SOME sections are stirring the communal pot in Assam on the eve of the publication of the final NRC list by filing an FIR against protest poetry by Bengali-speaking Muslims. Reclaiming and embracing the abusive term used colloquially to describe them - “Miyah”, this poetry defies communal and linguistic bigotry, and expressed pride in “Miyah” identity. “Miyah” is a term that in Urdu connotes “gentleman”, but has become an abusive term to describe Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam.
In his poem, ‘Shiter shishir bheja raat’ (On a damp wintry night), Bhupen Hazarika had hoped for his poetry to be “the blood-red warmth of smouldering cinders in the crumbling hut of an unclad peasant/the tremendous might of burning hunger in an empty-stomached farmer/a sweet sense of security for some terrified minority community.” Today, with the sword of the NRC final list and the Citizenship Amendment Act hanging over them, the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam are perhaps the most terrified. Surely this is a time to stand strong by the poets voicing the concerns of that community - its fear, but also its assertion of its dignity, humanity, and voice?
The demand from some progressive quarters that these poets write exclusively in Assamese rather than in the minority language is also disturbing. Many of the Miyah poets do, in fact, write extensively Assamese. Why should they not also write in a language which is today being stigmatised? Mainstream Bollywood cinema often divides Muslims into “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” There seems to be an attempt now to say that “good Miyahs” are the ones who do not write in any language but Assamese, while the Miyah poets - thanks both to their language and their subject matter - are “bad Miyahs.”
We reproduce a statement issued in support of the Miyah poets of Assam, as well as some poems by those poets.
Public Statement In Support of Miyah Poets
(This statement was issued by over 200 signatories)
On 10 July 2019, an FIR was filed against ten Miyah poets and other activists from Assam under five different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Telecommunications Act for a poem titled ‘Write it Down, I am a Miyah’ written by senior Miyah poet, Hafiz Ahmed. The FIR accused the poets and activists, amongst other things, of depicting the Assamese people as “xenophobic in the eyes of the whole world” and posing a “serious threat to the Assamese people as well as towards the national security and harmonious social atmosphere.”
A week later, at least three more FIRs were filed over the same poem. Meanwhile, several of these poets/activists are being subjected to a barrage of online trolling and intimidation by certain individuals on social media and WhatsApp. These include death threats, rape threats and other explicit forms of harassment. There is also a wider attempt to malign the young Miyah poets and in fact, the entire Miyah community, through derogatory, lurid and baseless stereotypes. This malicious campaign only adds fuel to the existing sentiment of hostility against Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam who remain highly vulnerable to ethno-nationalist majoritarianism and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state.
We unequivocally condemn such attempts to malign and criminalise the Miyah poets. Poetry can be a spontaneous and legitimate medium of expression of collective trauma, grievances and emotions. In the absence of other avenues, it often becomes the sole medium of speaking truth to power. Every single individual and community has, and should have, the natural right to do so without the fear of perverse consequences, including punitive action (such as FIRs). The criminalisation of any poetry marks the death of a healthy, democratic and humane society that we want Assam to be. In this context, we see Miyah Poetry as a legitimate form of literary protest against the victimisation of Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam.
In this regard, we remind the principal stakeholders - the judicial system, on which we rest many of our hopes, and the media - of the fundamental rights guaranteed through the highest laws of the country i.e. those enshrined in the Constitution: Article 14 ensuring equality before the law, Article 15 defining equality of opportunity, and Article 19 upholding freedom of speech and expression, subject to “reasonable restrictions”. We, thus, expect and urge the government and other mandate holders to uphold the constitutional rights of all citizens, which also include the right of writers to speak and write freely without fear of fear, harm or intimidation. We believe that anyone attempting to impinge on these fundamental rights with arbitrariness and frivolous interpretations must face the full force of the law.
Further, we strongly condemn the manner in which certain lines from some old poems have been selectively quoted, distorted and taken out of context to project them as “anti-Assamese” or “anti-social”, as also highlighted in the recent statement released by the Miyah poets/activists. These are labels that only sharpen Assam’s brittle faultlines and create conditions for ethnic and communal violence. We urge all parties to refrain from using such simplistic and baseless titles against the poets.
Finally, we unequivocally condemn the cyber bullying, harassment and threats that the Miyah poets, activists and their friends are being subjected to. Such conduct is not just downright unacceptable in a civil society, but also fall under the ambit of criminal offences. We urge all members of Assam’s civil society, including prominent intellectuals, to publicly condemn the trolling of Miyah poets/activists and urge the police to take necessary action against the perpetrators.
