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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Seminar on Nellie banned

Assam has learnt no lessons

On 10 November, barely 30 minutes before Makiko Kimura, a scholar from Tokyo's Keio University, was going to present a paper on the Nellie massacre of 18 February 1983, in which over 1800 Muslims were hacked (see MG, 16-30 April 2001 : Remembering Nellie) to death in a single night despite assurances of Indira Gandhi who asked the terrified Muslims to come out and vote, Assam's Congress government banned the seminar which was being held in Guwahati by the Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies [CENISEAS -www.ceniseas.org] which is headed by Sanjib Baruah, a respected scholar in the USA as well as here, who has made the rigorous study of the region his mission. Baruah is professor of political science at Bard University in New York.

Assam and the Assamese must be mature enough to face up to what happened at Nellie in Assam’s Morigaon district 21 years ago; it was a horrible tragedy in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims were killed. Their bodies, men, women, children, were left lying among the dry paddy fields on a clear February day during an Assembly election opposed by  agitators demanding the ouster of  illegal migrants. The victims of the massacre were  Bengali-speaking Muslims. 


The fax was signed by the State Home Commissioner and Secretary B.M. Mazumdar, asking OKD Institute of Social Change, where the seminar was being held, not to hold the lecture ‘‘without consultation of (sic) the state government’’. By that time the hall was already full.

Assam and the Assamese must be mature enough to face up to what happened at Nellie in Assam’s Morigaon district 21 years ago; it was a horrible tragedy in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims were killed. Their bodies, men, women, children, were left lying among the dry paddy fields on a clear February day during an Assembly election opposed by agitators demanding the ouster of illegal migrants. The victims of the massacre were Bengali-speaking Muslims. 

Abstract of Makiko Kimura’s paper on Nellie

The aim of this paper is to analyse three competing narratives of the cause of the Nellie massacre of 1983: the views of the victims, the attackers and the movement leaders. The well-known Nellie incident took place during the anti-foreigners movement led by the AASU and the AAGSP from 1979 to 1985. The incident was directly triggered by the central governments decision to hold the state legislative assembly election, which invited a boycott by the movement leaders. As a result of the confrontations between the people who supported and opposed the implementation of the election, there were numerous violent incidents among communities during election period in the early part of 1983. The worst incident was the Nellie massacre, in which more than 1000 people were killed in one-day attack.

Until now, it has been said that the land deprivation by the Muslim migrants from East Bengal region is the cause of the large-scale killing. The plains tribe called the Tiwas traditionally inhabited in the Nellie area, but after the British occupation they were marginalised. The top leaders of the Assam movement denied their involvement in the massacre, and implicitly suggested that it was initiated by the Tiwas. However, interviews with Muslim migrants and Tiwas in this area reveal that both of them consider the movement and the election as a prime cause of the massacre, and, these groups denied that there are disputes over land between them.

It can be said that the interpretations of collective violence (such as a large-scale killing, riot or massacre) are open to various narratives by people who directly or indirectly experience them. And from these various narratives, people choose one interpretation that suits them most, or choose the one that is least harmful to them. And in this process, they also select the facts from their memories. However, the three interpretations do not receive the same attention in India or in Assam. The interpretation of the movement leaders became the consensus in Assamese society. I argue that the interpretation favoured by those in power and by the media became the most widely accepted interpretation.
«


We must understand the forces at play, the reasons why Nellie happened – if we are to prevent it from happening again. Hatred and suspicion are not cleared by bans; they are cleared by open conversations, by honesty and the healing power of light, a catharsis that involves facing up to our own inner demons and the outer dark forces, which will not hesitate to exploit these very primordial angers.

"The focus of my study is on the competing narratives on the incident in Nellie. The research-paper, which I was supposed to present in the seminar, is a part of my thesis, which would be submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and, if approved, would be in the JNU library," Ms Kimura told Indian Express.

Dr Sanjib Baruah, head of the Centre, on his part said the government’s interference was unwarranted. ‘‘If the government thinks it was something to do with conflict, then it must be remembered that democracy allows conversation to resolve conflicts.’’ He added that "This is not just frustrating, I’m embarrassed as an Indian. As democrats, we are proud of our democracy so if in a democracy we can’t talk about an incident that happened 21 years ago in an academic context, that speaks very badly about democracy." 

The State Home Department and the Intelligence were reportedly inquiring about the lecture for three days before the event, with an additional SP of the special branch also meeting Baruah to know about the contents of the lecture. Dr A.N.S. Ahmed, director of the OKD Institute, too, confirmed having received several telephone calls from the Home Department. He also pointed out that the government’s apprehension that the lecture could fuel communal passion could be based on local media reports, which said the Japanese scholar would reveal some startling facts about the carnage that left over 1,800 Muslims of migrant origin dead. 

Ms Kimura had travelled all along from Tokyo to present her research work. She said: "This is absolutely an academic work. The aim of this paper was to analyse three competing narratives of the cause of the Nellie massacre of 1983: the views of the victims, the attackers and the movement’s leaders." Ms Kimura, who is a research fellow for the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, regretted that this would discourage young scholars from doing research work in the region. 

"It’s an academic work and not intended to harm anyone... I don’t want anything to happen to the many young people who want to work in the Northeast. It might prevent them from coming here," she said.

Speakiang to media questions as to what made her select the above subject for research, Kimura said that she was interested to know as to how the people of the Nellie areas narrate the incident after a long period. She also said in reply to another query that she visited the Nellie areas on two occasions in 2001 and 2002 and she spent about one and a half month’s time with the people of six or seven villages there. She said that the Muslim people of the areas did not nurture any hatred against the assailants who attacked them during the 1983 incidents. She also met the SP and Additional SP of Morigaon district during her visits to the areas, she said.

Makiko Kimura has recently completed her doctoral dissertation at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also a doctoral candidate in Sociology at Keio University, Tokyo, Japan. She has recently been awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. An article by her on the subject of this seminar appears in the journal Asian Ethnicity. «

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