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

In a conversation with The Wire, the president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, who has been at the centre of a recent controversy over Miyah poetry, says that come what may, he will not give up promoting the Assamese language among his community.

New Delhi: Hafiz Ahmed was recently at the centre of a controversy. A poem he penned in 2016, ‘I am Miya,’ was the cause of it.

Ahmed is the president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, which has been promoting the Assamese language and literature among the residents of Assam’s over 2,000 Char Chapori areas – sand bars shaped by the Brahmaputra. The region is mainly populated by Bengal-origin Muslims.

As many as four FIRs were filed against him in different police stations of the state. Him, and a set of young poets indulging in what they call ‘Miyah poetry,’ were accused in the local media and elsewhere of presenting the entire Assamese community as ‘xenophobic’.

On July 17, the Gauhati high court granted anticipatory bail to Ahmed and nine others in the first complaint filed against them by a Guwahati-based journalist.

In a conversation with The Wire, Barpeta-based Ahmed delineated what his organisation had been hinged on, how Miyah poetry was born and what led him to write the much-debated poem.

Edited excerpts from the interview conducted in Assamese:

What is the genesis of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad that you helped found in 2005?

It is essentially an initiative to upset the amplified efforts made by some Bengali ultra-nationalists – with roots in West Bengal – on the Char Chapori Muslims of Assam to discard the Assamese language for Bengali. The campaign by these groups has been going on in our areas since 1991.

A Kolkata-based organisation called Janamat visited the Barpeta district of Assam during the 1991 floods to distribute relief material to the affected people. Alongside, they campaigned in our areas that the Char Chapori Muslims should list their mother tongue in the 1991 Census as Bengali instead of Assamese. They also said things like we are the same, so let’s be together again, etc.

I am from Barpeta. Some of us were alarmed by that development. We soon consulted Assamese intellectuals like Hiren Gohain, etc. about how to stem it, but nothing much happened. When before the 2001 Census a similar campaign was carried out among the Char Chapori Muslims by these forces, we felt something must be done. Some of us travelled through Assam; visited various villages where people from our community reside. We spread awareness against the campaign even though we didn’t have an organisation then.

Finally, in 2005, we set up the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad to formally promote Assamese language and literature among the community and thereby provide a mechanism through which we can stop the campaign for the Bengali language. Luminaries of Assam like Amalendu Guha and Gohain among others supported us. They became our advisers.

We took a resolution before the 2011 Census that we would not allow the campaign for Bengali to go on in our areas. We distributed leaflets, held multiple meetings. During one such meeting, in Jugirpam village of Barpeta district, I was physically assaulted by a group of people supportive of Bengali language on February 9, 2011. Still, we carried on.

The Parishad also gives away two annual awards.

Yes. The first point in the Parishad’s constitution is to work for the spread and strengthening of Assamese language. Practically, this is what we have been doing. One award is in the name of Ismail Hussain Senior, the man who is said to have introduced us to the Assamese language. In his memory, we have been presenting awards for the last six years to those we think are the margdarshak (trendsetters) and contributors to Assamese language and literature. Sahitya Akademi winners like Hiren Gohain, Homen Borgohain, etc. are among the awardees.

The other award was instituted in 2017. We learnt that one Umar Ali from the Kharupetia area of Lower Assam became a swahid (martyr) during the language movement of 1972 to declare Assamese as the only official language of the state. On visiting his house, we learnt that in 1986, during the first Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government, chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta granted the family a one-time compensation of Rs 36,000 for sacrificing his life for the promotion of Assamese language along with a certificate. In 2018, we started an award in Ali’s name. The award has since been given to those who work for the promotion of Assamese language.

Hafiz Ahmed speaking to local media Photo: Special arrangement.

Was Umar Ali a Char Chapori Muslim?

