In the Crosshairs

How poetry became a crime in Assam

Grieving women and their children in Assam’s Rangaloo village, where many residents were massacred and had their homes put to the torch, in 1983. Assam saw large-scale violence against the Bengali community from 1979 to 1985, during the Assam Agitation. GETTY IMAGES
01 August, 2019

Write down I am a Miya
My serial number in NRC is 20,543
I have two children
Another is coming next summer
Will you hate him as you hate me?

These lines by Hafiz Ahmed, a Muslim poet of Bengali heritage from Assam, could potentially land him in jail. Ahmed is part of a literary movement called “Miya poetry”—Muslims of Bengali origin are referred to as “Miyas” in Assam—that, among other things, highlights the discrimination the community faces in the state. On 11 July, a first-information report was filed against Ahmed, along with nine other Miya poets, who were charged with criminal conspiracy and spreading social disharmony under various sections of the Indian Penal Code.

According to the local Assamese journalist who filed the report, the poems tried to defame the Assamese people as xenophobic, at a time when the National Register of Citizens was being updated in the state.

The poets went into hiding. Several of them put out statements declaring their loyalty to Assamese, a language in which a few of them are pursuing or have obtained doctorates.

Even before the FIR, Miya poetry had already come under the scanner, when one of the most prominent “leftist” intellectuals of Assam, Hiren Gohain, wrote an article in an Assamese daily excoriating the Miya poets for using their own “artificial” East Bengal dialects, rather than Assamese, in their poems. The Miya poets in their statements clarified that most of their poems were in the socially and officially sanctioned language, Assamese, and not in any contraband dialect.

How does a state come to perceive poetry as a crime? How do powerful members of civil society get to dictate in what language poetry is to be written? Why are poets having to distance themselves from the dialects of their ancestors?

Assamese sub-nationalism privileges the language-based Assamese identity as “indigenous,” and has long cast Bengalis in the region as “outsiders,” even though there is scant evidence of any sharp division between the two linguistic identities until well into the nineteenth century. The Bengali and Assamese languages and cultures share many similarities, and the scripts differ by only one letter. Surnames such as Dutta, Chakraborty, Bhattacharjee, Choudhury, Goswami, Talukdar, Gupta, Bhuyan and so on are common among caste Hindus in both communities, as are surnames such as Ahmed and Ali among Muslims. It is difficult even for Assamese and Bengalis to tell each other apart, because pretty much every Bengali who has grown up in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley speaks, reads and writes Assamese.

Nonetheless, this assimilation has done little to ease the anxieties of Assam’s sub-nationalists, who in past decades have mobilised “indigenous” people by citing a threat to identities and languages from Bengali immigrants, allegedly pouring in from Bangladesh in the millions. This fear of the Bengali outsider has dominated Assam politics since at least 1979, and paid political dividends for several Assamese sub-nationalist leaders over the years.

The insecurity across northeastern India about Bengalis as a community long precedes even the creation of Bangladesh, in 1971. It started first when the Bengali language was imposed on Assam during British colonial rule, between 1831 and 1873. Despite little evidence, many Assamese sub-nationalists believe, to this day, that this imposition was the handiwork of Bengali clerks rather than the British rulers themselves.

The British won Assam from the Burmese in 1826. The territories held by the Ahom and Manipuri kings had been overrun and devastated by Burmese forces in 1821. After their victory, the British appended Assam to the Bengal Presidency.

At the time, a debate on the government’s language policy was raging across British India. In 1838, the judicial and revenue department of the Company Raj ordered that, in Bengal, the local vernacular was to replace Persian, the previous language of administration in lower courts and revenue offices. Since Assam was now a part of the Bengal Presidency, the language of the province’s bureaucracy and judiciary came to be Bengali.

Meanwhile, American Baptist missionaries made their way into Assam in the 1830s and set up the first printing press in northeastern India at Sibsagar in Upper Assam. They translated the Bible into the Sibsagar dialect of Assamese, which went on to become the standard Assamese. This was a decisive turn in the region’s cultural history, given the ancient centre of Assam was Kamrup, which had its own dialects. The missionaries also published the first grammar and dictionary of the Assamese language, and the first Assamese newspaper, and led protests against Bengali.

The British administration remained unmoved by the protests, until, in 1874, for mainly administrative reasons, a new province was constituted separate from the Bengal Presidency. The new province comprised districts that were originally in the Ahom and Koch kingdoms; the three largely Bengali-speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara; and the Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, Naga and Mizo hill districts.

The Baptist mission’s efforts, and the hardening of linguistic identities following the introduction of a census during British rule, contributed significantly to a language-based politics that laid the foundation for the politics of indigeneity in Assam. The demotion of Bengali and the restoration of Assamese in 1874 did not end anxieties of outside domination, but led instead to an assertive politics of language. As Assamese speakers gained power, the majoritarian character of the movement alienated local minorities. After Independence, the Khasi, Garo, Jaintia, Naga and Mizo hills all broke off from Assam, based on their own identity-based movements. Sylhet went to East Pakistan during Partition in a controversial referendum, but Cachar and Goalpara remained in Assam, despite a long history of ethnic violence against Bengalis in the state.

