Assam Against Itself

Intellectuals attack Miya poets asserting their identity, leading to intimidation and FIRs

In Assam, a wave of poetry by Bengal-origin Muslims triggered a fierce online debate—and even police cases—centred on the poets' decision to write in their own dialect. Shahjahan Ali, who hails from the same community, writes a poem titled, "I am also a Miya." Zishaan A Latif for The Caravan
02 August, 2019

On 10 July this year, Pranabjit Doloi, an Assam-based journalist, filed a complaint at Guwahati’s Panbazar police station accusing ten people of indulging in criminal activities “to defame the Assamese people as Xenophobic in the world.” Doloi claimed that the ten people were trying to hinder the ongoing updation of the National Register of Citizens, a list of Assam’s Indian citizens that is due to be published on 31 August. The premise of Doloi’s complaint was a widely-circulated poem called, “Write down I am Miya,” by Hafiz Ahmed, a school teacher and social activist. “Write. Write down I am a Miya/ A citizen of democratic secular republic without any rights,” Ahmed wrote. The police registered a first information report against Doloi’s complaint, booking all ten persons for promoting enmity between groups, among other offences.

In Assam, the term “Miya” is used as a slur to brand Assamese Muslims of Bengali heritage as migrants from West Bengal, or worse, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—a grave accusation, given that the NRC proposes to rob such persons of their Indian citizenship. Ahmed, a Bengal-origin Muslim himself, drew upon the persecution faced by the community to describe how they are more vulnerable to exclusion from the NRC.

The poem went viral when it was first circulated online, in 2016, and inspired other Bengal-origin Muslims to write poetry. The poems that emerged not only expressed their plight, but did so in their own dialect—a voice that till then was not known to occupy any public space. For instance, Shalim M Hussain, another Bengal-origin Muslim poet from Assam, wrote a response to Ahmed’s poem titled, “Nana I have written.” He wrote, “Read confusion when the bullies call me Bangladeshi/ And tell my revolutionary heart/ But I am a Miyah.” Rehna Sultana, a 28-year-old scholar at Gauhati University and a social activist, told me she was touched by Shalim’s poem “because I realised that they are looking at our community.” She added, “Then I wrote a poem in Assamese on the Miya community—about how Miyas always have to prove their identity as Assamese.”

Indeed, for Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslims, this new wave of poetry lent them an opportunity to define their identity on their own terms. The poets were trying to reclaim the term “Miya,” according to Kazi Sharowar Hussain, a 26-year-old student pursuing his masters in cultural studies at Assam’s Tezpur University. “There’s no proper terminology to define people who live in char-chapori areas”—the riverine islands in Assam, where the population predominantly comprises Bengal-origin Muslims—Kazi said. “Aap Miya mein gaali dete hai, woh hi humaara identity hai”—you abuse us using the term Miya, that in itself is our identity. Shalim, Sultana and Kazi are all named in the FIR.

In the wake of the police case and with the impending publication of the NRC, the conversation about the Bengal-origin Muslim community’s poetry is no longer about the community’s struggles. The poetry’s dialect differs from the Assamese language spoken by the mainstream population, and the poets’ usage of it was central to the debate that ensued. “All the discussion on Miya poetry is limited to FIRs, ten Miya poets, language, et cetera,” Abdul Kalam Azad, an independent researcher who is also named in the FIR, wrote to me. “The main reasons which led to the rise of Miya poetry—the suffering and humiliation of the Miyas, the existential crisis that is looming over us—are not getting sufficient attention.”

The controversy is illustrative of the prevailing power dynamics between the mainstream, or “indigenous,” Assamese population and the state’s Bengal-origin Muslim community. In June this year, noted Assamese intellectuals, such as Dilip Borah and Hiren Gohain, publicly criticised the Bengal-origin Muslim community’s dialect, claiming that its usage in poetry was an affront to the Assamese language. The articles spurred a heated online debate about the community’s poetry and Assamese nationalism.

According to Azad, “A small section of the reading public in Assam accepted and celebrated our poems over the last three years, while the large section of the reading public maintained a silence or ignored Miya poetry.” But in the past two months, the volume and reach of criticism against the poetry—for its content and dialect—has surpassed that of the literature itself. “The larger section of the Assamese reading public felt threatened and there was a backlash,” Azad said. The conflict also led to the poets facing vicious cyberbullying and trolling—Rehna received several messages threatening rape and Kazi faced multiple death threats.

“In the regional media, in the name of having a neutral discussion they just shouted down the poets,” Parvin Sultana, an assistant professor at the Pramathesh Barua College, in Assam’s Gauripur town, said. “The talk shows were extremely one-sided.” She added that most other communities in Assam also write poetry in their own language, such as the Rajbongshis. “But nowhere is there an assertion that it is moving away from the Assamese language,” Parvin noted.

