The man smiled at me and said, “I am from Nellie, bloodied Nellie. I am sure you remember 18 February 1983?”
I stared at him, surprised. He was around sixty but he looked quite fit and strong despite his age. He sat with a straight back on the sofa. He didn’t have glasses on, which meant his eyesight was still intact. I said, “But what brings you here...”
He sat for a few moments and then sighed before speaking. “Those rascals killed both my sons. We couldn’t even find the dead body of my younger son.” He used the English words “dead body” in between the Assamese that he was speaking. “My eldest son was married. His wife, my only daughter-in-law, hid behind a bush in the backyard of the house and that’s how she saved her and her baby daughter’s life.”
“Oh,” I said, sympathetically.
“Even I wouldn’t have survived.”
The man paused for a bit. Then he started speaking again.
“Everything is khuda’s wish, you know? Otherwise, why would I go to the DI’s office that day to claim by arrears?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. It was an unbearable silence. “But what brings you here?” I broke the silence to ask the same question once again.
“Just like that. You have moved in recently here. You are my new neighbour. I thought, let me go and check on you and get to know you. I live in the same lane. Mine is the last house on this lane. I found a very good deal during the early years of my job and bought this plot. After the massacre, I built a house here to start living.”
“You did the right thing,” I commented.
I thought, this man has a lot of time after retiring from his job and he isn’t able to kill time. That’s why he visits people and bores them.
“My name is Jiaur Rahman. But everyone calls me Jiaur Master.” I introduced myself too. He said, “I know about you from before – just hadn’t met you.
“I have read your stories too. I still remember the stories ‘Ashray’, and ‘Biponno Adhikar’ in an issue of Sutradhar.”
“Would you like some tea?”
“No, there’s no need. No betel nuts, no tea for me.”
The man stood up now and said cheerfully, with a smile. “I will take your leave now. I am sorry I took so much of your time! Please don’t mind.”
“Leaving already? Why don’t you stay for some more time?”
After the man left, my landlord spoke to me.
In a serious voice, he said, “Oh, he is now after you, too? Didn’t he ask you for your signature?”
“Signature? Why signature?”
“Didn’t Jiaur Master ask you to sign on his memorandum?”
“What kind of memorandum?”
“Oh, let me not tell you about it. You will find out soon, but don’t let him bother you. He would drive you crazy.”
It saddened and annoyed me. I am here in this new place to take up a new job and I would have to meet new people. In most cases, meeting new people isn’t a very pleasurable experience. Am I worrying too much about Jiaur Master?
A few days later, I found Jiaur Sahab in front of a pharmacy. He smiled and walked towards me. “How are you doing, Professor Sahab?” he asked.
“I am well. How are you? You haven’t visited me for a long time, what happened?”
“I haven’t found any time, you know. I have been very busy with the memorandum – ”
The memorandum! I didn’t want to talk about it any further. I told him that I had a class to teach and quickly hopped into a rickshaw.
Another day. I found Jiaur Sahab in front of Rumi-Rupak Book Stall. He was reading a magazine with attention. I walked closer to him and greeted him. The magazine was called Gyan Sambhar and he pointed to an article by Jitendralal Sharma and said, “Have you seen what the Israelis are doing? How they are torturing the Palestinians?...Well, the root of all these problems is actually America’s imperialist character. Israel can’t do all this without America’s help? Can they?”
“Leave that, tell me about you. What’s new with you? How are you doing?”
“Ah, what could be new with regular people like us? One day, I will visit you. I have to show you the memorandum. I have already collected 30,300 signatures.”
“What kind of memorandum?”
“You will find out when you read it. You guys are such knowledgeable people. You would find out when you read it.”
Really, one afternoon, Jiaur Sahab landed up in my rented accommodation with a file and thirty-thousand signatures.
He said, “Read it properly, Professor Sahab.”
I read it.
It is a memorandum addressed to the President of India.
“In the country where there are laws against animal cruelty outlined by the courts, in the same country, in a single day, three thousand people were killed, their houses were burnt down, thousands more were rendered homeless, and yet, the culprits weren’t convicted. If the people associated with the Sikh Riots in 1984 after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination could be punished, why couldn’t we punish the ones that were responsible for the Nellie genocide? For whose benefit on the day of the massacre, the foreign journalist stood in Nellie and shouted in Hindi ‘Kill the miyas, kill them’ and encouraged the murderers?”