Following the creation of East Pakistan, Assamese–Bengali tensions came to be articulated in new terms. The ruling elites claimed to be the “indigenous Assamese,” and cast Bengalis as “foreigners,” claiming illegal immigration from East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. The Bongal Kheda—“drive out the Bongals”—movement began soon after Partition. From 1960, the smaller riots of Bongal Kheda turned into major riots aimed at evicting supposed outsiders from Assam. The word “Bongal,” which originally meant any outsider, had by then come to mean Bengalis. The Bongal Kheda movement gradually changed its name to “Bidekhi Kheda”—“drive out the foreigners.” In 1979, an agitation began to drive out those considered foreigners, mostly Bengalis and Nepalis. It was called the “anti-foreigner agitation” and is now celebrated as the “Assam Agitation.”

Initially, Bengali Hindus were the primary targets. There were several massacres—such as one in North Kamrup in January 1980 in which roughly two hundred people, mainly Bengali Hindus, were killed, according to the historian Amalendu Guha. The worst of the massacres, however, eventually targetted Bengali Muslims. As Sanjoy Hazarika reported in the New York Times, well over three thousand men, women and children were killed overnight in what came to be known as the Nellie massacre. Similar events occured on a smaller scale in Shillong, where the violence against dkhars—outsiders—continued into the 1990s.

The discourse of protecting the rights of indigenous people is so strong that few intellectuals have condemned these attempts at ethnic cleansing against Bengalis. Not only do the “indigenous” people control the state machinery, their civil-society groups, militant student organisations and armed insurgent outfits pose a significant threat to the region’s minorities. The differences in position between the region’s sub-nationalist groups are of degree, not kind.

The most extreme expression of the indigenous Assamese identity movement was the United Liberation Front of Asom, which fought to establish an independent nation-state of Assam. The ULFA had supporters across the political spectrum, including journalists, lawyers, activists, politicians and academics. Its armed struggle was largely against the Indian government and big tea-estate owners, not just petty clerks and traders. Its former general secretary, Anup Chetia, now runs an organisation called the North East Indigenous People’s Forum, an umbrella group of organisations that work for the rights of the indigenous people of the northeast.

Many former supporters of the ULFA, and similar other armed extremist movements in states such as Manipur and Nagaland, have now become supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the struggle between the big nationalism of Hindutva and little regional nationalisms, big nationalism has prevailed. Sarbananda Sonowal, once a leader of key bodies of the indigenous-Assamese movement—the All Assam Students Union and the Asom Gana Parishad—is now the chief minister in Assam’s BJP-led government. The Assam BJP’s leadership predominantly comprises former Assamese jatiyobadis—meaning practitioners of jati-based politics. The word jati can be translated as race or caste.

The common aversion to “foreigners,” meaning Bangladeshi migrants, helped Hindutva absorb jatiyobadis in Assam. Updating the National Register of Citizens to identify foreigners is a common goal for the BJP and the various strands of Assamese and other northeastern nationalists. Under the exercise, the onus is on those living in Assam to produce documents to prove their citizenship for inclusion in the NRC. The media has reported on numerous cases of people who are evidently Indian citizens, but have been left out of the NRC due to errors or documentation issues. Currently, 4.1 million people who are residents of Assam have been excluded from the NRC, and are at risk of statelessness. The central and state governments had sought to carry out a sample re-verification of 20 percent of the list in light of the evident errors, but their request was turned down by the Supreme Court—led by the current chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, who happens to be from Assam.

According to procedures approved earlier by the Supreme Court under Gogoi, “indigenous” people were given a shortcut to inclusion in the NRC. They can be included as “original inhabitants” if they can satisfy the registering authority that they are Indian citizens. There is no definition of who is “indigenous” or an “original inhabitant,” or how the registering authority, usually a state-government clerk, is to be satisfied about citizenship. Thus, those belonging to an ethnic group considered indigenous are more likely to be declared “original inhabitants,” while anyone who happens to be Bengali or Nepali is prone to being considered a foreigner—from Bangladesh or Nepal—until proven otherwise.

The BJP’s plan with the NRC is to eventually disenfranchise only the Muslims from those excluded. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, expected to be passed later this year, would ease the path to citizenship for non-Muslims from this lot. This is where Hindu nationalism is in conflict with the little nationalisms of the northeast, of which Assamese and Naga sub-nationalisms are the biggest. For these northeastern nationalists, providing citizenship to non-Muslims—a large chunk of whom are Bengali Hindus—is unpalatable.

Largely, supporters of little nationalisms support the NRC and oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The Hindutva brigade supports both the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The only people in opposition to both the NRC, because of its evident errors, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, because of its discriminatory nature, are liberals and sections of the Left. This is a tiny minority. Honourable exceptions apart, there is a familiar, deafening silence even from the local intelligentsia on violations of the human-rights of the excluded.

The only safe option for anyone in such a situation is to claim the mantle of indigeneity, which confers citizenship, power and respect in society. If a person of Bengali heritage is able to reinvent herself as “indigenous,” she can immediately go from being a powerless outsider to a powerful insider. Many Duttas, Bhattacharjees, Choudhurys and Goswamis over the decades have made this shift. The Miyas, too, reinvented themselves as “new Assamese” after Partition, and are still at pains to distance themselves from their Bengali roots. In a recent interview with The Wire, Hafiz Ahmed, who is also the president of an organisation of Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam, said, “We are Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims. We are not Bengali. We are not Bengali Muslims.” The writer of the line “Write down I am a Miya” added, “We never asked to be given the Miya identity.”

Perhaps this statement will absolve him of his crime of poetry.