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Debate: Miyah Poetry in the Time of Nationalism

Acknowledging that we live in xenophobic times is not equal to misrepresenting or wrongly painting the entire people of Assam.

On June 10, the Northeast Collective of IIT Bombay organised a public talk titled “Miyah Poetry: Translating Protest in Times of Xenophobia.” The talk was delivered by the much acclaimed young poet and translator from Assam, Shalim M. Hussain. The Northeast Collective, an initiative by some students of IIT Bombay, is committed to voice socio-cultural concerns of Northeast students through academic debates, public lectures, workshops and cultural events. We are against use of the term ‘Northeast’ to represent a homogenous sociopolitical space, but we rather use it consciously to broaden the term as a spatial metaphor for the heterogeneity and multiplicity of people in this region.

Now, the ongoing debate about Miyah poetry has shaken public life in Assam of late. The subject matter of the debate is mixed, ranging from issues of language, dialect, identity and politics, and yet they all seem to be connected to nationalism and citizenship. While these debates are perennial to the region, they have escalated since the new third wave Miyah poetry roughly after 2016. The debate has taken a new turn after a series of recent events, of which the talk organised by NEC-IITB is one, and it has received much criticism from some intellectuals and public personalities of Assam, who are mostly men. It is in this respect that we wish to respond as to why even at the risk of appearing ‘anti-Assamese’ we organised the talk around the theme of xenophobia.

Critical thinking invites us today to question and break the idols of regressive, dehumanising universals of a bygone era. Critique at least must not play into the hands of the majoritarian fervor gripping a community. The Hegelian Owl of Minerva cannot afford to wait for the night to fall. Seeing early signs, it must prevent history from repeating itself. We are all aware of what aggressive ethno-nationalism ultimately led to in Assam in the 80s. In times like ours, institutions of higher learning must be the final bastions remaining to instill a sense of reproach and dissent in society. Failing to do so surely raises a question mark on the moral ground of these institutions.

Also Read: Assam: Ten Poets, Activists Booked for Poem on Citizenship Row

Now, why is it high time for the Assamese society to acknowledge the xenophobic times that we are living in, perpetuated socially as well as personally? To begin with, the term ‘xenophobia’ is derived from the Greek words ‘xenos’ (stranger or foreigner) and ‘phobos’ (fear). Xenophobia is the fear of strangers, foreigners or simply the ‘other’. However, in its present usage, the term has come to mean not only fear, but it also includes other manifestations of fear like hatred, resentment and subordination of people who are seen as foreigners, based on their ethnicity, religion, language or race. All modern western polities have struggled with supremacist ideals that have led to civic exclusion and subordination of people considered foreigners or simply the ‘other’. Most often, xenophobic sentiments are manifested in a casual manner without acknowledgment or awareness. From our lived experiences, allow us to draw a few examples.

Most often, xenophobic sentiments are manifested in a casual manner without acknowledgment or awareness. Credit: PTI

“Land hungry illegal immigrant”

When one of us was a child growing up in Jorhat, there used to be a Muslim rickshaw puller, who left his ancestral home in Dhubri after the death of his wife. Occasionally, he used to ferry us to our bus stop in the morning and back home in the afternoon. He was a man of few words and barely anyone knew his actual name. Everyone called out to him “Oi Miyah!” Blindly following the world around us, as children we used to call him “Miyah Uncle”. One day he met with an accident and nobody knew what happened to him after that. Sometimes in the street one overheard passing comments that it was better without him, better with one less ‘land-hungry illegal migrant’.

Academic output on landless migrants of East Bengal origin, mostly Muslims, usually portray them as ‘land-hungry’, ‘land-grabbing’ people. From “Report on Illegal Migration into Assam,” submitted by S.K. Sinha, then governor of Assam, to the president of India in 1998, we know that such references first appeared in the colonial censuses of 1911 and 1921 in Assam and then most notably in the census of 1931 by C.S. Mullan. But why continue such ill-considered colonial categories today? It is most saddening to see that these categories have been used without further interrogation by even the most left-oriented academicians, writers and commentators, whose seminal works have motivated us. Why? Following these writers, many subsequent young scholars have used such categories without consideration. We are not questioning the academic credibility of any of these writers. We merely want to point out why such entrenched and dangerous intellectual habits must be abandoned sooner than later. Saying ‘poor landless peasants’ is one thing and ‘landhungry’/‘land-grabbing’ is another. There is a subtle transition from portraying the peasants as victims of cruel poverty to demonising them. And through demonisation, their everyday civic ostracism is normalised, producing the demeaning street-slang like the ‘Miyah’.

