Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Some events in history just refuse to fade from public memory. The partition of India and Pakistan, for instance. That bloody event in history continues to inspire several novels, academic studies and even films - even now. But there are some dark chapters in independent India's history that many people - protagonists, by-standers and even those who had nothing to do with the event per se - want buried in the sands of time. The infamous Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983 is one such gory episode.
There are conflicting figures about exactly how many people - women, infants and men - were killed on that fateful day of 18 February 1983, but no one disputes the fact that at least 2,000 people lost their lives. For years, the Nellie massacre became a metaphor for everything that has gone wrong with Assam over the past three decades. Those who worry about the unabated influx of foreigners from across the international border say Nellie was a manifestation of the pent up anger among the indigenous people.
Others, apologists for the migrants, portray the victims of the Nellie massacre as just that - victims.

In Nellie, earlier, more people died in a single day (3,300) than in any riot after Partition. But the police were not helping along the murderers. It happened in a distant, hidden patch of dry Brahmaputra bed in a dark corner of Assam, and while the police and the state government were guilty of ignoring early warnings they were not participating in the killings and loot. I reached Nellie when killings and hackings were still on and the wounded were crying, crawling, carrying their dismembered limbs, trying to push back entrails hanging out of stab holes in their children’s bellies. There was just half a platoon of the CRPF there, led by a very honourable head constable called H.B.N. Appa who was crying bitterly that he did not have enough people or firepower to stop the killings. He was by no means egging the killers on. He must have still saved a few thousand lives. He resurfaced in my reporting life a year later, in Amritsar during Operation Bluestar, at the head of a CRPF patrol, his lonely heroism at Nellie having earned him the reward of the single pip of a sub-inspector which he flaunted at me and asked: “So what did you get for reaching there ahead of the others?” And then he talked about how many lives he could have saved if only he had a full platoon.
One of my abiding memories of Nellie is the bitterly dejected, forlorn face of the then DIG of Nowgong district, under whose charge the village fell, the day after the massacre. “If only we were here a few hours earlier... if only we were here a few hours earlier,” he kept on mumbling. That pain returns to his face even today when I sometimes cruelly pull his leg by reminding him I beat him and his police to the Nellie story. You can check with the gentleman if I am speaking the truth. He is P.C. Sharma, the current director of the CBI. 

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