Wednesday, Jun 07, 2023

In Assam, Bengali Muslims Are Asserting Their Identity Through 'Miya Poetry'


In Assam, Bengali Muslims Are Asserting Their Identity Through 'Miya Poetry'

Assam’s immigrant Muslims are owning the racial slur Miya to assert their identity and express dissent

You can’t trust me
Because I have somehow grown this beard.
Somehow slipped into a lungi
I am tired, tired of introducing myself
To you.
I bear all your insults and still shout,
Mother! I am yours!

—(Excerpt from Rehna Sultana’s poem My Mother)

Sometimes it takes a new language to tell a story differently. Unbound by grammatical moorings or even a formal script to call its own, Miya poetry has emerged as a rallying point for a large section of Ass­amese Muslims, who migrated in waves to Assam from impoverished pockets of Bengal and present-day Bangladesh from the late 19th century. Translated from Urdu, ‘Miya’ means ‘gentleman’. But in Assam, with its history of ethnic strife, the import is anything but. In a land where the longstanding feud between the natives and those considered outsiders—both Hindus and Muslim—has bubbled ferociously over decades, claiming lives both occasionally and in abandon, ‘Miya’ in popular parlance is a caustic jibe against immigrant Muslims settled in Assam.

On the flipside, Miya poetry, the first few verses of which were crafted in the 1980s by poets Khabir Ahmed and Dr Hafiz Ahmed, is an equally acidic counter-reaction which now seeks to assert the Bengali Muslim space in Assam through verse. After decades of suffering ethnic jibes, which impute that Bengali Muslims are “encroachers”, or a race which “produces criminals” or whose women “give birth like cattle”, Miya poetry also represents a collective anguish of a discriminated population. Miya poets of the 1980s, the Ahmeds, tapped the Assamese language to articulate the victimisation of Miya Muslims against the backdrop of Assam’s violent anti-foreigner agitation which was prevalent at the time.

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More than three decades later, as the spectre of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) looms large over the state, casting doubts about the citizenship credentials of hundreds of thousands of people, especially the immigrant Bengali community, Miya poets appear to have stepped up their game too. Their collective decision to use their own dialect to write verse has riled the mainstream Assamese intelligentsia and the ruling political class.

Word power Cover of Traster Shikarbakar: Nirbachito Miya Kabita (The Roots of the Traumatised: Selec
Word power Cover of Traster Shikarbakar: Nirbachito Miya Kabita (The Roots of the Traumatised: Selected Miya Poems), a compilation of Miya poetry originally written in Assamese and English.

Miyas emigrated to Assam from the 1800s onwards, largely from Sylhet, Mymensingh, Tangail, Barisal, Dhaka, Mirpur, Rangpur, among other impoverished regions of present-day Bangladesh. Their migration occurred in waves, perhaps fuelled by vagaries determined by the unpredictable fury of the Brahmaputra river and threats of ethnic violence. While Miya poets appear to be striving to bundle their collective agony under one linguistic identity, the spoken dialect of the Miya community has changed and altered, seemingly with every bend of the Brahmaputra. Their primary written script was Bangla, but with the need to assimilate with the local population and to assert their own place in their new home, Miya poetry has found a resounding voice in the Assamese language. The surge among Miya Muslims to immerse themselves into the Assamese identity, and refer to the Assamese language as their mother tongue in order to avoid ethnic conflict, is also reflected in official data. In twenty years, between the censuses of 1931 and 1951, the percentage of Assamese speakers in the state’s population rose by a whopping 26 percentage points.

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Dr. Hafiz Ahmed, a teacher from Assam’s Kamrup district and founder president of Char-Sapori Sahitya Parishad, a literary body, has been credited with rekindling popular interest in Miya poetry. He has a prognosis for what ails the dialect. There are just too many variations, he says, with no grammatical scaffolding for the language on which to grow. “This is not a distinct dialect spoken by all the people from the Miya community. It is full of words from Assamese, Bangla and Bodo. The dialect is different from place to place. To become a language, it needs to have a grammar, a dictionary and (it needs to be) accepted by people,” Ahmed says. In 2016, he wrote the first verse of the new generation Miya poetry in English. His poem, Write down I am Miya, drew sharp criticism with critics accusing him of trying to portray the Assamese community as “xenophobic”. An excerpt from his poem reads:

Write down
I am a Miya,
A citizen of a democratic, secular, Republic
Without any rights
My mother a D voter,
Though her parents are Indian.

Miya poets have also documented the scars and bruises heaped on their community by distilling their anguish in verse, like the poem below by Kazi Neel, which recalls the chilling Nellie massacre in central Assam in 1983. An estimated 1,800 Bengali Muslims were killed in the massacre; one of the many bloody purges in the state’s violent anti-foreigner movement.

