In Assam, Bengali Muslims affirm their identity through “Miya poetry”

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You can’t trust me
Because I kind of let that beard grow.
Somehow slipped into a lungi
I’m tired, tired of showing up
For you.
I bear all your insults and shout again,
Mother! I’m yours!

—(Excerpt from the poem My Mother by Rehna Sultana)

Sometimes it takes a new language to tell a story differently. Unbound by grammatical moorings or even a formal script of its own, Miya poetry became a rallying point for much of the Assamese Muslims, who migrated in waves to Assam from the poor pockets of Bengal and of present-day Bangladesh from the end of the 19th century. Translated from Urdu, “Miya” means “gentleman”. But in Assam, with its history of ethnic strife, importing is anything but. In a country where the long-running feud between natives and those considered outsiders – both Hindus and Muslims – has boiled fiercely over the decades, claiming occasional casualties and being left behind, “Miya” in popular parlance is a caustic mockery of Muslim immigrants settled in Assam. .

On the other hand, Miya poetry, the first lines of which were written in the 1980s by poets Khabir Ahmed and Dr Hafiz Ahmed, is an equally acidic counter-reaction which now seeks to affirm the Bengali Muslim space in Assam through the verses. After decades of ethnic suffering, which imputes that Bengali Muslims are “invaders”, or a race which “produces criminals” or whose women “give birth like cattle”, Miya poetry also represents a collective anguish of a discriminated population. The Miya poets of the 1980s, the Ahmeds, exploited the Assamese language to articulate the victimization of Miya Muslims in the context of Assam’s violent anti-foreigner agitation prevalent at the time.

More than three decades later, as the specter of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) hangs over the state, casting doubt on the citizenship titles of hundreds of thousands of people, especially the Bengali immigrant community, the Miya poets seem to have stepped up their game too. Their collective decision to use their own dialect to write verse angered the mainstream Assamese intelligentsia and the ruling political class.

The power of words Coverage of Traster Shikarbakar: Nirbachito Miya Kabita (Roots of the Traumatized: Selected Poems by Miya), a compilation of Miya poetry originally written in Assamese and English.

Miyas migrated to Assam from the 1800s, largely from Sylhet, Mymensingh, Tangail, Barisal, Dhaka, Mirpur, Rangpur, among other impoverished areas of present-day Bangladesh. Their migration occurred in waves, perhaps fueled by hazards determined by the unpredictable fury of the Brahmaputra River and threats of ethnic violence. While the Miya poets seem to strive to consolidate their collective agony under a single linguistic identity, the spoken dialect of the Miya community has shifted and altered, seemingly at every turn of Brahmaputra. Their primary script was Bengali, but with the need to assimilate with the locals and assert their own place in their new home, Miya poetry found a resounding voice in the Assamese language. The push of Miya Muslims to immerse themselves in Assamese identity and refer to the Assamese language as their mother tongue in order to avoid ethnic conflict is also reflected in official data. In twenty years, between the 1931 and 1951 censuses, the percentage of Assamese speakers in the state’s population increased by 26 percentage points.

Dr. Hafiz Ahmed, a teacher from Kamrup district in Assam and founding chairman of Char-Sapori Sahitya Parishad, a literary body, has been credited with rekindling popular interest in Miya poetry. He has a prognosis on the evils of the dialect. There are simply too many variations, he says, with no grammatical scaffolding for the language to grow on. “It is not a distinct dialect spoken by all members of the Miya community. It is full of Assamese, Bangla and Bodo words. The dialect is different from place to place. To become a language, it must have a grammar, a dictionary and (it must be) accepted by people,” says Ahmed. In 2016, he wrote the first verse of the new generation of Miya poetry in English. Her poem, Write, I am Miya, drew heavy criticism, with critics accusing her of trying to portray the Assamese community as “xenophobic”. An excerpt from his poem says:

Write
I am a Miya,
Citizen of a democratic and secular republic
Without any right
My mother a voter D,
Even though her parents are Indian.

Miya poets have also documented the scars and bruises accumulated on their community by distilling their anguish into verse, such as the poem below by Kazi Neel, which recalls the chilling massacre of Nellie in central Assam in 1983. estimates that 1,800 Bengali Muslims were killed in the massacre. ; one of many bloody purges of the state’s violent anti-foreign movement.

