The numbers roll off their tongues: 12, 7, 2… These are numbers of family members and relatives each one of them has lost in one of free India’s worst carnages at Nellie in Assam’s then undivided Nagaon district (now Morigaon) in February 1983.
Across several villages — collectively referred to as Nellie in the context of the genocide — that bore the brunt of the attack, the unofficial number added up to around 2,000, about the same that the Gujarat riots reportedly notched up 19 years later in 2002.
“I lost my two wives and 10 others,” recalls 70-year-old Md Fulkan Ali Hussain in between sips of tea at the Borpayak Hotel beside the spanking new six-lane National Highway 37 which is part of the East-West corridor, the western end of which is Porbandar — about 2,400km away — in Gujarat and the eastern end Silchar in south Assam.
“I have tried to move on since, but the nightmares return every time there is an election,” he says.
The six-hour-long spree of burning of homes and killing came on February 18, four days after the Assembly elections on February 14 that the Congress went on to win. The attack was in apparent retaliation to the villagers participating in the election that the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which was then leading the anti-foreigner movement, had boycotted.
Nellie, about 70km east of Guwahati, falls under the Jagiroad Assembly segment, one of the nine under Nawgong Lok Sabha constituency covering parts of central Assam.
Election to the seat will be held on April 24.
Fulkan Ali is not aware of the Gujarat riots, nor is he aware that the chief minister of the state under whom the riots had taken place, Narendra Modi, is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate this time around.
Others sitting with him at the “hotel”, a tea shop with five small tables made of moulded plastic, are not aware either. All the others are not as old as Fulkan Ali, but even they do not know.
But then comes along Zehirul Haque, a local leader of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union. He tells them what he has heard about the Gujarat riots, about Modi and the BJP, eliciting nods of disapproval from his small audience.
The East-West corridor cannot connect them to today’s Gujarat, more particularly its chief minister.
“We have suffered a lot already, but we have since been living in peace and want to remain this way,” says 65-year-old Md Ali Hussain. He had lost two members of his family.
Soheb Ali, 50, a trader in spices, agrees. He had lost seven of his in-laws just a week after his marriage. “Both the days were Fridays,” he remembers.
The votes here are, therefore, seemingly for the Congress and the more recent All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), which is perceived to be a party of the Muslims though stoutly denied by its leaders, to grab.
Despite the opposition to the BJP in these parts, the fact remains that party candidate Rajen Gohain is the incumbent MP and is in his third term, his cause helped by favourable conditions in some of the other Assembly segments. The AIUDF has put up Aditya Langthasa, a medical practitioner, while the Congress candidate is Jonjonali Barua. The AGP has put up Mridula Borkakoty.
The BJP may be a no-no for Nellie, but the Congress is held guilty for having betrayed the people's trust.
“We have received nothing from the government for our misfortune although we have voted for the party time and again,” says Zehirul Haque.
After the 1983 elections, the Congress has won the Jagiroad Assembly (SC) seat twice more in 2006 and 2011, the AGP won thrice and an Independent once.
Bibekananda Dalai, MLA, however, is not willing to accept the charge.
“You travelled on the new metal road, didn’t you?” he asks. “The rest of the road will also be metalled,” he said speaking of the road that takes one to the villages hit by the violence to the north of the East-West corridor. “We have given them houses and rice cards and are providing them electricity,” he says, adding that Rs 24 crore had also been sanctioned for a sluice gate, a long-standing demand, at the confluence of the Killing and Kopili rivers to enable irrigation. And then there is the voter identity card. “They cannot now be harassed in the name of being Bangladeshis when they go out for work. How could I win two successive terms if the Congress government has not done anything?” he asks.
The survivors had also received Rs 2,000 and tin to build houses and Rs 5,000 each was given to the kin of the dead.
But justice? Police registered 684 cases of which 310 were chargesheeted, but even those were subsequently dropped.
“We come across some of them (the accused) now and then,” says Ali Hussain. “We never got justice,” he laments.
Bibekananda’s father, Prasad Chandra Dalai, was also MLA for two terms. He won on a Congress ticket in 1978 when the Janata Party came to power and then in the 1983 election, the term of which lasted for only two years as the Assembly was dissolved after the Assam Accord in August 1985 and election was held in December, bringing then months-old AGP to power.
Now 90, senior Dalai also rubbishes the charge that the affected people had received nothing. “They got land that belonged to Hindus as they stopped going there. In fact, in a sense, the AASU’s movement turned counter-productive as those the movement wanted to evict only entrenched themselves there with landowners selling off their land to them,” he said, adding also that the people settled there had come from places like Rupahi, Nagaon and Morigaon in the early forties.
Prasad Chandra himself had to suffer for having contested the election. His house, not very far, was burnt down and he and his family were socially boycotted.
An inquiry commission headed by a retired IAS officer, Tribhuvan Prasad Tewary, is said to have concluded only 661 people were killed. The government had said at least 1,800 had been killed, but villagers pegged the figure at around 3,000.
The report was never made public.
The pucca-kaccha road leads to Basundhari, 3km away to the north of the East-West corridor, and then on to Muladhari before turning east along the Kopili, branching off at different points to also connect other affected villages like Matiparbat, Alisinga, Borbori.
From Muladhari the road bifurcates and travels west towards the Killing river.
The two rivers had their roles cut out, too, washing away blood and bodies dumped into them, carrying away people who jumped into them to escape the marauding mobs, who had appeared so suddenly that winter morning from nowhere and yet everywhere.
At Bhogdubi en route to Basundhari, Rezia Khatoon, 45, shows the scar left by a bullet on her left arm and tells about a similar scar on her leg; Sahed Ali, 35, shows pellet marks on his abdomen.
At Muladhari, around noon, a chorus of singsong voice wafts out of the madarsa where the children are learning the Quran Sharif.
Maulana Abdul Rahim, their teacher, has not heard of Modi either, nor has Mustafa the mason carrying out repairs to the brickwork of the madarsa.
Nellie lives in Nellie, with the memories of its dead and the scars of its living.