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The forgotten riot

priyanka kotamraju | Updated on January 22, 2018

Crimson tide: Sirajuddin Ahmed, who lost more than 40 members of his large family on February 18, 1983, believes there is no “justice in the world”. Courtesy: Subasri Krishnan

How do we remember massacres? How do we, as individuals and a collective, remember it and memorialise it for history? A documentary on the Nellie carnage attempts to answer these questions

For the first 10 minutes of What the Fields Remember, it’s all quiet on the eastern front. The camera rests on the green fields, the brown river, and the men clad in white in the villages around Nellie. The rice crop sways gently. Logs of wood float down the Kopili river, while boats rest on its banks. Children ride bicycles on a kuchcha road; a man sings hymns to the martyrs of February 18, 1983. Sixty-five-year-old Sirajuddin Ahmed sits on the river bank, his back to the camera. In Beluguri village, 74-year-old Abdul Khayer arranges his documents on a cot — case files against the state of Assam in the Gauhati High Court, prints of the Wikipedia page on the Nellie massacre, and a list of people who died 32 years ago.

Subasri Krishnan’s 51-minute documentary on the Nellie massacre, which was shot over one-and-a-half years, is not a reconstruction of the mass killing. It is, rather, a quiet reminder of what has become a bloody footnote in history, a forgotten riot.

On February 18, 1983, at the peak of the anti-foreigner agitation (the Assam movement), more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed in Nellie and 13 other villages in Assam, for defying an electoral boycott called by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Four days before, on February 14, hundreds of Bengali Muslims had marched to poll booths to exercise their franchise as citizens in state elections.

“(That day) when I came to the village junction, I saw our people leaving their homes. Then I saw both my sons hiding in a pond. I tied one of them to my back, and held the other one, and ran across the pond. I finally sat when we reached the banks of the Kopili river. After some time, they started to fire at us. We ran down Mathaburi. While running, I lost grip over my elder son’s hand, and an Assamese person struck my back with his sickle. The son who was on my back — the sickle split his head in two. He died then and there. I jumped into the river… got up and saw someone kill my other son. I called out to them and said, ‘Maybe we had done something wrong, but what was the child’s fault?’” says Abdul Khayer, 20 minutes into the film, recounting the events of February 18. He lost seven members of his family that day.

For six hours, mobs wielding machetes and sickles attacked ‘Bangladeshis’ or ‘illegal immigrants’. Houses were burnt down and standing fields turned into pools of blood. Eighty per cent of those who died were women, children and the elderly. Two months after the pogrom, compensation arrived — ₹5,000 for survivors, ₹3,000 for the injured, and tin sheets to rebuild homes. Till date, none of those charge-sheeted (299 of the 688 FIRs filed) has been prosecuted.

Three decades later, on July 15 this year, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi revived the debate on the National Register of Citizens, bringing back questions of who is an Assamese citizen and the violent memories of Nellie and Kokrajhar.

“I was interested in the questions — what is public history, what is not? What is collective memory? Why don’t we know more about Nellie,” says the filmmaker, whose previous works have dealt with ideas of citizenship ( This or That Particular Person, 2012). “But somewhere along the film, the question turned. Who forgot the massacre? For the survivors, there is no forgetting. (The film) then became about remembering,” says Krishnan.

What the Fields Remember serves as a peephole into the “physical and psychological memories” of survivors. Faded photographs glide in and out of frames, we hear adult men sob at their annual gathering on February 18 each year, and we see the Nellie memorial grow derelict with time. The film takes us back to Nellie, Borbori, and Muladhari, where survivors live next door to perpetrators, “going about the business of life.” In Sirajuddin Ahmed and Abdul Khayer, we find people who have moved on in very different ways. For Ahmed, there is “no justice in this world”, and for Khayer, citizenship is a performance. He gathers and displays meticulous records — land documents dating to 1935 and voter lists from 1965 to 2010 — when asked questions about belonging.

Joshua Oppenheimer takes memorialisation even further in The Look of Silence (2015), the searing companion piece to Act of Killing (2012), perhaps, to its conclusion where victims/survivors confront their perpetrators. Adi, a travelling optician, seeks out his brother Ramli’s murderers. Ramli was killed in the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia. He watches video footage of death squad members describing in gory detail what they did to their neighbours.

“We cut off their heads and penises, and dumped them into the river Snake. We drank their blood, to not go crazy. We cut open women’s chests, you know what that looks like? Like coconut fibre, full of holes,” they say.

Both films join a growing body of work around history, memory and violence. For viewers, they raise difficult questions: Who carries the memories of a massacre. How does one forget such violence? How do we, as individuals and a collective, remember it and memorialise it for history? What is justice, acknowledgement or compensation? When will Khayer become a citizen? If Ahmed prefers not to talk about the massacre, Adi’s 100-year-old mother can’t stand the sight of the perpetrators in her neighbourhood. On the other hand, the killers firmly advise Adi to bury the past, or else, “it can happen again” — a fear that survivors, in Indonesia or Nellie, continue to live with.

(What the Fields Remember will be screened at India International Centre, Delhi on September 19, as part of the Open Frame film festival.)



Published on September 11, 2015

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