This land is mine, I’m not from this land
The land where limb after limb is cut
and sent the river afloat
Where in 83,
the executioners dance shamelessly.
Party Dance of Death

— (Translated by Shalim M. Hussain from the original, Hei Desh Amar)

The depiction of communal angst in Miya’s early poems caused heartburn in Assamese society which, for historical reasons, remained suspicious of “the other”. But Neel’s poetry, written in a dialect commonly used in Bengali Muslim homes with the help of Assamese script, started a new trend, even inspiring many young poets to use the same dialect.

Translating poems written in English into the Miya dialect is also a practice that has not gone down well in a state that has fought language movements since the 19th century, when the British colonial province of Assam was formed. One of the reasons for the unease of the Assamese intelligentsia seems to be a haughty doubt as to whether the dialect could in the first place be used in areas related to literary expression and developed as a language. The other reason is the audacity of the Miya poets to incorporate their dialect into the Assamese language.

Weapon poets Dr. Hafiz Ahmed, Masuma Begum and Kazi Neel.
weapon poets Dr Hafiz Ahmed, Masuma Begum and Kazi Neel.

The subject of Miya poetry has always posed uncomfortable questions for the Assamese mainstream, but with poets like Rehna Sultana, Abdul Kalam Azad and others drawing inspiration from Neel, the transformation of their own dialect into the Assamese language has still exacerbated the feelings of the Assamese scholars. and state leaders. In 2020, at the height of the Citizenship Act (CAA) protests, BJP Minister and current Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told party workers to fight to “save Assam from those who write from Miya poetry”.

A year later, Sarma again reported Miya’s upsurge. “They started identifying themselves as Miyas. These so called Miya people are very, very communal and fundamental and they are involved in many activities aimed at distorting the Assamese culture and language. So I don’t want to be MP with their vote…People who openly challenge Assamese culture and language and Indian composite culture, they should not vote for us,” he said. Before the Sarma explosion, a series of complaints were filed with the police against 10 Miya poets in 2019, even as their poetry challenged the very basis of the state’s formula for verifying the Indian citizenship of residents. of State.

Amid rhetoric challenging the very notion of Miya poetry and the concerted targeting of its architects, Neel says the main reason for writing poetry in the Miya dialect is to establish the community’s political identity in Assam. “We studied in Assamese language schools and know the language well. If I write in Bengali, people will see me differently. Miya poetry is written in the outskirts of Assam. It is written by the people of Assam and (spoken) of Assam. Poems do not necessarily (must) be written in a standard language to be part of the literature of this standard community. So Miya’s poems only enhance Assamese literature and take nothing away from it,” he says.

Fishermen's River Song on the Brahmaputra, Guwahati
song of the river Fishermen on the Brahmaputra, Guwahati Photography: Shutterstock

But as a pioneer of language change, Neel had to face much criticism for his decision to write Miya poetry, using their own dialect in Assamese. Criticism includes confrontation with angry mobs and regular rejection by literary review gatekeepers. “Before 2016, many of my poems were published in prestigious Assamese magazines. I used to get a lot of literary appreciation from many prominent poets and writers. However, things started to change after 2016 when I started writing in the Miya language. Now even if I send a poem written in Assamese, publishers will reject it now no matter how great it is,” Neel says.

Masuma Begum, a young community worker and language teacher who writes her poetry in Assamese, insists that in order to assert yourself as an Assamese, “you don’t have to write in Assamese and use the ‘Assamese script’. “The Bodos are one of the oldest tribes in Assam, but they use the Devanagari script to write the Bodo language. Similarly, the Meiteis of Manipur have their own script, but they use the Bengali script to write their language,” Begum says. Outlook. “The language of poetry is very different. He can use standard written language or colloquial language. However, the syntax of Miya poetry is similar to that of Assamese,” she argues.

Miya poets generally agree that their dialect needs more uniformity and a grammar code, but the challenge seems to be difficult for the community, which has been moved again and again due to erosion along the banks. , ethnic violence and, in some cases, the government. – sustained evictions. According to Abdul Kalam Azad, transdisciplinary researcher and senior lecturer at Vrije University in Amsterdam, the Miya dialect is closer to Assamese than to any other language. He credits his poets with rehumanizing words that are used as a derogatory slur to target the community. “It rehumanizes the words and phrases that have been weaponized against the community. Take the example of words like ‘Miya’, ‘Geda’, ‘Gedi’ etc., these words have been used for verbal abuse. Thanks to Miya poetry, these words (are) recovered and re-humanized. Just as Azad claims, Miya poetry not only overturned the chorus of insults, but also provided a new means of articulation for a people whose stories have gone untold.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Rhyme and Reason”)


Reporting by Syeda Ambia Zahan

Edited by Mayabhushan Nagvenkar

Edited by: Mayabhushan Nagvenkar


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