Five incidents of mob violence that shook India, and the documentaries that ensured we wouldn't forget the horrors inflicted on our fellow countrymen.
In a new five-part series, Firstpost views bloody chapters in Indian history, through the lens of filmmakers who painstakingly documented their human toll. Some offer a granular perspective, others a wider framework to understand the contexts in which such violence occurs, and what the aftermath entails.
On 18 February 1983, over 1,800 Muslims were killed in Nellie and other surrounding villages in Assam. Unofficial estimates put the number at 3,000 and above. From 9 am to 3 pm, a violent mob, armed with guns and machetes, wreaked havoc in the area. The six-hour slaughter left behind disfigured corpses (of mainly women, children and the elderly), burning homes and farmlands, and the wails of those who survived.
The violence that ensued in these rural farmlands of Assam was an extremely unfortunate culmination of the prolonged agitation, spanning from 1979-1985, between aboriginal Assamese communities and “illegal immigrants” — the Bengali Muslims the former termed “Bangladeshis”. Propelled by the Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), which was mainly constituted of people belonging to the Tiwa tribe and Assamese Hindus, this “anti-foreigner” agitation was centred on the question of the Bengali Muslims’ citizenship and whether or not they could live in Assam and claim it was their home.
The protesting groups had three conditions: that the illegal immigrants be deported; that their names be struck off the voting list; and that the upcoming Assam elections be boycotted until the voting list was modified. Minor differences snowballed into severe communal hatred, leading to a mass genocide that massacred Assam’s image as a “multi-cultural and secular state”, as an India Todaycover story reported on 15 March 1983.
The Nellie massacre is among the bloodiest chapters in the history of India. Yet it remains on the fringes of the nation’s collective memory. Documentary filmmaker Subasri Krishnan’s film What the Fields Remember is an effort to chronicle what is/has been forgotten. It tries to understand how “physical spaces that have witnessed the violence continue to mark people’s relationship to history and memory.”
“I have generally been interested in the idea of the nation-state/citizenship and what this means in the 20th/21st century, especially post the Second World War. The Nellie massacre is a direct result of this question of citizenship — who belongs and who doesn't,” says Krishnan, who spent her early childhood living in Assam and had a “vague memory of the event” then. She found it perplexing that little was written about the Nellie massacre even though since the late ‘70s, several political upheavals and episodes of violence have been meticulously documented in non-fiction formats.
It was in 2006, while reading an article on the 23rd anniversary of the massacre, that the idea of making a film on it struck Krishnan. She tried to raise funds for making the film in 2007 but things didn’t materialise in her favour, so she put the project on the back-burner. Six years later, she received a PSBT grant and her 52-minute documentary — What the Fields Remember — came into being. “I wanted to explore what we collectively choose to remember and forget; what history the public gets to read or what is spoken about and what is silenced and marginalised. The Nellie massacre existed as a footnote in the list of places where mass violence had taken place in India,” Krishnan remembers.
Krishnan didn’t have a lot of material to read in terms of primary research on the Nellie massacre, but general readings on Assam’s history by scholars like Sanjib Baruah, Udayon Mishra and journalist Sanjoy Hazarika helped set the ball rolling when she began her preliminary study back in 2006. However, it was in 2013 with Japanese scholar Makiko Kimura’s book The Nellie Massacre of 1983: The Agency of Rioters, that Krishnan could read about the events in a more systematic and intensive manner. Kimura also helped her with pointers regarding who she could speak to during her recce in the village.
Krishnan found a chapter on the massacre in On Their Watch: Mass Violence and State Apathy in India (edited by Prita Jha and Surabhi Chopra) as well. She was fortunate in being able to access the Tewary Commission Report (a 547-page detailed report by a special committee set up by the Commission of Enquiry on Assam Disturbances in July 1983) that had remained a closely guarded secret until very recently, when its contents were brought into the public domain.
Armed with this information, Krishnan finally visited Nellie and a few other villages for the first time. “I wasn't really sure what to expect. There was a deep sense of awareness of myself as an outsider (who was not a journalist), landing up in a place and hoping people would share a traumatic event from their lives. I was very conscious of this and it, in many ways, influenced my research process when I was speaking to the survivors,” says Krishnan, who filmed the documentary from April 2014 to February 2015.
Making a documentary about a massacre obviously means revisiting a bloody chapter in history, but it also tends to open scabbed-over wounds.
“I think any film is a journey, irrespective of whether you are an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ to that place. You have to build a relationship with the protagonists, understand the dynamics of that society, among many other things,” says Krishnan, adding that with several rejections along the way she also came across a few people with whom, over a period of time, she “began a tenuous relationship, each relating to one another from our private universes,” which she considers the “privilege and gift of documentary filmmaking.”
In general, she found the survivors of the Nellie massacre quite forthcoming: “Perhaps it was because not too many people had asked them about it, perhaps it was catharsis, or perhaps they were looking for an acknowledgement that something this terrible had happened with them. I can’t really tell.”
