A poem is a riddle enough. Should the riddle be in a language that is not recognized as a language of poetry at all, it is a riddle that opens up to another question: what is the language of poetry? In any context that is a difficult question to answer. And if you are from Assam, chances are you are the “wrong” kind of Assamese person writing in the “wrong” kind of language. You are probably not speaking the “right” kind of Assamese because your accent is too Southern and your “xo” is a “s/sh” sound; you are not dressing the way an “Assamese” person would – after all, if you are wearing those mekhela things like a tribal, you are obviously not a “pure” Axomiya person; you probably belong to the wrong religion, and most of all, you are probably one of those uncouth kids who are definitely not capable of cultural thought – a phenomenon most Assamese people call “sinta-sorsa”.
Once I moved to Delhi, this was something that became a running gag. If I met an Assamese person, it’d be something of a quick categorization ritual in minutes: Lower Assam Rajbongshi, does not speak good Axomiya and is definitely more Bengali than Assamese. Much of it one has to take in stride because there is not much one can do anyway. But it remained something rather sour and I am certain most people who move from that part of the world have this in common. While the rest of India imagines Assam to be the liminal space where the lines of Indianness can be drawn, Assam imagines Lower Assam to be the imaginary boundary where Assam is no longer Assam. It is – as most people will tell you in a university campus over tea – a place where the Assamese language goes to be ruined.
Given this context, the recent FIR report against poets who are writing “Miyah Poetry” can be explained both as a case of ethno-identity conflict and, as is often the case, the fear of a counter of canon that is connected to the ethno-identity issue. People who have been following the term “Miyah Poetry” will recall that this is a movement of identification with one of the most under-represented and vilified communities of the region. The claim made by so many Assamese intellectuals (including Hiren Gohain), that these poets are supposed to write in “Assamese” to register the reality that they have had to face for being vilified and harassed in Assam, is not only an insult to the craft of poetry but – more importantly – to the right of a community or a person to express themselves in the language they deem fit. This is a point that has been made several times by poets like Kazi Sharowar Hussain anyway.
Of course, for many people, this began as an intellectual exercise. For weeks, one kept coming across an intellectual back and forth between poets like Shalim Hussain and academic Dr. Dilip Borah. Of course, over time, this intellectual back and forth became larger in scope. But I have a feeling that this is obviously a symptom of a larger problem that has plagued the state and the country for a long time. The issue of legitimization of a discourse has always been one that is fraught with communal and caste violence.
Certain people have been using the term “integration” in this particular case, e.g., that in order to integrate themselves in that culture, these poets ought to be writing in Assamese. I find the use of a term like “integration” something that comes up only in a hyper-ethno-nationalist context; that the minority should “integrate” in order to become more like the majority. Issues of erasure aside, this is an imposition that almost all minority communities become less of themselves and more of the majority – conform, in order words. Let us be honest about it – people who are Lower Assam Muslims are widely derided as “Miyah” and most intellectuals who are writing about the weaponization of the term are far too distanced from the context to actually have a say on the matter. If people who belong to a minority community decide to turn around that term, the license to use it or debate it should also locate the voice of whoever has an opinion. Another myth also needs to be dealt with:
Saying that something like this is a threat to the Assamese language is a veiled attempt at shutting down a (literary) position that uncovers the brutal political and linguistic imposition of a certain kind of Assamese as a literary and cultural language. The fear that a different kind of language would dominate Assamese as a language of culture is a red herring. The right question to be asking is: who determines the (literary) value of a poem or its language, for that matter, and why do they have the right to make that evaluation in the first place?
Had the matter remained an intellectual conflict, this post would not have been written. But the truth is, we are living in the shadow of the NRC in Assam and things don’t stay on social media. Ten poets have been booked for “spreading communal disharmony”. They have been harassed, bullied and threatened online. Their private lives have been ridiculed on my own social media feed over the last few days. And the people who were part of the “intellectual” debate have gone silent. If they thought of their fellow poets as equals, one would assume, at least one of them would have created a hullabaloo with the same fervor with which they debated the very idea of “Miyah poetry”. The sad truth is, for people who come from a certain geography, their private life cannot have the shelter of “privacy” because the very fact that they exist is something that the majoritarian position has a problem with. The intellectuals who debated against the term “Miyah poetry” have the cushioning of a dominant narrative to shield them from a legal challenge while the poets who stand on the ground talking about and representing a “minor” position cannot afford such a privilege. The irony of a community living under threats of being disenfranchised being booked for “communal disharmony” is perhaps a grim reminder of the Assam and India we live in. In the middle of this outcry, more than 200 Assamese academics and writers have issued a statement in support of “Miyah poetry” and one has to be hopeful that more outlets will pick up the story in the coming weeks.
The question of the poem comes back to the riddle. If the reader finds the riddle too complex, the riddle does not stop existing. The threats made against the riddler here is between not being acknowledged by the majority or being brutally silenced by a regime that strives on stoking fear of the minority. The poem and the poets have to be protected against this regime of silencing at all costs.