Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Assam’s lost identity

Ghulam Ali still cannot sleep peacefully at night. The cries of those barbaric tortures till torment him so much so that he still slept with a khukri under his bed at night. Nellie was barely 20 kilometres from his village and the horrific scenes from 18th February, 1983 still plagued him. 

Thirty years ago, the small sub-division in Assam witnessed perhaps India’s worst genocide. Situated almost 50 miles from the capital Dispur, Nellie was a bustling community with a large section of its population belonging to predominantly Muslims originating from the erstwhile East Bengal. Ghulam Ali was a young 20-year-old then, who had just learnt the art of driving a jeep. He earned a scanty Rs. 10 a week, but was delighted in being a full-time employee for one of Nagaon district’s top dry-fish mongers. On the chilly February morning, he set off to work like many of his friends and family. Ali had to drive all the way to Nagaon, which was 40 kilometres from Nellie, and would be returning late at night after delivering the fresh stock of dry fish. 

Thousands of Muslims inhabitants fled the Bodo-populated areas in Western Assam during the rioting last year.
“Assam was gripped in state-wide panic at the time”, narrated Ali, who was currently employed for a gas agency. “The elections were upon us and several Muslim populated areas in Central Assam were declared too hostile to hold any polling.”

In 1978, Hiralal Patwari, a Member of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, passed away leading to a necessary by-elections for the Mangaldoi constituency in Central Assam. The following elections saw a huge increase in the voter base, prompting the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to call for postponement of the voting till a fair calculation of the populous was done. They suspected that the inflation was caused primarily due to a large number of ‘foreign nationals’ who had migrated from East Bengal and East Pakistan at the time.

The AASU, led by their ambitious new leader, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, demanded the state government to differentiate among Indians and non-Indians. They formed a document called the Assam Accord where 25th March 1971 was set as the demarcation date to judge if a person was an Indian citizen or not. All registered voters and people born after the date were eligible to attain Indian nationality; the rest would be termed migrants and hence could not be allowed to vote.

Dr K. Rahim was pursuing his doctorate in sociology from the University of Guwahati at the time Mr Patwari passed away. The 69-year-old retired professor vividly recalled the happenings of the year. “The AASU were determined to protect the Assamese culture. The instilled a sense of Ahom pride in the Assamese people by chanting slogans and holding campaigns explaining how the Bengali Muslims were eating into their land, their jobs, language and corrupting their culture”, recalled Dr Rahim. He explained that the Western districts of Dhubri and Goalpara were used as references to describe the growing encroachment by the now Bangladeshi migrants.

The Government of India under Indira Gandhi rejected the Assam Accord from being passed in the Lok Sabha. The Congress was looking to appease Muslim voters in the country and saw 14 easy Parliamentary seats from Assam. This triggered mass outrage amongst the AASU and other conservationists or so called protectors of Assamese integrity. Revolutions broke all over the state. Even Assamese Muslims, whose families had roots in Assam for decades far before 1971, like Ghulam Ali’s and Dr Rahim’s, had to retreat to areas of concentrated Muslim population to escape harm. Incidents of ethnic clashes were common up until 1985 with Nellie being ground zero for the conflict.

In 1983, the Central Government ordered the State Assembly elections to be held without any fail despite the brewing tensions between the different sections of society. The AASU called for nation-wide bandhs on the final day of filing for candidacy and demanded a 24-hour strike to veto the voting. Mr Mahanta warned the state of dire consequences, and raised him hands off any “incidents” that might occur. “It was a shame that the Government was ineligible to ensure adequate protection on the day of voting”, said Ghulam Ali. “All our civil liberties died that day.”

According to the then Assam Inspector General of Police, KPS Gill, 63 constituencies were given a green light to hold polls under the protection of the recently deployed paramilitary forces and Indian Army. 23 constituencies were declared red zones or hostile areas with Nellie being labelled on of the troubled spots. Nellie 1983 was one of the few books published about the barbaric massacre that followed that day. The cover page of the book, written by Diganta Sharma, recites a brief summary of the day:

