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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Nellie massacre survivors got Rs 2000 as compensation! 

By S Ubaidur Rahman

Indian Muslims have a very short memory. It is barely twenty-one years when more than three thousand Muslims were slaughtered in Nellie, in Nagaon district of Assam in a single day but no one seems to remember the mass killings of the poor Assamese Muslims.

Young Muslim men don't seem to have heard of the case at all and Muslim leaders behave as if they too are unaware of Nellie. No voice is heard and no debate takes place on what happened to the enquiry commission report submitted to the government. The issue is not raised at all. So justice is a far cry.

In February 1983, 3,300 people were killed in a single day. As per official records, the six hour long attack on Nellie began at 10 am and left at least 1,800 persons dead. Records in the Jagiroad police station put the number of killed in the riots at Dungbari, Muladhari, Borpolah, Silbheti and Mati-parbat at 2,191. But the actual figures are said to be higher, 3,300 according to some estimates. Their only sin was that they voted for Indira Gandhi who had given them assurances, that they need not fear any retaliation. About 1,668 people were arrested in connection with the mass murder.

Tewari Commission, constituted to probe the riot submitted its 600-page report to the Assam government in May 1984, the then Congress government, headed by Hiteswar Saikia, decided against making it public. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government that came to power in December 1985 too kept it under wraps.

But records at the Jagiroad police station say that while 688 cases had been filed in connection with the Nellie killings, the police submitted chargesheets only in 310. The remaining 378 cases were closed after a final report said there was no evidence. But these too were dropped later. B K Gohain, home commissioner, Assam said ''All the Nellie cases were dropped during Prafulla Kumar Mahanta's time. The chapter is closed.''

Shekhar Gupta, the editor in chief of Indian Express who reported the massacre later recounts his thought while comparing it with the Gujarat riots. "In Nellie, earlier, more people died in a single day (3,300) than in any riot after Partition. But the police were not helping along the murderers. It happened in a distant, hidden patch of dry Brahmaputra bed in a dark corner of Assam, and while the police and the state government were guilty of ignoring early warnings they were not participating in the killings and loot. I reached Nellie when killings and hackings were still on and the wounded were crying, crawling, carrying their dismembered limbs, trying to push back entrails hanging out of stab holes in their children's bellies. There was just half a platoon of the CRPF there, led by a very honourable head constable called H. B. N. Appa who was crying bitterly that he did not have enough people or firepower to stop the killings. He was by no means egging the killers on. He must have still saved a few thousand lives. He resurfaced in my reporting life a year later, in Amritsar during Operation Bluestar, at the head of a CRPF patrol, his lonely heroism at Nellie having earned him the reward of the single pip of a sub-inspector which he flaunted at me and asked: "So what did you get for reaching there ahead of the others?" And then he talked about how many lives he could have saved if only he had a full platoon.

One of my abiding memories of Nellie is the bitterly dejected, forlorn face of the then DIG of Nowgong district, under whose charge the village fell, the day after the massacre. "If only we were here a few hours earlier... if only we were here a few hours earlier," he kept on mumbling. That pain returns to his face even today when I sometimes cruelly pull his leg by reminding him I beat him and his police to the Nellie story. You can check with the gentleman if I am speaking the truth. He is P. C. Sharma, the current director of the CBI. Or you can check with his then boss, K. P. S. Gill, who had to answer so many difficult questions when Indira Gandhi flew in, ashen-faced, the following morning." Now nobody wants to talk of Nellie. When the victims of 1984 Sikh riots are being compensated, nobody talks of compensating the Nellie riot victims.

The Nellie survivors too were compensated. But be prepared for a cruel joke. Adding insult to injury, every family in the half-a-dozen affected villages received a mere two bundles of tin sheets and Rs 2,000 in cash as part of the rehabilitation package announced by the then Congress government.

Assam government still does not allow people to remember and condole to what happened in Nellie on that fateful day. For its own reasons, every party wants to forget Nellie.

Last November Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura was stopped by the Assam government from giving a talk called ''Memories of a massacre: Competing narratives of the Nellie incident' The lecture had to be called off 30 minutes before it was scheduled to start after the State Home Commissioner and Secretary B. M. Mazumdar faxed a letter to the OKD Institute of Social Change, the institute that hosts CENISEAS, asking it not to hold the lecture 'without consultation with the state government'. By that time the hall was already full. Makiko Kimura, a Japanese scholar who had recently completed her doctoral dissertation on the issue at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, was supposed to speak on three aspects of the Nellie massacre: The views of the victims, the attackers and the AASU movement leaders. 

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