Response to 'In Solidarity With Miyah Poets'

(In the August issue of Liberation we had carried a statement issued by more than 200 writers, academics and researchers, many of them of Assamese origin, against the ongoing persecution of a group of poets of Assam whose poems have come to be identified as Miyah poetry. The statement was pre-ceded by some introductory remarks and followed by a few poems of this genre. We have received a response to this feature from Comrades Bibek Das and Balindra Saikia. Considering the gravity of the issue and the questions raised in the response, we have decided to carry this opinion in a slightly abridged form followed by some clarifying remarks from the Liberation Editorial Board.)

A feature article published in the August issue of the Party central organ, Liberation, has raised concerns among many comrades in Assam. What has made us concerned is the manner in which a very sensitive and delicate issue has been dealt with. We feel that the positions that have been taken in the article are hugely problematic on many counts.

Firstly, the very first line that the article has been begun with. This line says — “Some sections are stirring the communal pot in Assam on the eve of the publication of the final NRC list by filing an FIR against protest poetry by Bengali-speaking Muslims”. How can someone declare in such definitive terms that the communal pot has been stirred in Assam? Is there a single report of communal eruption of any sort in Assam ever since the debate on Miyah Poetry has unfolded? How can it be declared that the FIR has stirred a communal eruption? We also condemn in strongest voice the act of filing the FIR on 10 Miyah poets. This act, in no way, can be accepted. In no way any act to curb freedom of expression can be supported. The party brought out protest statement against the FIR and our comrades participated in protest programmes wherever they took place, and were also involved in the process of providing legal and other help to those named in the FIR. The second thing is the emphasis on “the eve of the final NRC list”. What is the intention of emphasising it? The Miyah poetry has been discussed and de-bated for more than one and a half years in Assam in the intellectual circle. The debates and concerns have been healthy so far. This time the debate at-tracted the media attention. We all know how it started. Ever since an article raising apprehension about the Miyah poetry appeared in an Assamese magazine by comrade Dilip Borah and a subsequent article backing Borah’s article written by Hiren Gohain appeared, a few persons from Assam start-ed writing in National Web Media, where the only motive, as it appeared, was to establish Dr. Gohain and the progressive section of Assam as xeno-phobic and chauvinist. One can follow the articles to find out what actually was the motive. They were more about proving the Assamese progressive section who were debating the Miyah poetry xenophobic and chauvinist ra-ther than supporting the Miyah poems. After those write-ups the main-stream media took it up and it became an issue. It has nothing to do with a conspiracy on the eve of the NRC getting published, as has been portrayed in the article.

The second problem, in fact a contradiction, in the article is – declaring the Miyah poems as the poems of the Bengali-origin muslims. Just one ques-tion—if the Miyah poems are about the suffering of the Bengali-origin mus-lims, then what is need of saying it “Miyah Poetry”? it should be called “Bengali Poetry”. The community that has been addressed in the Miyah Poems, don’t say themselves as “Bengali Origin”, rather they say them-selves as “East Bengal Origin”. The way that it has been handled in the arti-cle is quite arbitrary and defies the facts buried deep into complex and deli-cate histories. In this context it should be mentioned here that a section of Bengali chauvinist appeals to the East Bengal origin Muslims who were termed as Na- axomiya(neo Assamese) by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, to write down their mother tongue as Bengali in the coming census which was coined by them as 'chalo paltai'.They also declared openly that the aim of 'chalo paltai' is to make Assam the next Tripura. This appeal has created mass tension and sharp reactions in Assam. Surprisingly the people who are called till yesterday as 'char- chapori Musalman' are now being termed as Bengali speaking Muslim. We would like to inform our readers that be-fore independence Assamese language was replaced by Bengali language in Assam. After independence, same attempt was made to replace the status of state language of Assamese by a section of Bengali chauvinist. Are the As-samese people going to lose their state language in Assam for the third time? This apprehension is haunting the Assamese people.

In the third para, the article says that—“the demand from some progressive quarters that these poets write exclusively in Assamese rather than in the minority language is also disturbing”. We have failed to understand this. Those who have been holding a critical position towards the Miyah Poetry, are not saying this. Yes, in one article Dr. Gohain mentioned about this. But the perspective was quite different than has been portrayed in the article. Gohain argued that the dialect in which the Miyah Poems have been written doesn’t represent the entire Muslim immigrant population. There are about 28 dialects spoken among the migrant muslims. It is like communities under a community. But what has been portrayed in the mainstream media is that, this is the dialect representing the entire migrant muslim community, which is a complete negation of the facts. If one travels to Assam, one can realise that the issue of Miyah Poetry is no where among the mass, forget about the migrant muslim community. In fact, people speaking dialect other than the one the Miyah poems have been written, don’t know anything about the poems. Also, people speaking the dialect of the Miyah poems are not thor-oughly aware of it. The progressive section’s apprehension is in no way to say that they should only write in Assamese language.

