Why I'm thinking of Assam 1983 elections this poll season

'Nellie' happened on February 18-19, 1983, the massacre of almost 3,000 people.

 |  6-minute read |   07-03-2017
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We are currently in the midst of, what can be termed, a mid-term assessment by the people of the government in power. The brouhaha, cacophony and "aaya Ram gaya Ram" activities of our political life make many question the relevance of our democracy. To this writer, the answer lies in recalling events during elections held in the Northeast, a quarter century ago — the crescendo of ongoing UP elections notwithstanding.

If last month’s elections in Punjab are labelled as "landmark" (87 per cent polling), then the 1983 polls in Assam were "peculiar" as only 32 per cent electorates had cast their votes then. The indigenous Assamese boycotted the elections and put up stiff resistance to government machinery.

There was widespread disorder and rioting, state government employees refused to go for polling duties and staffs were flown in by the Indian Air Force (IAF) from other states to conduct the elections.


As an IAF helicopter pilot, this writer was tasked with many election-related flights. The 1983 polls, held against the backdrop of a statewide student-led agitation against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, saw ferocious violence and large-scale arson, with villages after villages burnt down.

"Nellie" happened on February 18-19, 1983, the massacre of almost 3,000 people. Assam bandhs were very frequent, with road transport vehicles and railway trains not allowed to ply. There was no power most of the time and it was a hideous and alarming sight to see processions of thousands of people holding mashaals shouting “Indians go back, go back, go back.”

The elections brought in a government with a 52 per cent vote-share of the 32 per cent electorate who exercised their franchise — this meant a "popular" government was to come into power with only 16 per cent of the population backing it! The pressure on the elected leader was enormous, as indicated by press reports of people asking him not to take charge.

nellbd_030717092205.jpg There was widespread disorder and rioting, state government employees refused to go for polling duties and staffs were flown in by the Indian Air Force (IAF) from other states to conduct the elections.

We were tasked on February 26, 1983, to carry a three-member team from Gauhati (now Guwahati) to Shillong — two political heavyweights, who landed from Delhi in a civil flight, and Hiteshwar Saikia, who was to lay claim to form the government. The Chetak helicopter has three seats in front, one each for the pilot and co-pilot and one for the VIP; four passengers can sit at the back.

Who would sit in front? There was no doubt at all, as one of the two passengers from Delhi just went and occupied it with an air of authority while the other two sat at the back. The trip to the Air Force Advance Landing Ground (ALG) at Shillong was uneventful and on landing, cars whisked them away to the governor’s office.

The drama was on the return. The cavalcade arrived on the Shillong ALG and the three men walked towards the helicopter. Who would occupy the front seat? As had happened at Gauhati, Saikia requested the heavyweight from Delhi to sit in front, but the two were new faces. With a subservient demeanour, they told Saikia, “No sir, you are CM-designate, you please sit here.” After a lot of “no you sir, no you sir,” we took off for Gauhati, with the CM-designate seated in front, but soon had to return due bad weather.

The landing back at Shillong was in pouring rain with real bad visibility. The three passengers went by car to the VIP cottage, and then an odd thing happened. The CM-designate did not get down but kept sitting in the car in pouring rain for 45 minutes that it took for the weather to clear, while the Delhiites munched chai and pakoras in the cottage. The weight of the decision to lead an unpopular government was possibly weighing on Saikia.


The weather cleared and we walked to the helicopter, with Saikia in a pensive mood. On landing at Gauhati the officialdom was present to escort the CM-designate to Dispur, where the CM’s secretariat is situated. Life, I thought, would turn peaceful — it was not to be, as the Assam agitation took an ugly turn. My flying logbook shows many sorties that we undertook, but one was to put me upfront with a police officer who was to become very famous later on.

On March 10, we flew some officials to Mangaldai, another place made infamous by the riots. A Mi-8 helicopter had already brought the CM and while waiting for his return, a Sikh police officer walked up to us. Inquisitive about the happenings, we asked him about the situation. “It’s going to get worse,” the officer said, “we have recovered a document yesterday which states for the first time that a United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) has been formed.”

The officer was KPS Gill, the IGP of Assam, who later moved to Punjab and brought the insurgency under control there.


Assam continued to burn. May 30, 1983, is seared in my memory as we flew over fires and smoke rising from hutments that were cut off from any help while transporting the governor to Bongaigaon, around which many people had died. The helipad at Bongaigaon, within the precincts of the huge railway establishment there, was a sea of humanity and the police found it tough to control the crowd of displaced persons. The governor found it difficult to make his way out and had to be escorted by the police.

The intervening years (from the "Indians go back" days) have seen many popular governments, of different political parties, take root in Assam — and to Saikia’s credit he captained the state admirably through difficult times. Now, as one watches violent agitations in many parts of the country, one is comforted by the thought that Indian democracy has a special quality of assimilation of different viewpoints.

It is important that this unique quality is nurtured for the challenges ahead. The Assam agitation was predominantly indigenous and so was the problem in Punjab, though Pakistan stoked the embers in the latter.

Astute political handling and firmness brought both states back from the brink in the 1980s and ’90s. The same approach has seen Mizoram turn into a peaceful and vibrant state while Nagaland and Manipur are work in progress.

One can’t but wish that a similar approach, bipartisan in nature, succeeds in J&K too.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: Sad how India forgot the survivors of Nellie massacre


AVM Manmohan Bahadur AVM Manmohan Bahadur @bahadurmanmohan

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.

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