‘Miyan’ Poets Document Pain & Humiliation That Fails to Find a Place in Today’s Grand Narratives of India
Their poetry is not a desperate attempt to seek refuge and evoke our empathy. They know that "New India" doesn't care.
I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
Will you hate him
As you hate me?”, writes academic and social activist, Hafiz Ahmed, an Assamese Muslim disheartened by the exclusionary treatment meted out to the “Miyan” community in Assam.
Many disillusioned Indian secularists may reiterate Shakespeare: “What’s in a name”. Well, everything lies in the name, especially if you’re an “Indian” Muslim in Assam. Everyday they have to prove — ‘My name is Khan and I am not a Bangladeshi’. Sometimes, even their fundamental right to life and liberty depends on their name. Muslim citizens have even been sent to detention centres for small mismatches in the spellings of their name.
India has a long history of discrimination on the basis of name. Owing to casteism, people belonging to the same faith but with a different surname have been subjected to centuries of discrimination and severe persecution. Specific caste titles have been historically used as slur. We can find easy references in our day to day conversations. For instance, “Chor chamar ne kiya hoga” is a very common Hindi phrase used to refer to criminals where chor (thief)and chamar (so-called lower caste person) are used synonymously. In recent times, these slurs have been supplemented with a new category of abuses hurled at Indian Muslims — Mullah, Katwa, and Miyan.
‘Miyan’ is an Urdu word which literally means ‘a gentleman’. In Assam, it is a racial used to refer to ‘traitors’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators’ (read: a besieged community fighting a war for survival), courtesy of the National Register of Citizens. Of late, Muslims in Assam have become one of the chief targets of this institutionalised form of discrimination. In its propulsion, the blatant collusion of the state through the NRC and the Citizenship Amendment Bill is even more disappointing.
Facing severe discrimination, Muslim youths in Assam are picking up the pen to hit islamophobia on its head. This jihad of verses, stanzas and rhymes, popularly called the “Miyan” poetry, has been unleashed to massacre hate, neglect and prejudices.
“Miyan” poetry is an entirely new genre of dissent poetry in Assam. It is a flicker hope that there will be a day when there won’t be any D-voters and detention camps. Just like Henry Longfellow’s poignant slave’s dream, it is a community’s exultant cry for equality and dignity. It has gained popularity within the community and especially among the youth. Kazi Sharowar Hussain describes his dejection in the following words:
The land that makes my father an alien
That kills my brother with bullets
My sister with gang-rape
The land where my mother stokes in heart live burning coals
That land is mine
I am not of that land…
Verse and rhyme make it easier to unify the voices of dissent and translate the an oppressed community’s tears into a collective mourning. Moreover, this poetry is an assertion of a demonised identity. Through satire, irony and humour, these poets are fighting back against the derogatory stereotypes they’ve been reduced to.
There is fear within the community that the Indian state’s lackadaisical attitude will result in the radicalisation of youth. “When you push people against the wall for too long, they might react in a violent way. If my community picks up guns, Assam will turn to ashes,” Ahmed tells Al Jazeera in a telephonic interview echoing the last lines of his poem:
I have nothing but anger in stock.
Keep away! Or
Turn to Ashes.
Following the influx of migrants into Assam, several petitions were made seeking action against ‘illegal immigrants’. This made the Supreme Court order the state government to update the 1951 NRC. Now all residents must show identification documents to prove that they, or their ancestors, settled in Assam before March 25, 1971, the date when Bangladesh was created. The objective is to chalk out illegal migrants who entered Indian territories after midnight on 24 March 1971 and to determine citizenship of those who have applied for inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. However, the basic flaw in the NRC as activist Harsh Mander points, is its denial of basic justice. Here, the accused is guilty till proven innocent. The burden to prove citizenship has been forced upon only the citizens. Many citizens cannot produce proof dating back to 1971. The possibility of citizens losing such old documents has been ruled out. Rather, losing and not holding a document is a crime, enough to squash an Indian’s identity.
The poetry of Muslims in Assam is not a desperate attempt to seek refuge and evoke our empathy. They know that “New India” does not care. In a way, it is merely a documentation of their side of the story, their immense pain and unimaginable humiliation that fails to find a place in the grand narratives of India today. It would be far fetched to hope that this will bring about a revolution and there suffering shall end. It won’t. However, the act of speaking up, resisting and communicating pain for seeking a sense of community and belonging is in itself an empowering. Through “Miyan” poetry, they are asking questions that are invisible in the mainstream “nationalist” media. Moreover, this hard-hitting poetry is a test of the last remains of our collective conscience. “When will this indifferent quiet end?”, they ask in every word and every verse of their poems. It is a haunting fact that we have no answers.