Debate: Miyah Identity and Language

My worry is that the wrong method of protesting injustice may do greater harm than good in the long run.

By writing on Miyah poetry in The Wire, I seem to have invited a ton of red-hot bricks on my head. I have ventured out again expecting more fusillade.

But my essay had been in response to an interview in the Indian Express, on June 22, with Shalim Hussain, who appeared to be leading the movement. There, he claimed to have “lost his innocence”, come to realise the futility of expecting justice in the present conditions in Assam and vented his frustration and fury through poetry in ‘Assamese language’. I did not know then that Hafiz Ahmed was the ‘only true begetter’ of Miyah poetry. Even so, there may have been other claimants to the credit.

At the very beginning, I must apologise to all those who have deep grievances and resentment against their lot of discrimination, humiliation and spite from uncharitable, mean-spirited people of the state. I have friends among immigrant Muslims who have given me a close insight into their agony and suffering, especially with the torturing process of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) over the last three years. They have every reason to express their agony and anger and protest in bitterest and biting words. My friends and I have been trying to convey to the so-called “mainstream Assamese”, the injustice and sufferings they are undergoing. We have, in fact, had a hearing and people do have some respect for our work.

No, there is nothing wrong about protesting against injustice. What people like us object to strongly is the way it is done. Does it burn into the conscience of society at large, appealing to the universal sentiments of sympathy for the insulted and the injured, and admiration for noble courage and just anger? Or does it deepen divisions and create an unbridgeable gulf between people who should stand and fight together for freedom, equality and justice? My worry is that the wrong method may do greater harm than good in the long run.

So, how does one make the right choice? By identifying the real enemy and not confusing the rude, uniformed gate-keepers with the brutal lord of the manor to be so. In fact, it should be plain to all with some experience and knowledge that ordinary people temporarily mesmerised by the power and glory of the masters of the state should not be mistaken as the real enemy. Our task is to awaken the conscience of the people and rally them to the support of those who suffer exploitation and oppression. Fascists do just the opposite and hypnotise a large section of the masses into persecuting and harassing minorities. And it is equally depressing and damaging for the oppressed to overlook the real enemy and hit back at them with blind anger and spite.

I have to admit that some rural Muslim clerics seem to have understood the need for patience, fortitude and solidarity with everyone fighting for justice much better than some educated, and apparently liberated Muslim youths who go on nursing resentment and blind rage. I appeal to them to give me a fair hearing.

Shalim Hussain’s interview in Indian Express revealed his determination to rid himself of his earlier innocence and strike out on a new path of fearless rebellion. What the rebellion amounts to is not very clear. Does his sense of hurt and humiliation go to the point of abandoning the Assamese language as a medium of expression? Apparently not.

Also read | Debate: Miyah Poetry in the Assam Context

Yet, he practically denounces all Assamese, accusing them of tormenting and vilifying his community. The nightmare of Nellie handed down by his parents’ generation haunts him as the climacteric point, and after that, there is apparently no going back to paradisal innocence about Assamese intentions.

While one concedes that everyday experiences of slights and snide remarks may revive the dying embers of memory, it is unwise to ignore the signs of change in the Assamese mainstream. More than 150 Leftist party workers of pure Assamese origin were brutally murdered during the Assam Movement simply because they peacefully opposed the anti-immigrant violence.

A small section of the Assamese society had also then come out boldly to call for a just and peaceful democratic resolution of the problems caused by migration. The persistence of democratic forces against serious odds in time came to acquire such influence that the second Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government (1995-2000) was formed with the support of the Left. Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who became the AGP chief minister, now has sizable minority support.

All this is not at all to the liking of the saffron forces who had, in the first place, turned the focus of the movement in an anti-immigrant direction. It should be made clear that under fascism, common people are brainwashed into thinking that certain minorities are at the root of their plight, identify them as their ‘real enemy.’

However, before that, some solid work had been done to integrate the immigrant Muslim population to a greater Assamese society. Progressive thinking was influential in the seventies of the last century. There was a crop of writers of immigrant Muslim origin writing in Assamese who recieved acclaimed. The prestigious Cotton College, which then drew the best students of Assam, had an immigrant Muslim origin student as the general secretary of the students’ union.

But things slowly changed after 1978. The term ‘Bangladeshi’ became popular and has since been used indiscriminately against all immigrants (pre and post 171) heedlessly. The work of the saffron army still remains in the shadows and needs to be investigated in depth. But it is common knowledge that all saffron leaders of middle rank worth their salt visited and worked in various regions of Assam tirelessly for months and years together.

Senior leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Nanajee Deshmukh, Raju Bhaiyaa and host of others addressed spell-bound mammoth gatherings in important towns of the state, besides Guwahati. They marginalised the socialist leaders of similar stature with their rhetoric. Some wonder if the organised and systematic nature of the Nellie massacre owed something to the saffron experience and skill.

