‘Mother’, Rehana Sultana wrote, ‘you hate me, because even though
I was born in your lap, I am that ‘cursed Miya’.’
Sultana was 18 when she first heard the word ‘miya’ being used as an insult. She had just moved to Guwahati from her village in lower Assam, and had stepped out with a group of girls from her hostel when they spotted a thin, dishevelled rickshaw-puller coming their way. As the man stopped near them, the teenage girls shook their heads vehemently, motioning him to move ahead even though they needed a ride. Then one of them rolled her eyes and said, “I knew he was a miya when I saw him coming.” The others laughed.
“I still remember the sound of the word, the laughter and my silence,” said Sultana, now a 28-year-old doctoral student in Gauhati University.
When, in 2016, she wrote her first poem in the dialect she spoke at home, she felt shaken and raw, like she had just had a painful conversation she had been putting off for way too long.
After she uploaded ‘I’m Miya’, written in the Miya dialect, people wrote to her on Facebook expressing how necessary and important her writing was. Someone even said, “May your pen never rest.”
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But three years later, Sultana’s poems have been dug up on social media and her inbox flooded with threats and insults. She has also had four police complaints lodged against her.
Sultana is not alone. Over the past month, four FIRs have been lodged against Assamese poets who identify themselves as ‘Miya’ poets—‘Miya’ being a colloquial expression used in Assam, almost as a pejorative, to refer to Bengal or Bangladesh-origin migrant Muslims in the state. The accusations against them range from promoting disharmony in Assam to painting a discordant picture of Assamese society outside the state, ironic, given the negative press that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) itself has attracted even internationally.
Three of these FIRs were based on complaints filed by indigenous Assamese Muslim organisations who have traditionally wanted to distance themselves from those Muslims whose forefathers migrated from Bangladesh. Speaking to HuffPost India, the president of one of the organisations repeatedly said that their organisation represented Muslims whose forefathers were from Assam and “are Assamese first and Muslims later”.
The attack on the poets is an extension of a larger cultural and political conflict that has intensified as the deadline for the NRC—August 31—approaches. As lakhs of people in Assam live in fear of losing their citizenship and being declared illegal immigrants through the error-prone process, people like Sultana, whose work is perceived as a threat to the Assamese subnationalist project, are also paying a heavy price.
Reclaiming identity through poetry
Sultana grew up speaking both Assamese and the Miya dialect at home, but she had never thought there could be anything ‘literary’ about the latter. The dialect, written in the Assamese script—and easy to read if one knows Bengali or Assamese—is spoken by a majority of migrant Muslims, especially those living along the Brahmaputra river in Assam.
The dialect, which is influenced by Assamese and Bengali, represents the cultural trajectory of Muslims who migrated from Bangladesh to Assam over many decades, beginning from the 19th century.
In 2016, poet Hafeez Ahmed was the first to write a poem in the Miya dialect—a loose translation of the title would be “Write Down, I Am A Miya”—and upload it on Facebook. And the first time Sultana read poetry in the Miya dialect, she felt like the words were painting pictures in front of her.
“I could see the tears in the eyes of the men the words spoke about, I could see them struggling to cope with the oppression and poverty they face,” she said.
It took her some time to realise that while she spoke many languages — English, Hindi, Assamese — Miya was the language she felt in.
And hence was born Miya poetry, a genre which helped writers from the community appropriate a word that had only been bandied about as abuse until then.
Kazi Sharowar Hussain, a 23-year-old poet and a student at Tezpur University, said that Miya poetry was born from the need to articulate the oppression faced by poor Muslims living in the fringes of Assam, in a language they spoke.
“The hatred they face for being a ‘miya’, the discrimination against them when they go to work as migrant labourers, there was a need to document their lives without villainising them,” Hussein, who goes by the name Kazi Neel, told HuffPost India. With Ahmed’s poem, young people like Neel and Sultana realised that the language they spoke it could also be the language they wrote literature in — a political assertion that came at a time the Bengali Muslim identity in Assam was facing threats of state persecution and organised political oppression.
While the dominant narrative about immigrant Muslims in Assam — whose forefathers migrated from Bangladesh — seeks to paint them as encroachers and troublemakers, this genre of poetry sought to speak about the systemic oppression they allegedly face. In 2016, the emergence of the trend was covered by Al Jazeera—this report is now being used by detractors to claim that Miya poets are ‘insulting’ Assam in front of the world.
Hussein, for instance, has been accused of creating a false narrative of sexual violence against poor Muslim women in the state. In one of the poems, about the discrimation faced by economically backward minorities in the country, Hussein wrote the lines:
“The land that makes my father an alien, that kills my brother with a bullet, and gangrapes my sister…”
“It is a metaphor for all Muslims and women irrespective of their religions. Haven’t women, especially poor women, been gangraped in India? Haven’t men been killed for belonging to a certain religion? Isn’t there an attempt to call many poor Muslims ‘illegal immigrants’ in Assam? There have been cases where 7-year-old children have been left out of the NRC,” explained Hussein.