The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is about to be published on 31 July. In this context, the timing of the controversy and the vilification of the poets point to dangerous times ahead. We appeal to all people to assert their voices against hate, suspicion, chauvinism and censorship of literary expressions.
Rehna Sultana (dated 1 May 2016)
I was dropped on your lap my mother
Just as my father, grandfather, great-grandfather
And yet you detest me, my mother,
For who I am.
Yes, I was dropped on your lap as
a cursed Miyah, my mother.
You can’t trust me
Because I have somehow grown this
Somehow slipped into a lungi
I am tired, tired of introducing myself
I bear all your insults and still shout,
Mother! I am yours!
Sometimes I wonder
What did I gain by falling in your lap?
I have no identity, no language
I have lost myself, lost everything
That could define me
And yet I hold you close
I try to melt into you
I need nothing, my mother.
Just a spot at your feet.
Open your eyes once mother
Open your lips
Tell these sons of the earth
That we are all bothers.
And yet I tell you again
I am just another child
I am not a ‘Miyah cunt’
Not a ‘Bangladeshi’
Miyah I am,
I can’t string words through poetry
Can’t sing my pain in verse
This prayer, this is all I have.
I beg to state that
(This poem, written in the wake of the Nellie Massacre of 1983, can be considered a forerunner of Miyah poetry. This poem raises a crucial question: should a majority get to name and define a minority community, even if the name is not a derogatory ‘Miyah’, but is instead, say, ‘neo-Asomiya’ which is the term Jyotiprasad Agarwala used to embrace the Bengali-origin Assamese?)
I beg to state that
I am a settler, a hated Miyah
Whatever be the case, my name is
Ismail Sheikh, Ramzan Ali or Majid Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya
I have many things to say
Stories older than Assam’s folktales
Stories older than the blood
Flowing through your veins
After forty years of independence
I have no space in the words of beloved writers
The brush of your scriptwriters doesn’t dip in my picture
My name left unpronounced in assemblies and parliaments
On no martyr’s memorial, on no news report is my name printed
Even in tiny letters.
Besides, you haven’t yet decided what to call me -
Am I Miyah, Asomiya or Neo-Asomiya?
And yet you talk of the river
The river is Assam’s mother, you say
You talk of trees
Assam is the land of blue hills, you say
My spine is tough, steadfast as the trees
The shade of the trees my address…
You talk of farmers, workers
Assam is the land of rice and labour, you say
I bow before paddy, I bow before sweat
For I am a farmer’s boy…
I beg to state that I am a
Settler, a dirty Miyah
Whatever be the case, my name
Is Khabir Ahmed or Mijanur Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya.
Sometime in the last century, I lost
My address in the storms of the Padma
A merchant’s boat found me drifting and dropped me here
Since then I have held close to my heart this land, this earth
And began a new journey of discovery
From Sadiya to Dhubri…
Since that day
I have flattened the red hills
Chopped forests into cities, rolled-earth into bricks
From bricks built monuments
Laid stones on the earth, burnt my body black with peat
Swam rivers, stood on the bank
And dammed floods
Irrigated crops with my blood and sweat
And with the plough of my fathers, etched on the earth
Even I waited for freedom
Built a nest in the river reeds
Sang songs in Bhatiyali
When the Father came visiting,
I listened to the music of the Luit
In the evening stood by the Kolong, the Kopili
And saw on their banks gold.
Suddenly a rough hand brushed my face
On a burning night in ‘83
My nation stood on the black hearths of Nellie and screamed
The clouds caught fire at Mukalmua and Rupohi, Juria,
Saya Daka, Pakhi Daka - homes of the Miyahs
Burnt like cemeteries
The floods of ’84 carried my golden harvest
In ’85 a gang of gamblers auctioned me
On the floor of the Assembly.
Whatever be the case, my name
Is Ismail Sheikh, Ramzan Ali or Mazid Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya.
Write Down 'I am a Miyah'
(This poem by Hafiz Ahmed seems inspired by ‘Identity Card’, the 1964 poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Translated by Shalim M. Hussain)
Write Write Down I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
Will you hate him
As you hate me?
Write I am a Miya
I turn waste, marshy lands
To green paddy fields
To feed you.
I carry bricks
To build your buildings
Drive your car
For your comfort
Clean your drain
To keep you healthy.
I have always been
In your service
And yet you are dissatisfied!
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.
If you wish kill me, drive me from my village,
Snatch my green fields
Hire bulldozers to roll over me.
Can shatter my breast for no crime.
Write I am a Miya
Of the Brahamaputra
Has burnt my body black
Reddened my eyes with fire.
Beware! I have nothing but anger in stock.
Turn to Ashes.