Ever since 1983, February brings a new wave of interest in Nellie. “Starting January, the calls begin. From Delhi, Mumbai, America!” says Nuruddin Munshi, who lives in Nellie’s Bhugduba Bill village. Over the years, the calls have not petered, but hope for justice has. “Everyone wants to know what we remember, how many siblings we lost, how we survived, if we are still angry. But, we are tired of recounting this. The moment you journalists leave, we go back to our ‘normal’ lives,” Munshi says.
This is August, and February — which will mark the 36th anniversary of the Nellie massacre — is far away. But the NRC draft has triggered renewed interest in Nellie. This was the most violent flashpoint of the Assam Agitation when, on February 18, 1983, 1,800 people (mostly Bengali Muslims) were killed in just six hours in 13 villages in and around Nellie (which itself constitutes 21 villages). The unofficial figure is 3,000. Despite 688 FIRs being filed, not one person has been convicted. The Tiwari Commission that probed the massacre submitted its report in May 1984, but it was never tabled.
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So, it isn’t surprising that when it comes to the NRC — aimed at identifying those very illegal immigrants the Assam Agitation targeted — everyone wants a Nellie story. Only, tired of repeating that story for 35 years without end, swinging between promises and despair, Nellie is hoping that the NRC will finally mark a full stop — one way or the other.
“Of course, we want the NRC,” says Abdul Karim, a resident of Borbori, among the 14 villages hit by the 1983 massacre. “Even we are against ‘foreigners’ who came after 1971 (the Bangladesh War). Maybe with the NRC, the ‘Miya Khedao Andolan’ will finally be over.” Karim and his immediate family have made it to the NRC.
In Bhugduba Bill, Abdul Hoque says that outside his village, “beard, lungi and cap” are enough to invite a slur. “If we are clean-shaven and switch to pants, shirt and ride a motorcycle, they do not give us a second look,” he says.
However, Ainul Haque, 34, belongs to this pant-shirt-bike category. And yet he, his wife, his son have not made it to the NRC draft. Noting that they are from Dhing but settled in Nellie 50 years ago, he says, “I have no problem with the NRC. It will prove who is illegal and who is not, and finally, living with names Ali and Ahmed won’t be a burden… I am sure when they re-check, they will find that the true foreigners are way less than the 40 lakh number.”
The 2011 Census put the total population of Mayong teshil, under which Nellie falls, at 2.42 lakh. Hindus constituted 63.32 per cent of its numbers and Muslims 36.29 per cent. The tehsil had a literacy rate of 67.99 per cent.
In 1989, the Nagaon district Nellie was part of was divided into two, and it became part of Morigaon district. Of 21 villages that constitute Nellie, now 17 are entirely Muslim. Hemen Das, the Morigaon Deputy Commissioner, says Muslim areas lag behind in terms of development. “Most of Nellie’s Bengali Muslims work as marginal farmers and are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, lack of education and high population,” says Das, adding that they are focusing on raising education levels.
Added to this is a steady flow of migrants from different parts of Assam into Nellie. “Land was cheaper here than in Nagaon,” explains Dulal Das, a Morigaon revenue official. Over the years, he adds, some semblance of development has come. “In 1983, there were no roads to interior villages. Also, pucca houses have replaced jhopdis, and madrasas and schools have cropped up. Even residents have switched from lungi-ganji to Punjabi suits. They have cellphones too.”
Dulal Das adds, “The days of the massacre are gone. People want to move ahead. Of course, wounds don’t heal easily but I have been here years, and it’s peaceful.” He also talks of the days in the run-up to the NRC. The administration held two awareness drives. “People were ready to cooperate.”
In 2016, in another sign of a change, the Jagiroad constituency under which Nellie falls got its first BJP MLA, Pijush Hazarika. “Till then, it was either the AGP or Congress. The Modi wave changed Assam. Of course, Muslim villages still support the Congress, but many switched to the BJP before 2016,” says Suleiman Qasmi. A BJP worker and a known name in Nellie, he says he too left the Congress, because “the Congress duped me”. “For long, the Congress said they will start the NRC process but did not. We are thankful that the BJP sarkar has delivered. With it, the people who came into India after 1971 have to get out, whether Muslims or Hindus.”
MLA Hazarika, who also moved to the BJP from the Congress, says, “Nellie is not the same volatile place as it was in 1983. And whether Nellie, whether any other part of Assam, the demand stands: foreigners cannot stay.”
During the 2016 campaign, the MLA adds, he was welcomed wherever he went. “People wanted change, and Narendra Modi’s popularity worked.”
About the NRC, he only has reservations about the 1971 cut-off date. “Why not 1948, like it is for rest of India? This 1971 date is a historical error,” he says, adding that he does not have “any issue with anyone, including indigenous Assamese Muslims, who came to India before 1948”.
On July 30, when the NRC draft was released, the Nagarik Seva Kendras (NSKs) in Nellie witnessed only a slow trickle of people. “We had about 150 people come in over two days,” says Troilokyo Solai, who is the Local Registrar of Citizen Registration at an NSK.
However, the confusion, no different from the kind rippling through most of Assam right now, clouds many minds in Nellie too. “My name is there but my wife’s and children’s are not. If I am Indian, how are my kids foreigners?” asks 45-year-old Abul Hussain in Muslim-dominated Barpayak No.1.
Of the 16 members in 51-year-old Ajgar Ali’s family, only three are on the list: his granddaughter, and his two sons. Iddich Ali and Manura Khatun’s entire family is missing. Adds Hussain, “Sometimes I feel it’s a harassment process directed only at Muslims.”
But on the other side of the highway, in a Hindu Bengali refugee village called No. 2 Nellie Bageecha, the stories are the same. They are among the original residents of East Bengal settled here following Partition. According to an official of the Nellie gram panchayat who did not wish to be named, almost 70 per cent of the rehabilitated village has been left out of the NRC.
That includes Debashish Chakravarty, a 26-year-old electrician, his sister and his parents; the four had made it to the first draft. “We come from Sylhet but the Indian government helped us come here,” points out Chakravarty. Bijoy Dutta, a 55-year-old mechanic, whose extended family of three brothers and their 20 children haven’t found a place in the NRC, but his wife has, says, “I gave my father’s refugee card from 1952, a ration card from 1953, as well as my PAN Card and voter ID. I don’t have any other papers.”
Even Abdul Karim of Borbori fears his hope of the NRC settling the question marks over them could be wishful thinking. Next to him stands Mohammed Ali Hussain, who won a Foreigners’ Tribunal case against him, that stretched from 2008 to 2015, and now finds himself out of the NRC draft. “He has a land document dating back to colonial times (1931). He has spent all his savings on this case, he has had to prove himself three times. The last judgement of 2015 clearly states he is an Indian citizen by birth. And yet he has been asked to ‘quit India’,” says Karim.
At Barpayak No. 1, Ashmina Begum lives in perpetual fear of being picked up by police. Her parents Ayub Ali and Rahima Khatun have been in different detention camps for three years now. “They put a ‘Bangladeshi case’ on us. We have had to sell most of our land and our vegetable shop to pay the lawyer,” she says. For a while, she says, her sister and she would sleep in friends’ houses every day. Now Ashmina has stopped going to see her parents as she fears she will be picked up too.
About the NRC, the 29-year-old says, “I know we have the documents.” But she hasn’t bothered to check if her name is on the draft. “Apparently my name is on it. But it doesn’t make a difference. I just want to find home now.”