Salman Sayeed, Congress leader, whose four cars were also allegedly burnt down by the same mob, said the administration is “one-sided.” “The aim is to ruin the Muslims financially,” he says, pointing at the arbitrary sealing of shops owned by Muslims, who allegedly participated in the protest.
A local lawyer requesting anonymity says the local MP was trying to communalise what was essentially an anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest. “The counter could be pro-(Citizenship) Act protest. Why to make it anti-Muslim and target their business,” he says. “It seems like completing the unfinished agenda of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.” According to official sources, FIRs have been registered against 258 named and 6000 unnamed persons. Around 57 shops have been sealed by the district administration.
What explains Uttar Pradesh’s extremely high casualties?
Political sanction for the police violence, Muslims in Nehtaur town are convinced. Two young men died of bullet injuries, two young men are still battling for life in city hospitals, 10 people have been arrested, many have left the town out of fear.
“This, when we did not even protest,” said Mohd Zaid, whose father Rashid Ahmed was the chairman of Nehtaur for 17 years before he died recently. “Not a single protest meeting was held in this town. Imagine, had we protested, what would have been the outcome.”
Several residents of Naiza Sarai echoed Rafeeq Ahmed’s account. The lathi-charge began unprovoked, they insisted. It was spearheaded by the men in civil dress, they said, speculating that they were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindutva organisations recruited in recent years as “police mitras” – friends of the police.
Once the lathi-charge and tear-gas shelling began, however, young Muslim men clashed with the police – only to find bullets being fired at them.
Residents claim what followed barely six hours later was a police crackdown in the locality, with personnel entering the lanes of Khalapar and destroying private property with hammers and lathis. Residents, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, claimed more than 80 policemen, both in uniform and civil clothes, barged into homes, broke windows and destroyed items.
Two kilometres away, the steps leading to Abdul Karim mosque are still littered with broken glass. Eyewitnesses claimed police had stormed the mosque premises Friday night and broken several items inside.
“There was a group of madrasa students who had come from Gujarat and were sleeping inside the prayer hall. They were woken up by the sound of glass windows being broken. They rushed to hide upstairs when police barged in,” said the imam.
Local residents claimed at least 70 families “have left till the situation cools down”.
The family of local resident Noor Muhammad (26) claimed he was “shot by police” on Friday and referred to Meerut Hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. An official from the Meerut Medical College confirmed the man had been brought in with a bullet wound to the head. The family claims they were not allowed to bury the body in Muzaffarnagar citing law and order problems, and buried him in Meerut instead. “Noor had gone to eat something and was coming home when the clashes erupted. He was shot by a security official for no fault. He has a one-year-old daughter and a pregnant wife. He was born here, he was killed here, but he could not be buried here,” said his brother Umardaraz.
The residents said there had been no protest. They told me that they had only stepped out of their homes to attend the Friday prayers. The Muslim residents of Nehtaur relayed horrific accounts of how the police had fired at people who had gathered for the prayers; beat up the men on street; broken into their homes; ransacked their belongings; molested the women occupants and threatened them with rape; and arrested the men. The police showed no mercy to even old people during its rampage. Men in civil clothes accompanied the police and brutally assaulted the residents.
Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde said “confiscation of property is normally after a criminal trial. So this kind of action seems to be legally suspect and would be subject to further legal challenges.”
He added that it appeared that “(UP) administration is going ahead nevertheless just as a measure to curb dissent.”
Hegde further said that “normally provisions for forfeiture of property are only after the end of a criminal trial. So there cannot be any ipso facto confiscation”.
Another senior advocate C.U. Singh termed the action blatantly illegal. “This is grossly unconstitutional and illegal because it is not supported by any law and it results in pre-judging people without even the benefit of a fair trial.”
Singh charged that the action was being taken merely on the basis of an allegation. “It is particularly pernicious in this case because there is a serious allegation that a lot of the violence was instigated by third parties and by the police themselves. In fact, it was also alleged that it was perpetrated by the police themselves.”
Since the last two weeks, I have been struggling to wrap my head around the violence and the brutality back home in Assam. As an Assamese person who happens to be Rajbongshi (a rather contentious category these days) and has a mother who isn’t Rajbongshi, I decided to do the thing that makes me more or less comfortable with life: read. I have been adding things to a Twitter thread which one can access below to make sense of life.
However, in order to create a more ordered list, I have decided to use this format. Here, with longer quotes and ways to curate the list, I am hoping someone who is interested in this will be able to read about the problem at hand.