The debate came to a head with Doloi’s complaint, and within four days, three other police stations in Assam received similar complaints. The concerned police stations registered FIRs against each of the three complaints—Rehna and Ahmed are named in two of them.

The police cases and the selection of persons accused in the FIRs appear almost arbitrary. The first FIR names ten people, most of whom knew each other as friends and associates, but quotes only Ahmed’s poem. Among the remaining nine, five appear in a video produced by the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a civil-society initiative, and published on YouTube on 23 June. The video describes the plight of Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslims and how they are using poetry to reclaim their identity. It features Ahmed, Rehna, Abdul and two others named in the FIR—Abdur Rahim and Ashraful Hussain—reciting poetry. Two other women accused in the FIR—Karishma Hazarika and Banamallika Choudhury—are neither members of the Bengal-origin Muslim community, nor have they written any poetry in the contentious dialect. They were merely friends of the poets who had expressed support for them on social media, which included Hazarika sharing an Assamese poem that she had written.

There is little clarity on why nine others were named in the FIR. Pahari Konwar, the investigating officer of the case, could not explain the rationale with any certainty either. She admitted that she registered Doloi’s complaint as an FIR and booked all those named in the complaint without any inquiry into the allegations. Doloi said that he had named people who had either written the poetry themselves or were “promoting them on social media.” When I asked him why he filed his complaint three years after the poem was originally published, Doloi confirmed that he had relied on the Karwan-e-Mohabbat video, and added, “I want to say one thing—why they are doing this in time of NRC completion?”

Konwar appeared unsure about most details of the case. When I asked her why the nine others were named, she said, “Shayad ek-do ka awaaz hai, shayad ek-do ka like kiya hai”—Maybe one or two can be heard in the video, maybe one or two liked it. She added that some people may have been named in the FIR for sharing the video. When I told her that several people had shared it, she added, “Jiss samay unhe mila hai, shayad utne logon ka hi naam hai jinhone share kiya hai ya spread kiya hai”—Maybe the complainant only named those people whom he could find to have shared or spread the video at the time.

Two of the subsequent three FIRs named members of an organisation called the “Miyah Parishad.” Shalim and Rehna both told me that the poets named in the FIRs had no affiliation with the group. Even Prafulla Saikia, the investigating officer in one of the two cases, which is registered at Sivsagar Sadar police station, admitted that the organisation had no connection with the poetry. He offered no explanation for why they were named and explained that the FIR was registered based on the complaint. The final FIR is based on a more generic complaint against the Bengal-origin Muslim community’s poetry itself, and does not name any specific individual or organisation.

On 18 July this year, Karwan-e-Mohabbat held a press conference at the Press Club of India in Delhi to express their solidarity with the poets. At the outset of his address, Harsh Mander, a civil-rights activist who launched the Karwan initiative, stated that the sudden crackdown on the Bengal-origin Muslim community’s poetry must be seen in the context of the NRC. In fact, the NRC finds a mention in two of the four FIRs—one of them claimed that the community’s poetry was “a conspiracy to create a hostile atmosphere after the release of the updated NRC list.”

At the press conference, Mander emphasised that people in Assam are in distress because of the NRC’s arbitrary and rigid procedures. “One spelling mistake when you are writing a Bengali name in English … that is enough for you to be in a detention center, declared a foreigner,” Mander said. “If you are not allowing this lament to come out in the form of poetry, then where is this republic of India going?”

He said that the NRC would have unimaginable human consequences for the massive number of people that the Indian state would not recognise as its citizens. “The RSS’s imagination for India was Muslims living as second-class citizens. You’ve now created a method for them to live here as non-citizens.”

Azad added that the consequences are worse for the Bengal-origin Muslim community “because of the hatred cultivated by the ethno-nationalists.” He said, “The fear of rightlessness that has been brought about by the citizenship crisis has impacted almost all the Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims. Hence, it is only natural that some of the poets would address this fear in their poems.” Rehna added that their poetry has been portrayed as an assault on the NRC, but the movement has seen just two or three poems on the subject. She said that the poets largely addressed socio-political issues, such as the status of women in Assam and the traditions of her community.

In fact, not all poets were ideologically opposed to the NRC project. For instance, Kazi said that it offered an advantage to his community. “Logo ko Bangladeshi bola jaata hai ya videshi bola jaata hai, yeh jo gaali-galauj hai, unse log nikal paaenge,” he explained—people are branded as Bangladeshis or foreigners, they will be able to escape these abuses if they are listed in the NRC. “But the problems in the procedure of NRC, in the documentation, from the state—we oppose that. We say you need to fix the procedure.”

