Lost in the multitude, I struggle to understand and cope
Friday, July 11, 2008
Narratives on Nellie
Most of us have heard about Nellie in Nowgong district and the massacre that had happened there. But how many of us actualy feel what had happened there on the 18th of February, 1983, in that year when Axom was burning. a year which has disappeared from the careers and lives of almost the entire Axomiya community? (For what I mean by the Axomiya community, please check out the disclaimer at the end of my post titled Home Post-1).
Anyway, there were a few texts which were published last year that tried to revisit those days from the vintage point of living twenty five years of the promises and failures of the monement. I wrote a review, goaded by the never-tiring Ashley and encouraged very sweetly and patiently by Xonjoy Borbora, of these three texts and which was published in the May-June, 2008 issue of Biblio: A Review of Books. Here is the link to the online version of the journal.
Here is the review. Hope it goads you to know more on what had happened in the movement that had shaken Assam in such a way that our dear state is yet to recover completely.
Shame and Pride
The Assam movement of 1979-85 remains a site of different interpretations, expressions and feelings. It is a reminder of bloody massacres of thousands of innocent men, women and children and ironically is also the source of nostalgic pride for the leadership of the movement. Such dialectical feelings have been a part of the Assamese cultural scenario and inform the three texts under review, where the same movement is interpreted and presented in different representative voices.
Two of them—Diganta Sharma’s Nellie 1983 in Assamese and Hemendra Narayan’s 25 Years On—are factual journalistic reports on the most horrific and notorious massacre of the agitation: on 18 February 1983, over 3,000 Muslims were killed in the tiny town of Nellie in the aftermath of the All Assam Students’ Union’s agitation against illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Even as both books condemn the incident as an abject attack on innocents, they try in different ways to show what really happened.
Sharma’s book tries, and with a lot of success, to bring to light the hidden communal, regional and linguistic forces that planned the massacre. What is most striking about Sharma’s book is that it is written from the perspective of an adult who was a mere six-year-old child when the massacre took place. And the tone of his book thus bears what Harold Bloom termed as the ‘anxiety of influence’- especially in his attempts at constructing a viewpoint that rejects the extreme sub-nationalism of the earlier generation that culminated in the massacre. What he stresses upon is the shame faced by the Assamese community, both internally and vis a vis the international community. Armed with facts and documents, he courageously exposes the hidden Hindu communal forces that instigated the Assamese people to massacre more than two thousand children, women and men, and also how the local tribes—such as the Tiwa—were made scapegoats by the movement leadership. He also points out that despite charge sheets being made no action was taken against anyone, something that needs to be rectified if the survivors and the killed alike are to receive any justice, even if it comes after a long twenty five years. An eleven-page appendix lists the available names and ages of the victims, and even a casual look will fill the reader with remorse, anger, guilt, pain or shame, depending on his subjective position. A very important aspect that he raises is that the wounds have not healed but have been forcefully covered by the victims as they needed to get back to their daily routine of life; survival itself was at stake, primarily because of their meager resources, which were further depleted by the attacks on their houses and livestock. One wishes though that Sharma had presented a bit more of analysis over and above the facts which have been so excellently put together. He also could have avoided a lot of printing mistakes which often irritate the reader besides taking a lot of the sheen away from what is a much needed work of investigative journalism, as the events of Nellie have always been tried to be swept under the carpet, both by the movement leadership and their opposition political parties. However, a chilling cover-page and more chilling photographs inside the book make up for the technical defects.
The author of the second book, Hemendra Narayan, was one of the four journalists who were present in Nellie by sheer chance on the fatefu day of 18 February 1983. They were the ones who exposed the brutal truth in the press as eyewitnesses to the ghastly massacres. He formulates a documentative anthology of the massacre but does not travel much beyond that. The eye-witness account had the potentiality of being a gripping and chilling read, but ridiculous linguistic and grammatical errors often leave the reader wishing for a better and more skillful editor. But 25 Years on is important simply because it tries to combine the eyewitness accounts with Government committee reports, public memoranda like that of the Lalung Durbar to the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi; a booklet that reflects the then Government of India’s view on the massacre, a Non-official Judicial Enquiry’s report and some observations by the Election Commissioner on the situation of Assam during the days of the 1983 election. However, it has all the faults of a hastily compiled work marred by a huge number of grammatical and printing mistakes.
Both these books have a number of shortcomings and might not rate highly in the index of books, but the importance of these books should not be gauged by their quality but by the fact that they bring to light one of the worst massacres of Indian history, where almost three thousand people were killed on a single day, going by unofficial records. And this was only a part of a number of lesser incidents that marked the blood-stained days of 1983 and the Assam movement. The victims because of their lack of education and their economic situation, could not speak back. These texts could act as a voice that might help bring some justice to the unfortunate survivors of Nellie, many of whom still carry multiple scars from wounds inflicted by spears, bows, guns, machetes, axes or clubs.
If these two books are primarily documentations of an event of the Assam agitation, Rita Choudhury’s Ai Samay, Sai Samay (These Times, Those Times) is an absolutely different take on the agitation. It does not mention any of the massacres and tries to portray the movement as a mass uprising based on ideological grounds of sub-nationalism (as Sanjib Baruah calls the feelings of ethnic unrest in Assam). Whatever might be the weakness in the way she tries to illustrate her ideological stand in the novel, Choudhury is indubitably successful in creating a very elaborate yet well-connected plot. Her narrative syle resembles that of a suspense novel and the reader just cannot keep down the book till the denouement ties up the myriad loose threads in terms of both plot and characters. There are some quite unbelievably melodramatic events in the novel, however the well etched out characters more than make up for this blemish in the text. At the level of ideas, the novel employs the Bakhtinian chronotope or the idea of time-space—temporal and spatial connections—evident the most in the title. The body of the novel however fails to really substantiate the associations Choudhury tries to explore between the idealism of the agitation days and the spirit of the generation which had missed the event, being born after 1983. She tries to interpolate past idealism within a generation brought up to believe the forces of globalisation and selfish individualism but does not really manage to link up these disparate processes of thought.
The novel succeeds not at the level of ideological formulations but at the level of plot and narrative, where the element of suspense acts as a strong measure against a very weak ideological framework. Another strong point of the novel is its ability to illustrate the spirit that went into the Assam agitation and also the disappointment, disillusionment and the consequent distress that follows when ideas do not work the way you intend them to do. It captures a period and sentiment in the history of Assam which one can look back on with anger, shame, remorse or pride, but which one just simply cannot ignore.
The three texts share one commonality, and that is the reaction of the new generation to the Assam movement. Though Rita Chaudhury’s novel seems to find the fire of the agitation burning in a difeerent way in the present generation, the other two texts try to expose the violence and turbulences that marked the movement, and which ultimately led to further unrests that continue till this day.
Nellie 1983: A postmortem Report into the Most Barbaric Massacre of Assam Movement in Nellie on 18 Feb. 1983 By Diganta Sharma Ekalabya Prakashan, 2007, 87 pp., Rs 55 25 Years On . . . Nellie still Haunts By Hemendra Narayan Self-published, Delhi, 2008, 47 pp., Rs 80 Ei Samay, Sei Samay By Rita Chaudhury Banalata, Guwahati, 2007, 472 pp., Rs 150 ISBN 81-7339-484-9