Write… I am a Miyahttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-miya-poetry-culture-nrc-5895176/

Write… I am a Miya

For the first time in the history of our community, we had started telling our own stories and reclaiming the Miya identity to fight against our harassers who were dehumanising us with the same word.

Assam Miya poetry, Miya Poetry in Assam, Assam NRC, National Register of Citizens Assam, Miya poetry culture in Assam
Miya poetry is getting much wider readership and the Miya poets and their associates. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

OVER the last few months, the controversy on and around Miya poetry has received an overwhelming response from readers, poets, critics, public intellectuals and online trolls. The controversy about this new genre of poetry led to the filing of four police complaints in different parts of Assam, which was followed by an outpouring in favour of the poets, poetry and the causes they spoke about. Most important is the support and curiosity from the mainstream Assamese community, whom the bullies wanted to incite against Miya poets. People from the mainstream Assamese communities organised Miya poetry reading and discussion sessions, invited Miya poets to recite and speak while they were hiding from police. However, those in the opposition responded with more virtuosity, sometimes with death and rape threats to the poets.

Miya poetry as a genre started in 2016. But much before that, one night, most probably in the late summer of 2015, I met Shalim M Hussain, one of the finest poets and translators from the region. We were discussing the issues faced by our community, ranging from floods and erosion to identity-based violence, discrimination, oppression and violation of human rights in the process of citizenship contestation and determination. Through the discussion, we resolved to use various art forms to create awareness among the communities.

That night on the terrace of Shalim’s apartment in New Delhi’s Zakir Nagar, we translated Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the wind to the Miya dialect, reflecting the suffering and agony of our community. Soon after, Shalim translated Gil Scott Heron’s The revolution will not be televised and recited it. He also helped translate a Bengali song on water, sanitation and hygiene to Miya and we started using it in our campaign for development in char (river island) areas.

We call ourselves the first generation of progressive and professional social workers, civil rights activists, and writers who have pledged to use the Indian Constitution to defend our rights. We use a number of secular and democratic campaign tools to amplify our voice; poetry, especially performance poetry, is one of them.

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In the meantime, the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was underway. People from our community hoped the NRC would be a panacea to all our problems. Hundreds and thousands of educated youths volunteered to make the NRC project acceptable among the community and help the poorly lettered collect documents and file their application forms. The NRC authority had already made the legacy data (digitised government records of 1951 NRC and subsequent electoral rolls till 1971) available for the general people. A large number of people of our community, who have been constantly displaced because of annual floods and erosion, ethnic conflicts and forceful eviction by government over the last several decades, had hardly any access to these invaluable documents.

In the last week of April 2016, Dr Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad and a strong propagator of Assamese language and literature among our community, wrote a poem in English and posted it on Facebook: “Write/ 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?…”

This poem went viral and other young poets started responding to him through poems. The young poets also started reclaiming “Miya”, a slur used against us, as our identity with pride. This chain of Facebook posts continued for days, reiterating the violence, suffering and humiliation expressed by our community.

As time passed, more poets wrote in various languages and dialects, including many Miya dialects. The nomenclature ‘Miya Poetry’ got generated organically but the poets and their associates have been inspired by the Negritude and Black Arts movements, and queer, feminist and Dalit literary movements, where the oppressed have reclaimed the identity which was used to dehumanise them.

The trend transcended our community. Poets from the mainstream Assamese community also wrote several poems in solidarity with the Miya poets while some regretted not being poets. Gradually, this became a full-fledged poetry movement and got recognised by other poets, critics and commentators. The quality and soul of these poems are so universal that they started finding prominence on reputed platforms.

For the first time in the history of our community, we had started telling our own stories and reclaiming the Miya identity to fight against our harassers who were dehumanising us with the same word. They accused us of portraying the whole Assamese society as xenophobic. The fact is we have just analysed our conditions. Forget generalising the Assamese society as ‘xenophobic’, no Miya poet has ever used the term ‘xenophobic’ nor any of its variants. The guilt complex of our accusers is so profound that they don’t have the patience to examine why we wrote the poems.

Another accusation against us is of weakening the Assamese language when most of our poems are written in Assamese language and a few in Miya dialects. We fail to understand how writing Miya poetry in Assamese could weaken Assamese?

Anyway, the controversy is now dying down gradually, Miya poetry is getting much wider readership and the Miya poets and their associates (like me) have learnt new skills: how to remain calm while facing threats of all sorts, coordinated online bullying, and the anxiety of their loved ones, and to continue to write, promote poetry.

Azad is an Assam-based researcher. Translated from Assamese by him