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There is a difference between a victim and a martyr. My effort in this piece is to relocate the victim in contemporary Assam and critique the amnesia built around the victim.

What is a victim? A victim is someone who is allows us to identify the experiences of evil. Evil, writes historian Wendy Doniger, is not what we do. In fact, it is something what we don’t want to be done to us. In Christian theology we find a distinction made between natural evil and moral evil. Moral evil includes negative emotions which are product of human actions and natural evil are those over which humans have no control.

Doniger notes that, in Hindu theology too we find both kinds of evil being logically distinguished but are seen as part of the same phenomena. Rig Veda defines pāpa as a moral flaw. Adultery and incents are seen as an act of someone ‘doing’ evil or ‘committing a sin’. But sin as described in the Veda can also be without the will of the sinner. Doniger adds referring to the Rig Veda: ‘Oh Gods, deliver us today from the committed and non-committed sins’.

The concept of evil and its attempted resolution is known as theodicy. The issue of theodicy in Hinduism was also highlighted by sociologist Max Weber. Hence, we can see that evil shows us the victim equally as it shows us the face of sin. It is often seen that the victim gets erased in the long run. The victim is also oftentimes someone who is ambiguous and treated as a collateral damage.

We can locate the victim and the martyr or the hero in the same event. One of the classical and more generic experiences of such a dual production is to look at wars. Similarly, in the protests against Citizenship Amendment Act/Bill in Assam we saw the production of both the martyr and the victim. From Assam Andolan to Anti-CAA the martyr discourse continues to spread like wildfire.

Martyrs discourse is a popular discourse. If one creates a martyr discourse and believe in one, we get the number 855 in Assam. But if you speak of victims’ discourse, one is then able to see, feel, perhaps even accommodate Nellie and Chaulkhowa Sapori massacre of 1983 which no one remembers. People who are invested in highlighting the 855 martyrs of Assam Movement tires to erase those brutal experiences. The Battle of Saraighat serves a certain mnemonic of martyrdom to articulate Ahom valor and is used to write history in the region. Martyr discourse gives us a hero’s history, glory and its importance, and a victim is someone like Laxmi Orang, Primo Levy and Anne Frank.

Ananta Biswas, Abhinash Biswas, Shyamlal Biswas, Subal Das and Dhananjay Namasudra. These five were the first victims of CAB. Have we all forgotten these names? Even progressive lot in Assam are so amnesic and have been swayed by the discourse of martyrdom that they have forgotten these five people who were gunned down coldly in Kherbari only few kilometers from my home in Sadiya in 2018.

Why is that only Sam Stafford, Dipanjal Das, Abdul Amin and Ishwar Nayak, and Azizul Hoque are remembered in every protest in Assam and the other five are forgotten? Is there a politics behind such selective use and remembrance of events and deaths? If so, what interests such remembering and forgetting serve?

Today is the anniversary of Nellie massacre that took place on 18th of February in 1983. It is one among the many dark events that marks the 6 yearlong Assam Movement where over 2000 people (unofficial figure runs to thousands) according to official estimates were killed in a matter of hours. The Assamese leadership who were leading the Assam Movement never accept the blame for stirring up a social and communal tension which led to a section of victims being targeted.

In an open letter dated on 6th August 2018, Hiren Gohain says the lack of consensus led Assam to the bloody history and ‘Muslims bore the full brunt of it’. The victims of Nellie were all from a particular community—they were all Muslims who had East Bengal ancestry.

Nellie is almost erased from public memory and there is no talk of guilt and remorse by the larger community. We have forgotten about it and have tried to burry the past without healing the wounds of that ‘moral evil’. And along with that silence and erasure, the martyrs are celebrated who adds to the social honor of Assamese nationalism. Hence, like Nellie and Kherbari victims too are forgotten by people and history, however the 855 martyrs of Assamese nationalism remains alive. Instead, we need more gestures like Devabrata Sharma who publicly asked for forgiveness for Nellie last year and I remain indebted to his beautiful touch of humanity and theodicy. He shows us a path how to face the evil.

The victims in Assam are identifiable and so are the evils committed on them. The agents of the evils are the sympathisers of Assamese nationalism. We are a society that even humiliates the testimonies of a victim, although the experiences of evil are for all of us to see. Nellie and Kherbari should be one of the cornerstones from where our society should be built, because every society like Weber noted should face its imperfections. Appreciation of imperfections will only beautify us.

*Suraj is a doctoral candidate in sociology at National University of Singapore and tweets @char_chapori. 


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