Yes, he was a Bengal-origin Muslim. Here, I want to clear one vital point. There is a sharp difference between Bengal-origin Muslim in Assam and Bengali Muslim. Often I notice people from outside Assam confusing the two, including the national media in articles published outside the state. We identify ourselves as Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims. We are not Bengali. We are not Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in Assam’s Barak Valley often identify themselves as Bengali Muslims, not us. But we have not been able to make people from the outside see the difference.

Our roots lie in East Bengal – which is no more. Our present identity is within the greater Assamese family, like the tea tribes who also migrated to the state during the colonial period.

Even though we identify ourselves as Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim, the Assamese Muslims don’t support it. Many hate us. The contents of one of the FIRs recently filed against us by an Assamese Muslim organisation in Bongaigaon town of the state is proof of it. It alleges that someone among us ‘insulted’ the great Ahom-era warrior Bagh Hazarika or Ismail Siddique by calling him a Miya Mussalman though he was an Assamese Muslim. I never did it nor do I know anyone who has done it, but the allegation was brought against us.

Also read | Writers, Academics and Activists Condemn FIRs Against and Online Harassment of Miyah Poets

What I want to highlight here is that there is a lot of studies, literary research and interest taken up in the Assamese language by the members of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad. At least a hundred youth from our areas are reporting for various Assamese newspapers and channels. Over 200 books in Assamese have been written by the residents of Char Chapori areas. At least 50 books of short stories have been penned so far. The Parishad has a huge role in it. But there is a political conspiracy to make us Bengali, paint us as anti-Assamese. We are trying very hard to fight it.

Early this year, we saw in Assam an initiative called ‘Chalo Paltai’ (Let’s Overturn), which was backed from West Bengal by some Bengali linguistic sub-nationalists. As part of it, East Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims were prodded to return their mother tongue as Bengali instead of Assamese in the 2021 Census. You opposed it and also wrote against it.

Yes, I wrote an article in the popular Assamese newspaper Dainik Pratidin against it, issued a statement from the Parishad condemning it, gave bytes in local news channels, etc. against it. Also, those young people indulging in ‘Miyah poetry’ who are now accused of promoting anti-Assamese feelings outside Assam, held a meeting in the Satyanath Bora hall of Guwahati on June 25 and took a resolution against that initiative started by ultra-sub-nationalists like Garga Chatterjee from West Bengal. Unfortunately, what we have seen now is that both the Chalo Paltai initiative from Bengal and Miyah poetry have been made to look the same.

Also, I want to add that I myself don’t know how many Miyah poets are there because it is an informal creative process. Most people write on Facebook. There is no president, no editor. Whoever has felt or seen any abuse in the name of Miya is writing.

How was Miyah poetry born? What is the kernel?

You have to see the narrative from the beginning, from the time of Maulana Bande Ali, who wrote the first poem in Assamese highlighting the sorrows of the Char Chapori Muslims in 1939. Now the controversy is that just days before the storm over Miyah poetry erupted, Homen Borgohain, who interviewed me in his weekly programme Kotha Barta (Conversation) on the local Assamese channel NewsLive, countered our contention that Bande Ali was a Muslim.

We had learnt that he was from Darrang (a district in Assam). But Borgohain pointed out that his real identity was Atul Chandra Hazarika, an Assamese Hindu who wrote under the pseudonym of Bande Ali. This then justifies that during that time itself, he, an Assamese, had shared the sorrows and concerns of the Char Chapori people. Even though he didn’t use the word ‘Miya’ in his poem, the narrative, or the dhara of Miyah poetry began then. Whether he was Atul Chandra Hazarika or Maulana Bande Ali, Miyah poetry owes its origin to him.

Then, in the 1960s, M. Illimuddin Dewan began collecting the idioms and phrases prevalent in the Char Chapori areas and used them in his writings.

Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, at a meeting in Assam. Photo: Special arrangement

Again, after the Nellie massacre in 1983, there was this poem, ‘Binito Nibedon’ (I beg to state), written by Khabir Ahmed in 1985, which had words like ‘I am a settler, a hated Miya’. Actually, many mainstream writers and critics of Assamese language and literature have not read these creative works; they are not aware of their existence. Even though these writers are a part of Assamese literature, in its study, at the most one paragraph might have been spared for their contribution. After Khabir Ahmed, people like us have been writing. I have published two books of poetry in Assamese.

Also read | Miyah Poets in a Destitute Time

However, some amount of research work has happened in Gauhati University in this front. More than 500 words that have been created in the Char Chapori areas of Assam in the last 100-150 years have been included in the latest edition of Hemkosh, the Assamese dictionary, by professor Ramesh Pathak. We helped him in collecting those words. These are now Assamese words.

When such an initiative has been taken up by the promoters of Assamese literature and language, we see the controversy over Miyah poetry. I see it as a political project to dismantle this endeavour. Wonder what is to be gained from it.

What was going through your mind when you wrote the poem ‘I am a Miya’, which is in the middle of the recent controversy?

I wrote that poem in 2016. There was no frenzy over the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) then as there is now. Why did I give that number in the poem? It is because I wanted to convey that someone whom you are calling ‘Miya’ in a derogatory sense is but a Bharatiya (Indian) Miya, and I have a number to prove it.

Since 2016, Miyah poetry has been getting exposure outside Assam. Suddenly, when the NRC process is to end on July 31, it becomes a controversy. There is a media trial where a sudden accusation erupts that the poets are spreading the idea that the Assamese are ‘xenophobic’. How else should we see it? Nobody among us has opposed the NRC. We too want a correct NRC. We had welcomed the decision to update the NRC as per the Assam Accord because we felt that the community through this process would be able to discard once and for all the tag of suspected foreigners or ‘Bangladeshi’.

I have a book titled ‘Lakhipuror Pora BTAD Loi’ (From Lakhipur to BTAD) where I had recorded the kind of abuse that the community faced during the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress regimes. Many poor Char Chapori Muslims who would go to Upper Assam seeking manual work would face violence the moment they were heard speaking in their local dialect. The police, after verification, would send them packing. So, like the ‘queer’ word was used against the LGBT community, who as part of their movement, accepted the slur, we too adopted the expression thrown at us. But we have never asked to be given the Miyah identity. We want to remain Assamese.

There is also an attempt to make the terms ‘Miya’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ the same. Whom you call Miya have been in Assam much before the idea of Bangladesh was thought of.

Some argue that though you borrowed the format of your poem from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, the contexts of the two poems are different. While the Israelis came to Arab land, here the people who are locally identified as Miya Mussalman came as migrants to Assam during the colonial period.

I didn’t write it thinking so deeply about the context, etc. It was not in my consciousness also because we are not in a Palestine situation. I want to ask those who have questioned me about the poem, is my love for Assam, Assamese language and literature any less than theirs? How many of them have been physically assaulted for promoting the Assamese language?

The so-called Assamese mainstream that came after me, I want to ask them: how many of you have written articles and stories in Assamese? Are their children going to Assamese medium schools? Ours do. We have only Jatiya Bidyalaya (Assamese-medium schools) in our areas. I have helped set up a private one in my area recently because people have complained that the quality of education in the government-run Assamese medium school is going down.

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Photo: Reuters

Will you find a single Bengali-medium school in Miya Mussalman areas? In 1899, Hussain Ali Sarkar set up the first Assamese school in Moirabari. In 1941, Darug Ali Sarkar from Barpeta gave a memorandum to then chief minister of Assam Gopinath Bordoloi that we have already learnt Assamese, our children are learning Assamese. So in the 1941 Census, count us as Assamese speakers.

Still, we are looked at with suspicion. I took only the anger, the anguish, from Darwish’s poem, not the context. The two situations are different but what I have written in the poem is true. Can anyone say it is false? My question is, those who have filed FIRs against us, do they love Assam more than we do? I have been beaten by a mob because I wanted to promote Assamese and yet I have not given up.

