Miyah poetry row: How to read public statements against the backdrop of the backlash

  • Breaking free from the chains of an unequal relationship is never an easy task.

  • If you dare to challenge the system, you are punished.

  • This is the simple logic through which these systems reproduce. And this is exactly how Miyah poetry was responded to by those who speak as representatives of the Assamese society.

Poetry, the oldest form of literature, is back in business. It is back in multiple mediums, multiple sites, doing multiple things — such as generating the political debate that it has managed to produce in Assam. No, it is not just a debate; it is about representation, identity, citizenship, mobility, poverty, oppression, belongingness, and much more. Poetry, it seems, is also followed by misreadings, bullying, intimidation. Yes, we are talking about Miyah poetry.

That it has managed to produce what other writings and articulations could not achieve is merely to state the power of poetry. As Audre Lorde — black, lesbian, mother, revolutionary, poet — wrote, poetry is a “revelatory distillation of experience”. It is the “way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought”. It is this concentrated power of words distilled from experience, that names the nameless, that sows the seeds of change to a future that has not been foreseen, that troubles those who want the usual for they stand to gain by being aligned with the powers that be.

Miyah poetry, by refusing to speak what is expected of them [the Miyahs], has shattered the veneer of normalcy in Assam. As a category, it is a novelty. You may or may not have heard of them earlier. As a reclamation of an identify given from without, with its full force of prejudice, it is about finding a voice, subjectivity as some others would say — as a community, as a language, as an identity. The effect is simple but foundational: you move from being defined to defining yourself. Who gets to define and who gets defined depends on where you belong in this hierarchical equation. Their being Bengal-origin-Muslim-inhabitants-of-Assam — come to think of hyphenated identities on the one hand and Assamese as a singular identity on the other — has not only meant bearing the brunt of the collective violence meted out against them but also everyday oppression through linguistic slurs, suspicion, discrimination. Let us note that the relationship between these two groups is systemic.

 Miyah poetry row: How to read public statements against the backdrop of the backlash

If you dare to challenge the system, you are punished. This is the simple logic through which these systems reproduce. And this is exactly how Miyah poetry was responded to by those who speak as representatives of the Assamese society. Photo courtesy: Reuters; Image by Suraj Prasad and Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

Breaking free from the chains of an unequal relationship is never an easy task. You are bogged down by history, customs, habits. The truth about hierarchical systems is that if you follow the codes, you may be rewarded. But if you dare to challenge the system, you get punished. This is the simple logic through which these systems reproduce. And this is exactly how Miyah poetry was responded to by those who speak as representatives of the Assamese society.

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

Attacks, pronounced as disciplining by proponents of the system, followed. They would have none of this self-identification. Public chastisement, FIRs, and a public statement, which reminded them that they had in the past chosen to identify as Assamese rather than Miyahs followed suit. They must remain as docile partners in this whole enterprise. Time and again the Miyahs have been reminded of how well assimilated they had become... learning the language, identifying as Assamese speakers. Why have they suddenly decided to, as the statement would have, ‘assert’ themselves as a ‘Miyah’? Note the word Miyah written within quotes in the public statement. To point this out sounds like nitpicking. Trust me, it is not; it is merely following the method that the signatories to the public statement have deployed.

This statement is a response to an earlier public statement condemning the criminalisation of the Miyah poets and other activists by filing FIRs, in addition to other forms of intimidation. (Personal disclosure: I am a signatory of this first statement which was signed by more than two hundred individuals located across the globe.) The second statement, you would notice, is very particular of linguistic usages. For instance, it chastises the signatories of the first statement for their interchangeable usage between Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam and Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam.

The signatories remind that “the conscious [my emphasis] sections of the Assamese society have strongly protested against such evil tactics of using FIR to suppress the voices of poets.” The signatories also go on to state that these “conscious citizens of Assam” are made up of individuals “irrespective of religion, language or community.” It is the language to authenticate the signatories as enlightened, inclusive, secular. This is in contrast, as the signatories would have it, to the first statement which reduces the poets to that of only a Miyah identity, a religious, linguistic, ethnic identity, thereby creating communal disharmony. Indeed, they charge the signatories of the first statement for driving “a wedge between the communities by inserting the term Bengali”.

I claim no expertise on the matter. There is a simple question, though. Viewed from the perspective of a longer-time frame, what would be the basic difference between the two expressions? Of course, one refers to a territorial identity whereas the other is an ethnic and/or linguistic identity. But both are products of history; none being a given, natural entity. To believe that the territorial identity, i.e. Bengal is acceptable while the other one, namely Bengali, is problematic is to merely reiterate the fetish for modern territorial state sovereignty as the only legitimate collective identity.

As ‘conscious’ citizens, the signatories of the second statement project as though the discrimination faced by the Miyahs is perpetrated only by “a small section of the wayward Assamese young boys and girls”. Since they point out that “[t]here have been instances of use of foul language by some intemperate young men and women of the supporters of ‘Miyah poetry also”, are we to deduce that it is now a case of equivalent intimidation, one being cancelled by the other?

Miyah poetry row in Assam: Analysing the pushback through lens of attitude towards marginalised

More importantly, the statement is a chilling reminder of the always already present slippage from defining, defending a collective identify, becoming a bully in the name of that identity, to justification for violence. Experiences tell us that from here to genocide is not such a long way. Who gets to decide, whether a person is an Assamese Muslim or a Miyah poet? Would he or she, and other Miyahs, ever have the right to decide whether they would like to be Miyahs or Assamese, or both, or none?

Read critically, the signatories of the second statement make it clear that the Miyahs have had a sense of security and peace, and that the harmony in the larger society has been at the mercy of the mainstream Assamese, who have played the role of “a warm host”. In this division, there are the hosts, the original inhabitants, on the one hand and illegal immigrants, infiltrators, settlers, on the other. How is this, one wonders, any different from the vitriolic and violent language of white supremacists in the United States of America, or their President who can make public statements targetting Congresswomen of colour that they can go back to their country if they are unsatisfied of being in the country?

As democratic, secular, progressive individuals, I am sure, this comparison will be seen as uncharitable, even unwarranted. I have no doubt about the moral and ethical integrity of the signatories. In fact, I am convinced that they stand for justice and peace. I am also sure that many of them would stand in solidarity for the oppressed in many parts of the world. I wonder why the same sense of solidarity cannot be translated, implemented when one is faced with issues closer home.

We cannot begin to address a problem if we do not acknowledge its existence. To keep on reiterating that there has been harmony, that the Miyahs have done exceedingly well by learning, contributing to the Assamese language is to not only deny the existence of the problem but to speak in the language of a paternalistic, opportunistic oppressor. One is tempted to ask what the ‘mainstream Assamese’, ‘the hosts’, have become in this process of encounter and/or interaction? Or is it the case that this process is only one of assimilation by the Miyahs into the mainstream Assamese in which ‘the hosts’ feels not a bit obliged to reciprocate? After all, isn’t it the case that the statement tries to hide the contradiction that exists in their characterisation of the Miyahs? At one point, Miyahs are Assamese, at another point, Miyahs are settlers.

How far back in the past should one go back to become truly Assamese so that one can claim the status of an original inhabitant, a host, unlike the stigmatised settler?

Dr Yengkhom Jilangamba is assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati

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Updated Date: Aug 08, 2019 10:08:40 IST