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

  • To many, Miyah poetry is an oxymoron

  • A Miyah is only supposed to labour; to produce children, to keep them alive as they eventually die young; to eke out a livelihood as he lad around them floods, to migrate to cities when habitats are eroded, to run from pillar-to-post for securing citizenship — and you speak of poetry!

  • The elixir of literature is for the learned and the sophisticated, the intellectuals who preach liberation in public but practice exclusion in private; it is not for the wretched of the earth

Eavesdropping on a conversation in a Guwahati city bus, [I found] three passengers discussing the ‘controversy’ surrounding Miya/Miyah poetry. On 10 July, an FIR was filed against 10 poets and activists from Assam over a poem. A week later, three more FIRs were filed against the same people. So a total of four FIRs were filed under five different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and Telecommunication Act against these individuals — for writing poetry.

The conversation in the bus, however, soon changed from the poetry row to the “alarming situation that Assam faces from the Miyah”. From opining that the Miyah knew “only how to produce scores of children with his numerous wives” to proclaiming they’re “only fit to survive in precarious conditions and perform onerous jobs” to asserting that they deserved retribution for “raising (their) voices, grabbing our land”, the three passengers seemed to share unanimous views, concluding as they disembarked at Dispur that “they are all Bangladeshis, destroying the social fabric and devouring our cultural soul… these two-legged termites”.

When this is the mindset, is it so strange that Miyah poetry faces such backlash in Assam?

To many, Miyah poetry is an oxymoron. A “Miyah” is only supposed to labour; to ‘produce’ children, to keep them alive as they eventually die young; to eke out a livelihood as he lad around them floods, to migrate to cities when habitats are eroded, to run from pillar-to-post for securing citizenship — and you speak of poetry! The elixir of literature is for the learned and the sophisticated, the intellectuals who preach liberation in public but practice exclusion in private; it is not for the “wretched of the earth”.

II

Historically, the Miyah was facilitated by the British to migrate to the ‘wastelands’ of the Brahmaputra valley from their densely populated and zamindar-administered districts of erstwhile East Bengal. They settled in the margins and slowly moved into the ‘mainland’. But the urge to ‘create’ partitioned spaces, separating the Miyah and the ‘rest’ through the Line system (1916) is now a more-than-a-century-old phenomenon. And we thought Partition struck just once, in 1947!

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

The 'Miyah' were secluded to inhabit the geographically isolated char (river islands) villages of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Image for representation only. REUTERS

Partitioning of spaces, otherwise a colonial project, continues unabated in the post-colonial era, through seen and felt borders. The Miyah was secluded to inhabit the geographically isolated char (river islands) villages of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, numbering now at 2,251. This geographical isolation breeds psychological distance, ultimately leading to social exclusion. The migrating Miyah escaping flood, erosion and hunger, perpetuates group solidarity amongst the other communities in the settled land. The Assam Water Mission (2017) states that during the last 100 years the Brahmaputra’s inundation has increased by at least 50 percent. Is it difficult to imagine what happened to the Miyah who lived right within the river!

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The precariousness of existence is an everyday lived experience in the life of a Miyah. The chars, inhabited by 10 percent of Assam’s population, account for a meagre 4 percent of the state’s land. They are twice as densely populated, with declining per capita availability of cultivable land. The decadal population growth rate in these areas is more than three times [the state’s], with a substantially higher estimated infant mortality rate. Doesn’t poetry seem to be at odds with an overall literacy rate of less than 20 percent in the char villages? And that too, when the estimates show a rise in the population below the poverty line to 68 percent? Hey, when revolutions have ceased to exist for the proletariat even in utopias, how dare you write poetry!

The urge to transform Assam into a homogenous ethno-national province is not new.

Concomitantly, the state has equally been a ‘space’ of intermingling of faiths, languages and nationalities. A social contract evolved among various communities, and Assamese became the official language. The wretched Miyah also chose Assamese as (their) mother tongue in Census declarations: It saved them from the double whammy of minority on both counts — religion and language. But those who saved the language were bereft of social recognition in Assam. “Miyah” became a derogatory term: the ubiquitous Bangladeshi, the immigrant, the “termites on two legs”. So why wouldn’t it pinch if the Miyah were to write poetry?

III

What is Miyah poetry? It’s a repository of few poems written during the last couple of years predominantly by ‘poets’ hailing from the char villages of the Brahmaputra. It wasn’t initially labelled with the epithet “Miyah”, until an article by M Riaz in TwoCircles.net used the term “Miyah poetry”. It touched the collective imagination and Miyah poetry evolved from its beginnings where individual poets were writing about their existential realities. These poems were the reflection of individual poets as they negotiated the world outside their chars. In other words, it was through the socially constructed, derogatory word Miyah that they asserted their collective existence.

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

Inspired by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish’s (1941-2008) iconic poem I am an Arab, Hafiz Ahmed shared a poem on Facebook — Write Down, I am a Miyah — where the life and trepidations of a char dweller are articulated. Shalim M. Hussain titles his poem No, No, I Have Written, stating his pride at being a Miyah. He locates his identity amongst all working people thereby transcending place, space and region, whilst urging “Please do not call me a Bangladeshi!” Rehana Sultana (My Mother) seeks justice as she narrates how the Miyah have lost everything — identity, land and language — but are still cursed. Her desire is for recognition as equal citizens.

Chan Miyah’s poem I Don’t Know My Name narrates the circumstances under which a Miyah ‘camouflages’ his name, time and again, as he move out of chars seeking a livelihood. He even fails to recall his ‘original’ name. Sitting in a detention camp, which ironically was constructed with his labour, he realises the futility of his ascribed names in hiding his Miyah identity, and asserts ‘I will make a mark in history, by erasing those borrowed names’. Siraj Khan (My Son is Learning Urban Slang) narrates the indignities associated with the queries a Miyah encounters in urban areas: about religion, language, place of birth, year of immigration from Bangladesh. But he is hopeful that things will change. His son has enrolled in a college; education will usher in change. On similar lines, Abdur Rahim (Don’t Curse Me in the Name of Miyah) and Ashraful Hussain (I Am From Char) explain the pathos and angst in the life of the Miyah. These poems use dress, identity, language as metaphors to interpret changes in char society.

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Two other poems, Abdul Kalam Azad’s (Every day In The Calendar is Marked As Nellie) and Rezwan Hussain’s (Our Revolution) are distinct in style and content. Both carry expressions of an eerie pain and exasperation in the life of a Miyah. Azad, in his poignant style, deconstructs the calendar into months and days by marking events like riot, arson, murder, rape and exploitation in the life of the Miyah; every day appears to be as horrible as Nellie at an individual level. Hussain portrays how patiently the Miyah have laboured throughout history, in the face of intimidation. But patience does have limits and he dreams of an impending revolution “which will neither be telecast nor printed, neither will it carry guns or slogans on the wall. Our revolution with raised fists in unison will torment the perpetrators from within and they will turn into ashes in their self-lit fire of prejudices”.

IV

Social consciousness emerges out of social labour. Christopher Caudwell, writing about ‘The Birth of Poetry’ in Illusion and Reality, explains how this consciousness acts as a harbinger of freedom for the toiling masses from the ‘coercion’ of the exploiters. While Miyah poetry enables the “Miyah" to aspire for freedom as a social being, it disables others who would enforce ‘coercion’ on the Miyah so that their sub-human existence continues. Are these FIRs against the poets who wrote Miyah poetry a step in that direction (of continuing coercion)? Is Assam programming the death of poetry?

Gorky Chakraborty is with the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK) and author of the book Assam's Hinterland: Society and Economy in the Char Areas

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2019 15:27:16 IST