A dot of a town in Assam’s Nagaon district, Nellie, hit the national headlines in 1983 for all the wrong reasons. In just six hours on the morning of February 18, over 2000 Muslim villagers of East Bengal origin were massacred there. With the then ongoing anti-foreigner movement in the State as the backdrop, the incident attracted great attention. Hundreds of cases were filed against the attackers composed of indigenous tribal Tiwa and Koch communities; a commission was set up too to probe the massacre. But nothing came of it. The attackers and the attacked began living side by side yet again.
Three decades later, Japanese academic Makiko Kimura attempts to search for clues from the narratives of the attackers and the survivors through “The Nellie Massacre of 1983”. The recently published Sage book is the result of Makiko’s post doctoral research at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
In an email interview from Japan, Makiko, associate professor at the Tsuda College, Tokyo, says she zeroed in on the subject while looking at doing some work on ethnic issues in the Northeast. “I chose the anti-foreigner movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) as my Ph.D theme. I wanted to know how indigenous tribal groups were involved in the movement, and was suggested to go to Nellie,” she states.
She expected it to be “some trouble related to land issues”. After her research, she feels, “But nobody mentioned it as a direct cause of the incident.” Unlike the usual image that the riot participants are a “barbaric mob”, “savages” or “urban poor controlled by goondas”, the people she came across in Nellie looked to her “simple and ordinary villagers in peaceful rural areas.”
Excerpts from the interview:
How challenging is it to study riots and collective violence?
The difficulty is that we find fragmented narratives and evidences, not the full picture of the incident. People also expect to find a culprit, an influential individual or a group of people. In some cases, it is even more complicated and one cannot point out an individual/group. But we can surely point out those who instigated the violence, and those who did not meet their obligations to protect the victims.
You said in the book that the Nellie Massacre does not fit into an explanation of the typical Hindu-Muslim “riots” which became prominent in the country since the late 1980s.
Yes. In the case of Nellie, it was not very difficult to approach those who participated in the violence. It could be different in other cases. I’ve heard that in Bihar (Bhagalpur) or in Gujarat, it is still tough to conduct fieldwork and talk to survivors, and cannot think of approaching the attackers.
Is it because it is no more politically controversial?
Yes. Of course, nobody came out and said that they killed, but many villagers admitted that they helped the attack. In some cases, they were willing to talk because they feel that the Tiwas were misrepresented as “wild tribes” who attacked Muslims.
You also say that when you revisited the victims in 2007, you found the survivors more vocal than in 2001 in narrating their pain and accusing the students’ movement leaders for the massacre. What could be the apparent reasons?
It’s partly because of the political change. The Congress was ruling the State for seven years by then, and the Asom Gana Parishad did not have a very strong presence in the State legislative assembly. It’s also partly because my interpreter was a Muslim of immigrant origin.
Your research said though there was strong leadership from the AASU leaders in the movement, they didn’t have direct control in the rural areas. Can we deduce then that the attackers were thinking on their own?
Yes, as I’ve shown in chapter 5 of my book that there was a decision-making process by the local Tiwa and Koch communities. At the same time, we should also remember that they did not have many options at the time. There was already small-scale violence between the Muslims and the local communities, and there was a widespread rumour that Muslims might attack the Tiwas, Kochs, etc. So many of them felt threatened, felt that if they did not attack, they would be attacked. Such situation was created both by the then Congress Government in Assam and the AASU leaders, I say.
How do you see the role of the then State Government?
The Congress’ largest failure was imposing the election on an already tense and divided society. Without the election, the killing would not have taken place. At the same time, it is also true that the Congress also contributed to dividing, and in extreme cases, instigating violence.
In the Tiwari Commission Report, it was stated that the Assam Police, especially the low-ranking officers, did not take enough measures to prevent attacks in some areas, as they were sympathetic to the movement. It was particular in the Nellie incident in which the local police did not take any action despite knowing that the attack was taking place. The CRPF and other armed police battalions brought in from other States were mainly posted in polling booths and to provide security for election candidates. The law-enforcement agencies were defunct in the State.
You also say that the Assam movement can also be seen as a prominent case of the rise of regionalism that prevailed not just in Assam but also in other parts such as Punjab. There, you drew a parallel between the Nellie incident and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
The collective violence, or so-called “communal riots”, appear to be spontaneous and unexpected. However, they are often consequences of processes and events such as xenophobic movements and their ideologies, the mobilisation of masses, and political crises, etc. In terms of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, it was the Khalistan movement and the oppressive measure by the Government which divided Hindu and Sikh communities. Regarding the Assam movement, it was the anti-foreigner movement led by the students’ union. Both the movements were also a part of emergence of regionalism in Punjab and Assam, and that was the reason why the Congress Government became very oppressive, which led to the violent reaction.
After the violence, the attackers and the attacked began living side by side all over again. What are the reasons?
Right after the violence, the Congress provided security to the villagers for a year. It contributed to stabilising. Also, there were no political parties or large-scale organisations which tried to utilise the incident and garner political support. Especially, for the AGP, the massacre was a ‘stain’ on their non-violent movement, and nobody tried to touch upon the issue until very recently.
Tiwas now demand a separate State. Why?
After the anti-foreigner movement, many indigenous tribal groups started their own autonomous councils (and in some cases, separate States). Although many tribal students supported the movement in the beginning, they withdrew their support when they saw that the top leadership was dominated by caste-Hindu Assamese. In the Tiwa dominated areas, the support continued till the last, but the AASU failed to recognise their social, cultural, and economic needs. There were two clauses (6 and 10) in the Assam Accord which especially invited opposition from indigenous groups.
The same reasons can be attributed to the start of the Bodo movement. The prominent leader of the Bodoland movement, Upen Brahma, had once joined the AASU. Their movement started right after the anti-foreigner movement came to an end in 1985.
The victims submitted memoranda for compensation and rehabilitation to the Centre in 1983, 1991, and 2007 but nothing happened. You say that rather than judicial prosecution or compensation, there is an urgent need for a community-based reconciliation process.
I still feel that judicial prosecution and compensation is both necessary in settling the large-scale violence. However, in many cases, such measures are not possible. In terms of the Nellie incident, it’s been already 30 years. As many neighbours were involved, the prosecution would invite tension in the area.
In such cases, the truth and reconciliation commission, which aims for the truth-telling and restitution of the victims, and not punishment of the culprits, would contribute more positively towards constructive relationship between the communities.