Hafiz Ahmed is a social activist and a poet who penned “Write Down I Am A Miya,” after Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card.” The poem went viral on Facebook and sparked the Miya poetry movement, which is, as Hafiz Ahmed says, about asserting the demand for rights and dignity of Bengali Muslims in Assam. Sutanaya sits down for an interview with him, while he was in Kolkata for the People’s Literary Festival. The conversation was originally in Bangla, and has been translated by her.
Tell us about ‘Miya poetry’.
The word ‘Miya’ means gentleman and the usage of the word is similar to the Bengali word ‘babu’. Just as one would call someone ‘Sukumar Babu’, we would call someone ‘Rahim Miya’. But in the post-independence Assam, the word ‘Miya’ is used as a derogatory word for Muslim people who came to Assam from Bengal. ‘Miya’s are looked down upon and their citizenship is constantly questioned. The Miya community is facing several problems such as the erosion of riverbank [every year, several villages are swallowed by rivers in Assam displacing many and almost all the people directly affected by this erosion belong to the Miya community], a low rate of literacy, poor access to healthcare and transportation. The Miya community has accepted Assamese as their native tongue during a process that began in 1899 and was completed in 1951. However, literary works on the rights and demands of the Miya community did not really emerge until the Assam movement. Up until then, the poems from the community were like, “we are pleading, please give us our rights.” In 2017, I wrote a poem titled ‘Write Down I Am a Miya’. It was a turbulent time – I mean, yes, our people were killed in the Nellie massacre, in BTAD riots, in the riots of 1950 when over a thousand of us were killed, but we always spoke of harmony and peaceful coexistence. But in a poem of mine, I wrote that if you deny us our rights, we will snatch them from you and Assam might head towards destruction in the process. The interesting thing is, in the two days since I posted my poem on facebook, at least twenty other ‘Miya’ poems were posted and that is how the Miya poetry movement began. After my poem went viral, there were national and international reactions, Al-Jazeera interviewed me, I was at the Kolkata book fair, Abhishek Jha published Bengali translations of 19 Miya poems, some Miya poems in English will soon be out from Speaking Tiger, we are trying to publish in Assam as well. This is a movement about asserting our rights through poetry. The writers in this movement write about the 10 lakh people who became homeless due to land erosion, who are constantly harassed over citizenship, who are hated and humiliated by religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists.
Is this situation of hatred and humiliation the same for Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims in Assam, or are there differences?
The difference is that the RSS and the BJP target the Miya community, and the ultra-nationalists target Bengalis in general. The Miya community has accepted Assamese as their mother tongue, they read and write in Assamese. In 1950, there was a riot against the Miya people in Assam, a thousand were killed and 53 thousand families were forced to leave Assam who then went to East Pakistan [presently Bangladesh]. 42 thousand families could not return before the 1951 Census, so their names were not on the National Register of Citizens that was drafted in 1951. After these families returned in 1958 according to the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, the 1961 Census showed an increase in the Muslim population of Assam because these people were now included in the Census. Then the Congress government of India brought a new scheme called the Prevention of Infiltration of Pakistanis scheme or the PIP scheme [a scheme under which lakhs of people were slapped ‘Quit India’ notices without any reasonable process determining their citizenship and were pushed into East Pakistan without any formal agreement with the Pakistani government] under which 4 lakh 70 thousand people were kicked out from India. This happened with the Muslims in Assam. Then in 1960, during the Bengali language movement [in which the move to make Assamese the only official language of Assam was protested] we saw the Assamese vs Bengali formulation. That was when Bhupen Hazarika, Hemanga Biswas etc tried to prevent riots in Assam. Then again in 1972 during the agitation over the medium of instruction [in which the Assam government’s decision to make Assamese the sole medium of instruction in secondary and university levels was protested] we saw the Bengali vs Assamese formulation cropping up again. During the Assam movement [a movement for detection and deportation of illegal immigrants], both Miyas and Bengali Hindus were attacked. In my experience, in every ten years some community becomes the target of hate in Assam. Fortunately, nothing happened in a very large scale. Well, the Nellie massacre [in which over 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed] was pretty large scale, but see, we usually hold only the agitators as responsible for it. It wasn’t just the agitators. RSS had a hand in it too. The Congress government – the Congress was in power at that time – too was responsible. They said, “come and vote, we will provide security.” Not only did the Assam police fail to provide security, but it is heard that one SI of the Assam police who was in charge of the Amchang outpost was part of the violence. During the Assam movement, both tribals and Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims – were attacked. Eminent social scientist Dr Manirul Hussain has noted in his PhD thesis that even though the Assam movement had the appearance of a non-violent Gandhian movement, it was violent. This is why we saw violence in Nellie, Gureshwar, Chaulkhoa. In Nellie, they said the ones who were killed were Bangladeshis. But they could not find a single Bangladeshi among the ones who survived in Nellie. The Nellie massacre was a genocide, a very sad incident in Assam’s history. But fortunately the left – Hiren Gohain etc – has always been opposed to such pitting of one community against another. This is the section I work with.
Now you see, this NRC that has newly been drafted does not contain the names of 40 lakh people. 32 lakh have reapplied for inclusion. Who are the remaining 8 lakh? We think they are from both the Miya community as well as the Bengali Hindu community. 25 lakh Miya people live on the char areas which is regularly flooded and people lose their belongings including their documents during the floods. Literacy rate is very low in the chars, only 19 percent. Then there are those living outside Assam. 80 thousand of them are working as ragpickers outside Assam. Some of them may not even be aware that they need to apply for inclusion in the NRC. As for the Bengali Hindus, many of them came after the Independence and we all know why they came. After Bangladesh was declared as an Islamic country following the murder of Mujibur Rehman, many Hindus fled persecution and came to India. Some of them became wage-labourers, some opened shops. Maybe they were not aware that they needed to get documents, nobody told them to get refugee cards or get their names registered. But you see, we also supported the NRC at the beginning.
