Cultural Resistance in Times of Rising Authoritarianism in India: A Dossier

On the Riverine Islands of Assam : the Resistance of Miyah Poetry and the Women Writing It

, par GURLHOSUR Geetanjali

In the north eastern state of Assam, a community marginalised historically on the grounds of ethnicity and religion, Assamese Muslims of Bengal-origin find their voice through poems in the wake of a new citizenship act and reclaim the term ‘miyah’, an Urdu word for ‘gentleman’ turned a word of abuse. Young women poets from the community go further to raise questions of gender equality and violence.

Cover of an essay on Miyah Poetry on the site Raiot.
Credit : Raiot

Independence Day (an excerpt)
by Begum Asma Khatun
Translated by Shalim M. Hussain

Apparently tomorrow is Independence Day.
In my village I see independence every day.
Songs of independence play daily
In Phulbanu’s mother’s empty rice pot.

When Phulbanu’s mother enters the kitchen
Her children flock around and say,
‘Mother we are hungry.’
Independence rolls down
Phulbanu’s mother’s eyes.

She looks at her children’s faces
And takes out her old
Begging bag.
Inside the bag are songs of independence.

On August 14, 2021, Begum Asma Khatun, a resident of Bongaigaon town of India’s northeastern state of Assam, wrote this verse to describe what she saw around her. Her father is a retired teacher and farmer. Like most Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam, he grew up in flood-prone riverine islands of the Brahmaputra, a major transboundary river that flows through Tibet, India and Bangladesh. Called char-chapori, 2,000 riverine islands spread across various districts of Assam constitute about 4 per cent of the state’s landmass.

The river islands submerge almost every flooding season and re-emerge in different locations, uprooting lives and livelihoods of peasants, most of which are descendants of Bengali-origin Muslims. “Char populations do not have any connection with the outside world. They do not know what is happening in other parts of Assam. Once our farmlands are washed away in the floods, we have to start all over again. Entire lives are spent doing this,” explained Begum Asma, whose father had moved out of the char to pursue higher studies.

Another excerpt from the poem :

Phulbanu’s father has been at the detention camp
For three years.
He can’t sleep even in the darkness.
When night grows, Nelson Mandela walks in
And lulls him to sleep and says,
“Through this path, independence will come.”

Phulbanu’s mother’s eyes are full.
She rubs her eyes with her aanchal (corner of her saree) and says,
“Child, independence is not ours,
Independence is of the rich man
Independence is of the MLA and the minister.
For us, it’s the walls of detention.”

“Is this country not ours, Mother ?”

35-year-old Begum Asma is a published novelist and one of the few women poets of her community. She found her poetic side while writing her first novel, a compilation of verses on the char-chapori culture. Her second novel, ‘Bisal’ or ‘The Boatman’, delineates a centuries-old history of Assamese Muslims who migrated from pre-independent Bangladesh to today’s Assam and their plight in an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim society.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the British colonial government forced Muslim peasants from what is today Bangladesh to settle as cultivators in parts of the colonial Assam Province. Since the Indian independence, the border state of Assam has not been kind to immigrants and their descendants. According to Tanzim Masud’s paper on ‘Identity, Culture and Politics in the Assamese Muslim Community’, anti-immigrant sentiments grew in the 1960s, putting Bengali-speaking people in the state at risk. Masud writes that the eviction of the “outsiders” movement took a communal turn with the involvement of Hindu right-wing outfits, leaving the Muslims feeling cornered on their homeland. Along with language, religion became a feature of the Assamese nationalist discourse.

Outside the char areas of Assam, where 85 per cent of the population are Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin, the community faces harsh discrimination. It is constantly reminded that it is not “Axomiya” (Assamese) enough despite adapting to the culture and Assamese language generations ago. 26-year-old Ameena Ahmed faced discrimination when she moved to Guwahati, the largest city in the state, to study pharmacy. Speaking to the author, Ameena, who creates awareness about her community on social media, said, “Where I study, Muslims are a minority. My friends think if someone in Assam is Muslim, they are Miyah. They think Miyahs are uneducated, violent and have 20 to 30 children. This is hurtful !”

In Assam, the term ‘Miyah’ is used as derogatory slang to refer to “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”, although Miyah in its Urdu origin means a ‘gentleman’. “Illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” as a category is a construct of the Assamese nationalist scaremongers to ‘other’, specifically Muslims in the state. With the intersection of language and religion in Assam’s nationalism, being a Bengali-speaking or a Bengali-origin Muslim became a life threat. In February 1983, a shocking incident of violence in the Nellie district in central Assam killed more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims.

