Crusading against the recent FIRs filed against the ‘Miyah Poets’ of Assam, Abhilash Rajkhowa (22), a student of Panjab University and president of the SFI (Student Federation of India), is the lone voice of dissent from Punjab.
One among the 223 academics, writers, poets and activists, who signed a written statement against the FIRs filed against the 10 Miyah poets, Rajkhowa blames ‘the rise of Assamese chauvinism’ for the constant oppression of the Miyah community and terms the charges slapped on their poetry as an attack on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.
A student of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology, Rajkhowa weaves a mosaic of identity politics while contextualising Miyas in the cultural and social fabric of Assam. “Miyahs are Bengali Muslims of Assam, who had migrated here from Bangladesh some 100 years ago. They have been at the receiving end of Assamese pride or chauvinism and run menial jobs here. In fact, ‘Miyah’ is a racial slur,” he says.
It was only in 2016, perhaps, with the advent of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that Miyah poetry came into existence, says Rajkhowa. “Of late Miyahs have started to assert their identity in popular culture using poetry as a form of protest to voice the nature of oppression faced by them. Hafiz Ahmad was the first to write a poem about Miyahs,” he shares.
About a year ago, a session at Ashoka University and IIT Bombay tickled Rajkhowa’s curiosity about the Miyah community, “A friend and faculty at Ashoka University, Jyotirmoy Talukdar, had organised a seminar on Miya poetry. It was titled ‘This Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. That’s when I learnt about their poetry and to be honest, it was quite robust. I liked it,” he says.
However, the recent row over Miyah poets, he shares, was sparked by the online screening of Miyah poetry by Karwan-e-Mohabbat. “Within days of uploading the poems, trolls on social media spiralled out of proportion. People were cussing Miyahs. There were poems on how Miyahs have been left out of the NRC and some that accused Assamese of xenophobia. Now come to think of it, by filing FIRs, isn’t Assam going on to prove to Miyahs its xenophobia,” he questions.
Miyahs, he says, are a crucial part of Assam’s economy. “They live mainly in the fertile Sar-Chapori areas. Cultivation is their main occupation and a lion’s share of Assam’s vegetables is grown by them,” he shares.
Like many other Assamese children, Rajkhowa too grew up with a strong anti-Miyah conditioning. It was only when he unlearnt the initial prejudiced understanding of them, did he begin to truly understand the essence of diversity. “I hated them, as a child. I don’t even know why. They didn’t do any wrong to me. However, people around me often badmouthed and belittled them. I imitated their silly beliefs. Only when I heard them, I came to know of the Neli Massacre in 1983 where over 2,000 Miyahs were killed. I realised that Assam never accepted them as their own, even though they have been part of the state since the beginning of the 19th Century. That hit the nail,” he recollects.
This is also the reason why Rajkhowa joined the battery of firebrand activists to further the cause of Miyah poets. “Even the leading Assamese poet Nilim Kumar and Kamal Tanti, a leading poet from the tea-garden community, have come in support of the Miyah poets. Do you know, four out of the 10 Miyah poets against whom the Assam police have filed FIRs for accusing Assamese people of xenophobia, have done research and PhDs on Assam and its culture? How can they be anti-Assam?”
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