More than 200 people, including academics, research scholars, journalists, writers and film-makers, have criticised the Assam Police for filing first information reports against 10 people, most of them Bengali Muslim poets and activists who are often pejoratively referred to as Miya. Their body of work is known as Miya poetry.
The FIRs were filed on July 10 on the basis of a complaint against a poem by Kazi Sharowar Hussein that criticised the exercise to update the National Register of Citizens in the state. The stated aim of the exercise is to separate genuine Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants. According to the terms, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered Assam before midnight on March 24, 1971, will be declared a foreigner.
In a statement, the signatories said the poets and activists were being subjected to a “barrage of online trolling and intimidation by certain individuals”. They said the poets were receiving death and rape threats, and were being harassed.
“There is also a wider attempt to malign the young Miya poets and in fact, the entire Miya community, through derogatory, lurid and baseless stereotypes,” the statement read. “This malicious campaign only adds fuel to the existing sentiment of hostility against Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam who remain highly vulnerable to ethno-nationalist majoritarianism and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state.”
In Bengali, Miya means “gentleman” and is used as a surname in parts of the subcontinent. In Assam, however, it is a pejorative term for Bengali Muslims, who are often branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. For the Bengali Muslim community, Miya poetry is a medium for expression against injustice and discrimination.
The statement criticised the criminalisation of poetry, which, it added, was the “sole medium of speaking truth to power” due to the absence of other avenues. “The criminalisation of any poetry marks the death of a healthy, democratic and humane society that we want Assam to be,” the signatories added. “In this context, we see Miya Poetry as a legitimate form of literary protest against the victimisation of Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam.”
The statement was drafted by a core team of policy analyst Angshuman Choudhury, and scholars Suraj Gogoi, Parag Jyoti Saikia, and Jyotirmoy Talukdar. Some of the well-known signatories are film-maker Sanjay Kak, academics Nivedita Menon, Ayesha Kidwai and Nalini Taneja, journalist Patricia Mukhim and poet Koyamparambath Satchidanandan.
“Further, we strongly condemn the manner in which certain lines from some old poems have been selectively quoted, distorted and taken out of context to project them as ‘anti-Assamese’ or ‘anti-social’, as also highlighted in the recent statement released by the Miyah poets/activists,” the statement read. The signatories said labels “sharpen Assam’s brittle faultlines” and may fuel ethnic and communal violence.
Read the full statement here:
On 10 July 2019, an FIR was filed against ten Miyah poets and other activists from Assam under five different sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Telecommunications Act for a poem titled Write it Down, I am a Miyah written by senior Miyah poet, Hafiz Ahmed. The FIR accused the poets and activists, amongst other things, of depicting the Assamese people as “xenophobic in the eyes of the whole world” and posing a “serious threat to the Assamese people as well as towards the national security and harmonious social atmosphere.”
A week later, at least three more FIRs were filed over the same poem. Meanwhile, several of these poets/activists are being subjected to a barrage of online trolling and intimidation by certain individuals on social media and WhatsApp. These include death threats, rape threats and other explicit forms of harassment. There is also a wider attempt to malign the young Miyah poets and in fact, the entire Miyah community, through derogatory, lurid and baseless stereotypes. This malicious campaign only adds fuel to the existing sentiment of hostility against Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam who remain highly vulnerable to ethno-nationalist majoritarianism and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state.
We unequivocally condemn such attempts to malign and criminalise the Miyah poets. Poetry can be a spontaneous and legitimate medium of expression of collective trauma, grievances and emotions. In the absence of other avenues, it often becomes the sole medium of speaking truth to power. Every single individual and community has, and should have, the natural right to do so without the fear of perverse consequences, including punitive action (such as FIRs). The criminalisation of any poetry marks the death of a healthy, democratic and humane society that we want Assam to be. In this context, we see Miyah Poetry as a legitimate form of literary protest against the victimisation of Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam.
In this regard, we remind the principal stakeholders - the judicial system, on which we rest many of our hopes, and the media - of the fundamental rights guaranteed through the highest laws of the country i.e. those enshrined in the Constitution: Article 14 ensuring equality before the law, Article 15 defining equality of opportunity, and Article 19 upholding freedom of speech and expression, subject to “reasonable restrictions”. We, thus, expect and urge the government and other mandate holders to uphold the constitutional rights of all citizens, which also include the right of writers to speak and write freely without fear of fear, harm or intimidation. We believe that anyone attempting to impinge on these fundamental rights with arbitrariness and frivolous interpretations must face the full force of the law.
Further, we strongly condemn the manner in which certain lines from some old poems have been selectively quoted, distorted and taken out of context to project them as “anti-Assamese” or “anti-social”, as also highlighted in the recent statement released by the Miyah poets/activists. These are labels that only sharpen Assam’s brittle faultlines and create conditions for ethnic and communal violence. We urge all parties to refrain from using such simplistic and baseless titles against the poets.
Finally, we unequivocally condemn the cyber bullying, harassment and threats that the Miyah poets, activists and their friends are being subjected to. Such conduct is not just downright unacceptable in a civil society, but also fall under the ambit of criminal offences. We urge all members of Assam’s civil society, including prominent intellectuals, to publicly condemn the trolling of Miyah poets/activists and urge the police to take necessary action against the perpetrators.
The final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is about to be published on 31 July. In this context, the timing of the controversy and the vilification of the poets point to dangerous times ahead. We appeal to all people to assert their voices against hate, suspicion, chauvinism and censorship of literary expressions.