A mass burial of children after the massacre at Nellie.
On February 17, 1983 two truckload police contingents came to Borbori and assured the inhabitants that they are patrolling nearby and full security has been provided to them. Being assured of security by the security personnel, Bangladeshi Muslim residents of Nellie went to work outside as usual the next day. At around 8:30 am, suddenly the village was attacked by mobs from three sides surrounding the villagers and pushing them towards river Kopili. People armed with sharp weapons, spears, and a few guns, advanced towards Nellie in an organized manner. The attackers encircled the whole village and left open the side that ends towards river Kopili. There were attackers in boats too. Killing started at around 9 am and continued till 3 pm. Most of the victims were women and children. The survivors were taken to Nagaon police station. Most of the survivors were put into Nellie camp at Nagaon and they returned to their village after 14 days upon restoration of normalcy. Police filed 688 criminal, of which 378 cases were closed due to "lack of evidence" and 310 cases were charge sheeted, and all these cases were dropped by Government as a part of Assam Accord and as a result not a single person got punishment.” (Translated from Assamese)

The Illegal Immigration Act (IIA) was passed as a result of the signing if the Assam Accord with fences being set up and guarded round the clock by the Border Security Force. The AASU leader Mahanta, went on to lead the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to victory in 1985 becoming one of India’s youngest Chief Ministers. The Nellie massacre had been buried as a miniscule event in North-east India. Like countless other stories, “mainland” India was unaware of Assam, and sympathy was scares, more so due to Mrs Gandhi’s fatal shooting the same year. Ghulam Ali was one of the fortunate few who were away from Nellie that day. 2000 others were not.
The reasons for rapid immigration from Bangladesh:
Immigration into Assam was common among the poor Bengali Muslims in East Bengal during colonial times. Many did it to escape ruthless money lenders, while some from savage floods. The Bramhaputra valley was an ideal location to start afresh – abundantly fertile and unoccupied lands, devoid of the zamindari system. The partition of Bengal in 1905 caused many rich Hindu Bengalis to migrate to trade areas in lower Assam like Hailakandi and Karimganj, where they still thrive today.

The 1972 war in Bangladesh propelled more refugees into Assam and then it became a cult to shift of Assam in search of better fortunes.  1978 was in many ways a turning point in Assamese nationalism. Though the immigrants from 1901-1951 had by and large become Assamese, with their children and grandchildren being the product of being provided education in Assamese, as well as the policy of assimilation that their grandparents had adopted for survival. Many poets and writers also emerged from their midst. But, there was another angle to it. People among them who stressed more on their religious identity allowed illegal immigration to continue unabated even after independence, and with increasing numbers the compulsion to assimilate them into the melting pot that was Assam gradually diminished. Assam was slowly losing its identity, because the sheer magnitude of this migration was perhaps unprecedented.

Last year, Assam saw its fair share of violence yet again. Ethnic clashes between Bodos and Muslims resulted in the death of over a 100 people. The districts of Dhubri, Goalpara, Mangaldoi and Kokrajhar, where the clashes took place have a large Muslim population today, hovering about the 40% mark. The Bodo militancy, and the lack of law and order in these areas means that the struggle might get a bloodier in the days to come. The Bodos and the Tiwas were the first victims of illegal immigration. They turned perpetrators of unseen violence under provocation, in Nellie in 1983 and Kokrajhar in 2012. In many unheard of cases in areas where they are in a minority, the Bodos are also victims. This is not a justification, but a mere reason. The density of population in minority dominated districts of Assam which border/include tribal areas is high. : Dhubri has a density of 1171, Barpeta 632, Nagaon 711, compared to Sonitpur which has 365, and Dibrugarh 393. All these districts have almost similar (physical) geographical characteristics. Dhubri borders Kokrajhar whose density of population is just 280. This gradient is a reason enough for ethnic diffusion. Ethnic diffusion is the reason for ethnic tension. Does it take a soothsayer to predict that? At least it takes an insensitive and incompetent government to ignore that.

As the Assamese singer Zubeen sang in his 2009 song:
“Kokaalotey tongaali khon bandhiboley hol, Aako aebaar Aakhomiya jaagibole hol”.
Meaning: It is time to tie the traditional scarf on our hips again; it is time of the Assamese to rise again.
The question is – which Assamese? 


  1. This tragic tale is not known to many people. People should know about this. Well very articulated and put together!

    1. Yayi! :D Thank you!! Yeah this is one genocide that goes noticed in history. No media coverage at all. It has been 30 years not only since India won its World Cup, but also when it failed to be 'humane' to 22 million people in Assam.