Before Mumbai and Gujarat, there was Nellie. On February 18, 1983, at least 2,000 Muslim residents of villages near Nellie in Assam were killed in one of post-independent India’s worst sectarian attacks. None of the perpetrators were punished. The victims received inadequate compensation, and remarkably continue to live alongside their attackers and till the same land that briefly held the corpses of their family members, points out Makiko Kumira in her 2013 academic study The Nellie Massacre of 1983.

Subasri Krishnan’s documentary on the subject, What The Fields Remember, is concerned less with the back story of Nellie and more with the act of remembering. Through interviews with survivors and observational camerawork of the actual sites of the violence, the 52-minute Public Service Broadcasting Trust production is a reminder of the ways in which memories of past traumas survive despite conscious and unconscious attempts to blank them out. “Why do some things get memorialised and others don’t,” Krishnan asked rhetorically during an interview. “Because of the complex political situation that existed in Assam at the time and continues today in a different way, this incident got buried.”

Amit Mahtani’s quiet and unhurried shots of lush fields and the Kopili River, into which desperate Muslims waded in a futile bid to escape their axe-wielding attackers, set the tone for the documentary’s contemplative and sorrowful approach. “The river has not changed, it remains the same,” says Sirajuddin Ahmed, a resident of Muladhari who lost his daughters, parents and 47 members of his extended family. “Only human beings have changed.”

The complicated build-up to the massacre is dealt with through inter-titles, and viewers who know little about a 32-year-old incident beyond the bare facts will have to look elsewhere for the whats, hows and whys.

“There is the pressure on documentary films to give information, but we also look at cinema for an insightful experience,” Krishnan explained. “Coming to this particular thing [Nellie], there has been much written on it, although not too many films. I was interested in looking at how the survivors look back on the incident and cope with their memories of it. Thirty-two years later, there is still so much obscurity about the truth and what happened. Most of the FIRs don’t even exist.”

The official papers might not be in order, but the survivors have held on to their scraps. Fading photographs and frayed compensation documents are displayed; survivors relive the day with both helplessness and fortitude; a villager sings a dirge about the event; the camera captures the beauty and fecundity of the land.

None of the landscape shots are random, and are meant to underline the manner in which the horrors of 1983 are literally embedded into the soil. “I have shot in every single place where the massacre happened, although I have not named them and said that is where it happened,” said Krishnan, who also heads the Media Lab at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. “The landscape is idyllic and beautiful, but it also contains this extraordinary violence.”

Anti-foreigner, and anti-Muslim

There are subtle links between What the Fields Remember and Krishnan’s previous documentary, This or That Particular Person, which examines the implications of the Aadhar card project for a citizenry that hasn’t yet clearly defined its relationship with the state. Nellie was an extreme move in a game of identity politics that indelibly altered Assamese society and politics over the past few decades. The attacks were a direct consequence of the anti-foreigner agitation that gripped the state in the 1970s and the ’80. The agitation, spearheaded by such groups as the All Assam Students Union, targetted illegal immigrants who were accused of tilting the population balance in the state. The main group under attack comprised Muslims of East Bangladeshi extraction, many of whom had been settled in Assam since the nineteenth century by the British to work in agriculture. Other regional groupings had moved to Assam during this period, including Bengalis to take charge of the bureaucracy, Mawaris traders and labour from Bihar and Orissa to work on the tea plantations. In the early ’70s, there was another wave of Muslim migrants after the creation of Bangladesh.

The immediate match that lit the flames of tension and hostility that had been simmering in the state was the Assembly election of 1983. The election was boycotted by AASU and its allies, but several Muslims defied the boycott to protect their interests. Incidents of violence were reported across the state during the period. In Nellie, rumours swirled that Muslims had killed Tiwa children. On February 18, groups reportedly comprising local Hindus and Tiwas began by hacking down the Muslims of Borbori, a village northeast of Nellie, before continuing to other villages.

Horror upon horror

“Among the victims, 70 percent were women, 20 percent were elderly, and 10 percent were men,” Kumira writes, quoting a report by an independent commission.

The targets included Abdul Khayer’s family members. The elderly man relives in the film the moment when he tried to hide in a pond with one of his sons strapped to his back. The attackers split the head of his son with a sickle. Khayer, whose family has been living in Assam since 1935, says he gave up the boy to the river. Floating in the same waters was the corpse of his other son. Khayer lost his sons, wife, brother, parents and a daughter.

“The photographs of these helpless victims, lying next to each other in the fields were among the worst sights I had ever seen,” writes British journalist Tariq Ali in The Nehrus and the Gandhis. “It was the My Lai massacre in Vietnam magnified by ten.”

The documentary suggest that the revulsion that greeted the imagery produced in Nellie has given way to indifference, which is evoked through an atmosphere of dead calm and deceptive normalcy. Nellie appears to have put ample distance between its present and its past, even though the victims have not. The police station, which failed to protect the villagers in 1983 despite the entreaties of a delegation that included Sirajuddin Ahmed and Abdul Khayer, is viewed in a long shot, as is the main town.

Just who carries the burden of remembering and commemorating mass-scale violence is most strikingly evident in the images of a foundation stone installed as late as 2011 for a proposed memorial. The memorial is yet to be constructed. Instead, an annual prayer meeting organised by local Muslims marks the event that many wish were forgotten.