Now, you are termed in local TV newsrooms, newspaper articles and on social media as anti-Assamese. Do you want to say anything more?

It is a pre-planned conspiracy. I see a role played by the local media too. If a person like me has been dressed up as anti-Assamese, and all these young people who have written Miyah poetry are also being labelled anti-Assamese, what does it signify? At least 80% of these poems were written in Assamese. Somebody wants to weaken our movement to be within the Assamese stream. There is a conspiracy to show the entire community as anti-Assamese through this controversy. I am only a symbol. Can Hiren Gohain say I am anti-Assamese? I was his student. Can Homen Borgohain say so? Can Dr Dilip Bora (professor at Gauhati University) say so? In 1995, I was a topper in the Assamese language at Gauhati University.

Also read | Debate: Miyah Poetry in the Time of Nationalism

I have a deep cut on my chin. It was proof of my Assamese-ness. It was due to an attack by some student leaders of Barpeta’s M.C. College during the Assam agitation. I was a member of the college students’ union. That was the time most Muslims had to leave the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). We were looked at with suspicion. I questioned it, and was attacked. I had to study for some time in Dhubri.

Cultural icons of Assam like Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Bishnu Rabha and Bhupen Hazarika, had welcomed Miya Mussalman to the greater Assamese society as Na or neo Assamese. What do you think has caused this disruption to the assimilation process?

Only politics is disruptor. After the Assam agitation, the gap was filled. There was bonhomie. Top Assamese writers like Homen Borgohain, as the president of Assam Sahitya Sabha, the highest literary body, held its annual session in 2001 in a Char Chapori Muslim area like Kalgachia in Barpeta. Unfortunately, those who succeeded them in the Sahitya Sabha never showed much interest in the promotion and spread of Assamese language and literature; not dedicated enough.

That’s the reason we had to start Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad. If Assam Sahitya Sabha or AASU had worked in the Char Chapori areas during the Census, there would have been no need for us to start our Parishad.

In spite of all this, we feel proud as Assamese. When I am invited outside, in seminars, etc. My identity is Assamese, not Bengali. I sometimes fear that what I have done all my life – promotion of Assamese language and literature and assimilation of my community with the greater Assamese society, might fail. This is because I have worked the most in this sphere and here I am dressed up as anti-Assamese.

Recently Hiren Gohain too criticised Miyah poetry.

I am a bit baffled by his stand. I am his student, otherwise very close to him. Someone has misled him. I tried calling him thrice, he didn’t respond.

Though most Miyah poetry is written in Assamese, yet he said that they were written in 28 local dialects. My question is, how did he count them so accurately? We ourselves don’t know how many dialects are there in the Char Chapori areas. For instance, I may be staying in Barpeta district but I am in a Hindu area. The moment I get out, the medium of education is Assamese, my social circle is Assamese.

So then, my dewan (dialect) spoken at home is different from someone living in the same district in a different surrounding. If he is asked to name the dialects, will he be able to do it? I have not responded to it formally because of the deep respect I have for him. But what hurt me most was that he knew me, could have directly asked me about the issue, but he didn’t. I am not bothered about how Hindu right-wing forces see us but because he too questioned us, the jatiotabadi (sub-nationalist) forces came after the entire community, which was unfortunate. We are Assamese and we will not leave the language, come what may.

Hiren Gohain. Credit: YouTube

Hiren Gohain. Photo: YouTube

I also want to point out that even though there was a media trial against us, a pre-planned conspiracy, people like Homen Borgohain termed me in his show just a week before it as a promoter of the language. It was such a good, informed discussion. Also, not all mainstream Assamese people agree to that media trial against us. I have been physically assaulted once, I am ready to be assaulted once more, even by some ultra-jatiotabadi forces, but will not give up promoting the Assamese language within my community.

