For three years every day at 5 pm, Mirza Lutfar Rahman’s voice would crackle on radios across Assam: “Nomoskar, Yuvabani’loi xokolu srotak’e moi Mirza Lutfar Rehman’e swagatam jonaisu” (Greetings, I am Mirza Lutfar Rahman, welcoming all listeners to the Yuvabani programme).
Soon after he started working as an “announcer” at the All India Radio (AIR) office in Guwahati in 2012, someone told him: “Do you know you are the first person from your community to be an announcer for AIR?”
That evening Rahman raced back to call his family who lived in a riverine island, called a char-chapori, in Boko, about 100 km away. “Aami aru Axomiya hoboloi baaki nai”, the young man had thought to himself with pride. “This is as Assamese as we get.”
Rahman grew up, like all Assamese children, listening to the music of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha. When he was older, it was Bhupen Hazarika on loop. For his char’s Bihu programmes, Rahman would edit its annual magazine. And yet, Rahman has keenly felt the question of identity throughout his life.
He is a “Miya”, a pejorative word used to describe Muslims who migrated from East Bengal to Assam over several decades, starting from 19th century. He recalls how a colleague at AIR had lashed out at him with that slur. Though poorer people from his community would quietly give in to routine abuse, Rahman didn’t. “I told him ‘What’s the difference between you and I? I came from a char, you came from elsewhere but we both got jobs here. The only difference is in our minds’,” recalls 30-year-old-Rahman.
“Weren’t We Born Here?”
Two weeks ago, a Guwahati-based journalist filed an FIR against 10 Miya poets. He alleged that Miya poetry — a newborn genre of poetry written by those like Rahman who wish to fight back against the slur — had the potential to create “communal disturbances in the state” and was painting the Assamese as “xenophobic”.
As a young Miya as well as a poet, Rahman was dismayed at the bitter debate that unfolded on social media and in newspapers. In the background were the anxieties triggered by the ongoing process to finalise the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. “We initially thought that the NRC would end discrimination against us. But it has made matters worse,” says Rahman, “It has birthed a strain of ultranationalists in Assam who have no inhibitions. They target poets too.”
Miya poetry did its first rounds in early 2016, when Dr Hafiz Ahmed, a 67-year-old writer, shared a poem I Am Miya on his Facebook profile. It led to a thread of poems from others in the community all with similar tonalities: of re-appropriating the word Miya, a slur in Assam.
The Miya community comprises descendants of East Bengal (now Bangladesh)-origin migrants to Assam. The first wave of migration was in the 1850s, when the British settled migrants from Mymensingh, Pabna and Dhaka (of the united Bengal province) in Assam. “This group, who became peasants, vegetable vendors and masons, began settling on the islands along the Brahmaputra,” says a professor from Barpeta Road Town, who did not wish to be named. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War resulted in another wave of migration. From 1979-85, a six-year-long anti-foreigner Assam Andolan was fought in the state to weed out the “illegal immigrant”, who was perceived as trying to take over jobs, language and culture of the indigenous population.
Often, at the receiving end has been the Miya community — even though many migrated before Independence or 1971 — the cutoff date set by the Assam Accord. Over the years, the Miya came to denote a contemptuous stereotype — a poor, bearded, lungi-clad Bengali-speaking Muslim, who sold fish and grew vegetables. “After the Assam Andolan, we got a lot of gaalis (abuses). When we realised nothing would put an end to this, we turned to poetry,” says Rahman, who now lives in Delhi, trying to get their family business going. “That’s actually an excuse for me to be here — what I really want is a seat in Jamia Milia’s mass communication department,” he says.
“We simply expressed our sorrows and sufferings in our poems …we are Assamese first. But like other ethnic groups in Assam, our community should have a name too,” says Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, and who has, for many years, been a champion of the Assamese language.
Over the last couple of years, the genre has encouraged youngsters to write about their own experience. Kazi Sharowar Hussain, 26, who goes by the name Kazi Neel, is a student of cultural studies in the Tezpur University — and one of those named in the FIR. Growing up on the char, the word Miya never entered Kazi’s consciousness. “It was only when we grew up, came to the bigger cities that we realised that we were considered different,” says Kazi. He started writing poetry in the language he spoke at home, when his work with an NGO showed him the derelict conditions of living in Barpeta’s Mazidbhita char.
Though conditions have marginally improved now, for years, the over 2,000 chars spread along the Brahmaputra from Dhubri to Sadiya came to be associated with lack of development, illiteracy, poverty and high birth rates. It is routine for these islands to sink every monsoon, only to emerge in another place when the waters abate. “I thought if I speak in my native language, why not write in it too? Maybe people from my community would be able to connect to it,” says Kazi, who grew up reading and writing Assamese.
