By Karthik Shankar For Youth Ki Awaaz:
In the early morning of February 18, 1983, mobs armed with sticks and scythes ascended on Muslim families in villages. The frenzied mob had a vendetta against families that migrated from former East Bengal in the early 20th century; a fallout of Indira Gandhi’s controversial decision, to give more than four million people who had migrated to India after Bangladesh’s formation, the right to vote. Lush green fields along the banks of the river Kopili became the site of mass bloodshed, which involved women and small children. Official figures put the toll at more than 2000. Some say the actual number may be closer to 6000.
Yet, this incident remains almost forgotten in our nation’s history. When Rajiv Gandhi signed the Assam Accord, to end the agitation that led to the pogrom, there was an unspoken agreement that the brutal murders were to be swept under the rug. Not a single person has been convicted in the thirty years and all the victims received, were pitiful compensations. With barely any media coverage and even official government documents like the Tiwari Commission report being kept away from the public, all that remained were the victim’s painful and fragmented memories.
Reputed documentarian Subasri Krishnan’s latest What The Fields Remember aims to bring those memories back into the nation’s consciousness. The documentary begins with shots of verdure pastures, as if to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as on the day of the massacre.
What The Fields Remember, which mostly divides its time between two fathers, both of whom lost children in the pogrom, is a moving paean to the people who have never given up the fight in their hearts. It’s the story about people who constantly have to prove their citizenship in a nation that considers one group of people natural citizens and another group outsiders. It’s also a shocking wake-up call for the callous manner in which our government and justice system has dealt with this ethnic cleansing.
Youth Ki Awaaz interviewed Subasri Krishnan on her searing documentary:
Karthik Shankar(KS): The Nellie massacre is one of the most shameful periods of Indian history. Yet, unlike the Gujarat riots or the anti-Sikh riots, it remains buried. Why do you think that is?
Subasri Krishnan(SK): I think this has to do with many reasons. One is that there was a systematic suppression, because of larger political processes, that was taking place in Assam during the time – the Anti-Foreigner Agitation against those who were perceived as “illegal immigrants”, that in some ways led to the massacre, the political settlement that was reached between the All Assam Students Union-AASU- (which led the Anti-Foreigner Agitation) and the then Rajiv Gandhi government as part of the Assam Accord in 1985. Then there was (and in some ways still is) the rhetoric that most of those who were killed were “Bangladeshis”…plus, it has to do with our own record as a nation when it comes to remembering different kinds of public history, and events that take place, especially of places and people that we perceive to be on the margins. Due to various number of reasons, the Nellie massacre has become something that remains on the fringes of India’s public history and memory.
KS: The Tiwari commission report has still not been made public despite the insight it would provide into this pogrom. Do you hope the documentary will contribute to public activism in terms of bringing perpetrators to heel?
SK: No. I wouldn’t make any such grand claims. Through the film, I am hoping people, will get more curious about what actually happened in Nellie, and hopefully will find other ways and means through which they can access information around it. Through the protagonists, Sirajuddin Ahmed and Abdul Khayer’s memories of the day, in the film, I have tried show what it means to live with the memory of the day even today. We know violence takes place all the time around us (and I don’t mean just the Nellie massacre). But what does the aftermath of violence produce? How does it change the person? How do you learn to cope? And what does coping with the memory actually mean? These were some of the questions that I was interested in. If the viewer is able to enter the film through whichever context that they choose, and engage with some of these questions, then I would be happy. I feel that if a film (be it fiction or non-fiction) can provide some kind of an insight or experience of a world that you are not familiar with, provoke some sort of a question that stays with you, then it’s done its job.
KS: The Sikh riots arguably ended the relationship of the Congress with the religious minority. Surprisingly, this was not the case with the Nellie massacre. Do you agree? And if so, why.
