The Politics of Identity in Assam: Deaths, Defiance, and Doubtful Voters
Parindey: Kazi Neel
Alivelihood: Poet, Media Professional
Region: Barpeta, Assam
“They are not humans, they are Miyas”, remarks Kazi Neel reminiscing about one of the many discriminatory experiences he had to endure since his childhood days. Miya, which translates as a gentleman in Urdu, is a pejorative word attributed to Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam meaning “Bangladeshi”, “outsiders”, “refugees”, or “illegal immigrants”. The migration of Bengali Muslims from the erstwhile Bengal province to Brahmaputra Valley in Assam happened in several waves. Historically, the migration dates to the nineteenth century with the British annexation of the region. In the early twentieth century, when many Bengali-origin Muslims migrated to Assam, they adapted to the Assamese culture, and language, and were responsible for its prevalence in the valley. Thus, in post-independent India, the Miyas were referred to as neo-Assamese. In the 1951 census, they declared their language as Assamese. Yet the community was never considered an equal stakeholder in Assamese nationality or politics. Despite adjusting to a way of life that is different from their own, and living in a region for generations, individuals from the Miya community are still questioned about their citizenship and allegiance. The dehumanisation of the Miyas has been explicit in recent years.
The ‘othering’ of the Miyas is deeply rooted within identity politics in Assam in the backdrop of the global migration crisis under which territorial sovereignty and citizenship are often questioned. The fear of illegal immigrants occupying lands, transforming the existing status quo, or reshaping the Assamese culture and language is rampant insofar as the Miyas and their char-chapori culture are frowned upon. This is the story of Kazi Neel, a poet and video journalist, who voices the lived experiences of the Miyas in Assam through poetry and a community media platform known as Ango Khobor, meaning Our News. His poems have been published on various print media and digital media platforms such as Scroll, Al Jazeera, and Raiot, amongst others. Some of his poems have also been published as part of books. Most notably, ‘This Land Is Mine, I Am Not of This Land – CAA-NRC and the Manufacture of Statelessness’, edited by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh. For his quest to be considered as an equal being in Assamese polity, Kazi has been slapped with sedition laws alongside nine other Miya poets in 2019 after their poems went viral on social media. Their resistance through poetry and not violence, demands for equal human rights and not a piece of the moon, has caused them grief, displacement, deaths, detention, and even forced them to live a life in hiding.
Char-chaporis are shifting riverine islands in the Brahmaputra River in Assam that constitute plain flood-prone grounds. The settlements in these regions primarily comprise Bengali-origin Muslims and other marginalised groups such as the Mishing and Deori communities, and Nepalis, amongst others. The inhabitants of this region continue to face organised hate crime, and citizenship issues, bearing the impact of changing climates such as soil erosion and overflooding which have resulted in the loss of life and livelihood. The residents of char are also facing educational issues resulting in poverty and illiteracy. Many of the residents also do not have access to healthcare. "It is peculiar and vulnerable geography for which there ought to be separate policies catering to its specific needs. But in the absence of it, the region faces existential threats which may lead to its extinction", echoed Kazi who has extensively worked in this region to promote education, healthcare, and livelihood opportunities.
Born in Jyoti Gaon in Barpeta, Assam, Kazi Sharowar Hussain alias Kazi Neel, writes poetry in Miya, Assamese, and Bengali languages illustrating the contemporary political predicament of the Miya community in Assam. Through his poems, he also talks about love and hate, war and peace, and what it means to be a doubtful individual in Assam. “The issue of citizenship for the Miyas has been persistent throughout their migration history. In 1997, many individuals from this community were categorised as doubtful voters. With this categorisation, one loses their political rights and any benefits which one may expect from their government. Both my parents were labelled as doubtful voters. Paradoxically, since 1989, my father has been a teacher in a government school. For an individual who serves the government to be labelled as doubtful is nothing short of harassment and structured violence to subdue a community for who they are”, argues Kazi who actively voices the Miya people’s struggles and their historical oppression, their love and rage, their deaths and defiance using poetry and visual forms of storytelling. Both Kazi and his father were born in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam.
After his graduation in 2016, from the West Bengal State University in BSc Multimedia, Kazi worked with the Jhai Foundation – a non-profit organisation based in Barpeta, Assam. As part of this project, he lived in the char region in Assam and worked extensively on issues concerning development. In 2019, while being enrolled as a student pursuing a Master’s in Cultural Studies from Tezpur University, his poem titled This land is mine, but I am not of this land stirred controversy resulting in an arrest warrant on his name. “Several individuals in Assam asserted that I and my acquaintances were trying to portray the Assamese public as xenophobic. They alleged that we were hampering the process of NRC. Hafiz Ahmed’s Write down I am a Miya, a poem made several rounds on social media for months. I was shattered that I was facing jail time because I spoke about my rights. I was forced to live in hiding”, shares Kazi who has been writing Miya poetry since 2016 and has hundreds of poems written under his name – some of which are yet to be published. Apart from writing poetry, Kazi has worked as a Media Fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies. His role involved working as a community video journalist and documenting life in the char region. Through the alternative community media platform Ango Khobor, Kazi works towards bringing forth the continuing challenges faced by the Miyas of the char-chapori region and their everyday dilemmas, especially in the aftermath of the implementation of the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which has resulted in the detention of many individuals. He argues that the mainstream media fails to capture their life and ways of being or would simply portray them in a negative light as “criminals” or “foreigners”. The need for Ango Khobor was born out of this need to voice their opinions themselves. "The experiences that I highlight through my work are not only mine but also of the larger community that I am a part of", says Kazi who facilitates the development of this platform for collective action. One can access this community-led media outlet’s work on Facebook and YouTube. In the near future, Kazi hopes this initiative would go beyond documenting the predicament of the Miyas and focus on other marginalised groups in Assam such as the tea tribes.
To conclude, using poetry as a medium to register his protest, Kazi is actively resisting the inherent idea of the ‘other’ in Assam. His work as a video journalist has accentuated many voices of individuals from his community. Yet with the horrors of death, displacement, and detention at the back of their heads, many individuals of the Miya community are living under the immense pressure of having to prove their Indianness. Therefore, the question still stands, considering the ethnic-nationalistic rhetoric in Assam, can Assam look beyond its dominant ethnicity that it considers as its own and embrace the other? Perhaps new political discourses that may emerge from Miya poetry and alternative media platforms like Ango Khobor would help the people of Assam to collectively reimagine the kind of politics they would want to rally behind – one of love and social harmony or one of hate and aversion.
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