Protest poetry: Assam’s Bengali Muslims take a stand

To confront discrimination, Bengali-origin Muslim poets are turning “Miya” – a slur for illegal immigrant – on its head.

[Rafik Ahmed/Al Jazeera]
Shalim Hussain at a reading of Miya poetry in Delhi on November 8, 2016. [Kazi Neel/Al Jazeera]

Delhi, India – Since childhood, 29-year-old Shalim Hussain, a research scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, has contended with being called a “Miya”. Although the word literally means gentleman in Urdu, Hussain learned at a young age that in his home state of Assam, Miya is a slur meaning “Bangladeshi” or “illegal immigrant”.

In Assam, a northeastern border state in India, “Miya” is exclusively directed at Muslims of Bengali origin.

Migration to the state from what is now Bangladesh pre-dates the present international borders. A fear of illegal migrants, perceived to grab land and corrupt the local culture, has been played up in local politics for just as long.

“Even in 1946, when state elections were held, migration of Bengali-origin Muslims into Assam was a big issue,” says Sanjoy Hazarika, an Assamese scholar and director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Delhi.

WATCH: Strife in India’s Assam rooted in poverty (2:39)

The prejudice against Muslims of Bengali origin, a community which remains largely impoverished, has led not only to abusive language but recurring communal violence as well.

Growing up on one of Assam’s more than 2,000 chars, or river islands, where 85 percent of the population consists of Muslims of Bengali origin, Hussain felt safe. But at the prestigious Cotton College in the state capital of Guwahati, where his relatively well-to-do parents had sent him for higher education, he quickly learned how many in Assam see his community.

“In 2005, the annual floods displaced many people from the chars and they started settling in temporary shelters on the pavements of Guwahati,” he recalls, sitting cross-legged on a thin mattress in his sparsely furnished two-room flat in Delhi’s Muslim-majority residential area of Zakir Nagar, close to Jamia Millia Islamia University, where he is pursuing a PhD in English literature.

“The Assamese students at Cotton College participated very actively in forcefully evicting them. These kind of informal evictions happen often, but it was the first time I saw one,” he says.

What he saw scared him.

“I realised there was a divide between us and other Assamese.”

More than a decade since, Hussain and others from his community have found a way to take the derogatory term Miya and subvert it.

Despite the low levels of literacy prevalent in the community – the most recent government survey in 2003 found that the average literacy rate on the chars was 19 percent, compared with the state average of 54 percent – a growing number of younger people from Hussain’s community are pursing higher education in English and working in academia, NGOs, medicine and law. Some are using their skills for social activism in collectives such as the Muslim Youth Forum Against Communalism, Terrorism, and Sedition (MY-FACTS) and Jhai Foundation, which works for the rights and socially uplifting of Muslims in the state. 

Now, Hussain and others are using poetry as a tool of resistance, confrontation and empowerment. This emerging form of expression is known as Miya poetry.

READ MORE: In 2015, more than 200,000 displaced by floods

Miya poetry

The roots of this new genre lie in a 1939 poem titled A Charuwa’s Proposition by Maulana Bande Ali. Although Ali did not use the word Miya, his poem is considered the first example of someone within the community asserting their identity. 

In 1985, Khabir Ahmed wrote I Beg To State That, which included lines such as “I am a settler, a hated Miya”. It was written in the aftermath of the Nellie Massacre of 1983, in which more than 2,000 Bengali-origin Muslims were killed in just six hours. His poem is considered the first true assertion of Miyaness and sparked a trend of protest poetry within his community.

But this new wave of Miya poetry has had a wider reach, with social media spreading the work beyond a small literary elite.

It began earlier this year, shortly after the April 4 and 11 state assembly elections, in which illegal immigration was a prominent campaign issue. When the results were announced on May 19, an unprecedented victory was claimed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The movement began with Hafiz Ahmed, an academic, social activist and poet in his 50s, who published Write Down I Am A Miya on Facebook in late April. His poem received hundreds of likes, comments and shares, and triggered a series of spontaneous poetic responses. 

Hussain, who says earlier he mainly wrote about love and death, responded next with his poem called Nana I Have Written, asserting his identity as a “Miya” for the first time.

To date, about 20 mostly young poets have written poems, sharing them on Facebook. These include established poets as well as occasional writers, academics and activists as well as grassroots leaders, writing in English, Assamese or local dialects of Bengali.

Miya poetry has been noticed outside the community as well.

Shalim Hussain [Aletta Andre/Al Jazeer
Shalim Hussain [Aletta Andre/Al Jazeer

These poems have been published in online literary journals and featured at poetry readings in both Assam and Delhi.

At a recent festival celebrating the culture of India’s northeastern states in the capital Delhi, the Assamese poet and Delhi-based academic Nitoo Das singled out Miya Poetry as an important new voice in the region. Hussain recently won a prestigious grant to research the genre.

Ahmed, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, says it wasn’t just the assembly elections result which inspired him to write, but an overall anger “which can no longer be ignored”.

Ahmed believes decades of “discrimination and torture” are to blame. Although the 1983 massacre was the most deadly incident of communal violence, it did not stop there. In 2012, clashes over land led to violence between members of the indigenous Bodo tribe and Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam’s eastern districts, leaving dozens of people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced from both sides. In 2014, the violence occurred in a more one-sided way; militant Bodos burned the homes of Muslim families, killing dozens of people. 

