‘What Happens When You Police Poetry?’: Writers, Activists Gather in Delhi in Solidarity With Miya Poets Of Assam
Harsh Mander, Githa Hariharan, Ashok Vajpeyi and Apoorvanand condemned NRC and FIRs against Assamese poets & activists.
“153 A is not something that Sadhvi Pragya or Yogi Adityanath or Home Minister Amit Shah are charged with, despite the kind of hate speech they have given,” said former civil servant and social activist Harsh Mander at the Press Club in New Delhi on July 18, referring to the recent FIRs against poets and activists in Assam. He, along with author Githa Hariharan, Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, and poet Ashok Vajpeyi organised a press conference to address the cause of and express solidarity with the “Miya” poets of Assam.
The Assam police on July 11 registered an FIR against ten poets and activists — including poets like Hafiz Ahmed, Shalim M Hussain, Abdul Kalam Azad, Rehna Sultana and Ashraful Hussain — over poems depicting the issues faced by Bengali-origin Muslims in the state. The artists and activists named in the complaint were featured in a Karwan-e-Mohabbat video titled “I am Miya – Reclaiming identity Through Protest Poetry“. They were booked under section 420/406 of the Indian Penal code read with various provisions of the Copyright Act. Nine of these poets have reportedly been charged with Section 153 A of the IPC — “Promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.”
Miya, once a word of respect for Indian Muslims (‘Gentleman’ in Urdu) has, over time, turned into a pejorative term. For Bengali Muslims in Assam, it has come to mean “illegal immigrant” or “Bangladeshi” — two meanings that have dangerous connotations when hundreds of thousands of Assamese men and women are being rounded up into detention camps for being “foreigners”. In an attempt to reclaim the word, Bengali Muslim poets in the state have started to refer to themselves as “Miya”.
Mander, during the meet, highlighted the kind of harassment Assamese people have been facing because of the NRC. He added that Muslims were being disproportionately targeted because the NRC had to be viewed in the context of the Citizenship Amendment Bill that more or less offers protection to everyone except Muslims in India.
Coming back to solidarity for the poets, Githa Hariharan asked, “What happens when you police poetry? Miya poets have been harassed with police complaints, have been called a ‘threat’ to the Assamese people and security of the nation. Police complaints against poets pressure and silence them. At times like these, we have to express solidarity. We have to say, ‘Write. Speak. We are with you.'”
“This is to target and crush protest and dissent. This dissent poetry proves the power of resistance in dignity politics. The objective is to break a united opposition to NRC. We must resist all attempts to call our citizens outsiders,” added Hariharan.
The national debates surrounding Miya poets have also strayed into language. Hariharan asserted “multiple axes” of chauvinism were at play here; aside from being religion and caste-based, it was language-based as well. “We must understand why they have decided to write in their language and not Assamiya,” Apoorvanand pointed out.
“First of all this is good poetry,” said Vajpeyi, a celebrated poet and writer and recipient of the Sahitya Academy Award in 1994 for his poetry collection, Kahin Nahin Wahin. He added, “The poems are good and the protest is also strong. It is our double responsibility to defend both the poetry and the cause. When Miya poets use their own mother tongue to express their feelings and the circumstances of their community, they validate the multi-lingual and multi-religious democracy that India is.”
He further said, “In Hindi, there are 40 dialects. No language depends on just one dialect. There are 730 languages in India. If poets don’t use a major language (Assamese), then perhaps they must believe that it hasn’t provided them with enough space and opportunity to speak and express themselves.”
Underlining what Home Minister Amit Shah said on July 17 in the Rajya Sabha — “The NRC is part of the Assam Accord and was also in (BJP’s) election manifesto based on which the government has come to power. The government will identify illegal immigrants living on every inch of the country’s soil and will deport them as per the international law” — Mander reminded all of the urgent need to unite. “The RSS envisioned an India where Muslims would be treated as second class citizens. With NRC, they would no longer be considered citizens at all.”
“I believe that the Republic has crossed a new line in its descent into darkness,” said Mander. “It has crossed a new line by criminalising poets who were expressing largely lament and dissent through poetry. Where would India and the world be without protest poetry?”