February 18, 1983 | ‘Nellie’ Massacres in Assam, India

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Thankfully most terrorist attacks are relatively small: on occasion the death tolls are beyond comprehension.

TODAY IN TERRORISM — Do you think terrorism is on the rise or the descent? We certainly read a lot about it and this coverage may lead us to believe that more and more attacks take place every year.

The truth is quite the opposite.

According to the Global Terrorism Index for 2019 (despite the name it is based on 2018 data), terrorism has been falling worldwide quite precipitously actually over the past few years. This is a source worth reading: we had a presentation on the report at the University of Ottawa in January before a full house. In 2018 there were just under 16,000 deaths from terrorism, a 51% decline from 2014: this is a tremendously positive result. This loss of life occurred as a consequence of 7,551 attacks, again a drop over time.

Many attacks kill no one

If we do the math, it turns out that this works out to approximately two deaths per attack. These numbers must be placed in context of course. Many attacks kill no one: some are far more lethal (nine of the ten largest in 2018 took place in Afghanistan: the single greatest death toll occurred in August when the Taliban killed 466 Afghans).

But it remains a fact that any given act of terrorism kills very few people. In other words, terrorists are not very good at what they do, if deaths are the priority. There are exceptions of course – like 9/11.

I would imagine that for most people 9/11 epitomises terrorism. How could it not? Almost three thousand dead, two huge towers destroyed, trillions of dollars in damages and, most importantly perhaps, the psychological effect on the US, and by extension the world.

9/11 was of course the largest single act of terrorism in recorded history, at least by most definitions of terrorism. We don’t include massacres or genocides as acts of terrorism for reasons that are not always clear. Maybe it is the scale or the long timeframe or some other reason, but the Holodomor and the Holocaust are not normally listed as terrorism, despite the fact that they were carried out most definitely by states for ideological reasons (recall that ideology is one of the underlying grounds for calling something terrorism).

Well maybe on occasion we should.

1983 ‘Nellie Massacres’ in Assam, India
Image result for february 1983 assam massacre
Some of the many, many dead children

Over a six-hour period on February 18, 1983 in the Indian state of Assam a massacre unfolded over an election in which then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had allowed Bangladeshi migrants to vote. The death tolls range widely, from 2,191 to over 10,000. If the latter figure is correct, that would constitute more than three times the loss of life on 9/11. The tragedy has been called the ‘Nellie massacre’ after one of the villages where the slaughter transpired. There is reliable information that violence occurred on many sides of the ethnic and religious divides.

Some prefer to call what happened a pogrom. Others would say it was a hate crime. Can we call it terrorism? I would submit yes. The killings targeted a specific part of the population and was most definitely political in nature. Sounds like terrorism to me.

The Indian government wrote a report after the bloodbath but more or less buried the findings. What is scarier is that the current Indian government is not denouncing similar voices calling for the deportation of Bangladeshi migrants who cannot ‘prove’ they have Indian citizenship. Hindu extremists, including some high-ranking politicians, are fanning the flames of more violence (check out my latest book When Religion Kills for more details).

Is India walking into another massacre?

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