Here we quote an excerpt from the writing of Dr. Debojyoti Biswas, Assis-tant Professor, Bodoland University, Assam---“Different academician, poli-ticians and civil societies have tried to define Assamese in different ways; however one peculiarity has never been talked about while addressing this is-sue. The peculiarity is that the word Assamese at once has three connotations: It could mean a language, a community with specific culture and an autoch-thonous individual/community living in Assam. The failure to distinguish these three different significations that the term has has often led to irrecon-cilable dispute and balkanisation of the region in the wake of Assamese na-tionalism. The term “Axomiya” is the language proper, a language that pre-existed its nomenclature as the term has been derived from the word Ahom: In Tai the root cham means "to be undefeated". With the privative As-samese affix ā the whole formation Āchām would mean undefeated (Kakati, 1953, p. 2) It is in defence of this language that many a battles have been fought since 1836. The second connotation is related to the community which has a distinct culture. The culture specificity of the Assamese community can unequivocally be traced in the manner of their cultural life, which subsumes all kind of socio-cultural and religious practices. The third signification of the word has been problematic for some reasons. Since the definition of autoch-thonous, which means born from the earth/soil, or something which is indig-enous to a place brings forth may unsettled questions. The various tribes like Bodos, Mishings, Karbis, Rabhas, Garos and others- who have been living in this region since time immemorial are undoubtedly the autochthons, however as to the non-tribals, many communities have settled in this valley over the past few centuries, and the aggregate of which make the Assamese people. Reverting back to the “Miya poetry” context, the Bengali muslim immigrants who have come from East Bengal, opted the Assamese language as the me-dium of instruction in schools, and in the 1951 census they have returned As-samese as their mother tongue.This very act had a long historical process and a political dimension which have been discussed elaborately by Uddipana Goswami in her research paper. The indigenous Assamese community wel-comed this move and started accepting the migrants as the Na-Axamiya, who were to shape the Assamese language and literature in many ways. But this gradual integration was not as smooth as it might appear because of political influences. The role played by the Muslim League, the influence of Sylhet dis-trict and interference of some Muslim leaders (Maulana Bhasanivii) offered deterrence into the integration . Further the unabated immigration from East Bengal before and after India’s independence made the indigenous Assamese community apprehensive of the demographic change and the loss of waste land, Satra land, flora and fauna. This conflict of interest has brought the two groups often at confrontation (Talukdar, 2017, pp. 298, 308). Since il-legal immigration continued even post 1971, and till this day, a kind of rift is also simultaneously taking place within the larger Assamese society (Hazarika, 2010, p. 190).”

 

Reply By Liberation Editorial Board

The response of BD and BS pertains essentially to the introductory remarks to the ‘Solidarity With Miyah Poets’ feature in the August issue of Libera-tion. While opposing the persecution of the poets, the response raises some apprehensions and points to some historical details and certain dimensions that they consider relevant in this context. Their main points, as the readers can see, can be summarised as follows: (i) it is exaggerated to link the sub-ject to any attempt at whipping up communal tension in Assam, (ii) the current controversy over Miya poetry has little connection with the NRC and has its origins in an older debate in literary circles, where some had a motive of “proving the Assamese progressive section who were debating the Miya poetry xenophobic and chauvinists” and (iii) the controversy may fuel the demographic anxiety of diverse groups of people bound by the As-samese language.

Without getting into a detailed discussion on these and related points, we would like to just state the following by way of clarification. When we op-pose the FIRs, as our Party and other sections of the Left and progressive camp have rightly done in Assam, we do not just defend the freedom of ex-pression of the poets, but we also reject the targeting of the poets. 'Stirring the communal pot' refers to this targeting and not to actual communal flare-ups. The actual sentence used in the introductory remarks to the Lib-eration feature, refers not to NRC alone but to the combination of NRC and Citizenship Amendment legislation which targets Muslims: “Today, with the sword of the NRC final list and the Citizenship Amendment Act hanging over them, the Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam are perhaps the most terrified.”

The intellectual debate over Miyah poetry in literary circles may be more than a decade old, but the FIR against the Miyah poets was indeed filed on the eve of the final NRC list. The FIR itself referenced the NRC list, accus-ing the poets of ‘hindering the process of NRC monitored by the Supreme Court of India’.  

It is also not our case to say that the spotlight on the Miyah poetry contro-versy is just because of the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Act. We clearly understand that it is the overall environment of insecurity, fear and humiliation felt by the Muslim community, in Assam as well as across In-dia, which has given rise to the Miyah poetry as a school of poetry of pain and protest. This pain and protest, felt and articulated by beleaguered and persecuted groups of people in different contexts, and the attempts to si-lence it through intimidation and persecution, have inspired progressive and democratic forces to rise in solidarity with Miyah poetry.  

The response by BD and BS says it is contradictory to refer to Miyah po-etry as poetry of Bengali-origin Muslims, and they also point out that there are multiple dialects of immigrant Muslims in Assam. That may indeed be the case. But our editorial introduction did not define Miyah poetry mainly in terms of language - but primarily in terms of protest poetry which re-claimed and embraced the abusive communal slur ‘Miyah’.  

Language has admittedly been a sensitive and contentious question in As-sam since the colonial period. The Assamese language has had to fight for its recognition in different phases, the Bengali-speaking people of Barak valley have also had to fight and sacrifice for their language. The pattern of demographic evolution in a state like Assam and the pulls and pressures of the processes of interaction, accommodation and assimilation among vari-ous language groups may at times give rise to certain fears and apprehensions across communities. Communists and progressive forces have the job of dispelling these apprehensions by identifying and strengthening the common bonds that unite the working people and progressive forces across communities and developing united resistance against the main structures and patterns of oppression and injustice and focusing on the basic problems of the day and their root causes.

Today the whole of India is facing the fascist offensive of the Sangh-BJP brigade. Among other things, the fascist onslaught entails unfettered cen-tralisation of power and sustained assaults on diversity and federalism, and systematic subordination of the entire society to the Sangh-BJP communal-ising and homogenising mission. While the BJP wants to use Assam as a key laboratory for its project, the Left, progressive and secular forces of Assam have the challenge of resisting it and defeating the hate-filled divisive agenda of the communal fascist forces. The solidarity with the Miyah poets and their poetry should be seen and expressed in this larger common con-text of defence of democracy and diversity.