SK: Well that is because the massacres that took place in Nellie and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots are two completely different events. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. People tend to, very often, draw parallels between the two, and I think we are doing a dis-service to our understanding of these public violent events by doing so. Why Nellie happened, and why the 1984 anti-Sikh riots happened, have very different trajectories, and histories. And I think it’s time we started examining the two for what they were, not draw easy parallels, because they don’t exist. In the case of the 1984, the Congress was directly responsible for what happened. But in the case of the Nellie massacre, this was not the case. There were many other political players who contributed to what happened. And my sense is that this may have something to do with it.
KS: How do you get people to open up about such personal horrific experiences on camera?
SK: Well it happened differently with the 2 people in my film. I had met Sirajuddin Ahmed for the first time in February 2014, when I had gone for the research. He was helpful, was also somewhat sceptical about our (the cameraperson Amit Mahanti and I) presence. When I went to film for the first time in April 2014, he did not want himself shot. But I had extensive audio interviews with him from that time and the next time I went in November 2014. The last time I went for the shoot in February 2015, and we were filming on the banks of river Kopili. He suggested that I could interview him in front of the camera. So I would say that with Sirajuddin Ahmed it took some time to build a relationship of trust. But he never spoke much about what happened on that day, during the various interviews with him, which I was fine with. A lot of the conversations with him were about the nature of politics, violence and spirituality.
Abdul Khayer, on the other hand, was a different kind of experience. We met him for the first time when we were filming in April 2014, and his interview really moved me. He was very forthcoming and wanted to speak about the experience he had been through. So in that sense, I didn’t have to do much, to get him to speak in front of the camera. But after that first time, we went to his village and filmed with him again, when we went for the next round of shoot. I guess in a documentary film, relationships with people get built differently. With some it’s instant, and with some it’s built over a period of time – and both are enriching experiences.
KS: One section in the film especially resonated with me – when Abdul Khayer was showing all his documents to drive home the fact that he was an Indian citizen. It seems to be a common theme of minorities in countries across the world. Their citizenship is not by birth but earned. What are your thoughts on this?
SK: Yes, I agree with you. In this country, if you belong to a minority community, and especially with the kind of Hindu right-wing regime that is currently there, you have to constantly keep performing your citizenship. You have to constantly keep proving that you are a “good citizen”, and you are patriotic (which I would say is anyway a subjective thing, and you may not even believe in those ideas in the first place).
KS: I found it interesting that one of the survivors of the violence, Sirajuddin Ahmed’s daughter, who was murdered by rioters, took part in the anti-foreigner agitations. Is there a chasm in the Muslim community itself about how to deal with the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants?
SK: Yes, especially in the context of Assam then (and even now).
KS: It was also interesting to note that Doordarshan was involved with your documentary. Ever since the BJP has come to power, the broadcaster has been under attack for giving air-time to right wing ideologues. Was this documentary possible only because its focus was on a pogrom that involved the BJP’s rival?
SK: My film “What the Fields Remember” got commissioned in October 2013, when the UPA government was in power. So I can’t really say if this film would have been commissioned under the current regime. And anyway, the film has been commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, from a grant from Doordarshan. This is part of their independent filmmaker fellowship programme. And I can tell you from my experience of working with PSBT (this is my second film with them), that they truly encourage independent filmmaking. With both my films, I have had absolute independence on how I have chosen to make the film, and what I want to say. They also happen to be the largest film funding body in the country. And I think that, not enough credit is given to them for the work they have done, and continue to do, with documentary filmmakers. Because of their support and belief in the process of giving independence to the filmmaker, different kinds of documentary films have emerged in the past decade.
KS: With the lack of documentation available on the Nellie massacre, what’s left mostly after thirty years are fragmented oral histories. Your documentary is undoubtedly an important step in preserving these stories but how can we go further?
SK: Talk and write about it with nuance, make movies/art around it, write songs about it – the possibilities are endless. We just need to have the interest and imagination.
To know more about the documentary and the filmmaker, head here.