Miyah poetry backlash exemplifies the powerful forces unleashed when a group identity is under threat

  • It has long been a common experience for Bengali-speakers in Northeast India, especially if they happen to be Muslim, to be considered Bangladeshis, just as it is a common experience for Nepali-speakers to be considered Nepalis. They are told to go to Bangladesh or Nepal.

  • In the past decades, mob violence and the state machinery have been deployed to forcibly evict many.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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On Sunday, US President Donald Trump did yet again what he has consistently done for a few years now: tweet up a storm. On this latest occasion, Trump advised some US Congresswomen to go back to the “broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. His comment has been widely condemned as racist and xenophobic. The reason is simple: while the women he was targeting were brown and black, they were born in the USA, and are US citizens. Asking them to go back to where they came from was prejudice of the worst kind, because it was clear that they were being targeted based not on where they came from, but on where their ancestors came from.

Here in India, it has long been an everyday occurrence to find people being told to go somewhere based on their religion or language. This is not considered racist and xenophobic. So, for instance, a Muslim might be asked to go to Pakistan. There was a time when a Bihari in Mumbai might have been told to go back to Bihar. A North Indian in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu might have been asked to go back to their part of the country.

It has long been a common experience for Bengali-speakers in Northeast India, especially if they happen to be Muslim, to be considered Bangladeshis, just as it is a common experience for Nepali-speakers to be considered Nepalis. They are told to go to Bangladesh or Nepal. In the past decades, mob violence and the state machinery have been deployed to forcibly evict many. Organised attempts by powerful local groups to drive out the Bengalis and Nepalis, viewed as “settlers”, by force, date back to before 1979 when a powerful agitation with this one aim began in Assam. It took the name of “bidekhi khedao” in Assamese, meaning “drive out the foreigners”, and the issue was called the “foreigner issue”. The character of the foreigner-issue agitation was described by Assamese intellectual Hiren Gohain in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in February 1980. He described it as “chauvinistic”, and went on to state that chauvinism was by nature “authoritarian and fascist”.

 Miyah poetry backlash exemplifies the powerful forces unleashed when a group identity is under threat

The idea that people have to pledge loyalty to an official language and may not even write poems in their own language — as seen in the backlash to Miyah poetry — seems pretty extreme by exclusionary standards. Photo courtesy: Reuters; Image by Suraj Prasad and Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

In recent times, Gohain has been in the news for defending what might appear to be aspects of the same chauvinism he once criticised. He wrote an article in Asomiya Khobor, an Assamese daily, attacking poetry written by Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam for using the “artificial” Miyah (also spelt as Miya) dialects, which are East Bengal dialects, rather than Assamese. Gohain’s article was critiqued in Firstpost by scholars Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi, who said, among other things, that “What Gohain wrote is also dangerous — it directly panders to and legitimises the cultural-linguistic majoritarianism that mainstream Assamese jatiyatabadis (ethno-nationalists) patently practice in the name of preserving their ‘unique identity’. It pours fuel into that all-consuming machine of exclusion and xenophobia, which the dominant political class has run since the 1970s and still continues to produce discriminatory regimes like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Foreigner Tribunals.”

Also read: Miyah poetry — How Assam’s Bengali-Muslims used words to capture a lifetime of oppression and abuse

Soon after, 10 of the poets and their translators found themselves targets of a police First Information Report filed by a local journalist. The FIR was filed against them for a poem that was critical of the NRC process, and for allegedly defaming the Assamese people as xenophobic. Hafiz Ahmed, the poet who had written the poem on NRC, subsequently issued a clarification expressing regret and saying he had always stood in support of the Assamese language. The Miyah poets, including those named in the FIR, issued a clarification saying “a huge majority of the Miyah poems are written in Assamese, some in English and Hindi and a handful of local dialects”. They also mentioned that four of the 10 people named in the FIR were researchers who had completed or were in the process of completing their PhDs in Assamese language and literature.

The idea that people have to pledge loyalty to an official language and may not even write poetry in their own language seems pretty extreme even by Bal Thackeray’s standards; it goes far beyond anything Trump has ever said. If Hindi were to become the national language in the way that Assamese is the state language in Assam, then Urdu might face the same status in India. Urdu poets would have to pledge loyalty to Hindi and showcase their Hindi PhDs. Ghazal writers living in Hindi-speaking areas might be told to go to Pakistan. This is just a gleam in many a cow belt Hindi-Hindu chauvinist’s eye. The parallel experience is, however, an accepted part of life in Northeast India, where little nationalisms have long been dominant in a way that Hindu nationalism is still a long way from being. The region has seen bouts of riots since at least 1960 in which local minorities, mainly Bengali and Nepali speakers, Hindu and Muslim, were killed, raped, had their houses burnt, and were driven out, purely on the basis of their linguistic identities. No one was ever brought to justice for even the most egregious of those crimes.

The people who carried out those pogroms were often good, simple people, motivated by love for their own land and culture. The sense of threat from “foreigners” created enough fear and anger in their minds to drive them to acts such as the Nellie massacre of 1983 in which at least 2,200 Bengali Muslim men, women and children in Assam were hacked to death overnight. The idea of a group identity under threat is a powerful force; it moves good people to murder and sacrifice. Ideologues may view it as a clash between big and little nationalisms, or conflicting religions, or a struggle for land. The view differs with the lens.

One thing remains common in all views. There is no space in any of these worldviews for the smallest and weakest minority of all, the minority of one – the individual. This is the minority whose existence is snuffed out by ideologies big and small.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Jul 19, 2019 10:16:38 IST