NELLIE, India—On a nippy morning decades ago, a mob approached this town of small water bodies and paddy fields in the hills of the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The Assam Movement, a years-long campaign forged by a student organization, was at its apex, railing against “illegal immigrants” on the electoral rolls. In Nellie and towns nearby, that meant Bengali Muslims. Tensions had simmered for weeks, and a local election was under way. The student group announced a boycott and warned citizens to not vote.
People who had fled a nearby village came here that morning, February 18, 1983. They told Mohammad Nobi Hussain and others of houses burning, shots fired, and many dead. As the mob reached Nellie, Hussain told me, town residents gathered in a paddy field: men, women, children. They were surrounded—and the carnage began. “People were falling,” Hussain recalled. “Those who fell were cut. Those running were shot.” “Cut,” he said several times, scything the air with his hand.
The scene was repeated in 13 other towns the same day. Bodies floated in pools of blood. An eyewitness wrote about the “jerky, rabbit-like movement of a young boy” who was trying to hide from the mob and a “woman in [a] green sari” running across the fields, shrieking in “a continuous, abnormal scream.”
The official count of the dead in what came to be called the Nellie massacre is 1,819; the unofficial estimates are more than double that. But to those who were there, such as Hussain, the precise numbers don’t matter. They had spent that day hiding under bodies or in ditches while their houses were burned. At night, the events played back in their minds. “Someone was sitting, someone was crying, someone falling,” Hussain said, imitating the postures: tilted neck, wild eyes, limbs asunder. “Everyone was dazed. Shocked. Shook.”