The controversy generated last month by a viral video of a woman singing a lament about the lives of Assam’s Miya community demonstrated how narrow the imagination of the state’s people has become.
The song speaks of the treatment that the Miya community faces in Assam every day: they are regularly humiliated, detained, evicted from their homes and even killed.
The absence of empathy for the community was evident from the backlash that the song faced after one social media user described the unidentified woman performer in the video as an “Assamese mother”. Some Assamese users claimed that she could not be one as one as both her appearance and Miya dialect in which she sang were not Assamese.
Though the Miya Muslims with Bengali origins have long been excluded by Assamese nationalists and faced insults, their situation has dramatically deteriorated since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state in 2016. It has got even worse since the Hindutva party won a second term in 2021, and Himanta Biswa Sarma became chief minister.
In the song, the woman says:
“The people can no more endure the harassment of Himanta,
Pray tell, how much more will you harass?
Pray tell, how much more will you harass?”
One of the major changes in Assam since Sarma became the chief minister is the transformation of the state police force. In the past few years, a strong focus of Assam Police has been the drug trade. But concerned citizens have noted that this campaign has been accompanied by a rise in extra-judicial killings: in September 2022, the state government said that 56 people had been killed in the 171 “encounters” that had occurred since May 2021. Over the last five years, 28 people have died in police custody.
These excesses of the police administration is also the sub-text of the song.
In her song, the woman expresses the fears of being a member of a minority community that is often surveilled and mistreated by the police. “Collectively people have filed complaints in one police station after the other,” she sings.
The anxiety of being betrayed by fellow citizens is a reference to events that transpired when the National Register of Citizens was being updated in 2019. The exercise of updating the register was the logical conclusion of Assam’s long history of dehumanising those it considered outsiders. The register is a list of Indian citizens living in Assam. But Bengali Muslims felt – with good reason – that they were put under greater scrutiny than other groups.
During the final stages of verification, the All Assam Students’ Union filed over 2.5 lakh objections to names that had been included on the preliminary list.
Assam and the Assamese people have multiple identities. A dominant Assamese identity is its upper caste identity with middle-class sensibilities. Another strong political marker has come to define who is not Assamese: the “foreigner”, “illegal migrant” or “Bangladeshi”. This kind of person is considered a danger to the culture and economy of the state. This attitude towards the so-called outsider helps consolidate the identity of Assamese khilonjiya or sons of the soil.
The state has undertaken frequent, violent eviction drives against those it claims are illegal encroachers. Though thousands in Assam belonging to different social groups live on government land, Miyas selectively have been targeted to be removed from such plots.
Anthropologist Mathew Desmond, in his seminal work on eviction, noted that in most languages spoken in this world, home is not just a place of shelter: it is synonymous with warmth, safety, and family. It is like the womb. Eviction, as one of Desmond’s interlocutors, noted, “must be considered a traumatic rejection”.
In many cases, evictions are carried out without any notice. The people who have been removed are often left in the cold, with no food and shelter, or put in relief camps that are inhabitable.
Philosopher Etaine Balibar argues that citizenship and humanity are interrelated. When someone’s citizenship is questioned, their humanity is also being called into doubt.
When a Muslim in Assam is selectively chosen to be evicted, it not only tells us about the mind of the state but also that we live in a society where selective eviction has become normalised. When eviction is seen as a normal act, we too have somehow perhaps become less human or enjoy the dispossession, violence and profiling faced by the community.
When you evict someone, you deny them their right to this world and to be human.
By highlighting the dehumanised world of Miyas in Assam, the song by the unknown performer has a universal message as it appeals for them to be treated as equal citizens and as human beings.
Suraj Gogoi is a writer based in Bangalore and Nazimuddin Siddique teaches sociology at Nagaland University.