Sometime around 2015, Shalim Hussain, along with friends Abdul Kalam Azad and Kazi Neel, launched the Itamgur, an art collective that produces, translates and promotes Miyah poetry. In Assam, the word miyah is used as a pejorative against Muslims of Bengali origin. The minority community decided to turn the slur on its head and take ownership of the word. Through poetry, that has come to be known as Miyah poetry, many are talking about their identity and about the discrimination faced by the community. A PhD scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university, Hussain, 32, who writes in Assamese, speaks about the fear and uncertainty triggered by the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the relevance of poetry today.
At most events, you read out poetry written by others in the Miyah poetry movement and not your work. Why?
We don’t have enough poets comfortable in English so I am mostly the only one doing events outside Assam. If I focus on my own work, the others won’t get a voice, defeating the purpose. I have written poetry and continue to translate for others. I now have a Sci-Fi novel set in multiple universes coming up.
Is it far from your reality, then?
There is familiar territory — the Brahmaputra, the mud banks and people living there. Of course, it is political too…once you become political, you cannot undo it. That innocence is lost forever (laughs).
That innocence, of course, was a wilful evasion of reality. The first time you are called a miyah, you are taught not to react. But after a certain point, you question it, and eventually, you decide to own the word.
What was the turning point for you?
Around 2004, Assam witnessed a strong anti-Bihari movement. I saw students from my college involved in violence against that community. It was a rude awakening — it is ‘them’ today and will be ‘us’ tomorrow.
There are two important incidents recorded by our foremothers — the earthquake of 1950 and the fear that followed the Nellie massacre (1983). These events remain in the women’s memory because they became responsible for feeding and protecting the children. The earthquake was devastating. It left people with no means of survival except by eating crushed grass seeds. The Nellie massacre made people leave homes and hide in the fields for days. Once you know these stories of extreme deprivation and extreme fear, you know not to take things for granted.
What was growing up in the char-chapori part of Assam like?
My village, Sontoli, is on the banks of the Brahmaputra and our house is a kilometre away from the river. So, in that sense, we were privileged but I have seen that life closely. We are referred to as migrants but this life — having to move every time the water levels of the river rise — is eternal migration.
Made of bamboo walls and an aluminium sheet as roof, the houses are dismantled fast, sometimes in two hours. The people own very few possessions so as to move quickly in a boat. They have, sometimes, moved seven times in four years, and most of them live below the poverty line. These are landless people, mostly Bengali-origin Assamese Muslims. So I don’t understand why we are accused of having stolen the land and livelihoods of the locals.
What is this anger against the community rooted in?
There is always fear about the ‘outsider’. But while violence against, say, the Biharis, will peak and subside, the anger towards us is permanent. We are called rapists, child kidnappers and anything else that one can imagine. The Congress party initiated the NRC so there is no point in giving them a clean chit, but with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, our community will be isolated. Hindus of Bengali origin will get citizenship but we won’t.
How do you handle the fear-mongering?
We try to do away with the cultural markers, like the lungi-topi. The first thing to go was our language. We have reported Assamese as our first language since the 1950s and do not speak our native dialects in public.
What is the impact of the NRC?
Anytime something as major as the NRC or the Citizenship Amendment Bill comes up, a fear akin to the one at the time of the Nellie massacre, sets in. It makes people do desperate things. Many have taken their own lives — 40 at the latest count — because they fear they will be put in permanent detention once they are declared illegal immigrants as India doesn’t have an extradition policy with Bangladesh. Social mobility is the only way out. Although, it didn’t help retired army officer Mohammed Sanaullah, who was sent into detention until the courts intervened.
What’s your view on illegal immigrants?
There are practical reasons for national boundaries but I don’t believe that weakened boundaries necessarily cause a problem. Should illegal immigrants be put into indefinite detention? No. Many such people are pushed into the hills between India and Bangladesh. It’s horrible — many are lost, many die in an attempt to return. Whatever mechanism you adopt to stop the immigration, when humans are in deep trouble, they will find a way — legal or illegal — to return.