It is a political folly to think that their influence has faded away. Indeed, the present triumph of the BJP in the state appears to have been the culmination of long, steady, expert work at the grassroots. No wonder anti-immigrant feelings are running high. Shalim Hussain’s ‘innocence’ on this point seems unaffected yet as he nowhere mentions this most significant aspect of the situation in Assam.

This is what strikes one as quite peculiar about Shalim’s ‘loss of innocence’. He seems unaware of a much greater force exerting itself on Assam and is instead fighting those, who in comparison, are mere midgets.

Also read | Interview | There is a Conspiracy to Show Bengal-Origin Muslims as Anti-Assamese: Hafiz Ahmed

Now, I shall come to Dr Hafiz Ahmed’s interview in The Wire this past July 23. He is a former student of mine and has been very active in getting the needed work done on society and culture of immigrant Muslims in ‘char chapori‘ (sand bars) areas. He holds liberal attitudes and has brought to light for Assamese readers the richness of the culture of his community.

I have read and praised some of his works, like his brief life of Rokaeya Begum of late 19th-early 20th century Bengal, a pioneer of modern education among Muslim women, and a recent collection of essays on various figures of world literature. But he has done little to rid his community of customs and ideas that trap them in unending poverty, like polygamy and early marriage resulting in a population explosion – not the only reasons for their poverty but are serious contributory factors.

His work, though, falls short of the stature of Ismail Hussain (senior) in its breadth and depth of understanding and complete freedom from all bias and prejudice – so essential for the progress of secular democratic ideas. He seems to have, as they say in Assamese, ‘two feet in two boats’, thus hindering his own progress. I fear, in the interview, he had to perform some acrobatic feats to keep balance. I understand and sympathise with his dilemma but fear his position might sow more confusion.

First a few quibbles on factual lapses.

He has brought a noted author-journalist Homen Borgohain and I together in the same context. This is as tricky as bringing nitroglycerine and sodium nitrate together. Borgohain had, at one time, been a source of great inspiration to two generations of aspiring immigrant Muslim youths.

But about a decade ago, he editorialised that ‘the spirit of the times’ decreed that religion was going to become the dominant force and, therefore, the triumph of Hindutva was inevitable. He has since become the editor of a newspaper with pronounced Hindutva leanings and a talk-show host in a TV channel which, by and large spills, the BJP propaganda. Both the media houses are owned by the wife of the colourful political celebrity Himanta Biswa Sharma, now solidly in the saffron camp.

I, on the other hand, have somewhat mulishly held on to secular democratic ideals. Our paths are widely divergent.

Also, I was given the award by the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad for “services to fraternity, humanity and democracy”, not for my “contributions to Assamese literature” as he mentioned in the interview. A small slip, but with some significance.

He said he started ‘Miyan Poetry’ in 2016. I wondered, as he also said the movement “is an informal creative process mainly on the Facebook”. Hence, record is scanty. Besides, it is inaccessible to old fogeys like me in mortal dread of being trailed by hordes of fire-spitting trolls. There are several progressive Assamese magazines with circulation between 1,000 and 2,000. I have never seen any Miyan poem in any of them. I edit one and have not found even one submitted in the last twenty years.

If they were writing in Assamese, why did they not send it to Assamese magazines? Why did it not become a striking trend in contemporary Assamese poetry, which the contents now revealed, surely would have guaranteed it? Why this diffidence and mistrust? Are these magazines anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim? Do they think progressives are their enemies too? Do they wish to part company with all in Assam?

Also read | Miyah Poets in a Destitute Time

It is a matter of record that in the turn of the century, there had been a movement for ‘Miyan Bhasha (language)’ as an alternative to both Assamese and Bengali, and poems were probably written in it, in the Barpeta area. Ahmed said Miyan poetry, according to me, is written in 28 dialects, which is a blatant misrepresentation. Aggrieved immigrant Muslims tell me, it is written in only one (Dewanganjee) dialect, leaving 27 others out. This is what I had reported.

Finally, while it is true that a small group of independent immigrant Muslims with enlightened views had established Assamese schools from 1930s onwards, and stood stoutly by Gopinath Bardoloi in the assembly and outside in his attempt to save Assam from being merged to Pakistan through Group C provinces, the unfortunate fact is that tens of millions under the leadership of the fiery Maulana Bhasani of Muslim League had rooted for Pakistan with inflamed passion. This has been at the bottom of lingering Assamese suspicion of immigrant Muslim motives.