Proving one is Indian 

Both Ahmed and Hussain refer to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in their work. 

The NRC was completed in 1951 and, after that, never updated. Responding to several public petitions seeking information on and action against illegal immigrants in Assam, the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered the state government to update the NRC. Now, all residents must show documents to prove they settled in Assam before March 25, 1971, the date Bangladesh was created.

The opening stanzas of Ahmed’s poem, Write Down I Am A Miya, ask if Miya is associated with hate and points out one way in which the NRC is used – as a means for Muslims of Bengali origin to prove that they are Indian citizens:

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?

At the same time, the poem reflects the community’s fears about how the register could be misused – to disenfranchise Bengali-origin Muslims by deeming them illegal migrants if they do not possess the right documentation. Citizens who live on the chars, for instance, often travel in search of work as seasonal labourers, and don’t always maintain proper documentation.

In their state election campaign, the BJP had promised to strip Muslim immigrants of voting rights and deport those who were deemed illegal migrants if it came to power. 

Recently, while travelling close to the Bangladesh border, Hussain met an 83-year-old woman whose citizenship was called into question – she was declared a Doubtful Voter owing to a revision of the electoral roll. Cases such as hers are referred to courts called the Foreigners’ Tribunals. Sometimes, people are sent to detention camps to wait until the special courts hear their cases. There are almost 500 people in these centres, according to the news weekly India Today. 

“She is now mortally scared of being sent to a detention camp,” Hussain says. “When you see things like that, something breaks inside.”

The last stanzas of Ahmed’s poem anticipate a worrying spectre, wherein the angry Miya is not prepared to acquiesce any longer.

“When you push people against the wall for too long, they might react in a violent way. If my community picks up guns, Assam will turn to ashes,” Ahmed says, echoing the last lines of his poem:

I have nothing but anger in stock. 
Keep away! 
Turn to Ashes.

READ MORE: The disappearing children of Assam

Nationalistic rhetoric

In Assam, nationalistic rhetoric hasn’t subsided. In October, Himanta Biswa Sarma, a powerful minister in the state government, stated at a gathering in Guwahati for the release of his new book that while Hindus from Bangladesh, where they are a minority, are welcome to take refuge in the state, Muslims are not.

WATCH: Why does violence continue to plague Assam? (25:00)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed a similar sentiment when he campaigned in the state during the national elections of 2014. His central government is working on a new bill, the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016), which will help illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists to become Indian citizens with greater ease. Muslims, however, have been kept out of this list, causing a stir in both Assam and Delhi.

“There is a widening and sharper rift in some areas,” says Hazarika, the director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Delhi, citing the region where the recent Bodo-Muslim violence occurred as an example.

He calls this trend “extremely worrisome”.

According to Hazarika, a former journalist who wrote for international publications, the local media is obsessed with so-called “Bangladeshis” and its coverage amounts to scaremongering.

“Hardly a day goes by without the word ‘Bangladeshi’ being on the front pages of all local newspapers,” he says. 

In this political climate, Hazarika considers the poetry movement a sign of courage and welcomes it.

“It should be heard in every nook and corner of Assam,” he says.

READ MORE: India – ‘World’s wettest place’ suffers water shortage

More shameless, more angry

Since writing his poem in English, Hussain has translated it into Assamese and local dialects of Bengali, and translated other poems written in those languages into English.

He shares the work on a Facebook page called Itamugur, a term which refers to a tool used by farmers on the chars, where the majority of the Miya poets grew up.

While illiterate char residents may not be able to read the poems, in the opinion of Abdul Kamal Azad, a social worker operating on several chars, the words do “really translate the anger of the community”.

Abdul Kalam Azad on a boat on the river Beki in Assam [Rafik Ahmed/Al Jazeera]

Azad is himself from a poor family, and his parents are farmers on a char. Verbal and physical abuse was part of his youth, he alleges.

“When people call us Miya or Bangladeshi, there are limited options to fight back, because the state does not protect us,” he says, referring to an incident from this year where a Muslim member of the state assembly was reportedly called a Bangladeshi in a derogatory way during a session. 

“There is a risk of Muslim youth in Assam becoming radicalised as a result,” Azad says.

This is why, in 2012, he actively supported the founding of the MY-FACTS, which started working in the camps of displaced victims of the Bodo-Muslim violence.

Now, Azad works to improve the social conditions on the chars with his NGO Jhai Foundation. 

Poetry can be used towards this goal, believes Azad, who co-runs Itamugur with Hussain.

“I’m not a poet, but I am using my network to spread these new poems,” he says.

The low social status and existential insecurity of the community are topics addressed in many of these poems. But it is also often done with a mild, ironic humour, and pride, as Hussain’s poem demonstrates:

Now see me rise 
From flood waters 
Float over landslides 
March through sand and marsh and snakes 
Break the earth 
‘s will draw trenches with spades 
Crawl through fields of rice and diarrhoea and sugarcane 
And a 10 percent literacy rate 
See me shrug my shoulders curl my hair 
Read two lines of poetry one formula of math 
Read confusion when the bullies call me Bangladeshi 
And tell my revolutionary heart 
But I am a Miya

“We are more shameless now, and more angry,” says Hussain with a grin, adding that poems from the past were more conciliatory in tone.

“They were still hopeful that the Assamese will listen to them,” he says. “But we do not have any such expectations. We want to draw the attention of people outside the state and even the country.” 

Source: Al Jazeera