Critics, however, have read the lines literally to contest the poet’s argument and file police complaints.
“They said, my father was not shot, my sister was not gangraped, I was lying,” he said.
The deliberate misreading doesn’t end there.
One of the police complaints refers to a line in Hussein’s poem—‘your torture has burnt my body black’—and demands to know: “Did you file FIR or complaint before the appropriate authority? What is the case number? Where is the medical report? Can you show?”
It picks out another line that says ‘my mother is a D-voter’ and declares that it is her duty to prove her citizenship before an ‘appropriate forum’.
“Writing poetry is not the solution,” says the complaint.
‘You’re the one I love’
To Sultana, the Miya language is a ‘khichdi’, but also the one she feels closest to. One in which she can speak about that time her college went for a day trip and the girls giggled and rolled their eyes at a group of young women wearing bright, red and yellow sarees. “Look, look, miyas,” they laughed, making faces at the ‘shiny’ clothes.
Or the time a friend told her about a ‘miya’ sewer cleaner whom her family threatened to turn over to the police because he asked for the amount they had agreed upon earlier.
“You are my mother,
I was born in your lap,
My father and brother were born in your lap,
Even then, you say I am not yours
I am nothing to you…”
Quoting the opening lines of her first ‘Miya poem’, Sultana said that accusations that she was trying to ‘malign’ Assam especially rankled.
“I have studied in Assamese medium in school. I did my graduation in Assamese literature and then my Masters in it. Later, when I began writing my doctoral thesis, that too was in Assamese. In fact, I did not think that Miya language was something that I could write in till very recently,” she said. In fact, some of her poems on the miya community, have been written in Assamese. “That is still the language I am most comfortable writing in,” she said.
Her poems mostly speak about the experiences of poor Muslim families she has worked with since her student days. Sultana’s doctoral thesis is on the folk traditions of Muslims who live in ‘chars’ — temporary river islands on the Brahmaputra — a community known to be the poorest, least educated and most oppressed among even the minorities in Assam.
During the course of her doctoral research, she frequently made trips to the chars and heard stories of hungry children waiting all day for their fathers to return home from selling odds and ends in the villages for food. But the men couldn’t return, because they would be spending the night in police lock-ups on suspicion of being thieves or ‘Bangladeshis’.
Sultana’s first poems, therefore, was about an average poor migrant Muslim’s desperation in to be counted as an Assamese. “They have given up their mother tongue, they gave up their culture to try to fit in. ‘Mother, you don’t trust me, because I have a beard, I wear a lungi, I am distraught from trying to prove my identity to you, yet, despite tolerating thousands of insults, pain and deprivation, I will stay say that you’re the one I love’ — I wrote this to capture their cries of desperation, to be accepted even after being born here like any other Assamese,” Sultana said.
And the poems don’t deal with just one angle. Because they have been denied education and are cut off from most amenities, these societies are also deeply superstitious. Sultana’s poems do not just talk about discrimination but also protests the doubly oppressive lives of women in that society. “Child marriage is rampant, so is domestic violence. I wrote extensively on those issues as well,” she said.
And then, the abuse
After Sultana’s first poem was published in 2016, she didn’t receive a single critical or abusive message. So she was taken by surprise in June this year when she saw the toxic language being unleashed on the comments section of a friend’s status update on Miya poetry.
“Don’t let this affect you and don’t stop, keep writing,” she commented.
On 17 June, a message landed on her inbox, calling her a prostitute and asking how much it would cost to ‘have a night with her’. The man, called Manash, did not try to hide his identity and messaged Sultana from a profile which he seemed to be using to post regular content and interact with friends and family. When Sultana did not respond, he followed up with more messages, asking her to go to Pakistan and taking a dig at ‘beef-eating Muslims’.
While most of the miya poets were getting trolled, being the only woman miya poet of the group meant Sultana received a special kind of abuse.
She was sent graphic descriptions of how ‘miya’ men must be masturbating at women like her, long messages about the alleged sexual excesses of her community, accusations that she probably wants ‘40 children’, and assertions that miyas are rapists who should be cut up in public. And, unsurprisingly, multiple rape threats. Once Sultana changed the privacy settings of her Facebook profile and the men couldn’t comment on her posts, she received messages saying that they wanted to write things about “her vagina, nipples” on the posts. They dared her to change the privacy settings.
One man wrote, “We are so disgusted by you that we won’t come near miya girls even if they stood naked in front of us.”
“I thought of reporting them but how many will I report? I am one person,” she said.
In some of the screenshots Sultana shared with HuffPost India, women also participated in degrading conversations about her and when the men wondered who she was, some of them posted links to her Facebook profile in the comments threads.
