I am not a charuwa, not a pamua
We have also become Asomiya
Of Assam’s land and air, of Assam’s language
We have become equal claimants.
—Mia Bande Ali (1939)
Across the length of Assam, as the Brahmaputra flows—the raging fury of the monsoons making way for sublime grace in the winters—the sand bars appear and disappear according to the mood of the river. These are the chars, made fertile by the annual alluvium deposits when the river overflows. These shifting landmasses are home to a hard-working community, whose roots lie across the international border, in present-day Bangladesh. They are the ‘miyas’, the settlers (pamua) on the chars, often reviled as “Bangladeshis” in a state where fear and loathing of the “outsider” runs deep.
And when the community took to poetry, in their own dialect, to depict the “discrimination” they face in their adopted homeland, the new literary genre has opened up old wounds in Assam and deepened the historical fractures that run along linguistic and religious lines. Earlier this month, a first information report (FIR) against 10 people was lodged, all Muslims, for alleged criminal conspiracy, promoting social enmity and insulting religion through poetry. The community, however, questions the timing of the complaint and the FIR. After all, the particular poem which sparked a controversy has been in public domain since 2016.
The complainant, Pranabjit Doloi, says that the “offensive” poem—by Hafiz Ahmed, the president of a literary society—was aimed at scuttling the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a niggling project that aims to identify genuine Indian citizens. The poem also allegedly intends to create communal disturbance besides defaming the Assamese-speaking people as “xenophobic”. All the 10 people named in the FIR are either poets or involved in translating Miya literary work into Assamese and English.
The NRC update—an exercised done under the supervision of the Supreme Court—has been flayed by rights activists and international bodies for its inherent flaws that could turn millions of people stateless. The final draft of the NRC published last year had left out 4 million people out of over 30 million applicants. An additional list published on June 26 this year saw another 10,20,00 out of the list. The final NRC will be published on July 31 and Assam is bristling with tension. It’s a fear that runs through both sides of the divide—many Assamese-speaking “natives” believe millions of illegal migrants have been able to include their names in the NRC; Muslims and Bengali-speaking Hindus fear they could be the victims of what many see as a “xenophobic exercise”.
Faced with a hostile local press and scathing criticism from a section of the Assamese intelligentsia, Hafiz Ahmed has already apologised for the poem. “I have long been associated in promoting Assamese language. Many a time I have been slammed for standing for the same. But in spite of that, if my poem has hurt the sentiments, I apologise. Apart from that, as this poem was written in 2016, it has no connection to the NRC as being projected by many,” Ahmed tells Outlook. Ahmed heads the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, a body which works towards promoting literary work by people of East Bengal-origin. Ahmed also does not hide the fact that his poem is an adaptation of Identity Card, an iconic poem written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in 1964.
Unlike the Hindu Bengalis of East Bengal-origin, Bengali Muslims of Assam, like Ahmed, have cited Assamese as their mother tongue and their literary work have also been in Assamese through the years. What has angered a section of Assamese is the new body of literary work in the Miya dialect, which is being seen as an attempt to legitimise an “alien language” which in turn could be used to stake claim to their Indian roots. Others have objected to the alleged portrayal of the Assamese as “xenophobic”, a taint carried by the state since the infamous Nellie massacre of 1983.
“Poetry is a wonderful medium to express one’s thoughts on any issue under the sky. Protest poetry as the name suggests can effectively underline the trauma and tribulations faced by any group or community...But the issues associated with Miya poetry are multi-layered and nuanced. Any attempt to understand and analyse this controversy by overlooking the underlying factors could be disastrous in the state,” author and commentator on socio-political issues Mayur Bora tells Outlook. He also questions whether the entire Muslim community can be blamed for the acts of a few Islamic terrorists.
Miya poetry is not exactly new and the earliest known work is traced back to a poet-writer called Mia Bande Ali who wrote the Charuwa’s Proposition in 1939. However, it’s only recently that a group of poets started using the term Miya as a badge of honour to counter the racial slur in Assam for “lungi-clad people in a skull cap or with a beard”.
Kazi Neel alias Kazi Sharowar Hussain, a student of cultural studies who is also named in the FIR, says his poetry is merely a reflection of the times. “The appeal of poetry is universal. Just because it’s written in a specific dialect, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s saying about that community particularly. My poem reflects the thoughts of the people who have suffered in the society. I have written about the negligence I have faced and the harassment my father has faced in the name of D-voter,” says Kazi. D-voters are a category of suspected foreigners whose names are not included in the NRC. Parvin Sultana, an assistant professor at Pramathesh Barua College in Dhubri, says those who dismiss poems in the Miya dialect also tends to wish away the fact that identity is multi-layered. “A ‘miya’ can be a Miya and an Oxomiya at the same time,” she adds.
Identity, or the fear of losing it, is one of the biggest political and social issues in Assam. Especially for the Assamese-speaking people, who sees the influx of undocumented migrants as a threat to the culture and language of the state. The state’s socio-cultural sphere has been shaped by this fear. For some, this identity battle is a sign of Assamese hegemony.
“I believe that identity politics has its own limitations...This has happened to Miya poetry as well, thanks to the hegemonic nationalists and right-wing groups,” says Kamal Kumar Tanti, a Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar-winning poet. “As a part of contemporary literature of protest and resistance, Miya poetry demands more of literary and sociological criticism and not politically-motivated hate-criticism,” says Tanti, one of most well-known poets in Assam.
Kazi Neel, for one, knows how it feels to be at the receiving end. “The way I’m being projected as an anti-social element over the past several days by misinterpreting my poem, is very painful. I’m scared of my life now. To curb the freedom of speech like this in a democratic country is not a very good sign,” the poet portends.
By Abdul Gani in Guwahati