Shadows of NRC: 35 years after 1983's Nellie massacre, why the issue of ‘foreigners’ in Assam is boiling

Kamal Mitra Chenoy
Kamal Mitra ChenoyMay 10, 2019 | 14:13

Shadows of NRC: 35 years after 1983's Nellie massacre, why the issue of ‘foreigners’ in Assam is boiling

BJP president Amit Shah says NRC should be implemented nationwide. It has meanwhile hit problems even in Assam, which has faced the 'locals versus foreigners' debate for decades now.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC), which had its final draft published on July 30, 2018, excluded 40 lakh — four million — people. 

Of the 40 lakh-odd people excluded from the final draft of 2.89 crore persons, 36 lakh have filed claims while objections have been received against little over two lakh people in the final draft. 

Standing Outside: Over 40 lakh people have been excluded from the final draft of the National Register of Citizens. (Source: Reuters)


The ‘objection’ process had raised eyebrows when the official ‘objections’ increased from about 700 to over two lakh on December 31, 2018, the last date for filing objections.

Assam residents Rakibul Hassan Khan (35) and Noor Mohammad (52) had strange experiences. Khan and his mother, Hasina Khatun (65), went to the NRC hearing centre in Senga area of Barpeta district on 6 May, in response to a notice regarding an ‘objection’ against her inclusion in the final draft of the NRC published last year. At the centre, apparently they found no sign of the complainant who had objected to Khatun’s inclusion. Noor Mohammad reportedly had the same experience at a hearing centre in Kalgachia of Barpeta, where he went in connection with an ‘objection’ against his younger sister, Mumtaz.

Ashraful Hussain, a Barpeta-based social worker, reportedly said, “I visited four hearing centres where hundreds had hearings in connection with objections. Not a single complainant turned up. It leads one to believe that the objections were filed in a fraudulent manner.”

When objections spiked on December 31, both NRC and local sources told the press that youths affiliated with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) — also stakeholders in the case — reportedly played a pivotal role. The adviser to AASU, Samujjal Bhattacharya, said, “We helped genuine citizens file their claims and those who wanted to file objections. Our position has been clear — we want a NRC, with all genuine Indian citizens included — and without any illegal Bangladeshi.”


The issue of the NRC, shepherded by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, and 16,800 enumerators is still not resolved.

The ‘foreigner’ issue dates back to Partition. It gained momentum in the late 1970s when regional groups raised it as part of an agenda on illegal migrants.

Ahead of the 1983 Assam elections, the Congress government at the Centre opposed the deletion of the names of such ‘foreigners’ from the electoral rolls. In response, the AASU challenged the Centre — opposing the inclusion of ‘foreigners’. 

Spot the local: The issue of foreigners in Assam dates all the way back to Partition, and even earlier. (Source: PTI)

This needs a reprise of the real facts. 

In 1946-48, millions of Indians fled Pakistan, while others fled from East Bengal, later called Bangladesh. The latter came into being only from December 1971 as a consequence of the liberation of Bangladesh. Earlier, around Partition in the East, a large number of Bengali Hindus flooded into Tripura an erstwhile tribal area. These people were bona fide migrants, who were not welcome to return to Bangladesh.

The term ‘Bangladeshi’ predates the actual creation of Bangladesh, as it is used by AASU.


Of course, these issues are controversial. The Tewari Commission that conducted an official inquiry into the riots between January and March 1983, found that 545 attacks took place on roads and bridges, and over 100 kidnapping incidents were registered. It was said that 290 incidents of police firing and lathi charge — in order to curb the agitation — were reported in Assam. This was bound to lead to serious trouble. 

In order to ensure security during polling, 65 battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), along with several other forces, moved into the state. The CRPF did not know the terrain, language and the local police who did were hostile.

The Nellie massacre started in the surroundings of Borbori on the morning of 18 February, 1983. Nellie, and 13 other villages, were apparently surrounded by a mob armed with guns and machetes. Though the official death toll was over 1,800 people, the unofficial death toll was estimated to be as high as 5,000 people. 

Hemendra Narayan, a journalist from The Indian Express, reported, “In a systematic manner the houses of Muslims at Demalgaon... were burn(t)...the entire picturesque green hill range was covered with thick black cloud of smoke, which even the mid-day sun failed to penetrate. It was darkness at noon.” 

The political temperatures have been rising again for some time now.

BJP president Amit Shah has referred to migrants as ‘termites. Later, he has stated that the NRC should be countrywide. This is understandable as during the Nellie massacre, LK Advani sharply criticised the Union government for not expelling migrants earlier.

But where can 40 lakh migrants go? They can’t go to Bangladesh — less so Myanmar. 

The migrants are now a political card of saffron versus a secular state.

Last updated: May 10, 2019 | 14:45
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