INFORMATION RECEIVED that last night, about one thousand Assamese people of surrounding villages of Nellie armed with deadly weapons assembled at Nellie by beating of drums. Minority people are in panic and apprehending attack at any moment. Submission for immediate action to maintain peace.” This vital wireless message warning of impending calamity went ignored. In a six-hour attack on February 18, 1983, armed mobs attacked and killed as many as 1,800 Muslims (unofficial claims: 3,300) across 14 villages in Assam’s central district of Nagaon, on the pretext that they were illegal migrants from Bangladesh. One of the worst cases of religious-ethnic cleansing in independent India, the “Nellie massacre” remains unpunished to this day. Now, TEHELKA has accessed a report an inquiry commission submitted a quarter century ago but was buried away. It lays bare the shocking way in which the official machinery ignored the warnings and allowed the gruesome killings to happen.
Asked by the state government to inquire into the lapses that let the tragedy occur, a retired IAS officer, Tribhuvan Prasad Tewary, wrote the 600-page report in 1984. The report says that on February 15, three days before the massacre, some members of the public approached police officer Jahiruddin Ahmed, in-charge of Nagaon Police Station, and informed him that nearly 1,000 indigenous Assamese had “assembled with deadly weapons” at Nellie since the night before and were “beating drums”. The report says Ahmed sent a wireless message to the Commandant of an Assam Police battalion stationed at Morigaon some 70 kms from Nellie, to a police officer in that town, and to another police officer at a nearby police station. Intriguingly, Ahmed did not inform Nagaon’s Superintendent of Police (SP). (Nellie was then part of Nagaon district but is now in Morigaon district. The two districts are adjacent). Ahmed told the Commission he did not inform the Nagaon SP because the latter was not available at the time. The Commission called this “specious”. Ahmed subsequently withdrew it.
The responses of other officials were also perplexing. The Commandant of the Assam Police battalion, MNA Kabir, told the Commission he hadn’t seen Ahmed’s wireless message until after the tragedy because his wife had received it. Pramode Chetia, a police officer with the Morigaon police station, said the message had been left on his table. Yet another police officer, Bhadra Kanta Chetia, of the nearby Jagiroad police station, said the missive had been placed in his “put-up basket”, the bureaucrat’s name for the tray of pending files. Said the Tewary Commission report: “Had these three officers been careful about their dak [correspondence] there would, perhaps, have been some effective preventive action at Nellie.”
Even higher-ups in the state police knew that the locals apprehended trouble. On February 15, local Hindus had written to Nagaon’s deputy SP, PC Bordoloi, saying that they feared Muslims might attack them. The same day, this application was brought to the notice of KPS Gill, who was inspector-general of Assam at the time. (Years later, Gill earned fame as the police chief who put down terrorism in Punjab). Gill ordered police officer Bhadra Kanta Chetia of Jagiroad to organise patrolling and form peace committees.
Death count: 1,800 (official) 3,300 (unofficial)
Villages affected: 14
Cases filed: 668
Chargesheets submitted: 310
Compensation for survivors: Rs 2,000 and tin to build a house
Compensation for kin of dead: Rs 5,000
Chetia visited the village of Borbori — one of the 14 villages where Muslims were killed — on February 17, a day before the massacre. At Borbori, locals had pleaded with Chetia for armed posts but he had refused saying he hadn’t enough men. However, Chetia told the Tewary Commission that dozens of uniformed men of the CRPF and Assam Police had gone with him to Borbori.
Chetia was informed of the Nellie killings soon after they began on the morning of February 18. But he didn’t rush to ground zero because, as he told the Commission, he didn’t know the way to those villages. Instead, he sent two junior officers with about 70 CRPF men. When Chetia did set out for Nellie the next day, he got involved in a high drama at a local river, rescuing about 200 people from drowning. “[The rescue was] a miraculous task indeed,” the Tewary Commission report says. “But in the process, he forgot his primary responsibility towards the villages where [a] great tragedy was being enacted.”
Painstaking though the Commission’s report is, it underestimates the slaughter, saying that only 661 Muslims were killed (of which 143 dead bodies were identified). The Assam Government had, however, acknowledged that at least 1,800 had been killed. Villagers maintain that at least 3,300 were killed.
In fact, the Tewary Commission’s voluminous report tries to somehow explain away the violence by speaking of how “the issue of [Bangladeshi] foreigners and language have been agitating the minds of the people for the last several decades, exploding into violent incidents on several occasions”.
Activist Harsh Mander, who quit the IAS to protest the 2002 Gujarat riots, visited Nellie last November in his capacity as a Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court on the issue of Right to Food. “The survivors persisted in their resolve that they wanted to be heard,” he wrote after meeting them. “It was impossible for me to refuse them.”
Unfortunately, successive state governments have refused to publish the Tewary Commission report. In 2004, the state’s Home Ministry stopped Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura from reading her paper on the Nellie massacre at a seminar in Guwahati. No reason was given for denying her permission to attend the seminar.
These, survivors say, are naked attempts to deny them justice and keep the tragedy forgotten.