Assam Muslims reluctantly stay with Congress

Assam Muslims reluctantly stay with Congress

Assam Muslims reluctantly stay with Congress

With his ailing mother Sardan Bibi on his shoulders, Mustafa ran towards the river as dozens of armed men chased them. He was about to jump into the river with his mother when one of the attackers fired at them.

“A bullet hit my mother’s neck and she perhaps died instantly. I had to leave my mother and jump into the river to save myself,” recalls Mustafa.

It was February 18, 1983, when Assam witnessed the most gruesome massacre of Muslims in independent India. Mustafa was 22 then. He returned to the village next day after security forces reached the scene and gathered bodies that were scattered in paddy fields, forests, embankments and riverfronts. “I found my mother lying dead with hundreds of others. I also found my sister and her children – all dead,” he said, eyes welling up with tears.

Nearly three thousand men, women and children were killed in a few hours in Mustafa’s village Basandhari and other nearby hamlets, which are together known as Nellie, now a block in Morigaon district of central Assam. The one-day carnage remains unparalleled even as the country later witnessed many such flare-ups, including the much-cited 2002 Gujarat riots.

The pogrom in Nellie took place when the anti-immigrant stir, ‘Assam Agitation’, was at its peak in the Brahmaputra Valley. The agitation triggered xenophobia against Bengali-speaking Muslims, often indiscriminately branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The massacre was perpetrated by Tiwa or Lalung tribesmen, who perceived Muslims as threats to their land and livelihood.

“When our village was attacked, my father wrapped a blanket around me and asked me to run away,” said Saheb Ali, a grocer in Muladhari. He was also hit, but survived because the blanket lessened the bullet’s impact. The wound, however, left a mark on his torso. Scars still run deep in Nellie. They also shape political mood ahead of the parliamentary polls.

Nellie, a part of Nowgong Lok Sabha constituency, was a Congress stronghold and remained so even after the 1983 massacre. Discontent is brewing though.

“We remained loyal to the Congress,” says Fulkan Ali. But the party did not get us adequate compensation for our losses, he says. Ali lost twelve family members in the carnage. “The Congress takes our votes and forgets us, but we cannot vote for the BJP,” says Ali. He heard that many Muslims were killed in Gujarat a few years back, but does not know much about Narendra Modi. Nor do many others in his village. Yet they all rule out voting for the BJP somewhat instinctively.

The Congress has governed Assam for about 20 of the past 31 years, since the attack. The party is blamed for all the ills that plague Nellie – poor roads, lack of electricity and irrigation, absence of schools and hospitals and no initiative to check land erosion caused by rivers during the annual monsoon flooding.