February 18, 1983 was witness to one of the most gruesome massacres of post-independence “secular” India.
It was a massacre which has even been described by some as genocide. The Nellie pogrom: when thousands (the lowest estimate being 2,000) of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the north-eastern state of Assam were ruthlessly killed by their Hindu neighbors within just six hours.
This happened in the context of the Assam Movement (a populist and racist agitation from 1979 to 1985) when the Hindus of Assam—till then an example of what Chaitanya Kalbag called a “multi-cultural and secular state”—decided that they would expel the “foreigners.”
Of course the “foreigners” they were referring to were the Bengali-speaking Muslims, despite the fact that they had been there since long before even the independence of India.
There’s a 2015-documentary on the subject called What the Fields Remember.
Besides the pogrom, we will also examine how it is still relevant within the contemporary politics of India.
The BJP Applauds The Pogrom… And So Does Congress?
The BJP, the current ruling Hindu nationalist party, obviously had to applaud this due to their core values.
Take the case of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Vajpayee was the first BJP leader to become Prime Minister, and he held this office from 1998 to 2004.
Vajpayee is also a favorite of the Indian “seculars” because he presented himself as secular too, and since he wrote poetry books he couldn’t be that bad.
Yet within the context of the Nellie pogrom he delivered a speech during an election campaign which many analysts say was the catalyst for Hindu mobs attacking Muslims.
Gupta went on to remind Vajpayee of a speech he made in 1983 that preceded the massacre of over 2,000 mostly Muslim men and women in Nellie in Assam. He quoted an excerpt from the speech: “Foreigners have come here; and the Government does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab instead, people would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away.” Gupta called the speech inflammatory and irresponsible and said: “This is very different to the type of speech that he made here yesterday [when Vajpayee moved the motion].
Another way the BJP has endorsed the pogrom is how it rewarded the Hindus “martyred” during the violence despite those goons having belonged to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) which carried out the violence against Muslims.
The 855 Aasu members who died during the Assam Agitation have been recognized as ‘martyrs’ by the present BJP government and received compensation thrice – Rs 5,000 from a Congress government, Rs 30,000 from the Asom Gana Parishad government under Prafulla Mahanta and Rs 5 lakh under the present BJP government of Sarbananda Sonowal, a former Aasu leader himself.
The fact that the BJP rewards Hindu criminals is no surprise, but what on earth is the Congress doing here?
A Muslim says in that ToI report:
“We always voted for Congress, believing they would do something for our welfare. They talked a lot but did nothing. Then came the BJP government, with its ‘vikaas’ (development) promise. But it is even worse, inciting hatred with its Hindutva politics,” Shafdar adds.
It would have been far better if the secular Congress had in fact done “nothing” rather than what they actually did do: they allowed the pogrom to take place.
In 2018, Hindu nationalist Nupur Sharma wrote about the role of Indira Gandhi, who was ruler of both the country and the Congress at the time. She writes in OpIndia:
The Indira Gandhi government’s decision to thrust elections upon Assam in 1983 turned a mostly peaceful agitation into a violent once, perhaps one of the most violent in the history of the country. The consequence was the heinous Nellie massacre of 1983. A 6 hour long, bloodied rampage by tribal group Lalung, where 2,191 mostly Bangladeshi Muslims lost their lives (unofficial numbers could be as high as 10,000). During this massacre, the state was under President’s rule. Which basically meant under Indira Gandhi’s direct rule and this ghastly massacre was allowed to happen.
The “secular” Congress never made any attempt to bring the culprits to court or to collaborate with the judiciary on this matter.
Jawed Naqvi wrote for Dawn in 2012:
About the Nellie massacre, which the BJP fuelled and fanned in 1983, the party says glibly but not without a grain of truth: “The Congress did not raise an eyebrow. In July 1983, a commission was set up (and) submitted a 600-page report in January 1984 … Till date it is kept a closely guarded secret. So much for the Congress’ concern for the minorities.”
So both the Hindu nationalist BJP and the “secular” Congress have no issue with massacring Muslims by the thousands. The former due to its ideology and the latter for what one could call a pragmatic approach to electoral politics and attempting to appease the majority. Thus “soft” Hindu nationalism is a necessity in Indian politics.
Cows and Citizenship
What makes this pogrom remain very much a contemporary issue is the fact that it overlaps with other issues which still make the lives of India’s Muslims extremely difficult.
Take the example of cow vigilantism for example.
We’ve all heard these stories of Hindu goons killing Muslims for merely transporting a cow. However Makiko Kimura, a Japanese scholar who studied in India, wrote in The Nellie Massacre of 1983: Agency of Rioters, p. 99:
In another village, a villager noted in an interview that there were troubles regarding cows:
There were cases that several cows crossed the river and went to Muladhari (one of the attacked villages). Muslims kill and eat cows. (Ajarbari village, November 24, 2001)
There were several similar testimonies that claimed that the Muslim villagers stole cows and other agricultural products, and that these small-scale incidents caused friction between the Muslims and their neighbors in adjacent villages.
It’s worth noting that no Indian has written a book on this subject…
I mean they’re so intellectual and secular that they love to discuss everything; especially Islam. So you’d naturally expect that they’d have produced a book-length study regarding something which has been classed by some classed as genocide?
Anyway, apart from the cow vigilantism, another attack on India’s Muslims comes in the form of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and its corollary Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This is basically a legal way of rendering Muslims stateless in their own homeland.
Well the NRC and CAA have mainly been weaponized against the Muslims of Assam, who are accused of being “Bangladeshi foreigners” like those killed and maimed during the 1983 Nellie pogrom.
Krishna Das, writing for Reuteurs in 2018, made the link:
NELLIE, India (Reuters) – Thirty-six years after losing his parents, sister and a four-year-old daughter in one of India’s worst sectarian massacres, Abdul Suban says he is still trying to prove he’s a citizen of the Hindu-majority nation.
Several other survivors of the “Nellie Massacre”, which killed around 2,000 people from more than a dozen villages, gave accounts of burying bodies in a mass grave now partly under water.
They said they hoped the release of the NCR list on Monday would not spark further violence. Security has been tightened across Assam.
The citizenship test is the culmination of years of often violent agitations by Assamese demanding the removal of outsiders they accuse of taking jobs and cornering resources in the state of 33 million, known for its tea estates and oil fields.
We can now see the pattern:
Muslims are accused of being “foreign” to Hindu-majority India, notably because of their religion (“cow-eaters”). Their citizenship is then targeted, and ultimately their life and property are at risk.
What happened during the 1983 Nellie pogrom is the reality that Hindu nationalists yearn for. And not for Assam alone, but for the entirety of India.