In Assam, tales of alienation of the Bengali Muslim community are not new, but in the wake of the National Register of Citizens, the situation has turned severe. What started as one man’s attempt to put out a poem registering his resistance, alienation and pain, has became the rallying point for several Miyah poets. Nine of these poets have been charged with Section 153 A of the Indian Penal code which deals with “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.”
They have been granted bail in one of these cases and several have gone underground until they get bail. National Herald’s Ashlin Mathew spoke to four of them — Hafiz Ahmed, Shalim M Hussain, Abdul Kalam Azad, Rehna Sultana— about their experiences, the FIRs and their poetry.
What experiences led you to write a poem?
I have been publishing poetry for a decade and a half. I have also been translating into English for almost the same amount of time. I have written in both the idiom of English and the idiom of the dialect I was born and raised in - the idiom that is now being called the Miyah idiom. I have experimented with the English language to broaden its vocabulary and syntax and include words, expressions and the narrative style of folk poetry and short stories and the language used in day-to-day conversation.
Now, the issue has been made one of ‘weakening Assamese’, more than the focus on the content of the poems itself. Why is there a fear that it would “weaken” Assamese language?
I fail to understand it. The accusation of ‘weakening’ the Assamese language comes from senior academicians like Professor Hiren Gohain whose view, as far as I can grasp, is that one single standard language is necessary to maintain the unity of a people; in this context, the Assamese people. However, he hasn’t tried to engage in debate and discussion. Instead, Prof. Gohain has tried to force his point of view using his reputation as a prominent public intellectual as a battering ram. In an article published in the Wire on July 9, 2019, he has written, “And the state we live under strictly rations and controls freedom of expression. Why is the state so tolerant? Why are the big media giving Miyah poetry instant publicity?” Before this publication, he published two back-to-back articles in Assamese. In the first article he said that the Miyah poems were written in an ‘artificial language created to write a certain kind of poetry’. This is a completely false reading of Miyah poetry based not on a comprehensive reading of the poems but on Dr Gohain’s own assumptions. He accused the Miyah poets of not writing in Assamese and of ‘not writing a single line’ on social evils ‘endemic’ to Miyah society. When it was pointed out that majority of the Miyah poems were indeed written in Assamese and that many Miyah poems explicitly criticised social evils, he didn’t consider it decent to issue a clarification or apology for poor research. Instead, he continued to build up his list of accusations. The Wire article was published on July 9, 2019. The first FIR was filed against us was filed on July 10, 2019. Did Prof. Gohain legitimise the FIRs filed against us and the severe online harassment we have been subjected to? In a statement issued against the first FIR, Prof. Gohain and other persons from Assam didn’t write a single line against the harassment, death and rape threats we have been subjected to. Why?
The view of younger Assamese poets, writers and intellectuals (in the context of Miyah poetry) is largely that the development of niche languages and dialects help strengthen the multicultural ethos of society. This multiculturalism is hardwired into the very idea of India and Assam. By denying us the right to write in languages and dialects of our choice (some Assamese public intellectuals have even called for an end to Miyah poetry), the senior intellectuals have attacked the roots of Indian and Assamese culture.
There have been several poetry reading sessions. What has been the response of people before and after the FIR? What has been the response from the govt?
The response to Miyah poetry has been warm in the small academic and literary circles where Miyah poetry was read. There has been a steady growth of academic work on Miyah poetry and some engagement in universities and such. Many people simply didn’t know about Miyah poetry. For the poets this was not a problem because poetry has always had a limited audience. It is only after senior academicians began throwing accusations at the poems and the poets that Miyah poetry has found a larger audience. There has been absolutely no response from the government. Poetry is an art form. The government, I am sure, has far more important things to focus on.
What are the origins of Miyah poetry? Why has it come to prominence now?
In 2016, I wrote a poem, “Write down I am a Miyah”. Some young poets wrote some poems in response to that poem. Thus began the poetic movement which is now known as Miyah poetry.
Why has there been a need to write in a dialect prevalent among Muslims who have been residing in Assam for more than seven to eight decades? Why did you switch from using Assamese as the formal language to begin writing in your native dialects?
Miyah poetry has come into prominence for many reasons. These poems reflect the sorrows and sufferings of the people living in the char-chaporis of Assam. Previously these poems were able to appeal to the Assamese readers only, but after the translation of these poems into English, they have been able to reach national and international readers. This may be one of the causes. The latest controversy regarding these poems has also drawn the attention of the readers.
The translations of these poems are extremely good. They convey the pain and isolation. Who translated them?
Most of the poems have been translated by Shalim M. Hussain. There may be some other translators too. It is not possible for me to know them all.
Hiren Gohain has been criticising the move to write in this dialect. What would your response be?
I do not know why Dr Gohain is objecting to it. Most of the Miyah poems are written in Assamese language. Only a few have been written in the local dialect. This dialect has not been created artificially as Dr Gohain says. It is the dialect spoken by the people living in the Char-Chaporis. I think the poems written in the dialects will enrich Assamese language and literature.
What made you apologise? Has the issue been resolved with the Assamese intellectuals?
For me the unity among different ethnic groups of the Assamese society is more important than my literary works. I believe that the problems of our community cannot be solved without the help of the leading personalities of the majority community. So, when some people began to raise objections regarding my poem, I expressed my regret. Moreover, we are passing through a very critical phase of time in Assam. I don’t want that my writing should hamper the unity among us in anyway. Many of the Assamese intellectuals support our view. They opine that every poet must have the freedom to express his view. Those who raised objections, I think, have been satisfied with our explanation.