The fear of statelessness has always been around Kazi, whose parents were declared D-Voters or Doubtful Voters in 1997. “I would see my father, a government teacher, work as the presiding officer in election booths but never vote himself. I remember asking him why. My father then told me about the Assam Andolan, what it meant to be a citizen and what it meant to be illegal,” says Kazi. None of the five members of the family has found a place in the NRC so far. Like several members of his community, Kazi says he supports the NRC. A lot of it has to do with the hope that a just NRC will end the years of insecurity.
“No one will have the right to call us Bangladeshis then,” says Amin Nozmul Islam, a 26-year-old from a char in Boko. But the error-ridden exercise has left them more worried. “It’s the poor, farmers and labourers who are most affected. Trials after trials to prove that Assam is our motherland. It is true our ancestors migrated. But weren’t we born here?” asks Nozmul.
A Tale of Two Identities
Why did a handful of poems trigger such anger in Assam? The answer lies in its political history, where language is the biggest fault line. In order to gain acceptance in the Assamese society, for years Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims have declared their mother tongue as Assamese in the language census. “The first Assamese schools among this community were set up in 1899,” says Ahmed, the oldest of the Miya poets named in the FIR. The weeks following the FIR, all the poets went underground. “We were scared. I closed my Facebook too — every time I opened it was some gaali or the other,” says Ahmed. He later apologised for hurting anyone’s sentiments. “If my work has caused a discord among communities in Assam, I will apologise,” says Ahmed, who has for years advocated greater amity between both communities.
Poems about the Miyas were written as far back as 1939, he says. “The Miya poetry articulation may be new but their presence in Assam’s cultural sphere is old,” says New York-based political scientist Dr Sanjib Baruah, adding that the “radical” poetry has led him to start using the term “Miya Musalman” in his academic writing. “They did come as migrants, but we must also remember that migration happened in batches and from the turn of the century,” says Baruah, who is among 200-odd intellectuals, filmmakers, students, who have signed a public statement condemning the FIR against the poets.
Over the years, a small minority have gone on to become politicians, authors, businessmen and lawyers.
What sets this wave of poetry apart is language — many written in a regional dialect, something that has reopened old anxieties. “They have always accepted Assamese. They always wanted to be Assamese. These claims of reclaiming one’s identity will only upset the balance that has been achieved after years of conflict,” says Abid Azad, a banker based in Guwahati, “My fear is not what’s happening but what can happen 10 years later when this will take an organised form.” Azad is an indigenous Assamese Muslim.
“My questions are simple: first, who is a Miya? Are they not all Assamese as they have claimed to be all these years? Second, what is this Miya language? No such language exists. Those who migrated from East Bengal speak various dialects. Who are they really trying to represent?” asks Professor Dilip Borah of the Guwahati University, whose editorial in an Assamese daily in June sparked off the debate.
There is great anger against the claim that Miya poetry is a bid to “reclaim one’s Muslim identity”, considering Assamese subnationalism has been driven by language and not religion. Even during the several language riots and Assam Andolan, Assamese Muslims and Hindus were united against the “outsider.” Dr Bora, whose arguments are backed by Assam’s most prominent intellectual Dr Hiren Gohain, asks: “Why do they want two identities?”
“This is me”
Back in the char, Rahman’s younger brother, Mirza Muyezzur Rahman or Tipu, as he is called, is home for the holidays from Delhi where he is studying to be a chartered accountant. “Why can’t we have two identities? It’s like England’s cricket team. They have people from New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, Pakistan playing as Englishmen. Assamese is the only identity we have. But yes, within that, we identify as Miya too. Why can’t we be both?” asks the 24-year-old.
In Delhi, he says, he thinks less about all this. He is working hard to study abroad — a dream he has nurtured since childhood. His friend Nozmul, 26, wants to be a singer. “I am doing my Master’s in Assamese but I really want to be a playback singer in Bollywood,” he says. While both have grown up together, they are clearly different. Tipu, who lives in Delhi, is optimistic, Nozmul, who has never left the char, is more circumspect.
“I was born as an Indian, but I have always suffered an identity crisis. The progressive Assamese call us Assamese but the truth is that the larger Assamese society hasn’t accepted us,” he says. He recalls how people from the nearby village would sprawl on the bus to avoid a Miya sitting next to them. But the boys have made a resolve — never to hide their identity or language, or to bow down to abuse.
Tipu admits that when he first heard of Rahman writing poetry, he was a little sceptical. He says, “You see, I am a bit emotional about Assamese — I listen to Zubeen Garg’s songs all the time. But later I understood — this wasn’t a stand against anyone but just an expression of our feelings, of our language…Something to tell the world outside: this is me, this is my village, this is how I feel.”
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