They remember so we don’t forget

Posted on September 12, 2015


A new documentary explores the Nellie massacre from a ‘micro’ perspective, through the accounts of two survivors.

Abdul Khayer is an angry man, and to get to the root of his anger, we have to revisit the events of 18 February, 1983. This is how he remembers the day: “I saw our people leaving their homes and running… I tied one of my sons to my back and held the other one… I ran… I was thirsty… I made my sons sit down… The older one walked towards the river and drank the murky water… Then they started to fire at us… I ran… An Assamese person struck my back with his sickle… The head of the son on my back was split into two… I still have the scars from that strike.” Khayer is one of the survivors of the Nellie massacre interviewed in the documentary What the Fields Remember, and throughout his narration, there’s no background music, nothing to heighten the moment. “What the survivors went through happened 32 years ago,” says the director Subasri Krishnan, “and with the passage of time, there is a certain resignation (among other things) to what has happened. The formal choices we made reflect that.” In other words, the anger is in Abdul Khayer, in his words, in the fact that he cannot sleep even today – but not in the film. “This is how he spoke – not calmly, but he didn’t break down either.”

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Subasri says, “Abdul Khayer is still angry about the justice that has been denied to the survivors of the massacre. In the face of a system that has failed him again and again, he has been filing appeals in the Guwahati High court to reopen the case for compensation. There is the insane belief that he is going to get justice some day.” The film contains interviews with another survivor, Sirajuddin Ahmed – but his coping mechanisms are very different. Subasri found a kind of withdrawal “from a system that he knows is going to fail him (and has continually failed him). So his idea of justice is not one that is expressed through the language of the law and courts. It’s a different kind of justice – divine justice. Both these men speak of violence and justice, but have very different vocabularies. I thought that those two registers would be interesting to explore. This also speaks to my larger theory that you cannot generalize how people cope with things.”

A 2008 feature in The Hindu called what happened at Nellie “India’s forgotten massacre.” Or as What the Fields Remember tells us: The Nellie massacre, as it eventually came to be known, remains even today on the margins of India’s public history and memory. Perhaps inevitably, the film begins with a bit of context-setting: On 18 February 1983, there was mass violence against Muslims in Nellie and its surrounding villages in Assam, India. The violence was a consequence of the Anti-Foreigner Agitation that took place between 1979 and 1985, over the question of citizenship and who could rightfully claim to live in Assam. While it is common practice for any documentary to familiarise potential audiences (especially non-native audiences) to the subject at hand, it may have been especially necessary in this case.

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Memory was the driving force behind the documentary. “I was interested in documenting the narratives of the survivors, their memory of the day, and how they have learnt to live and cope with it,” says Subasri. “Continuing to live requires a certain amount of functionality, the things you need to do to get through every day. I was interested in exploring some of these questions through the memories of the survivors.” But there’s something else. “There hardly exists any conversation around Nellie except as some kind of a footnote when we talk of places where mass violence has taken place. So I was also interested in the larger question of what we choose to remember and forget – basically the idea of collective memory and amnesia. I am hoping that the narratives of the survivors will leave the audience with some of these questions – questions not just about Nellie, but places that have seen conflict or continue to.”

These roads of inquiry usually lead to macro views, as in the book The Nellie Massacre of 1983: Agency of Rioters, written by the Japanese academic Makiko Kimura. “I could not fully understand how ‘ordinary people’ in peaceful villages around Nellie could take part in the killings,” she wrote. “Why do people participate in killing their neighbours?” Her thesis was that the attackers – indigenous tribals and lower-class Hindus determined to drive out illegal Bangladeshi and Nepali immigrants – were not merely puppets of ideology, but had their own agency and decision-making power. Subasri, on the other hand, takes the micro view. She fixes a camera on Sirajuddin Ahmed and Abdul Khayer and lets them speak. “During my initial round of filming, I spoke to many survivors, including Hemendra Narayan and Bedabrata Lahkar, two journalists who witnessed the massacre firsthand,” says Subasri. But by the second and third rounds of filming, it was clear to me that I wanted to focus specifically on these two men, who were able to express the idea of what it means to go through something like this and live with it.”

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Despite this focus on the personal, Subasri insists that her film is political. “What happened to them individually is tied to the larger politics of the time – the Anti-Foreigner movement led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) between 1979 and 1983, the contested political history of ‘illegal immigration’ in Assam, the claim of who is a citizen and who is not… I am very intrigued by the question of what constitutes citizenship in this day and age of migration and movement. To some extent the massacre that took place in Nellie and the other villages is about this question of citizenship – who could claim to belong to Assam (and who couldn’t).” At one point, Abdul Khayer lays out reams of documents to prove he is an Indian citizen. Sirajuddin Ahmed asks why the rioters were considered martyrs by the State, while he is left with nothing. “We have an imagination of a film form that constitutes a ‘political film,’ and this film might not fit that,” says Subasri. “But we need to start creating and reading film texts in multiple ways. This is a political film that explores the politics of the place and time through the individuals’ memories and histories.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.