Many have been saying that several of these poems have been inspired by Palestinian poetry. What do you have to say?
I do not think that several of these poems have been inspired by Palestinian poems. My first poem, of course, was inspired by the poem of Mahmoud Darwish. But only the form of it was used. There is a vast difference between the situation in Palestine and Assam.
Could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Assamese language, Gauhati University. I am currently pursuing my PhD in rural linguistics and folk speech. I have submitted my thesis and am awaiting my viva. I completed my masters in Assamese literature in 2012 from Gauhati University and my Bachelors in Assamese (Honours) from Cotton College in 2010. I have written on the Assamese language and society in multiple newspapers and journals. I have also published a book titled Folk Life, Language and Culture of Char-Chaporis of Assam. The book was written in Assamese.
You are one of the few women who has written a poem on this. What drove you to write it?
Most of my literary output is in Assamese. As far as Miyah poetry is concerned, who is not attracted to the language/dialect they speak at home? I think that whether it is through poetry or any other form of art, it is only through the dialect one speaks at home that one can express their lived experience with utmost clarity.
After reading Hafiz Ahmed’s ‘Write Down I am a Miyah’ and Shalim M Hussain’s ‘Nana I have written’, I realised that if I wrote about our various social evils, humiliation and subjugation, the problems of women in the chars, etc. in my own dialect instead of Assamese, it would reach the people I want my writing to reach. My first Miyah poem was the yearning of a Miyah to be included in the Assamese mainstream. Let me remind you that my first Miyah poem was written in Assamese. I have since written numerous Miyah poems, only two of which are in the Miyah dialect. Also, the script in which our poems are written is the Assamese script and not the Bengali script as many people think.
Could you speak about the discrimination faced in everyday lives?
When I started writing Miyah poems in 2016, there was a lot of praise. Everyone told me that the social issues I raised in my poems were very important and that I should write more. Suddenly, about one-and-a-half months ago, a controversy was created. In the run up to the updating of the NRC, suddenly people started finding issues within Miyah poetry. I don’t know what the critics stand to gain from raising this needless controversy. What I have learnt is that their intentions are not good and must be brought under the scanner. The critics have not remained content with criticising our poems. They have given me death threats and rape threats over social media. These threats have made me feel extremely scared and vulnerable. I think it is only because I am a woman that they think I am weak and have issued such threats to me.
How has your family reacted to the FIRs in your name?
Four FIRs have been filed against me. One of the accusations against Miyah poetry is that it has brought shame to Assam in national and international circles. My question to the accusers is “what is their definition of ‘Assamese’?” Do they think we are not Assamese? And if one writes poems about the humiliation they have faced, should FIRs be filed against them? How strange! I also ask the critics, if there’s an issue with the content of Miyah poems, why were FIRs filed against me? My poems explicitly question social evils. I have not written anything about the NRC, nor is there any anti-state sentiment in my poems. I have done nothing wrong. If the police arrests me for writing a few poems, I will laugh my way to prison.
I am worried about my parents. My father is a well-respected school teacher. My mother is a patient of high blood pressure. I worry for the humiliation my parents may face or the health issues my mother may have to face. Apart from my brother, no one knows about the FIRs. But our neighbours are simple folk. They may think that just because an FIR has been filed against me, I have done something wrong.
In the wake of this government attack, what do you think will happen now?
No doubt we live under a majoritarian regime but we must accept the fact that this attack on poets and freedom of expression is not from the government but from so-called left-liberal intellectuals and their supporters. They accuse us of calling them xenophobic through our poetry but the fact of the matter is that we just analysed our conditions. Forget about calling the Assamese society as ‘xenophobic’, our Miyah poets have never used the term ‘xenophobic’ nor its any variants but their guilt complex is so profound that they don’t realise why we wrote the poems. They instead started accusing us. Actually, they are exposing themselves.
This brutal opposition is only going to make us stronger and cement our conviction that we must tell our stories in whatever form we find suitable.
What has been the response of your family? Is there fear on the ground?
Our families are extremely worried and shocked. Those intellectuals who have been yelling at us at top of their voice are not our traditional opponents; they are the ones whom our community has been worshiping like saviours for decades. When Miyah poets are being subjected to rape threats, death threats and coordinated cyber bulling and they are silent, it frightens the Miyah poets and their families.
Has there been any attempt to delete the poems?
Yes, there have been multiple attempts to delete the Miyah poems. Even on prime-time television discussions, Miyah poets and their admirers were asked to apologise and ban Miyah poetry.
What has happened to all the 10 people who have been named in the FIR? Several have gone into hiding. How are their families coping? How are they managing?
Miyah poets have complete faith on the Indian Constitution and the judiciary. The Gauhati High Court has already granted anticipatory bail in one case and hopefully the court will grant bail in other cases as well. More than the poets, their families are going through a nightmarish situation. My four-year-old son has been desperately waiting to see me. At the same time they are getting enormous amount of support from every corner of the country. Most importantly, support from the mainstream Assamese society is pouring like the monsoon rain. Some of the poets are hiding among the Assamese community (whom the bullies were trying to provoke) and holding discussions and Miyah Poetry reading sessions.