Let’s begin the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that Assam published this year. 1.9 million people were left out of that list and some of them have been put in camps in Goalpara which is a district of Lower Assam. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed on 10.12.2019 and has been contested on many levels. I have my own opinions about it which I hope to elaborate on in a different post. Here, I am going to divide the reading list into four [edited on 21.12.2019] parts:
“Sanjib Baruah details that after independence, elected officials, state bureaucracy, and even activists continued to rely on colonial forms of classification and knowledge to make claims of indigeneity and over territory.
[T]he politics of territoriality and indigeneity often becomes an exercise in defending the fences and walls that colonial rulers had erected. The continuing hold of colonial knowledge is reflected in both official policy discourse, and the political imagination of local activists … Activists in North East India often allude to memories of ancient kingdoms in support of their contemporary territorial claims. In appealing to the past, however, they show little awareness that colonial rule involved a profound break in spatial and cultural dynamics.”
I have remarked before that India is not only following a global swing to the authoritarian right, it is an innovator. The innovation which is now being tried out in India is the successful closing of the gap between procedural fascism and substantive fascism.
What is the source of the new compact between procedural (formal) fascism and substantive fascism, or to put it more simply, between the highest authorities in the land and the killers and lynch mobs that produce everyday brutality in India’ cities, villages and neighbourhoods? One answer is impunity. If anyone in India today says or does anything which follows the BJP line on citizenship, security, patriotism, patriarchalism, or journalism or the BJP line on cows, statues, space travel, or women’s place in society, they can rape, maim or lynch selected others anywhere at anytime. Impunity means the right to brutalise others with the near guarantee of no legal consequence.
Arjun Appadurai, The Wire
Ania Loomba and Partha Chakrabartty replying to Arjun Appadurai
Everyday violence and state violence has become synchronised, partly through the law, and partly in extra-legal ways. When mobs lynch and kill Muslims, when Dalits are punished for transgressing the norms of caste society; when couples marrying across caste or religious lines are hounded, and often killed, we see not just a mindless enactment of the ruling ideology, but the enactment of strongly held beliefs. The participants could easily say that these killings bring them some “sukoon” as well.
This vigilantism is precisely indicative of a culture of fascism, one that sutures everyday participants to the regime. Most chillingly, we have reached a point when the regime is entrenched enough for its flouting of democratic norms to not just be tolerated, but even lauded. Its version of justice from the top now appears to be what the public wants. Arguably, fascism does not lie in the translation of institutional fascism into the everyday; it emerges precisely when everyday violence, vigilante justice and state repression become twinned.
The idea of fascism-as-imitation is actually of a piece with what Appadurai identifies in the international view that ‘India is regarded as too democratic to fail’. Just as international civil society is in denial, even sections of Indian society itself are in denial about the extent of the challenge.
Consider the implications of this. First, any government, state or Central, will be able to legally single out Muslims for investigation because after the CAB becomes law, the only category of immigrants likely to be declared illegal will be Muslims. The CAB would, in effect, create a statutory basis for profiling Muslims. Notice the lengths to which the CAB goes to make sure that the religious minorities that come under its purview do not include Muslims. Afghanistan, which doesn’t have a border with India, is included in this short list of neighbouring countries, while Myanmar, which does border India, is not. The reason for this omission is obvious: Myanmar is a majority Buddhist state with a propensity for ethnically cleansing its Muslim minority. Including Myanmar in the CAB would be ideologically inconvenient for the BJP because that would mean extending CAB’s amnesty and path to citizenship to persecuted Muslim migrants from that country. This would nullify the larger political motive of the CAB: namely framing Muslims as the only category of people likely to harbour false citizens in India.
The differential legal mechanisms in the law, which was signed by President Ramnath Kovind on Thursday, for obtaining Indian citizenship discriminate on the basis of religious identity and express the different moral worth of Hindus and non-Hindus. The methods of enactment are different from the German state in the 1930s, but the ideological work performed by the rhetoric and policies of the German and Indian states share disturbing continuities.
Sympathisers of the law may point to the six religious identities listed in the law (as Shah did ad nauseam in Parliament). However, “Hindu” is not a mere religious category for the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. VD Savarkar, the intellectual founder of the Hindu Right, argued that a “Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holyland”. For Savarkar, Hinduism included “all religious beliefsthat the different communities of the Hindu people hold”. Therefore, Savarkar categorised Sikhs and Jains as “racially and nationally and culturally” part of the same “polity and a people” – Hindu people.