Lately, what we are seeing in Assam is also the rise of the Hindu Right and also of the Muslim Right. One is spawning the other. How has that affected the assimilation process?

It is definitely affecting the process. I have so many Hindu friends; the Char Chapori educated youth also have a strong connection with the progressive Assamese society. However, when you see the common people in my community, you often find them donning long beard all of a sudden, wearing skull caps, dressed in kurta pyjamas ( instead of the traditional lungi). I don’t oppose it. They have every right to wear what they want to. But why I mention it is because when such a person is seen by someone promoting the Hindu Right, it in a way confirms what they want to see in the community.

I have worked for 31 years in a higher secondary school in Palashbari in Kamrup district. There have hardly been any Muslim students. I had never felt discomfort nor was I made to feel excluded by anyone. Jnanpith awardee Assamese writer Mamoni Raisom Goswami (Indira Goswami) hailed from that village. She used to introduce me as her brother. When there was a vacancy in the Assamese department at Delhi University when she was the head of the department, she wanted me to join it.

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

I could pursue an MA in Gauhati University only because of an Assamese bank officer called Nityananda Mishra. He insisted that I study further because I graduated with good marks; organised a bank loan for me. Nobody from my family did that for me. Recently, when I wrote about it, he got in touch with me and cried on the phone.

My mother, who grew up in Barpeta’s Mandiya area, considers two people like her father. One was her biological father and the other was Girish Chandra Medhi, the father’s Bihua bondhu (friends who performed Bihu together). I have not become a Muslim fanatic because I have grown up in Assam’s syncretic culture. After my grandfather passed away, Medhi adopted my mother through gau-dan (giving away a cow as an offering). That cow was kept by my mother. The milk from that cow became her business and she later bought a piece of land in the village with that money. I used to call him Medhi nana (grandfather); never bothered whether he was Hindu or Muslim. This is Assam.

Do you think the push for religion-based politics that we are increasingly seeing in Assam can be stemmed by regional politics, which is based on language? This linguistic consciousness is also the reason why there was a massive protest against the ruling BJP for trying to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in parliament.

At this point, I doubt it. What I see is a danger, on both sides. Like migration, certain push and pull factors are working on the ground. If the so-called mainstream Assamese are increasingly pushing out the community saying, get out, you are not Assamese, the pull factor is the ultra-nationalist Bengali-Hindus, the likes of Garga Chatterjee, saying, come join us.

Also about the Bill, the Assamese have no moral right to protest against it anymore after voting for the BJP. Those who are for the Assamese community must particularly think what will happen to the jati (community) after the 2021 Census. I am very worried that the very reason we started our Parishad will bear no fruit.

A flash protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in New Delhi. Photo: MSAD/Facebook

Recently, the Central government set up a committee to look into Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which speaks about granting constitutional safeguards to ‘Assamese people’.

To grant constitutional protection, you need a base year. Various organisations, including AASU, are trying for 1951 as the base year. The committee that was set up under former Speaker Pranab Gogoi in the Tarun Gogoi regime to find a definition for ‘Assamese people’ as mentioned in the Accord, called us too. We demanded that those who could return to Assam due to the Nehru-Liaqat pact must be located and their names included in the list because they lived in the state before independence but couldn’t figure in the 1951 NRC because they were pushed to East Pakistan because of riot situations. They ultimately returned. My hunch is, even if 1951 is made the base year for constitutional safeguards, 70% of Miya Mussalman would be in it.

I am not worried about these issues. What I am worried about presently is the 2021 census. We, Assamese speakers, are 48% as per the 2011 Census. There are 65-70 lakh Miya Mussalman in Assam. If somehow the conspiracy works, that 48% will drastically come down. We, along with the Assamese intellectuals, must think of that instead.

In every language issue, the Miya Mussalman have stood with the Assamese. People who move around the state and have engaged with various strata of people will never say we are anti-Assamese. They have seen through this recent conspiracy.