SEEMA MUSTAFA | 25 JUNE, 2019
The Sound of Fear
A Citizen series on experiences of journalists in the field
I had never heard the sound before. It is not possible to put into words. But it is like an eerie hum. Of silence. And yet very loud, if it made it to your ears.
I have never forgotten the experience at a remote police station in Assam, torn apart by the closest I have come to witnessing a civil war, where scores of villagers had been rounded up by the police and the paramilitary. They were sitting crouched in single file, looking down, silent except for that sound. Not one of them raised his eyes, as cops passed by, kicking them, pulling their hair, and abusing even as we the reporters watched.
Shocked with the brutality, I protested. And was immediately shushed by the three others I was travelling with at the time —the BBC’s Satish Jacob, Reuters’ Najmul Hasan, and Anand Sahay— all far more experienced and aware of the inherent dangers. “Shut up, please” they whispered, pulling me aside, “do you want to be killed?”
It was February 1983. Assam. I was with the Delhi Bureau of The Telegraph launched just a year before. I was covering the Union Home Ministry along with other beats, and following the talks with the All Assam Students Union on the illegal migrants issue closely. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to hold elections. AASU announced a boycott and even as the government prepared for elections, the worst kind of violence engulfed Assam. The world came to know Nellie, the terrible massacre of the times, but for us who had been scouring the countryside for two weeks prior to that, there were many Nellies, albeit smaller in scale, all over that state.
We four had all left Delhi independently to cover Assam, and met on the same flight on a small propeller aircraft. At that time you could smoke on the tarmac and at one of the stops midway – the airports were tiny, the flights very few, and the aircraft certainly not as sophisticated – we all got down for a smoke while the plane refuelled. We made friends with the pilot who then crowded us into the cockpit, answering all our questions, as he flew to Guwahati, with the door lurching open at one point and Satish and Anand almost falling back into the cabin.
Nothing had really prepared us for what we saw as soon as we landed. Guwahati was a ghost town. We found our way to the one hotel that was open, being the only four guests along with BJP leader Jaswant Singh. He was not too friendly, clearly there as a mentor for AASU and hence hesitant to answer questions, or to join us on the rare occasion that we were in the hotel.
It was a civil war. Villages after villages were attacking each other, reacting to vicious rumours that spread like lightning. At one point about 50 kilometres out of Guwahati we found ourselves in the middle of a huge mob of villagers, armed with bows and arrows and spears —I can never forget that surreal experience— as they rushed towards another village to kill all there. It was a scene out of a medieval age movie. The rumour that motivated the villagers was that a neighbouring village was going to attack them, and so they came out presumably to defend themselves against the ‘attack’ but became the aggressors instead. They never did realise it, but we did as we tried painstakingly to gather facts, after the violence, from remote villages all over Assam. The story was the same, “we attacked, otherwise they would have killed us!” A cynical and vicious rumour deliberately spread by vested interests, that led to brutal attacks with entire villages gutted.
We were literally standing in the middle as the armed mobs ran across, and we looked to see what help we could muster. It was the middle of nowhere. We came across a truck with armed paramilitary troops and screamed that they needed to go to the village being attacked, and stop the violence. They refused to budge and explained that they could not act until they received orders from the district authorities. And the district authorities along with the police had disappeared leaving the people to fight for survival.
One day, accompanied by the BBC Assamese reporter —who had close links with AASU— we went deep into the state in the Goalpara district I think it was. We had heard of violence that had destroyed villages inside, and decided to investigate. On the way we picked up a little Bengali boy (we realised that later) to show us the way, as there were no roads, little habitation, and again a completely deserted area. Sure enough entire villages had been set on fire. There was no way of knowing what had happened to the villagers as no one was there. Not an official, not a villager, just burnt ruins.
On the way back, a group of men came out from behind a rock and stopped the car. Speaking in Assamese, they said we could go only if we left that little boy behind. That is when we actually realised that he was not Assamese speaking. Menacing, the youth all from AASU made it clear that we would not be allowed to proceed until we did what they were asking. The little boy was cowering in the car, terrified, sure that his time had come. We refused, with a bravado none of us were really feeling. The BBC reporter, being Assamese started talking to them. It went on for what seemed like hours. They were not relenting. She told them about her association with AASU as well, and finally one or the other name of the students’ movement leaders that she took rang a bell. And they moved back, and let us proceed with the little boy who sobbed the entire way back.
Another day we decided to drive the long distance to Gohpur district to find every single bridge over the long route burnt down. Determined to reach a particular area where the violence was reported to have taken a heavy toll of lives, we would all get down and push the car down the riverbed, across the river and up to the muddy track on the other side. Satish, Anand, Najmul and I had decided without ever saying it that we would do whatever it took to get the reports out of Assam – of the deaths and the destruction. Fortunately the rivers were reduced to rivulets from the lack of rain, and we were able to wade through each. One proved particularly tough but fortunately there were locals there who helped us go through.
We visited the spots, we covered the violence, we made extensive notes. And then realised it was late, and there was no way we could negotiate the journey back to Guwahati in the dark. But there was no place to stay. Not even a dhaba. People had run away, properties had been destroyed and there was no sign of life. We asked the driver to find out if there was a tea estate nearby. There was of course. We drove in and knocked on the door.
The tea estate manager and his wife —both from outside Assam— were shocked to find four bedraggled journalists at the door asking them for a night’s shelter. But they took it in their stride, opened their doors to these strangers despite the tense environment where no one trusted the other, and gave us rooms in the large house. They provided the always thirsty scribes with drinks, and then fed us a most delicious meal on farm produce. They were terrified though, as they felt that the workers on their farm or the neighbouring villages could kill them any moment. And there was no way out.
Through the night we heard screams, penetrating screams from all directions, and saw flashes of fire, as the attacks continued and Indian citizens attacked Indian citizens and killed and burnt and destroyed with complete abandon. Words cannot describe that night, and when we left next morning, there were tears in the eyes of the two most hospitable persons I have ever met, as they really did not know whether they would be able to get out alive.
To get the stories out would have been impossible had it not been for Satish Jacob and the BBC. There were no post offices, no teleprinters, no phone lines as Assam had been disconnected from the rest of India. But BBC was very popular there, as the Assamese heard only the BBC radio, relied only on the dispatches from London. So when Satish Jacob told the operators that he was from the BBC, they would open the odd telephone line that was still operative for him. And we would line up behind him, piggy backing, and through him connect to our respective offices to read out the news to the subeditor on the other side. This is how the reports of what we saw and witnessed came out, across the world and in at least some sections of the media in India.
We all went back to Delhi separately. All very good friends, with the conflict having forged life-long friendships. Except for Najmul Hasan as after he returned he was sent on assignment to Iran. He stepped on a landmine and died. The end of one of the best reporters I have had the good fortune to work with.
This is part of a Citizen series on experiences of journalists in the field.