I n the past five years, various public universities across the country have seen protests against the government’s policies. “The public university system has been one where students do raise their voices,” Sethi said. But the protests in recent years have often encountered high-handedness by the authorities. Sethi noted that an “India-wide suspicion” is being spread about universities. “Young students are being called anti-national, being hounded as enemies of the nation, being hounded for sedition.” Ania Loomba, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explained, “As we know from history, authoritarian regimes need to curb academic freedom and that has really terrible effects long term on the health of education in any country.”
Assam-based anti-corruption and Right to Information activist Akhil Gogoi has been charged with sedition, intention to cause riot against national integration, punishment for criminal conspiracy and unlawful association under the amended Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, junior lawyer Kishore Kalita told Scroll.in on Tuesday. Scroll.in has seen a copy of the first information report against Gogoi.
He has been booked under Section 120 B (punishment of criminal conspiracy), 124 A (sedition), 153 A (unlawful association) and 153 B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration), and Section 18/39 (punishment for conspiracy) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
While day one of the protest was defined by the police action, day two saw the student community grappling with the ideological moorings of the protest. The protestors appeared to be divided on where to anchor the protests—religion or the Constitution. Some students believed they were being targeted by the government, through the act, because of their religion and so it was essential to talk about and rally people around the religious identity. They wanted the student leaders to let the local residents join the protest and fight against the act in the name of religion. One of the students, Sibahathullah Sakib, told me that the locals should not be “misunderstood” because the Muslim community has been “feeling targeted for long.” He said that the community stayed silent on the “Babri judgment” but “CAB became a trigger.” He added that the “social media space is such that we can’t even freely speak our mind. The protest was a culmination of anger caused by the system’s anti-Muslim behaviour.” This group of students had given up hope of support from the majority community and hence wanted to focus the movement around religion
Many student eyewitnesses described how, earlier that evening, the police had entered the Jamia campus, where students have been observing sit-ins against the Citizenship Amendment Act, or CAA, for the previous two days. The act, which came into effect on 12 December, effectively excludes Muslim refugees from receiving Indian citizenship under the law. Eyewitnesses told me that on Sunday, the police entered Jamia without any provocation. The police personnel entered the university from all directions at around 5 pm, the eyewitnesses said, and beat up every student they found on the campus, even in the library, bathrooms and the canteen.
The protest, which kicked off at 9 am, went on smoothly for close to two hours, although Mudita told me that three or four ABVP members at the spot attempted to provoke the students gathered there. “All their comments were intended to elicit a reaction out of us, as part of a larger agenda to abet violence and later label the whole protest as a violent demonstration and effectively delegitimise our stand,” she said. In the meantime, according to Abhigyan, a student of political science at Ramjas College, university officials called in the police to shut down the protest, since the examination hall had been closed.
According to numerous accounts, somewhere between 11 and 11.30 am, the strength of ABVP members present at the protest site grew to around a dozen. Around 11.30, the protest took a violent turn, as ABVP members began abusing and pelting stones at the protesting students. Some ABVP members attacked students with police lathis, while the police attempted to move the protest away from the Satyakama building.
Following this, students reassembled at gate number 4 of the arts faculty, where rounds of sloganeering ensued. This quickly escalated into another bout of aggression, as ABVP members selectively targeted student leaders. Abhigyan told me that a few of the ABVP women members approached Shreya, another student. “When the women were about to hit Shreya, I stepped in and close to ten–twelve ABVP goons attacked me while the police took their own time,” he said. “I was beaten and Shreya was attacked and two–three comrades were also beaten up. This sort of behaviour from the Delhi Police is not new. Even when we wanted to protest the abrogation of Article 370, Delhi Police refused to give us permission to protest and had us caged in barricades while ABVP goons were roaming freely raising slogans.”
By 8.30pm, reportedly after securing permission from the registrar, Abdul Hamid, the police entered deeper into the campus. This time they used tear gas and rubber pellets to intimidate the students.
The police started to vandalise the parked vehicles, broke the rear lights and headlamps of bikes and one or two cars. The students retaliated by throwing stones. The police even entered the guesthouses near the main gate where many of the students had taken refuge.
It didn’t stop there. The police went hunting into the boys’ hostels — Morison Court, Aftab Hostel, Macdonald’s Hostel — and one of the rooms of Morison Court even caught fire.
Students huddled together in the common rooms and terraces of the hostels. The overall atmosphere was one of fear, grievance and anguish. It was about 10pm.
Around 10.30, a notice was circulated announcing the termination of the academic session and the postponement of exams. The students spent the rest of the night in fear of more raids as they planned their impending return to the various parts of the country they called home.
