BOOK REVIEW: Assam`s ethnic mosaic seen through a revisit of Nellie Massacre


By Pradip Phanjoubam

Makiko Kimura`s recently released The Nellie Massacre of 1983, Agency of Rioter, (Sage 2013,Rs. 695) is an important addition to the increasing number of studies on important issues of the Northeast brought out of major publishers in recent times. This thin volume is a continuance of the author`s research work on the issue of agency of rioters as a Ph.D student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. As the title of the book suggests, the focus of the study is the Nellie incident in 1983 in which an estimated more than 2000 Muslim Bengali settlers of Bangladeshi origin, living in a cluster of villages in the Nellie area in Assam`s Nowgong district, about 70km from the capital Guwahati, were killed in a single day of organised and systematic attacks by their neighbouring villages, the majority of whom belonged to the Tiwa or Lalung tribe. Some other local communities, including the caste Hindu Assamese also participated, Kimura’s study points out.

The book however is not solely a documentary account of what happened but also an attempt to understand the psychology what went into the carnage which shook the conscience of the entire nation 30 years ago. This approach is expected and understandable, for in the 30 years after the incident much, have already been written on the subject, including by two commissions of inquiries, an official one, headed by an IAS officer T.P.Tewary, whose report was rejected by the then ‘anti foreigners’ agitators who too instituted their own enquiry through an organisation called the Asom Rajyik Freedom Fighters Association, headed by a retired chief justice of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh, T.U. Mehta. In terms of documentary details then, there would have been little left to be said. The author indeed acknowledges this and announces at the very beginning that her pursuit is to establish the extent of agency the perpetrators of the carnage exercised.

This question becomes important considering the backdrop against which the Nellie massacre happened. The year 1983 was the height of the anti-foreigners movement in Assam which began towards the end of 1979. This movement mass campaign to have illegal Bangladesh nationals settled in Assam, disenfranchised and deported from the state, we know now lasted six years and concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord between he agitators and the Government of India. In the midst of this agitation, in January of the year, the Congress-led Government of India, announced election to the 126-member Assam Legislative Assembly and the 12 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. The leader of the agitation, the All Assam Students Union, AASU, and the All Assam Gana Sangam Parishad, AAGSP, decided to boycott the election, unless the electoral roll was first revised as per their demand, and launched a widely supported agitation to press for their demand.

Not long after, on January 6, the Assam government arrested the movement leaders, including Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan, president and general secretary respectively of the AASU, and went ahead with the election with polling in three phases, February 14, 17 and 20. The Nellie massacre happened immediately in its wake, on February 18, with just one phase of the polling left to be concluded.

Kimura reminds the readers not to dissociate the gathering storm of street agitation and violence in opposition on the eve of the election which had engulf the Brahmaputra valley, from the Nellie carnage, but  also urges them not to dismiss any independent agency of the rioters in the gruesome bloodletting.

The days preceding the massacre were marked by extreme tensions, with the agitators not just organising street agitations but also trying to coerce candidates either not to file nominations or if they have already done so, to withdraw them. According to the Tewari Commission, Kimura quotes, during the disturbances, there were 545 attacks on roads and bridges; 140 kidnappings; 193 attacks on election staff and candidates, their relatives, or political workers; 274 bomb explosions or recoveries or explosives; and so on… The movement leaders also managed to have the two Lok Dal factions, namely, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Party, boycott the election leaving only the Congress, the six-party Left Democratic Alliance and a local party among indigenous tribal groups, the Plains Tribal Council of Assam, PTCA, to contest the election. Under the circumstance, there were only 630 candidates who filed nomination compared to 1049 in the 1978 Assembly election.

The book sketches a convincing picture leaving readers no doubt as to how much the guilt for the carnage should be shared between the movement leaders of the anti-foreigner movement and the direct perpetrators of the crime in the Nellie area. Her verdict does not absolve either. To the author’s horror, the government did, and no responsibility was ever to be fixed on anyone or any organisation for the massacre and everybody in the end was allowed to go scot free.

The book’s interest is also in its scan of the history of cross border immigration in Assam, undoubtedly a very vexed issue and one which arguably is at the root of many of the state’s most endemic problems. In doing this, the book also brings out quite intriguingly, the various complexions, shades and nuances of the frictions of demography in this multi ethnic state. Of particular interest is the peculiar nature of the relationship between the two major linguistic groups in the state, the Assamese and the Bengali.

While cross border migration would naturally have been a phenomenon of much deeper antiquity, Kimura traces British colonial policy behind the more recent and much larger and systematic Bengali immigration to Assam. The colonial administrators, after Assam became British territory following the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1926, needed populations which have been exposed to Western education and therefore familiar with their administrative mechanisms to run the local government, and the Bengali middle class, largely Hindus, from the Sylhet, Dhaka and Mymensingh districts of the then undivided Bengal, were their natural choice. In later years, when tea plantations began flourishing and expanding, the administration also brought in tribes from Orissa and Bihar as tea labourers.

