Nellie massacre: 36 years on, a reflection on why victims of tragedy have been erased from public memory

  • An instance of large-scale violence in Assam was the Nellie massacre.

  • Close to 2,000 Muslims were killed in Nellie in a matter of hours.

  • One needs to ask, what is the politics of erasure of Nellie?

  • The deafening silence from intellectuals is the product of a collective attempt to look away.

Much of the violence in Assam over the years has been tied to the questions of identity, sovereignty and social distinction. An instance of large-scale violence in the state was the Nellie massacre that took place on 18 February, 1983.

The years leading up to the incident were very tense, as the region was gripped by an anti-foreigner movement popularly known as the Assam movement. The objective of the movement was to “detect and deport” foreigners living illegally in the state. The leaders of the movement argued that this was to secure the rights of the “indigenous population” of the state, which was projected to be in danger due to alleged land-grabbing by “migrants.” It was also claimed that migrants were becoming a large vote bank. Slowly, this outlook took a chauvinistic turn, and the Muslim community and anyone with ancestry in East Bengal were seen with suspicion. These communities were projected as common enemies. The Nellie massacre was a product of such communal and xenophobic politics.

On that fateful day, close to 2,000 Muslims were killed in Nellie in a matter of hours with machetes and country-made guns. Unofficial figures put the number of victims to be close to about 3,000. It is not just the numbers that should worry us, but the point about what made such a heinous crime possible. The massacre will remain as one of the darkest days for Assam, a day which should remind us of the tales of the horrors of violence. However, the Nellie massacre has been removed from our public memory, and it should worry us all.

 Nellie massacre: 36 years on, a reflection on why victims of tragedy have been erased from public memory

File image of Assam police. Reuters

Remembering affects our consciousness in many ways and forgetting signals a denial of such a sordid event. The latter devalues the victim and dehumanises suffering. Have we forgotten about Nellie? Are the victims’ deaths any less meaningful than those whom the state identifies as martyrs of the Assam movement? Why are the martyrs as identified by the state turned into heroes and the victims of Nellie erased from public memory?

Remembering Nellie will make us better human beings. We can learn a great deal from not only the event, but also its survivors. Makiko Kimura, who has written about the Nellie massacre, expresses surprise on how the victims and perpetrators went on to live side by side. We can remember the incident by building an archive of the events of that fateful day. We can also publicly commemorate the victims and the event itself. It can go a long way in healing the pain of the victims.

We can also build our collective memory by forming a repository of the testimonies of the victims and perpetrators. The former group constitutes the ones who have been subjected to violence, and are also witnesses to that violence. Through their testimonies, we can create scope for remembering the Nellie massacre. Survivors are intellectuals, notes François Laruelle, and their testimonies are the most “direct representative democracy of the victims.”

Laruelle attempts to create a theory of the victim and in doing so, he makes a very powerful claim. He argues that philosophy has been more interested in “force, power and domination.” Not only do our public emotions and public intellectuals move in these three directions, but they also become fixated on these overarching categories, at the cost of the victim.

To add to them, we have a strong tendency to celebrate our heroes, not once, but twice — once at the stage of victory and later, as a reminder that the victory was indeed performed by someone or a group. In this process, there is a momentary amnesia as far as the victim is concerned. But that momentary forgetfulness is erased in the form of public offending of the criminal. There was an abundance of such social media lynching during the NRC process. It is an effacement of the victims, whereby they undergo “double death”. In essence, we celebrate our heroes twice and also make victims suffer a double death.

There is a certain direction which the victim takes before being dissolved into the mundane world. It is a curve which is inevitable for a victim. Laruelle notes four stages of this process. First, there is a stage of expansion. It is a stage of shock and solidarity. It then moves to a state of nausea, which can be a result of overrepresentation of the criminal, of misrepresentation of the victim and negative nationalism. The next stage is of ascendance, where there is critical thinking, self-reflection and solidarity. It is a stage where we might find a chronicler of the victim or even an ideology of the victim and the survivors of the crime. The last stage is of decline or erasure, where the victim and the event are erased from public memory and there is a denial of such crimes.

On 18 February each year, we mark the anniversary of the Nellie massacre. This year too, the local media and intellectuals are silent. This deafening silence is the product of a collective attempt to look away from the sordid event and the victims. With respect to the Nellie massacre, we seem to have arrived at the stage of decline. One needs to ask here, what is the politics of erasure of Nellie? Whose purpose does it serve?

The absence of voices from intellectuals is also due to the fact that the testimonies of the survivors are suppressed or do not find adequate representation. However, Primo Levi, a prominent intellectual has detailed the horrors of the massacre, with testimonies. Why are the testimonies of Nellie lost on us?

We do not have a chronicler of Nellie, nor do we have defenders of the victims. Instead, as Tzvetan Todorov would say, we juggle the balls of our identity with effortless ease.

Suraj is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the National University of Singapore.

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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2019 17:14:53 IST