In the aftermath of the massacre, poet Khabir Ahmed in 1985 wrote “I am a settler, a hated Miyah” in his verse called ‘I Beg To State That’. This was the first self-assertion of ‘Miyahness’ from within the char-chapori Muslim community. The second one was written in 2016 by Hafiz Ahmed, President of char-chapori Sahitya Parishad (literary assembly) and social activist, who wrote ‘Write Down I am a Miyah’ about the National Register of Citizens on Facebook. Thus began a spontaneous movement of protest poetry on the internet. In response to Ahmed’s verse, Shalim M. Hussain, then a research scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, wrote ‘Nana I Have Written’. He proudly stated that he is Miyah and will “rise from floodwaters and float over landslides”.

Soon, 15 or so poets had responded to one another’s texts creating a series of poems that asserted their identities as Miyah, consequently shedding the term of its negative connotations. Shalim, a researcher and translator, wrote for The Citizen : “If and only if it is impossible for us to be known simply as Indians or Assamese, let us be called ‘Miyah’. The difference between Miyah and Bangladeshi must be clearly demarcated.” The usage of the word ‘Miyah’ in protest poetry is “confrontational”, he writes. Thus, a movement of Miyah poetry that speaks of a generational history of socio-cultural and economic oppression and discrimination had begun, taking shape and momentum on social media like Facebook and YouTube.

Today, of more than 30 Miyah poets, at least one-third are women who are penning down their experiences of belonging to a marginalised community in the form of protest poetry. Inspired by other poets like Rehna Sultana, the only prominent woman poet in 2016, more young women are posting poems in Miyah dialects, Assamese and English on Facebook and Whatsapp groups with members from the community. They are expressing their reclaimed Miyah identity, belongingness and resistance. However, along with acclaim and support, these posts also receive questioning and threatening responses from within and outside the Miyah community.

After reading other Miyah poets online, Ameena began writing about the “mighty” Brahmaputra river, its shifting islands, and the Miyah revolution. Her poem ‘The River Nymph’ in the English language, which she posted on Instagram, creates an image of the river, its “banks laced with sand and stones and lush soil” and “how with each curve, it tells the history of a forbidden race dissolved in patriotic blood.” In her writing, Ameena’s reverence of the river and its “unchallenged authority” reveals the values she grew up within her hometown of Barpeta in lower Assam, with the highest number of permanent and semi-permanent river islands.

Wanting to acculturate to the larger Assamese society, char-chapori communities reserved their dialects, native to regions such as Mymensingh, Pabna, Tangail and Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) for their private spaces influenced by Assamese and other local languages. Many in the community find it embarrassing to even identify as char-chapori folk and talk in Miyah dialect outside their house, says poets. But, for poets like Ameena, it is only rational to write in one’s own language.

“Earlier, my parents didn’t want me to write because, like others in the community, they thought we would face further oppression for writing against the government. But now my parents are encouraging,” said Ameena, who recently wrote her first poem in her native Miyah dialect.

“If we are talking in our language, then why can’t we write in it ?” asks Heena al Haya, who claims to be the only woman poet from her village in Assam’s Bongaigaon district. “I don’t know what happens to people when they hear our language. They connect the Miyah languages with Bangladesh due to brainwashing,” added Heena, who was warned and blocked by several people on social media for writing in Miyah dialect. An excerpt from Heena’s poem ‘After My Death I will Live As a Tree’ which she posted on Facebook in 2021. It has been translated by Shalim Hussain :

After my death I will live on

As a dead language
With no script
And no poets.

I will be a handful of grain
Which kills hunger forever
So that no one has to sell their kidneys anymore.

After my death I will be a land
Where humans are costlier than cattle
Where a word of protest doesn’t earn a bullet.

After my death I will live on
In those who know how to fight for a heritage,
In those who have homes but no country.

I will live on as the struggle of a tribe without a lineage.

Married at the age of 16, Heena is today a mother to two daughters, a postgraduate student of Assamese literature and a multilingual poet. Heena’s poems written in Assamese, Hindi and Miyah languages are about the love and social realities of the Miyah community and the country. Women in the community have little support as writers. Both Begum Asma and Heena pointed out that it was difficult to continue writing after their marriage.

Five years ago, Rehna Sultana, one of the first Miyah poets, was touched by Hafiz Ahmed’s ‘Write Down I Am a Miyah’. She realised she too could write the story of her community in the language she spoke at home. Then, a doctoral scholar studying folk languages of the Miyah community, Rehna, began writing poems “about the heartache of abandoning one’s own culture and language to become Axomiya and still facing rejection”.