Still later on, during the 1930s, the colonial administrators were to encourage large scale immigration of Muslim peasants from rural Bengal to reclaim land in Assam for agriculture, and this was to reach a peak during the WWII years, with the Government of India, as part of the British war effort, introduced the policy of “Grow More Food”. So much was the influx of population that this programme was criticised by the Congress, a criticism which echoed in the then Viceroy’s statement, during a visit to Assam, as amounting to “grow more Muslim”, the author notes. In the mid 1930s, to prevent friction between the Muslim immigrants and resident Hindus, a line system had been introduced to demarcate a point beyond which Muslim immigrants were not permitted to settle. This however had other fallouts, in particular of making hard boundaries between populations on religious lines.

These colonial immigration policies set the stage for not only the birth of modern Assamese linguistic nationalism, but also the multi-faceted lines of conflict which would plague the Assamese society in the modern times. Indeed, the author points out how it has been said Assamese nationalism is a reaction to Bengali cultural and linguistic hegemony in the state. In its nascent stages, the target of this nationalism was the middle class Bengali Hindus, who because of their dominance in the administration as well as earlier exposure to modern ways, had come to exercise a cultural hegemony in Assam.

In the run up to the Partition of India, as well as in its aftermaths, some major shifts in the demographic balance took place in Assam. First, the Bengali dominated populous district of Sylhet was separated from Assam and awarded to Pakistan after a referendum in which Muslims edged out Hindus by a narrow margin. With Sylhet gone, Assamese-speaking population came to be in a clear majority in Assam. Second, the Partition, resulted in refugee movements across the border. The 1951 census revealed that there were 275,455 Bengali Hindus who crossed the border into India, mostly from Sylhet, the author notes. Third, this was the beginning of the politics of a new categorisation of immigrants into foreigners and refugees, since two nations had been created of what was once a single national entity

Curiously, probably determined by survival needs, Muslim Bengali peasants who settled in Assam were willing to identify themselves as Assamese, but not the Bengali Hindus mostly belonging to the educated middle class. They retained their separate Bengali linguistic identity, thereby setting the stage for confrontation with the Assamese. Indeed, in the 1960s, it was these two linguistic communities which came to be at loggerheads. When the Assam Official Language Bill was passed in the Assam Assembly on October 24, 1960, it was the Bengali population, together with other tribal communities of the state, which put up a strong opposition. Violence on the language issue in Silchar town in the Bengali dominated Cachar district even resulted in the death of eight agitators on May 19, 1961. The bill had ultimately to be amended to accommodate the demands of the Bengalis of Assam. The Language bill also eventually led to the bifurcation of Assam and the creation of new tribal states out of it.

When the anti-foreigner movement broke out towards the end of the 1970s, this linguistic nationalism friction remained very much as a strong undercurrent, but because the Partition had happened, there was a shift in the legal facade of this resentment against outsiders, and it came to be sublimated as a fight against the presence of illegal presence of foreigners in the state. The focus of the movement therefore came to slowly but surely fall on Muslim Bengali immigrants, at least on the surface.

Are the dynamics of this clash of linguistic nationalism between the Assamese and Bengalis, shared by the tribal communities of Assam? Can the Nellie massacre incident be treated as purely an extension of this friction or did the Tiwa and other perpetrators of the massacre have other reasons for their act? These are some of the interesting questions Kimura poses and probes further. She answers these questions through extensive interviews she conducts with the communities responsible for the attacks as well as their victims.

The broad picture that emerges is, there were some shared concerns between the anti-foreigners movement spearheaded by AASU and AGSP, and the tribal attackers, but the latter had independent reasons too. For the latter, it was not so much a linguistic national tussle, and more to do with land alienation. They saw the immigrant settlers as aggressive land encroachers, kidnappers of girls, petty thieves etc. These attackers also believed that the settlers were merely waiting for their time to attack and usurp them altogether, therefore believed what they did was a pre-emptive strike. They also saw the immigrants as ‘Miyas’, almost an independent ethnic category signifying land hungry Muslim peasants from Mymensingh, and not to be absolutely equated with what the mainstream Assamese understood a Bengali or foreigner to be. The author thereby cautions against the tendency amongst journalists and analysts to use the broad brush and miss these nuances in the complex ethnic situation in Assam.

The book however suffers from some serious limitations too. The author for instance is vague, and often seems unsure, about the categories of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. She again makes the mistake of presuming the entire Northeast was Assam once, even clubbing Meghalaya with Manipur and Tripura, as states created out of Assam in 1972. While they became full-fledged states in the same year, only Meghalaya came into existence out of the linguistic agitation in Assam. The other two states were previously princely states and thereby never part of Assam, and prior to 1972, were already Union territories.

These mistakes are understandable confusion of a foreigner writing on the complex ethnic mosaic of the Northeast region, but not excusable in an academic work. The writer also has the habit of repeating adjectives and qualifying paragraphs far too often. As for instance, at practically every mention of Tiwa, there would be an explanatory line of who the Tiwas were, or at every mention of Nellie, there would also be a description of the topography and demography of the place.


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