The Bangla Conundrum
Safety of Numbers
The Muslims of
Nellie, scene of the massacre of 1983, have learnt essential lessons from
their tortured past
By Nitin A.
movement in Assam in the Eighties attracted the world’s attention
to the issue of large-scale population migration from Bangladesh for the
first time. But this migration was nothing new. In the early 20th century
hordes of people from what was then East Bengal in undivided India migrated
to the sparsely populated yet fertile Brahmaputra Valley.
Connect: A gathering of Muslims in Nellie
Photos S. Mahanta
Muslims are always on alert. By the time the Tehelka team reached
the interiors, word had already got to Nuruddin. Afraid that something
was wrong, he waited near the mosque, instead of his house, with
came in such large numbers that CS Mullan, an ics officer and the then
census commissioner, observed in 1931: “Probably the most important
event in the province (Assam) during the last 25 years — an event,
moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of
Assam and… the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation
— has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali militants,
mostly Muslims, from the districts of Eastern Bengal in general and Mymensingh
in particular. It is sad but by no means improbable that in another 30
years Sibsagar district will be the only part of Assam in which an Assamese
will find himself at home.”
prophecy did not come true as early as he predicted but at the turn of
the century, the ground reality in most parts of Assam resembles what
the ics officer had foreseen more than 70 years ago.
the Assamese indeed finds himself outnumbered in at least nine districts;
most of the state’s agriculture production and its vegetables are
in the hands of the migrants. The migrant also makes up the largest chunk
of labour force engaged in construction activities; over 80 percent of
the state’s cycle-rickshaws are pedalled by the migrants. The truth
is today’s Assam cannot do without this hardworking section of the
flip side is that even politicians cannot do without them. The ruling
Congress goes out of its way to appease the migrants and therefore wants
to believe in the myth, perpetuated by its own propaganda machine, that
there is no influx from Bangladesh. Sadly, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP),
midwifed by the once powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU), also did
not do much to deport illegal migrants during its two stints in power.
the Chiring Chapori Yuva Manch started in Dibrugarh is a manifestation
of the latent feeling among the indigenous Assamese. For a while when
the Yuva Manch launched its ‘boycott illegal migrants’ campaign
in early May it seemed as if Assam was once again heading towards a repeat
of the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983. In reality, more than 20 years
after that incident which saw almost 3,000-odd people butchered one frenzied
morning, the tide has turned. Muslims are no longer a minority. They are
also politically savvy. Most of their leaders realise that their safety
lies in numbers.
change is apparent in Nellie. In 1983, the Muslims were outnumbered by
the Tiwa tribals; today the situation has completely reversed. Says Mojen
Konwar of Nellie, who was witness to the massacre, “What happened
then cannot happen again because the minority has become a majority. There
are bound to be problems in the coming years.” The wizened old man,
however, hastens to add that the killing of the Muslims in 1983 was the
handiwork of ‘outsiders’. Narayan Radu Kakati, chairman of
the Tiwa Autonomous Council, meant to offer constitutional protection
to the tribals, concurs: “Our people had no clue to the killings.
It just happened as part of a larger conspiracy.”
NORTHEAST ON THE BOIL
than two decades after the carnage, the tide has turned. Muslim
migrants are no longer a minority. They are also politically savvy
Razor’s Edge: The tribal finds himself lonely today
Muslims, however, are not interested in knowing who the killers were.
All they know is that the best protection they can have in the areas is
to become a majority. The large-scale relocation of Muslim peasants from
neighbouring Morigaon and Nagaon districts has fulfilled that plan. Admits
Mohammed Nuruddin Munshi, the all-powerful leader of the community in
the area: “We now number about 12,000-14,000 as against barely 3,000-odd
in 1983.” Mohammad Moinuddin, a 70-year-old father of 10 children,
says he shifted from nearby Jagiroad to the Nellie area and bought several
bighas of land to support his family. “With so many mouths to feed,
I needed to get more land and the land was available aplenty here,”
he says. Most of the land earlier belonged to the Tiwas who, for lack
of enterprise, are simply selling it for short-term gains.
root of the problem is in fact the alienation of tribals from the land.
The Tiwas, hopelessly outnumbered now, say their land is being gradually
bought over by the Muslims. “When people get Rs 30,000-40,000 per
bigha, they simply sell their land,” says Suruj Konwar, a veterinary
department employee. As a result, today Nellie’s demography has
most people have not forgotten the 1983 massacre. For Nuruddin’s
elder brother Mohammed Tamiruddin, the memory of February 18 is as painful
and vivid as if it happened yesterday. “Between 8am and 3pm that
day, a mad frenzy had gripped the attackers. They came, armed with daos
(matchet), country guns and lathis and surrounded us. First they started
burning our hutments. We thought our lives at least would be spared but
after a while the attackers started killing systematically. In our village
(Basundhari) we lost 1,819 people that day. I and my brother Nuruddin
were hiding in a pond. When the attackers started coming closer, we ran
to the nearby railway bridge and hid there till the CRPF came to our rescue.
Between us, we lost 26 family members,” Tamiruddin says, his eyes
moistening at the painful memories.
After the killings, Nuruddin, then a 20-year-old having just completed
his schooling in Arabic, began taking active interest in politics. Today
he is the member of the Anchalik Parishad and a leader of the community.
the harrowing experience he had to go through, he holds no grudges. “We
have very cordial relations with our Hindu brothers here. There is no
tension. In fact, 30 percent of our children study at a school located
in a Hindu majority area,” he emphasises.
may not be any tension but the residents are always alert. As the Tehelka
team ventured into the interiors, leaving the NH37 passing through Nellie,
word reached Nuruddin, who was some 10 km inside, that strangers were
coming to meet him, courtesy the ubiquitous mobile phone. Someone had
called up Nuruddin to inform about the strangers’ arrival. Afraid
that something was wrong, Nuruddin waited for us near the mosque in the
village instead of his house. Many others were around him as we reached
the village square. The safety in numbers theory was very apparent.
we talked, the tension gradually faded but it was clear that no newcomer
could now enter the Muslim villages of Nellie without being noticed.
Nuruddin and his fellow men have learnt from the 1983 experience. None
of them want to be at the receiving end. Indeed, most people in Assam
now know that the outcome of a Nellie repeat would be much different.
That’s the ground reality today.