Remembering the Nellie Massacre of 18 February 1983

By Nilim Dutta,

One of the worst genocides of a religious minority in independent India occurred on 18 February 1983 in villages around ‘Nellie’ in the then Morigaon Subdivision of Nagaon District of Assam. While the immediate cause for the massacre is sought to explained as due to the hostility between the villagers of immigrant origin, who were largely Muslim, and who defied the boycott of the General Election in 1983 called for by the numerically dominant Assamese, predominantly Hindu, it has to be understood within the larger context of an atmosphere of immense political turmoil in Assam unleashed by the Assam Agitation ostensibly to ‘evict’ illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from Assam that began in 1979. Those who had died in the pogrom unleashed against the impoverished Muslim villagers of Nellie has always been sought to be passed off as illegal ‘Bangladeshi’ settlers in the dominant discourse, as if that is anymore defensible if it was even true. The Wikipedia Entry on Nellie Massacre says, “Most of the victims were Muslims originally from Bangladesh.”

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Archival photo of Nellie Massacre victims

It is 31 years to the day today since the genocide in Nellie was committed. Sadly, however, not even a single perpetrator was prosecuted and convicted for this monstrous atrocity. Even worse, that Nellie had ever happened is being insidiously sought to be erased from our collective memories. It is in order to put on record some of the critical truths about Nellie that I am beginning this series of Essays: To revive inconvenient histories, to prevent truth from being erased, to rekindle the quest for justice.

I will begin by putting in public domain what is on record in official documents and reports on investigation into the tragedy. This is by no means exhaustive or even accurate, but at least it offers us a beginning, from where truth will have to be painfully dug up and corroborated to reconstruct what actually happened and how the genocide unfolded.

One of the most talked about document regarding the Nellie Massacre of 18 February 1983 in Assam is the ‘Tewary Commission Report,” which the Assam Government has refused to make public all these years. I shall put on record facts about the Tewary Commission Report as well as facts contained in the report as we have accessed the same.

What is popularly referred to, as the Tewary Commission, is actually “The Commission of Enquiry on Assam Disturbances, 1983.”

The Commission of Enquiry on Assam Disturbances, 1983 was appointed by the Government of Assam under Section 3 of the Commission of Enquiry Act, 1952 through Notification No. PLA/658/83/17 dated 14 July 1983.

The Terms of Reference of the Commission were as follows:

To look into the circumstances leading to the disturbances which took place in the State of Assam during January to April 1983.

To examine the measures taken by the concerned authorities to anticipate, prevent and deal with these disturbances and assess adequacy thereof and indicate whether there were any deficiency or failure on the part of any authority or individual.

To suggest measures to prevent recurrence of such incidents in future and make such other recommendations as the Commission may deem fit.

The Commission was expected to submit its Report within six months.

The following are the members who were appointed to the Commission:

Shri Tribhuvan Prasad Tewary (IAS) – Chairman

Shri S. Manoharan (IAS) – Secretary

Shri C.K. Verma (IAS, Retired) – Officer on Special Duty

Shri R.C. Jain (IAS, Retired) – Officer on Special Duty.

The State Memorandum was filed before the Commission on 15 January 1984. Before that, a six months extension to the Commission was given on 9 January 1984.

Recording of evidence commenced on 9 February 1984 and a total of 257 witnesses were examined, of which 106 were officials and 151 were non-official.

The Report recorded that:

Altogether 3,526 incidents were recorded in the period between January to April 1983 if “clubbing together the like incidents which took place in a given area and counting them as one incident.”

Altogether 8,019 incidents were recorded in the period between January to April 1983 if “treating the various cases resulting in complaints as separate incidents.”

The Report has recorded that a total of 2072 persons were killed in group clashes between January to April in the eight districts of Assam, namely Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh, Nagaon, Sibsagar and Karbi Anglong.

Although it was reported in March 1983 that 1850 persons were killed during that period, by the time the Commission submitted its Report in May 1984, the figure went up to 2071 with the persons listed earlier as missing been confirmed dead or killed. (In a submission by the Assam Police, included in the Report as Appendix F (page 426) the total number of persons killed in that period is reported as 3023)

During the same period, 235 persons were killed in police firing.

The Report recorded that a total number of 225,951 persons were rendered homeless and 248,292 persons took shelter in relief camps.

There were 1031 incidents relating to bridge and culverts.

There were 22 incidents of burning Railway property.

There were 85 incidents of tempering with Railway tracks.

22,436 private houses were burnt down.

445 government buildings were burnt down.

The Report of The Commission of Enquiry on Assam Disturbances, 1983 was submitted on May 1984. The Report is 548 pages and contains 17 Chapters.

The findings on the Nellie Massacre, which occurred on 18 February 1984, is included in Chapter 13 of the Report, from pages 253-312.

The key officials in Nagaon District and Marigaon Subdivision when the Nellie Massacre was committed were:

Shri S.K. Tewari – Deputy Commissioner, Nagaon

Shri Daulat Singh – Superintendent of Police, Nagaon

Shri P.C. Sharma, Deputy Inspector General of Police (Border), was in charge of the Districts of Nagaon and Karbi Anglong during the period of election.

Shri K.D. Tripathy – SDO (Civil), Morigaon

Shri Pramode Chetia – SDPO, Morigaon

Shri M.N.A. Kabir – Commandant, 5 Assam Police Battalion and Officer-in-Charge of Law & Order for Morigaon Subdivision during the period of election.

