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Shalim M Hussain
Date of Publish: 2016-11-26

Why Miyah Poetry (and not Char-Chapori Poetry)?


On 29th April 2016, something interesting happened on Facebook. Dr. Hafiz Ahmed, a Guwahati-based writer, teacher and public intellectual posted a poem in English titled ‘Write Down I am a Miyah’ on the social networking site. Within a few hours of posting the poem, it had already been viewed and shared multiple times. It was a comment on the National Register of Citizens, a topic on which Ahmed has written widely and in different genres, and an appeal to fellow poets to declare themselves as ‘Miyah’. On first reading it might have been dismissed as another ‘rant’ on the social networks but the afterlife of the poem was remarkable- within a day of the poem being posted, the first response to the poem came in, then a response to the response and so on until within a week the chain reaction had produced twelve poems by twelve different poets, all claiming the Miyah identity. These poems have collectively been termed ‘Miyah’ poems and the writers of the same have been given the collective identifier ‘Miyah’ poets. I will look at specific lines from Hafiz Ahmed’s  first poem and the poems that followed but for a moment let us pause and dwell upon the word ‘Miyah’ itself.

Photo Courtesy- Shalim M Hussain facebook page

In Assam ‘Miyah’ is slang for an Assamese Muslim of Bengal origin who speaks one of the many dialects which are loosely classified under the language/ dialect cluster Bengali. Most of the people from this community live in the chars and chaporis of Assam due to which the earlier more politically correct collective term used for the community was ‘Char-Chapori Muslims of Assam’. ‘Miyah’ is used interchangeably used with the words ‘Bangladeshi’ and ‘illegal immigrant’, both of which are loaded with negative connotations of filth, uncouthness and barbarism. This group of insults presupposes two things- either that the community for which the word is used is composed of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or that the community consists of people who share some historical affinity with Bangladesh and hence cannot be considered to be completely Assamese. This brings us to a question which has disturbed the people of Assam for a long time- how can the word ‘Assamese’/ ‘Axomiya’ be defined? Or, what does it take to be an Assamese? The first question has been sufficiently discussed and debated with various groups suggesting various criteria but the second question is important to understand ‘Miyah Poetry’ or the ‘Miyah Poets’ or even the ‘Miyah People’. So what does it take to be an Assamese/Axomiya? If geographical belongingness is an indicator then it solves all the problems but the question is more closely tied to ethnicity and language. If Axomiya/Assamese is a pre-determined term for a pre-determined group of people fixed in whatever historical period, it seems to assume that only a certain number of people who lived in Assam before a given date are Assamese and that it is impossible for all later entrants to ‘become’ Assamese.

Photo Courtesy- Shalim M Hussain facebook page

One way in which Muslims from the char-chaporis have tried to assimilate into the ‘Greater Assamese’ fold is by constantly returning their language as Assamese in the census data. As the children of the char-chapori Muslims are predominantly educated in Assamese-medium schools, they pick up standard Assamese at a really young age and use the language for day-to-day transactions. There have been accusations that the dialects the char-chapori Muslims speak among themselves are not really Assamese but dialects of Bengali. This brings us to the language-dialect debate. Linguistically speaking, languages (in the case of India, scheduled languages) become languages through a socio-political process. In the originary position, all spoken codes are dialects until some are privileged over others for several social and political reasons and get standardized. As such, subsuming dialects under languages whereby a group of dialects are classified as subsets of a standard language is a rather problematic act. First, there is no central body authorized to perform this categorization. One dialect may share equal mutual intelligibility with two or more standard languages. Moreover, dialects are more dynamic than languages and keep changing and developing through an organic process. Standard languages can be tamed by dictionaries and grammar textbooks but dialects, since they do not wait for lexicography to expand their vocabulary or for universities to sanction new modifications of syntax mutate very fast. Hence, it is a futile exercise to classify the char-chapori dialects as Assamese or Bengali. In cases where census data defines the identities of people, the categorization of people as linguistic communities must be left to the choice of the people concerned. Char-chapori Muslims have constantly returned their linguistic identity as Assamese and this choice must be respected.

nezine.com File Photo

Given the above arguments, how is ‘Miyah poetry’ different from earlier poetry written by Assamese Muslim poets of Bengal origin? First, the poets self-identify with the word ‘Miyah’. Selecting ‘Miyah’ instead of ‘Char-chapori Muslim’ is a deeply problematic choice which we should examine in some detail. Many commentators from within the char-chapori community as well as people from outside the community have questioned the usage of the word Miyah on two grounds: first, what is the rationale behind self-identifying with an abusive term? The second group of commentators has tried to explain that the word Miyah in itself doesn’t have negative connotations. In its original use it means ‘gentleman’ or ‘sir’, they say. This clarification is absolutely unnecessary. Words do not have intrinsic meanings. A ‘word in itself’ is a hollow sound which requires a meaning to be bestowed on it. As such, words have connotative meanings and connotative meanings change from context to context. So if ‘Miyah’ means ‘gentleman’ in the rest of India and ‘filthy Bangladeshi’ in Assam, both the meanings are valid even if one is distasteful. So what does it mean for a group of poets to self-identify as ‘filthy Muslim Bangladeshi’? The first assertion of this identity in print can be traced to “I beg to state that (Bineeto Nibedan Ei  je)

a 1985 poem by Khabir Ahmed which has the infinitely quotable lines:


I beg to state that

I am a settler, a hated Miyah

Whatever be the case, my name is

Ismail Sheikh, Ramzan Ali or Majid Miyah

Subject- I am an Assamese Asomiya

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain. First published on The Sunflower Collective Blog. Source: http://sunflowercollective.blogspot.in/2016_10_26_archive.html)

This was probably the first ‘Miyah’ poem and for a full appreciation of its disruptive power, it has to be studied in comparison to the poems by char-chapori Muslims that preceded it. Let us look at Maulana Bande Ali’s 1939 poem “Charuwar Ukti”  the oldest traceable poem by a writer from the char-chapori Muslim community:

I am not a charuwa, not a pamua

We have also become Asomiya

Of Assam’s land and air, of Assam’s language

We have become equal claimants.