What the Fields Remember features two survivors of the Nellie carnage — Sirajuddin Ahmed and Abdul Khayer — who narrate moments from the day of the attack and the aftermath that haunts them three decades later. Ahmed, aged 65 [during filming] and a resident of Muladhari village, lost nearly 50 members of his family including his parents, daughters, and other relatives. Sitting by the Kopili river, Sirajuddin remembers his childhood when he would come by the riverside for daily chores and how over the years, especially during the violence of 1979-1983, two or three dead corpses floating down the river was a common sight. “The river has not changed, it remains the same. Only humans have changed,” he says in the film.
He recalls how one of his daughters had also participated in the anti-foreigner processions and had walked through villages holding placards. But on the day of the bloodshed, after she was attacked, her final words to her father were: “Are we also foreigners?” He mourns the past and points that one can’t forget it. He emphasises that despite being born in the same land, those who had come to kill the “outsiders” and died were labelled ‘martyrs’ while survivors such as him continue to seek the ground beneath their feet.
Seventy four-year-old Belugiri resident Khayer, sitting on a cot at his home, meticulously displays legal documents of their citizenship, voting cards, documents pertaining to his losses in the massacre. “We have all the documents that say we are born here and have lived here ever since before India even got independence. Still, they say we are Bangladeshis,” says Khayer, who lost seven members of his family that day.
Khayer recounts how one of his sons was killed by the mob while he looked from a distance. Later, in order to protect themselves, Khayer strapped his other son to his back and immersed himself in a muddy pond. The attackers hit his son with a sickle and cracked open his skull. “At this age, I have just one regret that in all these years we are yet to get justice from the Assam government... I can’t put my head on the pillow. I can’t sleep,” laments Khayer, asserting that he will continue his fight for justice till his last breath.
While the two men became the sole two voices of Krishan’s film, getting them on board was an experience in itself. She met Sirajudin Ahmed for the first time when she went to Nellie for her research. She had been told of his experiences by another person. Ahmed didn’t ask anything except the reason Krishnan was making the film. He wasn’t quite convinced by Krishnan’s answer but agreed to meet her later. Initially, he refused to be filmed and only agreed to be recorded through audio.
“During the last schedule of the filming, he had taken us to the Kopili river so we could film [the landscape]. Out of the blue, he told us we could shoot his interview on video. This was almost a year after we had started speaking to him. To this date, I do not know why he changed his mind. All I can say is that I am extremely grateful and we managed to strike some kind of comradeship. His questions to me, and of the world, ended up shaping the film to a large extent as it stands today,” says Krishnan and talks about how filming with Abdul Khayer was “contrastingly different.” She says, “When we had gone for the first schedule of filming, Khayer had heard from someone that we were in Borbori. He came all the way from his village in Nagaon district looking for us, with his documents. After I spoke with him for the first time, I knew that he would be a part of the film as well.”
On the 688 FIRs registered after the Nellie Massacre, and 299 charge sheets filed against the perpetrators, there’s been almost no action. A plea for compensation by the survivors was rejected in 2007 stating that the State has indeed provided compensation. The whole vexed question of ‘citizenship’ is as or rather more relevant today in the context of the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and detention centres in Assam. Despite an institutional process set up by the Supreme Court of India, the answer to the citizenship crisis seems to be a far-fetched dream.
“People who have lived in this country and are citizens, especially those who come from economically weaker sections, have to run from pillar to post trying to get documents to prove that they are citizens. When I was filming What the Fields Remember, the first thing most people would do is show their identity papers and tell me that they belong to India. I am not exaggerating when I say this. We seem to have come up with an inefficient bureaucratic solution for a political problem that has its roots in the Partition of this country and colonisation as well,” Krishnan says. “We haven't thought through any of these things, and I fear this is leading us to a dark place.”
Krishnan’s film, at one level, talks about memories of grief and bereavement from the lens of the two survivors featured in the film. Then, there is a song (voiced by Khalilur Rahman) interspersed through the documentary that talks about the collective sorrow of the people who witnessed and survived the tragedy. There are beautiful shots of the landscape — including the farm fields, the ponds, the village and the river — that stand testimony to the horrors of the past and the oblivion of the present. What is not seen or heard, however, is the voice of the ones who incited violence, the ones who had killed and have now moved on.
“I am a filmmaker, not a journalist, and so the burden of ‘speak to all sides’ does not fall on me. We always come with a point of view, which changes shape and contour as we start working on the idea/film. I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted the film to be shaped by the survivors’ memory of the day. Much had already been written about Assam, the AASU, the anti-foreigner agitation and the ‘immigrants’ crossing the India-Bangladesh border. But I hadn't encountered a single piece of solid work around the survivors' point of view or what they had been through until Kimura's book came out (in her book she speaks to both the survivors and the alleged perpetrators),” says Krishnan and adds that she doesn’t believe in a form of filmmaking that makes heroines and villains of people.
“I felt that if I filmed with the alleged perpetrators, I would represent them in a way that would either caricature them or be cinematically unfair to them. So I chose not to. I have been critiqued quite a bit about making this choice, as people felt that they wanted to know the other point of view and how these communities have learnt to live with each other and ‘move on’. But even after four years of completing the film, it's a choice I stand by. I think many people wanted to see a The Act of Killing (the 2012 documentary film made by Joshua Oppenheimer, which also features the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide) in the Nellie context. That is for another filmmaker to make, not me.”
Watch Subasri Krishnan's What the Fields Remember here: