In the Crosshairs

How poetry became a crime in Assam

01 August 2019
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
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

Write
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.

Samrat is a journalist and author. He is a co-editor of Insider/Outsider—Belonging and Unbelonging in North-East India.

Keywords: NRC Citizenship (Amendment) Bill National Register of Citizens Northeast India Assam
COMMENT