At midnight, Internet services were suspended. The night was spent awake. On Monday morning, we stepped outside the campus in search of breakfast only to find police vans and downed shutters.
After this, the armed forces forcefully entered the AMU gate and it was here that tear gas was reportedly fired towards the boys hostel, according to the report. The report says that the police used “deceptive shelling”, to mean that the shells would blow up when students picked them up. One student blew up his hand in process and had to have his hand amputated, the report noted, as has been reported since.
After the events of the night of 15-16 December 2019, the report claims that AMU students were urged to vacate the campus by university officials. The report conclusively declared that the actions of the police in the AMU campus “violate all norms and standards of conduct in dealing with students democratic right to freedom of expression and association, and with the basic right to demand for rights.”
Two people died in the city of Mangaluru in Karnataka as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act snowballed. The two protestors who died in Mangaluru were identified as 49 year old Jaleel Kudroli, and 23 year old Nausheen, PTI reported.
In the evening, the police fired shots in the air and a curfew was imposed in areas under the jurisdiction of five police stations. Large gatherings were also banned. The curfew will be in place until midnight on December 20, The New Indian Express reported.
More than 1,200 protestors were detained on Thursday morning for defying prohibitory orders near the Red Fort in Delhi during demonstrations against the amendments to the Citizenship Act, PTI reported. Police had imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – which bans a gathering of more than four people – in the area.
Voice, internet and SMS services were blocked for four hours in some parts of the city, and entry and exit gates were shut at 20 metro stations through the day. The stations were gradually opened in the evening.
Continuing Police Brutality
Eyewitnesses recount the lathi charge at Delhi Gate
Saiduzzaman’s son Salman Sayeed blamed the police as well as people he associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the violence. “These goons functioned with the patronage of the police,” Sayeed alleged.
Sayeed alleged that they opened fire on Muslim protesters, following which, with the help of the police, he claimed that they looted shops and broke into houses in the Khalapar area. “People were taken away, things were smashed and looted,” he alleged.
Sayeed claimed this was an attempt to undermine the secular nature the CAA-NRC protests have had till now. “They want to cause communal riots,” he told Scroll.in over the phone. “They want to break the common Hindu-Muslim support for this movement.”
As per Rashid, the policemen badly beat up Robin Verma. “The cops repeatedly asked me about the whereabouts of some “Kashmiris” and where I was hiding them. I replied to all their questions in the negative as I had no clue why I was brought there in the first place. A few minutes later, two policemen, of the rank of CO, came in. I was told to stand up. The police officer, whose name I don’t know, told me he would set me right. He was wearing protective gear. I was then taken to another room in the quarters of a constable, where I was also photographed like a suspect,” he wrote in his first account.
It can be noted that ahead of scheduled protests against CAA and NRC, several activists were put under house arrest on Thursday. This included Ahmad, Darapuri and Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey apart from several others. The Wire tried calling the police superintendent of Lucknow but could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, on Saturday afternoon, civil rights group United Against Hate (UAH) alleged police violence in several cities of western UP such as Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Bulandshahr, Rampur, Bijnor and Firozabad. “Many people still detained. We urgently need journalists, lawyers and activists to go to some of these places and get the ground report, provide immediate relief,” read the message sent by Nadeem Khan, convenor of UAH.
On Thursday, the state government had suspended mobile internet services and SMS of all mobile service providers in Lucknow till Saturday noon.
One of the things that I read while writing the last post on “Miyah poetry” is this article by Dr. Hiren Gohain. Dr. Gohain is one of the stalwarts of the Assamese intelligentsia and while one has to pay attention to his views (he is far too important in that context), a few things that he mentioned deserves a more discussion in its own space. Furthermore, given the stature he holds in that arena, it is important to discuss this article in this context.
Let me paraphrase his article before getting any further. The most important points that he makes are:
He has done a lot for Muslim villages and, hence, the trust that they bestow upon him is not a fluke.
In Assam, things were becoming “normal” after a long phase of ethnic violence.
The “sane and wise” Muslim leaders asked for dialogue and understanding at the time and supported the Assam Accord.
The newer educated class is playing into the hands of Hindutva by writing a “powerful narrative” of Muslim victimhood and that these poets do not really want a reconciliation between the indigenous people of Assam and the descendants of immigrant Muslims”.
They are writing for a different (read: Un-Assamese) audience and ignore an Assamese audience at their own peril.
There are many things that must be taken into account. However, a few lines and phrases need to be pointed out before I go any further. For instance, the phrase he uses while talking about what is at stake is a haunting line:
It is unfortunate that an episode like ‘Miyah poetry’ should be allowed to cloud this goodwill that came at such a huge price.