Criticism of the NRC, however, is not received well in Assam. “The larger community in Assam, the mainstream Assamese and all … they are not comfortable when anyone points out that there are gross anomalies and there is also a lot of harassment,” Parvin said. This has also led to reduced support for the poets within the state. Kazi and Rehna said that people who supported them earlier had started to oppose them after their dialect began taking centre stage in the poetry debate. Mander, too, spoke about how the poets had become “isolated in their struggle.” He said, “This is generally a time where Muslims are feeling invisibilised.” Natasha Badhwar, an author and a member of the Karwan who was also present at the press conference, echoed the concern. “Some of those who have spoken up against the poets have been teachers and mentors,” Badhwar said. “They had themselves promoted the poets … It’s very, very traumatising.”

Two days after the Panbazaar police registered a case based on Doloi’s complaint, a group of Assamese social activists—including Gohain—denounced the FIRs against them. But Azad said he doubted the sincerity of the statement. “Unfortunately, the unnecessary and untimely controversy created by Prof. Hiren Gohain, Prof. Dilip Bora and others has led to multiple FIRs filed against the Miyah poets,” he wrote to me. “Their statement denouncing the FIR is a farce.” Azad’s suspicions are not baseless—in 2018, Gohain, who is a vocal critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s majoritarian tendencies, wrote that Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslim community should remember that “their safety and the preservation of their basic day to day life is chiefly dependent on the trust and goodwill of the indigenous people.”

Perhaps the most ironic—and telling—detail of this controversy is that the opposition to the poetry casts the poets as outsiders and their dialect as an affront, whereas the poets are seeking to assert their Assamese identity. Elaborating on a poem in which she tackled this dynamic, Rehna said, “We speak in Assamese, study in Assamese-medium schools, wear Assamese dresses, eat Assamese food—why are we still not Assamese?”

Kazi and Parvin both told me that the poets repeatedly faced the accusation that their poetry is associated with the “Chalo Paltai-Mission 2021”—a social-media campaign calling upon the Bengali-speaking Assamese community to list Bengali as their mother tongue in the 2021 census. The poets denied any association with the movement. “We oppose that as well,” Kazi said. “We say that we are Assamese—we write in Assamese, we have studied in Assamese, we consider it our mother tongue.”

The poets emphasised that their use of their dialect is falsely characterised as an attack on the Assamese culture. “I wrote the poem ‘Nana I have Written’ in the dialect I use at home,” Shalim said, explaining his use of the dialect. “The story I wanted to tell was very personal and could not be done in a standard language,” he added. Rehna, too, said that her anguish could sometimes be reflected accurately only in her own dialect. “There are some words—some experiences and feelings—that I can only express in Miya. I cannot do it in any other dialect,” she said.

Hazarika, who is named in the FIR despite not having written any poetry in the dialect herself, is a 26-year-old scholar pursuing a PhD in linguistics at the Gauhati University. She questioned the rationale behind the controversy over the dialect. “In every state, there are many dialects. If those dialects are used, it helps the main language become more rich. I believe this as a linguistics student,” Hazarika said. “Who is a mainstream to decide if they can express themselves in their dialect or not?”

On the other hand, Doloi claimed that it was not an Assamese dialect at all, and identified it as “Bengali language, but there is an accent.” He argued that those named in his complaint are trying to “establish themselves” in the state through their poetry. “They are Bengali Muslims,” he insisted. “They migrated from East Bengal.”

At the Karwan press conference, Ashok Vajpeyi, a writer and poet, praised the poems at the heart of the controversy. “Sometimes we have to defend poetry, because the protest is for a good cause,” he said. “Here, the poems are good and even the protest is solid.” But the Assam Police, in its wisdom, booked the poets under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code for promoting enmity between groups on religious and regional grounds.

On 17 July, the Gauhati high court granted anticipatory bail to nine of the ten persons named in the first FIR. The tenth accused, Banamallika Choudhury, who is a 43-year-old social worker, expressed the irony of her situation: “I am a scholar of peace and conflict studies, and then they say I am promoting disharmony.” In the following days, the poets accused in the other three cases were granted anticipatory bail as well.

Still, the police cases appear to have put some of the poets on the defensive. Soon after the first FIR, Ahmed released a statement asserting his support for the Assamese language. “I was even physically assaulted for standing in support of the Assamese language,” he said. “Still, if my poem has hurt the sentiments of anyone, then I express my regret.” Sultana said she had not told her parents about the case. “An FIR against someone is a big thing in my village, and that too against a girl is an even bigger thing,” she told me. Kazi said that “right-wing people have a hatred for Muslims,” which contributed to the complaints against them. “I’ve never said that I am a Muslim that is why you are harassing me, but somewhere this is also a factor,” he added.

But according to Kazi, neither the police cases nor the social-media hostilities would prevent him or the other poets from writing. “Likh paaenge, kyun nahi likh paaenge”—We will be able to write, why would we not be able to—he said. “It is my democratic right, they can’t stop me.”