Assam Against Itself

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

02 August 2019
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
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

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.

Amrita Singh is an editorial fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Miya Poetry Miya Muslims Assam National Register of Citizens Karwan e Mohabbat
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