We are repeatedly being called Bangladeshis and are heckled on that pretext. We thought if we could have a fair NRC, we will all be included in it. But this was not a fair process. Even though the NRC is conducted under the orders of the Supreme Court, the state government officials are involved. For example, child marriage is quite prevalent in Assam. Many women were married off when they were minors. Now they are adults and their husbands’ names are on their voter’s cards, not their fathers’ names. And they have no board certificates because they have not passed 10th grade. So it was up to the Panchayat secretary to certify that X is the daughter of Y who is from Z village. But this certificate from the Panchayat secretary was not accepted. Then the Supreme Court ruled that this certificate must be accepted. But after the verification process was done, we see that the names of many of these girls are not included in the NRC. The thing is, if the officials doing this verification are prejudiced against a community, they will try what they can to leave them out of the NRC. Now that the re-verification process is going on, as per the norms the Supreme Court has said that the verification is to be done by first class officers. But yesterday a friend told me that the IAS or ACS officers hardly got to do any verification, instead, most of the verification is being done by second or third class officials. I can’t say for sure, but I feel that the officials in these categories may be biased against some communities. I fear that many among those who have reapplied might be left out again.
Then there’s this Citizenship Amendment Bill. I have only one objection to it. India is a secular country. If you want to grand somebody citizenship, you must do it in a secular manner. Today Rohingyas are oppressed, Qadianis (Ahmadi Muslims) in Pakistan are oppressed. So if you wish to grant citizenship to the oppressed, you must do it secularly.
Then there’s the part about what is going to happen to those who are left out of the NRC. Say ten lakh people are not included in the final NRC. What is the Indian government going to do with them? The Bangladesh government says there are no Bangladeshis in India. So clearly they are not going to let these people in. So now someone not on the NRC has to go to the Foreigners Tribunal, and then if that does not work, to the High Court. How are poor people going to do all that? And then you have detention camps. It is nothing short of tragic that in a democratic country there are detention camps. I know a woman who has spent 8 years in Goalpara detention camp. These camps are full of extremely poor people who could not provide documents before the Tribunal and were thereby unilaterally declared ‘Bangladeshis’ and thrown into these camps. Even in detention camps people have the right to work and earn, but the ones labelled ‘foreigners’ are being denied this right. No arrangement for entertainment for the detainees exists in the camps and above all, families are separated in the camps. Men are put in the detention camps in Goalpara, Tezpur etc and women and children not older than 5 are put in Kokrajhar detention camp. So the father in a family will stay in Goalpara or Tezpur, and the mother and children will be in Kokrajhar. This is not only a violation of International laws, but a violation of Indian laws too. We are working with people like Harsh Mandar against this. 31 suicides have happened due to exclusion from the NRC. Who’s going to take care of the families? We have visited 25 of these families and are trying to provide legal aid for them.
A huge number of people have been affected by the NRC. Why is there still not a movement against it?
There is no movement against the NRC because every organisation, be it a minority organisation or a Bengali Hindu organisation or an Assamese organisation, has accepted that those who came after March 24, 1971 must leave the country. There were some instances of agitation regarding acceptance of certain documents like the Panchayat certificate for verification purposes, but there has been no general strikes or anything.
We did see an Assam-wide strike against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and we saw several political quarters including the leftists and the ultra-nationalists participating in it.
The ultra-nationalists and many Assamese people fear that their culture will be lost due to the influx of Bengalis. There are 48% Assamese people in Assam and 29% Bengalis. The number of Bengali-speaking people is increasing in Assam and many in Assam fear that if several lakh Bengali Hindus enter Assam, then the languages and the cultures of Assam and the North-East in general will cease to exist. They fear that Bengali might become the official language of Assam. In the British period, Bengalis did occupy a dominant cultural position in Assam and some people are afraid that this dominance will return. We also have to mention the adamance of the government here. You need to talk with these nationalists. Instead the government slapped them – Akhil Gogoi and all – with sedition cases. The BJP is playing a game here. They now will say, ‘see, we did try to grant citizenship to all Bengali Hindus, but we failed, so vote for us the next time as we care about Hindus.’ And on the other hand, the same BJP will say, ‘see, we are committed to the Assamese language and literature, which is why we did not let the bill go through.’ This is just an electoral game. There are provisions for granting citizenship under the existing laws. This Citizenship Amendment Bill is just an electoral gimmick that the BJP used. And it’s not just the BJP, the Congress is playing the same game. In one place, they are saying that they will support the bill, and in another place, they are saying they will oppose it. In Rajya Sabha, they opposed it.
And about the NRC, out of the 40 lakh excluded in the first draft, 32 lakh have reapplied. As for the remaining 8 lakh, they are the poorest of the poor. They have no organisation. They are not vocal. This is why I believe there is no strong resistance against the NRC. And this whole NRC process is not very clear, we do not know what is going to happen to those excluded from the Register. There is not nearly enough humanpower for all the legal and other help that these excluded people need. And detention camps – are we living in a Nazi regime? Even if a person is a foreigner, it is a gross violation of human rights to put that person in a detention camp. And there is hardly any protest against this, be it at the national or the international level. That is just sad.
Sutanaya is a political worker.