our actions. More than the external agencies, the wisdom and the aspirations of the people on the ground need to be understood and respected,” he noted.

Kaustubh Deka, a university professor of political science, sends his response on the issue in writing: “For a massacre of the magnitude of Nellie, no apology is perhaps big enough. People of this land, a section of the ‘Assamese’ to be precise, have been living under the unbearable weight of this apology for four decades now, expressed or unexpressed.”

As yet another February comes and goes, Deka would perhaps agree that this admission continues to remain more unexpressed than expressed. And that, precisely, is the lament.

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a senior writing fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University.