The memorandum demanded justice for the survivors of the Nellie genocide, and publication of the report of the Tiwari Commission that had been set up to investigate the event.
I read the document and looked at Jiaur Sahab’s face.
He said, “This isn’t personal. This isn’t because I lost both my sons during the genocide. I had a job, at least. My daughter-in-law and my granddaughter are still alive, at least. But some families lost everything, and who thinks about them? Most people didn’t receive government assistance to rebuild their lives and we have lost those unfortunate people in the ocean of humanity forever. But those who are responsible for this tragedy, should we let them go? Won’t they ever be punished?”
For the first time since I met him, I found him very agitated.
“You know, people call me crazy. They don’t want to sign my document. A lot of people just run away at the sight of me. But allowing injustice to happen and doing it are the same things, isn’t it? May be others would allow injustice, but I can’t. I will protest. I will collect at least one lakh signatures on his memorandum. I am considering going to every district of Assam and may be then it won’t be difficult for me to come up with one lakh signatures. If the president receives a memorandum of one lakh signatures, he would be forced to take action. He has to! Isn’t this a democratic country?”
I wanted to say that to stop genocides like Nellie, to ensure that the culprits are punished, a memorandum wasn’t enough; the public has to be made aware, educated.
The people would have to reject the political parties that fan communal and ethnic rivalry to retain power and support those parties that truly work for the betterment of everyone, irrespective of religion. This is not the India that the Mahatma, Nehru, Maulana Azad dreamt of. We have steered away from those ideals.
What would happen if I said those things to this man and disappointed him? That’s why, I remained silent though I had a lot to say.
In that college, in that small town, I worked for two years. During those two years, we became close friends. Occasionally, I would visit him at his house. He had built himself a great house. A part of his residence was put on rent. He received money from his pension plan and earned from the rent, which was enough for the small family.
His daughter-in-law and his granddaughter had clear opinions about the memorandum.
One day, the little girl told me: “When one lakh people will sign on Kokadeuta’s memorandum the jallads who killed Abba and Khura will be hanged.”
It was impossible for the little girl to know about such things, let alone understand. Certainly, Jiaur Sahab must have inserted those thoughts in her head.
I went to his house on the day before I left the city to say goodbye to him, but I didn’t meet him since he was out of town in Barpeta, to collect signatures in support of his memorandum. The granddaughter and the daughter-in-law couldn’t even tell me in which part of Barpeta district he had travelled to in search of more signatures.
After that, I started working in a prestigious college in Guwahati. I was so busy with lectures and research that I had almost forgotten about Jiaur Sahab. In that way, seven more years passed. One day, on the television screen, I watched the images of Bashbari’s government refugee camps. In the newspaper, I read about how 500 innocent minorities were killed and burnt in the camps by Bodo terrorists in the huge area that spread from Salbari to Gandhari Para.
The massacre was conducted over three days. In Adhikar, I read that when the carnage was taking place, the chief minister and eighteen other ministers from the cabinet were on a holiday at the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. The government didn’t take any action. I was choked.
That was the day I decided – I would have to go in search of Jiaur Sahab. The memorandum had to be finished. If the culprits of the Nellie genocide had been punished, the refugee camp in Bashbari wouldn’t have been burnt. If the killers of Bashbari didn’t get nabbed, how many more such carnages would take place and how many people would lose their lives like cattle? Just completing the signature campaign of the memorandum wasn’t enough. If required, thousands of people would have to be mobilised to bring them to the streets.
Dear Reader, now I am going to start travelling in search of Jiaur Master. I will board this afternoon’s Kolongpar Express train that will take me to the city where Jiaur Master lives. Would you like to join me in assisting Jiaur Master’s incomplete task?
Translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap.
“How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency”, by Hafiz Ahmed, translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap, excerpted with permission from How to Tell the Story of an Insurgency: Fifteen Tales From Assam, edited by Aruni Kashyap, HarperCollins India.