One of Sultana’s friends, a Hindu Assamese woman, who defended miya poets on Facebook, had to deal with torrents of men commenting on the nature of her relationship with the male miya poets, each conversation sexually coloured and obscene. Sultana’s WhatsApp inbox also started getting flooded with threatening messages.
“I work and study in Guwahati University. Many people have my number, it’s not difficult to get it,” she said.
The messages were so graphic and disturbing that Sultana was forced to switch off her phone. When this correspondent tried to get in touch with her two weeks ago, her brother informed HuffPost India that she had stopped using the phone because it was flooded with threatening, abusive messages. Even her family could only get in touch with her by calling people around her—friends when she was at university, relatives when she was visiting their homes.
One of Sultana’s friends, a Hindu Assamese woman, who defended miya poets on Facebook, had to deal with torrents of men commenting on the nature of her relationship with the male miya poets
“It became unbearable and honestly, the slew of obscene messages made me feel deep shame. Every time my phone buzzed, I froze, thinking someone will message me asking for sex or threatening to rape me,” she said.
Initially, Sultana thought she would file police complaints against these men and women. But she decided against it because in her village where her parents live, getting embroiled in ‘police cases’ was always made out to be a statement on a woman’s character, not the perpetrator’s.
“They will not understand any Miya poetry, or Facebook or protest. They will think I must have done something terrible to have gotten the police involved. It’s a matter of deep shame there,” she said.
And the police were not far behind, either. Over the next few weeks, as Sultana wondered how to deal with this onslaught of verbal violence, four FIRs were lodged against her in quick succession.
The NRC connection
Sultana and her friends did not know most of the people who had filed the FIRs, but they weren’t surprised.
“Almost the whole of Assam were talking about our poetry and from the hatred I was getting, it was clear that people had been tracking us for a while and were waiting for the right opportunity to pounce on us,” she said.
While Miya poetry is a literary expression of the social challenges of the Muslims in Assam, Sultana and some others writers had gone beyond that to help poor people make sense of the many layers of the hard-to-understand NRC process, including foreigner tribunals, biometric databases and court summons.
She has often participated in camps organised by activists across Assam’s poorest minority belts to help people understand the nitty gritties of the complex process they have unwillingly been thrown into.
“There are times these men and women who live on chars go to villages to sell the fruits and vegetables they have grown. A Border Police person will pick them up, take them to the police station and take their names and addresses down. They are so poor and scared that they do not question the authorities. Days, months and at times years later, they will get a notice asking them to prove their citizenship before a foreigner tribunal or go to jail,” she said.
While working on her doctoral thesis, Sultana realised that many villagers often land in detention camps because they could not read a summons, did not understand what documents were needed from them and where to get them and when asked to produce papers, showed something else, angering the government officials.
“A large part of their fate depends on the babus not getting angry or irritated with them when they mistakenly mess up documents. So we organise camps to look at their documents and direct them to the right authorities to get documents,” Sultana said.
Her work includes getting the right forms, filling them out, writing appeals to government offices for copies of documents to help prove citizenship and then patiently explaining this to the men and women and marking out the documents they needed to furnish.
Though she has been doing her research for some years now, Sultana says that it is the advent of the BJP government in Assam and the rise of majoritarian chauvinism that has especially targeted people like her and those she has been helping.
“It is clear that the multiple FIRs against us are meant to scare us and thwart the work we are doing to help these people get their paperwork sorted, so that they can’t be declared foreigners or kept out of the NRC,” she said.
Us versus them
So why did Muslim organisations themselves file police complaints against the Miya poets?
“These Bengali-speaking immigrant Muslims… the Assamese people cooperated with him, let they stay with love, let them cultivate land and rear animals, taught them Assamese and now they are saying they were tortured?” Hafijul Ahmed, president of Sadou Assam Godia Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad (An Indigenous Assamese Muslims Body) told HuffPost India.
According to him, Sultana and her fellow poets were disturbing communal harmony before the publication of the NRC. It was the reach they had through social media that seemed especially worrying to him.
“It was okay if it was in a book. But they are writing on social media, making videos and spreading them. So we appealed that the people responsible for law and order in the state look into them and stop them,” he said, emphasising that his organisation did not represent migrant Muslims.
Ahmed’s organisation is a subsidiary of the powerful student’s organisation All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which has been at the forefront of leading the stir against “illegal immigrants”.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar, a professor at Ashoka University, said that Miyas face deep persecution in the state, and that no indigenous Muslim will want to do anything with them and be targeted themselves.
“Indigenous Muslims have always sided with Assamese subnationalism and Assamese subnationalism is staunchly linguistic,” he said.
Last week, Sultana finally got bail in all the three FIRs filed against her, and decided that she would give her parents some idea of what was happening to her.
“I stay in Guwahati and both my parents are old and suffer from high blood pressure. If my mother heard about a FIR, she would die,” she said.
(Editor’s note: The name of Hafeez Ahmed’s poem was incorrect and has been fixed.)