In a world before hashtags and likes, before most of the Facebook population was born, on February 18, 1983, over 2,000 people were killed because they were deemed "outsiders" who would mess up an election by getting voting rights.
The fact that Indians would kill thousands of people (unofficial figures vary wildly, up to 10,000, but the actual figure is believed to be around 4,000) because they fall in the category of the "other" shames me as an Indian time and again. But my bigger shame here is that I came to know about Nellie for the first time only a few weeks ago.
"Where is Nellie? Sounds south Indian?"
I overheard this question posed by a stranger to her friend while we were all going in to watch the film What The Fields Remember, by Subasri Krishnan, on the forgotten massacre in Nellie, which is a town in Assam and not a misspelt brand of sari. This is crucial - the fact that Nellie is in Assam. If people I know hadn't made a documentary on Nellie, that question could have easily come from me.
I was not more than a dot on the landscape during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots but those days are real for me as if I were in the thick of things. I never feel as angry, though, about it as I do about the 2002 Gujarat violence, when I was old enough to understand what was going on, but I remember the anti-Sikh riots clearly.
And yet, how could I really remember? I was never directly affected by the 1984 riots - no one I know suffered, or at least I was never told - and even if I had been, I was too young to comprehend the import of it. My memory of 1984 is, in reality, other people's memories; from things I have read, listened to and watched being discussed on national television. It feels very real, and as I write this I can see some faces who were left to deal with the aftermath of the violence.
I have been cheated of my memory of Nellie.
Unlike other large-scale massacres and violent incidents, information never came to me about Nellie. And when I went looking for media coverage on it, I only found articles in Tehelka and Caravan, not the most mainstream of journals one could say, the most recent one by Krishnan herself.
I don't like to make generalisations like "northeast India does not make news" because I know many people, including journalists, who do their bit to spread awareness on all subjects equally, irrespective of their RT quotient, and yet when it comes to Nellie, it's evident that the murdered souls went unacknowledged just because they happened to be murdered at the wrong place.
What else can explain the widespread silence, and hence ignorance, on what happened at Nellie and 13 surrounding villages, despite the fact that equal or more number of people were murdered in 1983, as in 1984 or 2002, over a period of six hours? The Bengali Muslims of Assam are disempowered not just because they are a minority community but because Assam itself is a minority in India.
It is telling that Krishnan, who lived in Assam as a child in 1983, and remembered Nellie at least subconsciously, was finally stirred to fill the memory void on Nellie after reading a piece on memorialising the 1984 riots. What The Fields Remember is a quiet film on the grotesque violence of Nellie, focussing on the agency of remembering and forgetting.
Told through the lens of two survivors, one still hopeful for an acknowledgement from the state, one who has given up on it and turned to philosophy and spirituality for comfort, the film hopes to start a conversation around the subject, egging us all to begin to remember.
The question of remembering often comes up when we discuss injustices of the past. Twitter has given us the hashtag #NeverForget but, sometimes, there seems something nearly violent about deliberately not forgetting things that happened before you were born... And yet, Nellie is not merely about not forgetting history so we don't make the same mistakes again.
This incident is not ours to forget or remember - we did not share it collectively, we never provided the survivors closure - 33 years after seeing his son's head chopped into two, Abdul Khayer is still hoping India will acknowledge what happened to his family, he still roams around with papers, waiting to be accepted as an Indian.
The few survivors fight on, they have filed petitions, made rounds of the courts, and even though all the cases have been dismissed, they still hope to get some acknowledgment and compensation from the state. While people like Khayer still hope for justice, we still have hope of undoing the injustice - if they give up, or pass on, we lose that last chance as a country, and as individual citizens, to give the last of the Nellie survivors, at least, now at least, the satisfaction of an acknowledgement and an apology.