Shri Bhadra Kanta Chetia – Officer-in-Charge, Jagiroad Police Station

Chapter 13 of the Report, which dwells extensively on the incidents leading up to Nellie, also mentions that 1046 preventive arrests were made, 22 were detained under National Security Act. Also, all private arms license were suspended and sale of ammunition was prohibited.

Chapter 13 of the Tewary Commission Report, which puts on record the findings of the investigation of the Nellie Massacre, has two galling omissions:

First, while it meticulously mentions many incidents of group clashes and riots in the Morigaon Subdivision where allegedly Assamese Hindu villagers were attacked by mobs of Muslim (and even Bengali Hindu) villagers, it inexplicably failed to put on record many instances of attacks on Muslim villagers besides the Nellie Massacre.

For instance, on the morning of 16 February 1983, that is two days before the Nellie Massacre, 109 Muslim villagers taking shelter in the school were killed by attacking mobs of Assamese Hindu villagers in the Nagabandha village in Marigaon Subdivision. When the police did finally arrive, it opened fire on the fleeing Muslim villagers rather than the ones who had attacked them. This has been recounted to me in great details by Prof. Manirul Hussain, Head of the Departments of Political Science and Sociology, Gauhati University recently. Surprisingly, Chapter 13 of The Tewary Commission Report doesn’t even have a mention of the incident. Even though in the figures submitted by the Assam Police, attached as Appendix F in page 426, it is reported that a total of 1811 deaths had occurred in the Nagaon district alone, it has not been mentioned whether the deaths in Nagabandha are included in this tally.

Second, even though the Report itself records a series of incidents, which preceded the Nellie Massacre and unfolded over a week, making it abundantly clear even to a lay person that something like the Nellie Massacre was a distinct probability, the Commission failed to hold anyone accountable for this grave lapse resulting in such a tragedy.

Moniruddin, a survivor from Nellie, talking to TCN in 2009, broke down as he recounted the horror. (TCN File photo)

The Report records:

“The first incident of group clash in Nagaon District took place on 12.02.1983 when people from Kopahjuri belonging to Assamese Hindu community went to Gagalmari under Marigaon Police Station to burn a bridge. Local immigrant Muslims obstructed them in the process and group clash took place with the result one Assamese Hindu sustained injuries. The rumour about the injured Assamese Hindu spread to neighbouring Assamese Hindu villages. On 12/13 February night thousands of Assamese Hindus from Bhuragaon under Lahirghat Police Station attacked Sarabari Nigam and set fire to the houses belonging to the Muslim community. It was followed by group clashes between the Hindus and Muslims with the result that 5 Hindus and 4 Muslims died in the group clash. At about 17:00 hours Morigaon Police Station received information of the group clash at Gagalmari. Circle Inspector, Marigaon along with 2 sections of Haryana Armed Police Battalion left for Gagalmari.”

This was almost a week before the Nellie Massacre took place. And many more such ‘group clashes,’ between the Assamese Hindus and Muslims of immigrant origin occurred over the week, including the Nagabandha Massacre where 109 Muslim villagers were killed. Naturally, the question that arises is, how could the District administration and the Law & Order enforcement machinery not anticipate the Nellie Massacre?

Part of the answer lies in the curious response of the Police Officials to a specific intelligence input warning of the impending massacre which they chose to ignore. This is recorded in some details in the Report and leaves open strong grounds for suspicion that there was definite collusion of mid ranking officials in allowing the Nellie Massacre to happen.

The Report further records:

“As a result of the communal clash in Nellie and its adjoining villages like Muladhari, Basundhari, Matiparbat, Alisinga, Borbori etc, 661 Muslim people were killed out of which 143 dead bodies could be identified, remaining 518 could not be identified. In addition to these, 169 persons sustained injuries and 22 persons were reported to be missing. All together 590 houses were burnt and 684 cases were registered and investigations are proceeding. Considering the seriousness of the cases, the CID took up the investigation of the important cases.”

Whereas The Tewary Commission put the death toll of the Nellie Massacre at just 661, efforts of researchers like Diganta Sarma has already put in public domain the names of at least 1819 Muslim villagers. This again points to the accuracy of the investigation carried out by the Commission and leaves one suspicious as to whether this was more an exercise in covering up the scale of the gruesome massacre.

About two and a half years after the Nellie Massacre, on 15 August 1985, The Assam Accord was signed which paved the way for those in the forefront of the anti-Bangladeshi agitation to evolve into a political party, the Assam Gana Parishad, and win the subsequent elections in Assam, riding on popular ‘majoritarian’ aspirations. Sometime thereafter, all the 684 cases that were registered with regard to the Nellie Massacre were given a quiet burial. Only 310 of the 684 cases that were registered were actually Chargesheeted. But the ‘prosecution,’ that is the State of Assam, ‘dropped’ even those cases, completely illegally. Justice succumbed to political designs, once again.

All that the survivors were left with is the horror, and a pittance in terms of compensation, Rs. 5,000.00 to the next of kin of the deceased and Rs. 2,000.00 to those who were injured.

(Nilim Dutta is Executive Director, Research & Operations, Strategic Research & Analysis Organisation, India.)


TCN Special: Nellie 1983