An FIR was registered against 10 Assamese poets (July 10, 2019). These poets, mostly Muslims; have been pioneers and are leading lights of what has come to be known as Miyah Poetry. One sample, by the initiator of this trend; Hafiz Ahmed, goes like this –
Write, Write Down,
I am a Miya, My serial number in the NRC is 200543, I have two children
Another is coming Next summer. Will you hate him, As you hate me?
Many of these poems reflect the anguish of Muslims, who are labelled as Bangladeshis and face the ignominy of being called foreigners. Most of these poems are in different local dialects, some in Assamese and some in English. The FIR states, “By these lines, the accused persons are creating an image of our state as a barbarian state in the eyes of the world, which is a threat to the security of the Nation in general and Assam in particular…”
Some critics said that this poetry, since it used local dialects, was an insult to the Assamese language. In the face of this criticism, Ahmed apologized. He also stated that he has been a part of the Assamese language promotion movement, so there was no question of his being against the Assamese language.
The whole episode raises multiple issues. To begin with, all this is taking place against the backdrop of the issue of citizenship in Assam. Assam had a significant Muslim population at the time of partition, to the extent that Mr. Jinnah wanted Assam to be a part of Pakistan. On top of that, Assam saw multiple migrations of Hindu and Muslims, both at the time of India’s partition in 1947 and later, with the formation of Bangladesh. There has been a continuous flux of population and the immigrants are both Hindus and Muslims.
With the NRC process going on in Assam, the threat of disenfranchisement has hit nearly 40 lakh people, as they do not possess the relevant documents and their names are missing in the first list. As the agenda of Hindu nationalism is unfolding at a rapid pace; the Citizenship Amendment Bill talks of granting citizenship to Sikhs, Jains and Hindus but not to Muslims. As the final list of NRC is going to be out on August 31, the feeling all around is that from those excluded in the register, the Hindus will fit in with the Citizenship Amendment bill and gain citizenship while Muslims will have to suffer exclusion. The recent case of Md. Sanaullah, a retired army officer, being sent to the detention camp shows the possibility of very legitimate citizens being expelled and deprived of their fundamental rights. Mr. Amit Shah’s intent of extending the NRC exercise to the whole country is fraught with the possibility that citizenship would be linked to religion.
What does this Miyah Poetry, the poetry of protest, reflect? To begin with, it is very clear that it is not against Assam or the Assamese people. Mostly, it is an expression of the anguish and pain of Muslims. First, the whole exercise of ‘Doubtful voter’ (D Voter), then the Foreigners Tribunal pushing people into detention camps, and this exercise of National Register of Citizens – the citizenship of some people has been continuously questioned. While Bangla-speaking Hindus are also targeted, there is respite for them in the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which regards Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains as refugees and Muslims as infiltrators. As such, the Muslim community has been undergoing a process of constant labelling as foreigners, ‘Go to Pakistan’ being the constant threat to some Muslims leaders and prominent citizens who express their opinion or criticize the ruling dispensation.
During the last couple of decades, Islamophobia in the aftermath of 9/11, the consequent association of Islam with terror and the politics of control of oil being given a garb of religion have gone on at a global level. At a national level, with the massive riots of 1992-93, Gujarat 2002 and Muzzarfarnagar 2013, the popular perceptions about Muslim community have taken a nose dive. The Indian Muslim community, which shares with other religious communities the syncretic traditions of the land and has been the part of the social life here, has been portrayed to be a threat to the majority community. The responses of the targeted community come in various forms. I was first surprised around 2005-2006, when a major section of Indian Muslims, writers, social workers, scientist came together to discuss the theme ’What it means to be a Muslim in India today?’ The growing ghettoization is the major response of the current times. The rising hold of conservative elements within the community is directly proportional to the insecurity being perceived by this community.
The Miyah poetry, in a way, expresses the turmoil through which the Muslim community is passing, in Assam in particular. Many aspects of this turmoil are applicable in other parts of the country as well. The citizenship recognition is basic to the life of individuals. In Assam, Miyah, which is normally an honorific title; has come to mean Bangladeshi Muslim; an infiltrator; a foreigner. It is used as a derogatory term, in popular parlance. Those, who value democratic ethos, need also to look into the inner turmoil of the community, which is being targeted and is looked down upon.
The expressions of anguish are multi-layered. We saw the protest of dalits in the powerful poetry of the likes of Namdeo Dhasal, J V Pawar among others. The women’s movement has thrown up a rich literature in India, reflecting the travails of the ‘Half the sky’. All this needs to be received as the pain of fellow citizens, as we aspire to build a society with equality. The touching poems need to be honoured and respected. Attempts should be made to work towards an India where the values of our freedom movement, which united us into a single fraternity, are promoted and upheld.