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The politics of belonging in Assam

  • Published at 12:03 am July 17th, 2019

Understanding the struggle over Miya poetry

Last Friday, news emerged from the province of Assam in Northeast India that a police case had been registered in the region’s biggest city, Guwahati, against a group of poets and the kind of poetry they write. It is called Miya poetry, and it is the poetry of the people known collectively as Miyas in Assam.

The term Miya is not one of respect there.

It is a mildly pejorative term for the mostly poor people of Mymensingh origin who migrated to areas within the present boundaries of Assam at various times, going back to the mid-1800s, when the British administration, in its efforts to improve agricultural output in the area, encouraged peasants from neighbouring areas of what was then the same province, Bengal, to move there.

The poem that got the goat of the Assamese gentleman who filed the case, and presumably of the police officers at the Pan Bazar police station in Guwahati who registered the case, is about the pains of the Miya people because of the ongoing government effort to draw up a National Register of Citizens in Assam -- the parallel process of people being declared “D-voters,” where “D” stands for “doubtful,” and the travails of the Miyas in proving themselves citizens of Assam and India.
Among reasons the FIR was filed was that the poem might “defame the Assamese people as xenophobic in the world.”

The National Register of Citizens, despite the “national” in its name, is currently being carried out only in Assam. It is a belated outcome of the Assam Agitation, which was directed at evicting “foreigners,” and seeks to identify and give citizenship to all those who have documentation to prove that they, or their direct ancestors, were in Assam before the midnight of March 24, 1971, a day before the genocidal Operation Searchlight began in East Pakistan.

The fate of the rest, in which category there are currently 4.1 million people, is unclear. The intention, according to public statements of political heavyweights, including the ruling BJP Northeast India in-charge, Ram Madhav, is to “detect, delete, and deport,” meaning that after these alleged illegal migrants are detected, their names will be deleted from the electoral rolls, and they will eventually be deported, presumably to Bangladesh because the rhetoric is entirely about evicting illegal Bangladeshi migrants.

The current battle over Miya poetry, however, was not launched by the BJP or its Hindu nationalist supporters. It had already been brewing for a while after a prominent Assamese intellectual, Hiren Gohain, who at one time many years ago used to be a Leftist, launched an attack on the genre. Gohain’s basic problem was quite simple: The poets were writing in their own “artificial” dialects. He was against this.

He wanted them to write in Assamese, the dominant language of the province, in which 55 languages are spoken. Failure to do so would help “outside forces” such as India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, according to Gohain. This might seem very confusing to anyone not familiar with Assam or its complicated history and politics.

Gohain was against both the Miya identity and the “outsider” BJP. The usual binary of Hindu-Muslim clearly does not operate here.

So, what’s going on?

The politics of Assam has, for decades, revolved around language as the central fulcrum. The Assamese “jatiyobadis” based their agitations against “foreigners,” by which they mainly meant Bengalis, on the Assamese linguistic identity.

Thus, Bengali Hindus and Muslims were both targeted in rioting. However, the Bengali Muslims suffered the worst of the hatred -- the biggest massacre of the Assam Agitation was the Nellie massacre of 1983, in which well over 2,200 Miyas, meaning Bengali Muslim peasants, were killed overnight. Not a single person was ever prosecuted for the murders, unlike the Gujarat riots of 2002, for which many of the perpetrators have been jailed.

Eventually, the extreme end of the nativist agitations in Assam morphed into armed insurgencies that sought separation from India. The force that led this insurgent politics was the United Liberation Front of Asom.

In a curious twist of fate, the ULFA leadership ended up being based in Bangladesh, where some of them were honoured guests, and children of ULFA leaders grew up as Bangladeshis.

The insurgency was defeated militarily and politically by the Indian state. The psychological aspect of the warfare, first laid out by former Assam governor retired General SK Sinha, was along contours of co-option and a reinvention of the past to turn it in the direction of Hindu nationalism.

The project has been largely successful. Many former Assamese jatiyobadis, including the current chief minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, are now proud BJP members. The attempt to change the old politics of language and replace it with a new politics of religion is electorally victorious, at least for now, and has wide support among both Bengali and Assamese Hindus.

The far end of the Assamese nativist spectrum is, however, not happy with this. They believed, and still believe, in their identity as “pure Assamese” sons and daughters of the soil, for which the word locally is “khilonjia.”

This obviously makes anyone not “pure Assamese” somehow impure, and therefore second-class if not third-class citizens of Assam. The struggle over Miya poetry is located in this complex tangle between the various classes of citizens as determined by ethnicity.

Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. He tweets as @mrsamratx.

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