My first memory of the Nellie massacre is a faint one. I was 8-years old and lived in Tinsukia, Assam briefly. Apart from the name “Nellie”, that somehow managed to implant itself in my memory, I have no recollection of anything else. It may have been because there were actually no conversations around it or maybe my memory was storing the name and the place for some other time. I will never know. After that, I never ever heard about the massacre, until I chanced upon Teresa Rahman’s article in Tehelka in 2006. That piece went into detail the horrors of what had happened on 18th February, 1983 and how the survivors were still waiting for justice. This time, I tried to find out more about what had happened, but except for a few online pieces, here and there, there wasn’t anything much that had been written on Nellie at the time. A few people I spoke to did help me with pointing towards academic articles and books on Assam, but it was as if Nellie had ceased to be part of people’s conversation, except as a footnote or guest appearance in the list of places where mass violence had taken place in India.
I eventually forgot about Nellie, and moved on to make other films. Shut. Forgotten. In June 2013, I read this wonderful piece by Jaspreet Singh in the New York Times about his memory of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and the importance and complexity of memorialization. Reading this piece, in a strange way, brought back the Nellie massacres to my mind, and questions around why our collective memories choose to remember some events and obliterate others? How are our collective memories of public events shaped? And why were Nellie massacres never part of our collective memories?
I started work on What the Fields Remember in October 2013, and from February 2014-February 2015, I made four trips to Assam as part of my research and filming. I met survivors from various villages and the town of Nellie. Some refused to speak to me, as they did not want to revisit a past they had managed to bury and move on. Some were more than forthcoming and were still waiting for an acknowledgement from the State and citizens of India – a belated apology, among other things. And with a very few, I began a tenuous relationship, each relating to one another from our private universes, and over a period of time, building a relationship – and this I believe is the privilege and gift of documentary filmmaking. One of them (Sirajuddin Ahmed), was dismissive of me the first time I met him along with Amit Mahanti (the cinematographer and editor of the film). He was wary and watchful to begin with, but never judgmental and always helpful – even though he didn’t particularly see the point of the film being made after all these years. But we managed to strike some kind of a comradeship, and he even agreed to be interviewed in front of the camera, on his own terms and time. His questions to me, and of the world, ended up shaping the film to a large extent as it stands today.
I wanted to make the film as a way to engage with my questions and dilemmas around the idea of collective memory and amnesia and what we choose to memorialize. But somewhere along the way, the film changed. Whose memory and amnesia was I talking about? Mine and of those who inhabit the world and class I do? We may have forgotten, but for the people who went through what happened on 18th February, there was no forgetting. They live with it even today, some more private than the others. And they know that “justice” is not a word that will ever be part of their vocabulary. The film, in some ways, had morphed into a different kind of memory-making.
I decided not to focus too much on the larger political events that had shaped the survivors’ personal histories, not because it is not important, but because every time the question of justice for the survivors of the Nellie massacre comes up, Assam’s complex political history becomes the smokescreen. It is as if the complexity of the times and justice were/are mutually exclusive.
I then decided to make the film entirely through account of the survivors of the Nellie massacre. I chose to focus my lens on Abdul Khayer and Sirajuddin Ahmed’s personal histories and their ideas of memory, violence, justice, politics and hopefully through their narratives, the larger ideas of collective memory and amnesia have also come through.