While the whole wretched business can be traced to a diabolical imperialist British policy playing on the land-hunger of Bengal peasants reduced to penury by the Permanent Settlement, such explanation is not available in prevailing historical discourses for reasons beyond my comprehension. The immigrant Muslim masses left in the lurch by Bhasani – when he defected to Pakistan – had to buy peace and security by agreeing to adopt Assamese. (It was Hafiz who had brought to light first the courageous role of Osman Ali Sadagar in opposing  Assam’s merger with Pakistan and led a group of five independent Muslim members of the legislative assembly of the province where Congress held 50 general seats and the Muslim League 36 seats sent by ‘communal electorate’ out of a total of 108 seats where British tea-planters held nine seats!)

Ahmed and some others have trotted out a long list of abuses and humiliations suffered by immigrant Muslim people in Assam. But he seems to pass over some significant instances of solidarity where ‘mainstream Assamese’ stood solidly by such sufferers. For example, when the Sarbananda Sonowal government started with great fanfare eviction of largely immigrant Muslim people from areas they had occupied for decades, there had been outrage and denunciation by a big section of the press, civil society groups, leftist parties as well as organisations like Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti of Akhil Gogoi and Asom Jatiotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad in Assam.

Why does he not see in them a ray of hope? Do all Assamese uniformly and habitually insult and humiliate them? Isn’t he aware that articles sympathetic to their plight in the NRC process and authored by Assamese writers have appeared often in Assamese newspapers? Why are some people so wary of such positive instances? Do they think the battle of ideas is a walk-over?

Further, a matter of great significance is: Why have saffron outfits who have vociferously proclaimed their support to Assamese interests and denounced ‘Bangladeshis’ so often have kept silent on this controversy on Miyan identity and language? True, some RSS small fries are voluble, but even ranking firebrand BJP leaders have so far kept their counsel. Is it tactical silence?

In the interview, Ahmed mentioned the hostility faced by immigrant Muslim workers during the second term of the Tarun Gogoi ministry when they went to upper Assam for work. Consider the situation. To rural upper Assam, they were virtual strangers. Besides, they squatted on village common or any spare land while seeking work. Their numbers soon increased, thus prodding an organised group of youths (probably of saffron vintage) to capitalise on the unease and anxiety of the rural Assamese folks and virtually organized a voluntary expulsion movement. Ordinary Assamese people naturally missed the politics behind it. One can hardly cite this as a typical example of virulent native Assamese prejudice.

Also read | Miyah Poetry Weaves a World of Suffering and Humiliation in Contemporary Assam

But the crux of Ahmed’s argument lies in his claim that his decades of work for Assamese language and literature have now come unstuck and he now sees the futility of his attempt to mobilise support for Assamese language in char chapori areas, with the Assamese signifying their whole-hearted support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by choosing the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

There are several other immigrant Muslim leaders who are not less important than Ahmed for sterling work within their community, and they emphatically do not share his views. Some of them have sent a statement deploring the saffron plot behind the row to “mainstream Indian” media which have only published it in their northeast editions, keeping mainland Indians in the dark about it.

Even facts on the ground do not support Ahmed’s claim. He cannot be unaware of the fact that while people in Assam were thoroughly disillusioned with the BJP rule in 2018-19, the Congress carried a heavy burden of negative memories of rampant corruption during its long term, presided over by rapacious leaders now solidly in the BJP camp and daily thundering against ‘fifteen years of Congress misrule’!

Even so, Congress won three seats in constituencies where Assamese nationalist feelings are dominant. In two other constituencies, it lost with narrow margins only because the eleventh hour sops had won over 90% of tea-garden votes for the ruling party. In as many as 30 assembly constituencies, the BJP lost to the Congress. All that had been a result of the antipathy for the Bill.

I feel if Ahmed is really worried about the 2021 census results, he better see to it that the furore on Miyah poetry, which he claims to have pioneered, does not tilt the balance against Assamese in coming census.

Before I end, I must enter a caveat about the rising discourse of world-wide ‘Muslim victimhood’. This is the obverse of homogenised Hindu identity. Apparently, this hits one between the eyes everywhere. But the immense and tragic migration from middle eastern countries like Syria and Iraq, devastated by regime change, and the rise of sinister outfits, like the ISIS and Boko Haram, had been the outcome of American, French and British passions for oil and military dominance. In India too, while the rise of saffron power certainly spells doom for minorities, there are local fault lines it uses cunningly. Opponents must grasp those fault lines before running headlong into the fray and getting routed.

One last word. I am also vexed that Abdul Kalam Azad has misrepresented my views in a recent article in the Caravan magazine by quoting a sentence of mine out of context. In describing the historic role of Muslim clerical leaders in finally accepting the Assam Accord and 1971 as the cut-off date for citizenship during the turbulent blood-spattered times from middle nineties of the 20th century to its end in Assam, I had written that they had then realised that the security of minorities depended on the “goodwill of their neighbours, and not on Army and the CRPF”. I, by no means, intended it to mean that such goodwill was to be suggested by an opportune display of the danda!

Hiren Gohain is a Guwahati-based scholar and intellectual.