There is an assumption that Dr. Gohain begins the article with which is a historical timeline – one he uses to contrast with the “abstract rights” that these poets seem to be writing about. The timeline – to mention/remind briefly – is this : Assam Agitation which led to ethnic violence was quelled by the sanity and wisdom of Muslim leaders who did not answer violence with violence and that has slowly become led to a “normal” peaceful phase in the years that followed. I think there is another element in that history that has to be pointed out as well. In the post-Assam Agitation era, most of the ethnic minorities that carried out acts of violence were – in some way or another – pacified by state appeasement. Whether it was Advani coming to Bodoland and giving Hagrama Mohilary the keys to the kingdom or otherwise, the point to be made here is that what Dr. Gohain is calling the “normal” has come after quite a few leaders of those communities were given territorial governance powers.
The result of which – and one must point this out – has been a slow but subtle change in the demography of many cities in Assam. Bongaigaon – for instance – has seen a large influx of urban migrants because there is always a lot of development work that demands cheap labour in both Bongaigaon district and Chirang district. This very often brought in the cheap labour of Muslims from the char area (Dhubri and Goalpara) to both Bongaigaon and Chirang. Of course, as Dr. Gohain mentions, the post-1991 Liberalization of the economy also saw upward mobility of a lot of people and many of them were Muslim in Lower Assam. However, this has to be seen alongside the rise of “Territorial Councils” of Assam that the state negotiated and then the benefits of the economy opening up in India.
This also saw – and I saw this in Bongaigaon for a long time – a resentment towards the Muslim community. What Dr. Gohain calls “some resentment among a few of them [Muslims] against the insinuations, snide remarks and mistreatment at the hands of Assamese chauvinists at workplaces or elsewhere” is a gross understatement given the daily microaggressions against urban migrants in Lower Assam; an example would be this story of a score of Hindi-speaking people in Assam from 2012 and one only needs to take a cursory glance at the number of Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been also killed in similar fashion.
Therefore, what Dr. Gohain is calling a narrative of victimhood orchestrated by someone behind the scenes is – in effect – the result of the gradual “normalizing” of ethno-nationalism in Assam. The kind of which, one can only assume, has boiled over to the point that the disenfranchising of many from that community is not a problem at all.
Instead, what Dr. Gohain tells us, is that the “indigenous” Assamese, whose “national existence” survives on language, “believe, rightly too, that they have never had a real chance to put their house in order”. There is a dangerous conflation here that needs to be pointed out: the “indigenous” Assamese is a homogenization of a population whose language politics is simply too complex to be thought of as something that is contrary to Bengali. In fact, the lower one goes in Assam, the more the language bridges the gap between “Axomiya” and “Bengali”. On the other hand, I would really like to know who would put the house in order and how.
The last point in his article is a haunting one. In concluding his article, he writes of the “indigenous” Assamese, the sense of “goodwill” that Muslim and Assamese share and how “Miyah poetry” ignores Assamese at its own peril. In writing the difference between the two communities, Dr. Gohain himself is creating vague communities which are seemingly at odds. The “other” created in his own article portrays the Assamese Muslim as someone who must be tolerated, not accepted, as Assamese. On three occasions in this article, he very clearly uses the distinctions between Assamese (irrespective of how he defines the term) and the Assamese Muslims; as though the distinction itself does not hint at daily microaggression. The use of the word “goodwill” hints at the “peril” that he picks up later. Like, a host, he charges his Muslim guests of Bengali origin “goodwill” to accept the occasional snide remark and not dare use the language (s)he uses at home to create poetry. The peril – he says – is that of Hindutva. The fear, perhaps, is that Hindutva will do better what Assamese ethno-nationalism has not been able to do so well over the last decades. We live in troubled times indeed.
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.
This Thursday (25th of April, 2019), the great Emily Apter holds a workshop at the Freie Universität. While I have listened to her great keynotes at least twice (once at a conference in Delhi and once in Berlin’s HKW), every time I have listened to her, a deeper reservoir of knowledge opens itself up for reading/research. For this workshop, I just realised that one of her big topics of the workshop itself is the work of artist/researcher Lawrence Abu Hamdan. And his work on speech and accents is quite fascinating both from the perspective of someone who feigns accents all the time and as someone who is interested in the politics of the whole thing on the other. Here’s an audio “documentary”:
On the other hand, the very fabulous Ben Maukhas written on the same exhibition/documentary – which makes for a very insightful secondary reading.