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain. First published in The Sunflower Collective Blog[1] Source: http://sunflowercollective.blogspot.in/2016_10_26_archive.html)
Whereas the second poem has an element of supplication, the first is ripe with satire. By structuring the poem as a formal application letter, Khabir Ahmed highlights the tendency of reducing citizenship, and by extension, belongingness to a formal official process whereas identities are forced upon or taken upon by communities through far more complex processes . Khabir Ahmed’s poem is confrontational and the language, laced with humour and satire, is almost like a whiplash- strong, sharp and impossible to evade.

‘Miyah poetry’ proper began in April 2016, a good thirty years after the publication of Bineeto Nibedan Ei  je - but this new set of poems shares the angst of the older poem. It is fitting that Hafiz Ahmed, the person who spearheaded the new series of poems is a well known and beloved writer of the char-chapori community and one of Khabir Ahmed’s oldest friends. However, Hafiz Ahmed’s ‘Write Down’ (originally in English) is markedly different in tone as compared to Bineeto Nibedan Ei  je:


write Down 
I am a Miya 
My serial number in NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
In the next summer,
would you hate him
As you hate me?


While Khabir Ahmed’s poem is an application to a higher power, Hafiz Ahmed’s poem is addressed to fellow Miyahs. The contexts in which the poems were written are different but not drastically so. Bineeto Nibedan Ei  je  was written in the aftermath of the Assam Agitation and the backdrop of the Assam Accord. Hafiz Ahmed’s poem was written in the context of the NRC update. If the three poems mentioned above are arranged chronologically, one notices a steady gradation of aggressiveness. Whereas Maulana Bande Ali’s poem is more passive and uses the sanction of religion to justify belongingness of people to a certain identity, by the time we come to Hafiz Ahmed’s, the tone of benediction has been completely been replaced by a more assertive emphasis on the contribution of the char-chapori community to Assamese economy culture.

nezine.com File Photo

I might be accused of forcibly maintaining a teleological relationship on the three poets/poems. After all, different poets have different reasons for writing poetry and the stimuli behind poems belonging to a certain period might not be the same. However, it must also be recognized that the lives of the char-chapori people, especially the category of people who think and write are tied to history regardless of their willingness to participate. Through acts of violence like Nellie and daily experiences of discrimination they become agents of history without really wanting to be part of it. It might be easier to take another example from the poems written by the Miyah poets. Siraj Khan, in his poem  “Amar polayo hikes swohorer gali” writes:


Just because he was a sandman

They gave him many, many colourful names:

Choruwa they called him, Pamua, Mymensinghia

Some called him a Na-Asomiya

And some ‘Bideshi Miyah’

He carried these rashes on his heart

To his grave.

(Translation by Shalim M Hussain)

Or in my own poem ‘Nana I have Written’ written as a response to Hafiz Ahmed’s poem:

Nana I have written attested countersigned
And been verified by a public notary
That I am a Miyah

(Translation by Shalim M Hussain. First published by tektso.in [1] Source: http://www.teksto.in/article-nana-i-have-written-2.php
Siraj Khan’s poem is interesting because it is written in one of the local dialects spoken by the char-chapori Muslims of Assam. I translated my original English poem into the local dialect too. We do not give this dialect any name because doing so would mean falling in the language/dialect trap from which we are trying to escape. We are not trying to standardize anything- neither the language and idiom of our poems nor the multiple voices rising in protest. We are writing in the dialect we speak at home and use among ourselves in our day to day transactions.

nezine.com File Photo

Does this mean that we are trying to distance ourselves from Assamese? Not at all. A large number of the Miyah poems collected under Project Itamugur (an artists’ collective composed of Abdul Kalam Azad, Kazi Neel and I) are in the standard Assamese language and all the Miyah poems make a case for a more inclusive Assamese identity. There is no appeal for isolationism or secessionism. However, writing in the local dialects gives our poems more vibrancy and volume. As mentioned earlier, dialects are more dynamic than standard languages and poetry, due to its non-conformist disregard for grammar and syntax helps our creative process. The dialect’s disregard for standardization also means that the poems can be written in an idiom borrowed from any aesthetic and language. When we use the local dialects for our poems, the point we are trying to make is that these dialects are as close to our hearts as Assamese. By using the word ‘Miyah’ for ourselves, we are being confrontational in the same manner as Khabir Ahmed. We are trying to make an educated Assamese class, well-versed in either Assamese or English, to confront a word they themselves might have used in private but which they are too bashful to use in public. We are also trying to tell ourselves that there is nothing wrong in aspiring to be Assamese while being what the Assamese consider Miyahs. Where this assertion will take us is anybody’s guess but we know that it will initiate debate. Exposure of hypocrisies lead to self-reflection and disruption leads to dialogue. However, despite all our efforts if a bigoted person says: ‘See, they are calling themselves Miyah. Why shouldn’t I call them so?’ well, we will just shrug our shoulders and move on. 

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( Shalim M Hussain is a Research Scholar, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at shalimmhussain@gmail.com. )




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