Also Read: Miyah Poetry Weaves a World of Suffering and Humiliation in Contemporary Assam

How can we aspire for a genuine peasant movement rooted in socialist ideals if we first demonise the peasants? However bizarre this might sound, why are Hindu refugees from East Pakistan who settled all over Assam after Partition in 1947, not called ‘land-hungry’? Or the tribal and near-tribal communities that migrated from Southeast Asia into Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys at various stages of history much before these recent migrations? Is it because it happened before colonial times or because there were no ‘sons of the soil’ then to call them migrants? We are not trying to argue that migration should continue unabated. On January 11, the NEC-IITB organised a protest march in the campus against the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. It is clear that the label of original ‘sons of the soil’ does not apply to most communities in the region. It is good to remember that British-induced migration from East Bengal in the 20th century was also a response to a humanitarian crisis, and today’s Assamese society may avert a Nellie-like crisis in the future only when we accept our own histories of migration rather than fabricating arguments of indigeneity. One is reminded of Pahom, the peasant protagonist in Tolstoy’s story How Much Land Does a Man Need?, whose greed for land only intensifies as he owns more of it, perpetually driving him into a life of discontent and unhappiness. What he could finally take away from the good-natured Bashkírs – the merry making ‘foreign’ folks – at his untimely death was only the six feet of land required for his burial.

A protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill at the Assam Administrative Staff College, Khanapara, in Guwahati. Credit: PTI

Commodifying land

Certain intellectual circles argue that the seeds of all current conflicts in the region were sown with purpose by the colonial rulers and that contemporary issues cannot be delineated without considering the context of colonialism. Without doubt, it is well-established that the policy of promoting migration to Assam was part of the internal dynamics of the colonial economy. Lockean governmental technologies of the British like categorising already inhabited land that lacked notions of property and profit as ‘wasteland’ were all formative factors in commodifying the region’s land. Colonial migration strategies created new contradictions for the so-called ‘indigenous’ people of the valley on the one hand, and gave rise to a crisis over citizenship for the migrants as well as ‘indigenous’ communities on the other. As the post-colonial state established modern institutions and the legal vocabulary, these contradictions only took new forms that continue to affect the region. Yes, there is no denial of these events and processes. But what is the significance of still using these alibis to validate a sense of insecurity to foment mistrust against the latecomers?

The leveling essentialism implicit in the linguistic-cultural nationalism of a people disparages all aspects of what it considers as its other. To speak plainly, it is nothing but everyday institutionalisation of ethnocentrism, almost always carried out casually. Needless to say, it is in engaging with the other that our ethics has any meaning. We believe that in engaging with Miyah poetry, a small step was taken in that direction. By choosing poetry as a means to express a lifetime of suffering and affliction in the char-chaporis, it is desperately trying to make itself felt among the Assamese living in the heartland of Assam. Would feeling at one with precarious humans make you an anti-national? Or a reactionary? Or even a foreign-funded comprador? Let people write in whichever dialect they can to bring out the realities of their life-world. It certainly cannot be a threat to Assamese identity. Language is always historically contingent and is forever subject to the winds of change. But communication between different multilingual practices can only strengthen the plurality of a society, as Mrinal Miri has rightly shown us in Philosophy and Education.

Also Read: Debate: Miyah Poetry in the Assam Context

Recent students following the NCERT curriculum must have read “The Last Lesson” by Alphonso Daudet in their Class XII English course. In the story, as the Prussian Empire takes over France and orders arrive from Berlin to replace French with German in all French schools, a French teacher who delivers his last lesson in French after 40 years of teaching it poignantly bids adieu to his class writing “Viva La France!”

The fear of losing one’s language and identity seems to be widespread, and in no way it is unique to the Assamese. Will this fear make us perpetrators of systemic violence upon another people? The adivasis are organising ‘adivasi mahasabhas’ across Assam to obtain regional acceptance for their vernacular language.Will they, too, become a threat to the Assamese identity? It is good that a dialogue has now begun in the academic circles that will slowly seep into the general masses too. Acknowledging that we live in xenophobic times is not equal to misrepresenting or wrongly painting the entire people of Assam. It is only a critical call, one that only warns us of the early signs of a spectre looming over Assam for long. And Daudet may be precise in saying that “when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison.”

Since this story was published, reports have come in of two more FIRs having been registered against the Miyah poets, who have reportedly gone into hiding. The bail hearing of ten poets booked for a poem is on Monday, June 15.

Rintu Borah recently completed his M.Phil in Planning and Development and will soon be joining the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay as a doctoral candidate. Prithiraj Borah is a doctoral student in sociology at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

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