“In 2016, we did not know that what they were writing was ‘Miyah poetry’”, said the 30-year-old Miyah poet. “We just wrote what came out of our pens. People who did not know anything about writing poetry began writing what they had survived.” According to an article by Shalim in the Journal of Critical Reviews, M. Reyaz, a journalist with twocircles .net, was the first to use the phrase ‘Miyah poetry’ in 2016.

Apart from asserting her identity through her poetry, Rehna also wrote on the gendered oppression faced by Miyah Muslim women. Her poems, ‘Our Ma’ and ‘My Mother’, are a take on the double marginalisation of women in the community. ‘Our Ma’, originally written in a Miyah dialect, is an observation of everyday patriarchy that Rehna witnessed within the family structure. An excerpt from the poem translated by Shalim reads :

Ma would hold us in a tight embrace.
When we were younger, Ma was always scared,
Her eyes always seemed to be welling over.
I thought mother had an eye-disease and asked her.
She lied- what can I tell you daughter,
The smoke from the stove makes my eyes water.
I don’t know if Ma had a personal life
There was always work at home
And grandparents to care for.

I never saw baba hug ma
I don’t know if he ever held her close
And kissed her lips—maybe they never did
Or else why would ma’s lips be so dry ?
I heard that ma was the teacher’s favourite in school
That she was a great student
That she had a beautiful handwriting
That she sang very well.
At night when she held me to her heart and hummed
I felt the fires in ma’s heart.

On the difficulties faced by Miyah women in the char-chapori community, Rehna said, “Women have more difficulty proving our ancestry because the only identification we have is the voter card. Having a birth certificate is a privilege in our community. My family is educated and yet, I don’t have a birth certificate. Moreover, many girls are married off before the age of 18, so their voter card has their husband’s name on it and not their father’s name. This is the reason why more women are excluded from the National Register of Citizenship.”

In an attempt to detect “illegal immigrants” in Assam, the government of India began the procedure of document verification to register citizens. This is the National Register of Citizenship (NRC). Implemented properly, the NRC was supposed to assuage the insecurities of the Miyah community and give back their dignity and rights as Indian citizens. But, the 2019 draft left out about 1.9 million people, most of which were poor and illiterate Bengali Muslims.

“Education quality in chars is so low that high schoolers cannot even write a letter. In some areas, there are no schools, and in others, no high schools. So, girls are married off at the ages of 14, 15 or 16,” Begum Asma told the author. She attributes the prevalence of child marriage in char areas to the lack of access to education. In a survey conducted by the government of Assam in char areas in 2002-03, 81 per cent of males and 92 per cent of females were illiterate. Since then, there has been no new data on the socio-economic status of the char populations.

The Indian administration was not only apathetic to the char-chapori’s economic and social issues, but it also raised indiscriminate objections against people in the community who could not read or write and termed them “doubtful” or D-voters. Those waiting to hear their cases were sent to detention centres. Currently, 181 “declared foreigners,” of which 22 are children have been accommodated in Assam’s six detention centres.

In 2019 Rehna and other poets and activists helped people in the char areas fill out forms, prepare documents for hearings, hold meetings and train younger people for the painstaking process of NRC ; they faced insults and threats on social media for helping the char communities. Suddenly, multiple police complaints were filed against poets and activists Rehna, Shalim, Hafiz Ahmed, Abdur Rahim, Ashraful Hussain, Abdul Kalam Azad, Kazi Sharowar Hussain alias Kazi Neel, Karishma Hazarika, Banamallika Choudhury and Forhad Bhuyan for “inciting violence” through their written poetry under the Indian Penal Code and Information Technology Act.

All of the ten people named in the police complaints received bail with no further charges. However, four police cases, threats and discrimination outside and within the community left Rehna questioning the system, her own community and the impact of her writing. “People distanced themselves from me. I couldn’t get a job because of the police case when I was doing my PhD. My friends didn’t even want to click pictures and post them online. Today, I question myself : For whom should I write if this is the outcome of my writing ?” asks the poet, writer and lecturer.

She added, “The movement has surely been successful in converting the word, that was used to humiliate us, into a powerful stamp of self-identity. I have and always will introduce myself as someone from the Miyah community. But, being Assamese is my greater identity and being Indian even greater.”

There is a wildfire
In the sand dunes and the boiling river,
All set to make its existence marked.
There is a wildfire
You may never be able to put out.

— An excerpt from Ameena Ahmed’s poem ‘A Revolution’