18 February 2022 marks 39 years since a mob comprising members of caste Hindu Assamese, Tiwa (or Lalung), Karbi and other communities slaughtered over 2,000 Bengal-origin Muslims in and around the central Assam town of Nellie in just six hours. The horrifying carnage, which remains one of the biggest instances of sectarian mass violence in post-independence India, happened at the peak of a six-year-long agitation—known as the Assam Movement (1979-85)—that sought to cleanse Assam of “foreigners” or “illegal Bangladeshis”.
The Nellie massacre is one of the least discussed communal massacres in India. In Assam, however, it is a determinant event that is intimately tied to the political history of Assamese nationalism. In fact, one could argue that the massacre was a sociocultural product of the twisted form that Assamese nationalism took in those days. What happened on 18 February 1983 remains a prism to an Assam whose past, present and future are steeped in ethno-linguistic chauvinism, religious majoritarianism and hatred against the “outsider”. Nellie, in that sense, is both a historical lesson and a forewarning.
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The massacre might not have directly impacted national politics or ideology but in Assam, the politics surrounding it took many critical turns. Right after the fateful event, the leaders of the Assam Movement, most of whom later jumped into mainstream politics and became ministers in the state government, denied any responsibility. Sure, it is no one’s claim that the leaders and organisations that spearheaded the Assam Movement directly planned or sanctioned the massacre. But responsibility cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of direct involvement. One may be responsible for bloodletting by both commission and omission.
There is no denying that the anti-migrant rhetoric, which was the mainstay of the Assam Movement, created an all-pervading environment of hatred against the so-called “outsider”. As this sentiment spread across the state like wildfire, the Assam Movement took on its own mass character. The disdain for the bahiragata (outsider), which eventually became the bidexi (foreigner), replicated quickly across cities, towns and villages, capturing the public imagination and bringing them together against a common social enemy. This “enemy” was the “illegal Bangladeshi” who had come from across the border and was accused by Assamese nationalists of entering the voter rolls in Assam through subterfuge.
A range of social actors participated in the movement. All India Radio in Guwahati, Gauhati University and the local press (such as The Assam Tribune and Dainik Asom) strongly supported it, regurgitating the nativist anti-foreigner rhetoric in their own ways. The image of the “land hungry immigrant”—a damaging epithet first used in 1931 by Charles Seymore Mullan, a British census superintendent posted in Assam—who will ultimately destroy Assamese culture and society was vehemently pushed into the public discourse by key actors of the movement.
This included the vaunted Assam Sahitya Sabha, a highly influential organisation in Assamese social and political life. The Sabha had characterised itself as “non-political” prior to the movement. But, as the agitation spread, it became increasingly involved in relaying anti-immigrant diatribes to larger audiences, further legitimising the fear among the khilonjiya people (indigenous, also including the caste Hindu Assamese) through regular meetings and publications.
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Under such conditions, the khilonjiyas were sufficiently motivated to think of the migrant as the biggest enemy of—rather, an existential threat to—their society and culture. Potentially, Nellie-like massacres could have happened in many more places. Smaller massacres, no less heinous, did take place in several other areas, such as Chaulkhowa Chapori and Silapathar. However, Nellie, owing to its sheer scale, may be seen as a representational exemplar to denote the series of anti-minoritarian violence that was committed by supporters of the Assam Movement.
At that time, the primary victims of Assamese nationalism were the Miya (Bengal-origin) Muslims, Bengali Dalit Namasudras, members of Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities and left activists. However, it is a social fact that the benefits of the movement were reaped by the dominant caste Hindu Assamese. The inimitable Devabrata Sharma, while talking about how the subaltern suffered the most during the movement, writes: “On the opposite side (of the primary victims) there were 855 agitationists in the martyrs’ list of AASU (All Assam Students’ Union). But, even in that list, the biggest number of those ‘martyrs’ were Rajbangshi and Nath OBCs, followed by, inter alia, many STs, SCs, other OBCs and also Muslims.”
Ideally, a massacre of this scale should have been followed by attempts at collective introspection, truth-telling, reconciliation, and rehabilitation of victims. None of that happened. The Assamese community, aided by a state that couldn’t care less, moved on. The Tiwari Commission report, submitted to the Congress-led state government one year after the massacre, has never been made public. In fact, just two years after the massacre, the Congress government in Delhi signed a memorandum of understanding—known as the “Assam Accord”—with the leaders of the Assam Movement, acquiescing to most of their demands to identify and expel the “illegal foreigners”.
A part of the accord was written into law two years later when Parliament introduced a new section into the Citizenship Act, 1955, rendering anyone who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after 24 March 1971 liable for detection and deportation. The torturous citizenship determination process that is underway in Assam today, comprising the Foreigners Tribunals, Doubtful-Voter system, and National Register of Citizens (NRC), is a linear outcome of these decisive events of the 1980s. Nellie was about outright physical violence but it heralded many more decades of structural violence against Assam’s minorities.
What is perhaps the most striking aspect of the massacre is its systematic suppression in public memory. A victim passes through a stage of expansion and then nausea, followed by ascendance and finally, of decline or erasure. The sordid tales of Nellie have arrived at the gates of erasure. The victims find themselves without any intellectual solidarity or representation. Documentation of the event, unlike in the case of other instances of mass violence, like the 1984 anti-Sikh and 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms, is limited. Save for Makiko Kimura’s 2013 book, The Nellie Massacre Of 1983: Agency Of Rioters, and Subasri Krishnan’s documentary, What The Fields Remember, there is little serious academic or visual documentation of the event or its after-effects. Compare this to how elaborately the Assam Movement has been documented and memorialised from the nationalist perspective. For a society that lacks the capability of critical reflection and continues to actively resist it, none of this is a surprise.
That is perhaps why Nellie is as much about, to borrow from Milan Kundera, a collective “struggle of memory against forgetting” as about anything else—especially for the victims and their families. Unreconciled trauma caused by mass violence can linger in a victim community’s psyche for decades, even if the perpetrators choose to forget or reconcile. In that sense, to remember, also, is to resist. For those who fell at the sharp end of the daos (machetes), spears and arrows on that late winter day around a nondescript town in Assam, Nellie is both a jarring memory and an ominous glimpse of a future where majoritarian violence remains very much in the bleak realm of possibility.
This article has been updated to replace the term 'Mikir' with 'Karbi'. The authors regret any discomfort it may have caused.
Suraj Gogoi is completing his PhD in sociology at the National University of Singapore. Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi.