The scars of the ongoing process of updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam are now becoming visible in cultural expressions, in poetry and music. Miya poetry is one such genre, which seeks to voice the concerns of Muslims of Bengali origin, who live in the chars (river islands) of the Brahmaputra in Assam. Now Assam police has filed an FIR against 10 persons whose works feature in a video of Miya poetry, I am Miya: Reclaiming Identity Through Protest Poetry, on the basis of a complaint filed in Guwahati. The complaint alleges that the intent of the accused is to “hinder the process of the NRC”, “create communal disturbances in the state” and “defame the Assamese people as xenophobic”. The complaint, and the FIR, are a crude attempt to suppress a community from even expressing fears about being singled out on grounds of ethnic identity.
The NRC is a process mandated by the Supreme Court to identify “foreigners” in Assam. It is a legacy of Partition-era politics that saw nationalism through the prism of religious, linguistic and ethnic faultlines. The Assam Movement in the 1970s gave it fresh impetus and it has since found backing from the judiciary. The advent of the BJP, which wants the “foreigner” tag attached only to Bengali Muslims, to office in Assam has given the NRC process a religious twist. The people left out of the NRC — 40 lakh so far — face the threat of being deported to detention camps that have been set up in Assam. Miya poetry is a defiant response to a tragedy unfolding under state supervision. It also signals assertion and resistance by a besieged community that is finally owning up an identity: Miya has been used as a slur to mean a Bangladeshi or an illegal immigrant. The Miya poem that has touched a raw nerve now is a powerful rap at a process that dehumanises people, reduces them to their mere ethnic identity and, thereafter, strips them of their rights. It is no call to arms.
The Miya poetry video is a call to understand the NRC outside a legalistic framework. It should not be suppressed, but actively seen and heard, to understand the human tragedy that underlies the NRC process.