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That land is mine I am not of that land
The land where limb after limb is chopped
 and sent afloat the river                                                                             
Where in 83,
the executioners dance a shameless.
Grisly dance of celebration

—(Translated by Shalim M. Hussain from the original, Hei Desh Amar)

The portrayal of community angst in early Miya poetry has caused heartburn in Assamese society, which for historical reasons, has remained suspicious of the ‘other’. But Neel’s poetry, written in a dialect commonly used in Bengali Muslim homes with the help of the Assamese script, has started a new trend, even inspiring many young poets to use the same dialect.

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Translation of poems written in English into the Miya dialect is also a practice, which has not gone well in a state that has fought linguistic movements since the nineteenth century when the British colonial province of Assam was formed. One of the reasons for the discomfort in the Assamese intelligentsia appears to be a supercilious doubt over whether the dialect in the first place could be used in matters related to literary expression and developed as a language. The other reason is the sheer audacity of Miya poets to integrate their dialect in the Assamese language.

Poets-in-arms Dr Hafiz Ahmed, Masuma Begum and Kazi Neel.
Poets-in-arms Dr Hafiz Ahmed, Masuma Begum and Kazi Neel.

The subject matter in Miya poetry always posed uncomfortable questions for the Assamese mainstream, but with poets like Rehna Sultana, Abdul Kalam Azad and others taking a cue from Neel, morphing their own dialect into the Assamese language has further exacerbated the sentiments of the Assamese literati and the state’s rulers. In 2020, during the peak of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), then BJP minister and present chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told party workers to fight to “save Assam from those who write Miya poetry”.

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A year later, Sarma flagged the Miya upsurge again. “They have started identifying themselves as Miyas. These so-called Miya people are very, very communal and fundamental and they are involved in many activities to distort Assamese culture and Assamese language. So I don’t want to be an MLA with their vote…The people who are openly challenging Assamese culture and language and challenging composite Indian culture, they should not vote for us,” he said. Before Sarma’s outburst, a series of complaints were filed with police against 10 Miya poets in 2019, even as their poetry questioned the very basis of the state’s formula for ascertaining Indian citizenship for residents of the state.

Amid the rhetoric challenging the very notion of Miya poetry and the concerted targeting of its architects, Neel says that the main reason for writing poetry in the Miya dialect is to establish the political identity of the community in Assam. “We have studied in Assamese-medium schools and know the language well. If I write in Bangla script, people will see me differently. Miya poetry is written within the periphery of Assam. It is written by the people of Assam and (is about) about Assam. Poems do not necessarily (need to) be written in a standard language to become a part of the literature of that standard community. So, Miya poems are only enhancing Assamese literature and not taking away anything from it,” he says.

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Song of the river Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, Guwahati
Song of the river Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, Guwahati Photograph: Shutterstock

But as the pioneer of the linguistic shift, Neel has had to take a lot of flak for his decision to write Miya poetry, using their own dialect in Assamese. The flak includes facing up to angry mobs and regular rejection from the gatekeepers of literary journals. “Before 2016, many of my poems used to get published in prestigious Assamese magazines. I used to get lots of literary appreciation from many eminent poets and writers. However, things started changing after 2016 when I started writing in the Miya language. Now even if I send a poem written in Assamese, the editors will reject it now, no matter how great it is,” says Neel.

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Masuma Begum, a young community worker and language teacher who writes her poetry in Assamese, insists that to assert oneself as Assamese, “one need not necessarily write in the Assamese language and use the Assamese script”. “The Bodos are one of the oldest tribes in Assam, but they use the Devanagari script to write the Bodo language. Likewise, the Meiteis in Manipur have their own script, but they use Bengali script to write their language,” Begum tells Outlook. “The language of poetry is very different. It can use standard written language or can use a colloquial language. However, the syntax of Miya poetry is similar to that of Assamese,” she maintains.

Miya poets broadly accept that their dialect needs more uniformity and a grammar code, but the challenge appears to be a tough one for the community, which has been displaced again and again on account of erosion along river banks, ethnic violence and in some instances government-backed evictions. Accor­ding to Abdul Kalam Azad, a transdisciplinary researcher and a lecturer at the Vrije Univ­ersity Amsterdam, the Miya dialect is closer to Assamese than any other language. He credits its poets for re-humanising words which are used as a derogatory slur to target the community. “It re-humanises the words and phrases which were weaponised against the community. Take the example of words like ‘Miya’, ‘Geda’, ‘Gedi’ etc., these words were used for verbal abuse. Through Miya poetry these words (are) reclaimed and re-humanised.”  Just as Azad claims, Miya poetry has not only flipped the chorus of insults on its head, but it has also provided a fresh medium of articulation for a people whose stories were left untold. 

(This appeared in the print edition as "Rhyme and Reason")


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Edited by Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

Edited by: Mayabhushan Nagvenkar