The north-eastern State of Assam often gets racked by political violence which pivots on questions of ethnicity. The debate is over “infiltration”: in a State that has witnessed successive waves of migration from adjacent lands before and after Partition, the issue is, “Who is an Assamese, the State’s indigenous population or the Bengali migrants?” The migrants claim that they are descendants of East Bengali Muslims brought to Assam by the British as agricultural labourers and, as such, are as Indian as the ethnic Assamese.
But such assertions often go unheeded, more so these days, as different communities of the State fight over shrinking lands and dwindling resources. One of the most horrific bloodbaths in Assam’s history, the Nellie massacre, happened in February 1983, when nearly 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered by a mob in just six hours; 2023 marks the 40th year of this tragedy.
Literature and culture try to heal what politics divides. The Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad (CCSP), a literary body whose members are mostly from the Miya Muslim community of Assam, was founded on November 21, 2004, to promote the literature and culture of Assam’s Muslims.
While it has published about 50 books, including non-fiction, poems, and short stories, it also organises seminars on social issues such as the citizenship debate, education, child marriage, riverbank erosion, ethnic conflicts in the Bodoland Territorial Region, and more. The CCSP has been holding a triennial convention since 2004: in 2023, it took place from January 27 to 29 at Mandia, a remote village in Barpeta district on the northern side of the Brahmaputra.
Char means riverine island and chapori means low-lying flood-prone riverbanks. The CCSP has been so named because the Muslims of Assam are mostly concentrated in the south bank of the Bramhaputra, and in parts of the north bank, in districts like Dhubri, Bongaigaon, and Kokrajhar. They are associated with chars, which the British wanted tamed to increase agricultural production. Living on chars, they are badly affected by riverine erosion and recurring floods every year.
The Miya community makes up 30 per cent of Assam’s demography. While they speak, read, and write in Assamese (in the 1951 Census, they chose Assamese as their mother tongue), they are often labelled as “Pakistanis”, “Bangladeshis”, or Bengali Assamese. They have to prove their Assamese-ness every day.
Even the term, miya (derived from mian, a Persian honorific) is often used pejoratively against the entire Muslim community. So, a group of poets from the Miya community of Assam have reappropriated the term to assert their identity in verse composed in their home-grown Miya dialect, which is subtly different from Assamese.
But the issue of the dialect has proved to be contentious: in 2019, the poets using it were accused of portraying mainstream Assamese in the wrong light. Following the backlash, most poets now do not use the Miya dialect, choosing to compose in mainstream Assamese instead. Some notable contemporary writers are Hafiz Ahmed, Ashraful Hussain, Kazi Neel, Siraj Khan, Abdul Kalam Azad, Abdur Rahim, Shahjahan Ali Ahmed, Rehna Sultana, and others.
Hiren Gohain, founder advisor of the CCSP, criticised Miya poets for writing in the colloquial language they use at home. According to the Parishad’s president, Dr Hafiz Ahmed, the CCSP was founded to spread the Assamese language and culture among the people of Char Chapori, preserve and protect their culture, and to try to solve their socio-economic problems.
Hafiz Ahmed said: “Bengali is not our mother language.” Sherman Ali Ahmed, MLA from the Baghbar constituency which organises the literary meet, echoed Hafiz Ahmed. Asked about the place of Bengali as a language in their lives, Sherman Ali Ahmed said: “Since we have accepted Assamese as our mother tongue and as we identify ourselves as Assamese, there is no question of the influence of Bengali in our lives. Of course, we, the Miya people, speak a colloquial language when we communicate with family members, which is neither Bengali nor Assamese, but a mixture of these two.”
- The Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad (CCSP), a literary body whose members are mostly from the Miya Muslim community of Assam, was founded on November 21, 2004, to promote the literature and culture of Assam’s Muslims.
- While it has published about 50 books, it also organises seminars on social issues such as the citizenship debate, education, child marriage, riverbank erosion, ethnic conflicts, and more.
- Miya poetry has a rich tradition dating back to pre-Partition times. In recent times, Miya poets writing in their homegrown dialect have attracted the ire of the State.
- The three-day programme of the CCSP in January 2023 steered clear of controversy by reflecting the ethos of the larger Assamese culture and society. The CCSP programme proved that the community cannot be silenced.
Miya poetry has a rich tradition dating back to pre-Partition times. The Miya poet Mohammad Bande Ali wrote an Assamese poem titled “Choruar Ukti” (Lamentations of a chorua or a person who lives in the riverine islands) in 1939. In the poem, he writes about the pains of Miyas and hails Assam as his motherland.
The poem begins with a question, “Kone bole Bangladesh mor janmabhumi” (Who says Bengal is my motherland), and goes on to declare proudly: “Ami je holo Assamiya/ Assamer jolbayu, Assamer bhasha/ Sakalore saman bhagiya” (I’m an Assamese/I breathe the air of Assam, speak its language/I have an equal share in everything Assamese). But the Assam Sahitya Parishad, the literary body of mainstream Assamese, still does not have a clear stand on the issues raised by the CCSP.
As to why people were not writing in the Miya dialect any more, Sherman Ali Ahmed said: “When some youngsters wrote about the plight of the Miya Muslims in their dialect, the State government and the police administration registered cases against them and they had to go underground for months. It is one of the harassing tactics of the government that has helped suppress Miya poetry. But it will rise again, no doubt about it.”
The three-day programme of the CCSP steered clear of controversy by reflecting the ethos of the larger Assamese culture and society. If the Muslim community is often accused of promoting religious identity over cultural and national identities, the CCSP event broke the myth.
On the first day, students participated in quizzes, dancing, and singing at a time when the poorer sections of the Muslim communities in North Bengal and adjacent areas of Assam are leaning more and more towards jalshas or religious congregations, which tend to enforce gender, religious, and cultural restrictions.
To encourage the youth to study more, all the achievers of the community were felicitated. The CCSP will soon be publishing a book by young authors like Begum Asma Khatun, whose novels and poems are about the difficulties faced by women and common people. Begum Asma says that the recognition she got from the CCSP and its president motivated her. But she feels that she does not get as much homador (respect and recognition) as other Assamese authors, and this might be because of her Miya identity. But she remains hopeful.
The CCSP is bringing in subtle changes in the community. In the school ground where its programme was held, there were counters selling handicraft and food, both run by Amrapari (We Can), a self-help collective of rural women artisans.
The founder of Amrapari, Manjuwara Mullah, discussed reusable sanitary napkins with MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed. This was a rare event in a Muslim-dominated area. Sherman Ali Ahmed assured her of help, stressing the importance of women’s menstrual hygiene.
“In an Assamese poem, Miya poet Mohammad Bande Ali writes about the pains of Miyas and hails Assam as his motherland.”
Manjuwara Mullah said that the women working with her have become more confident. Domestic violence and child marriage have lessened considerably.
The Miya community feels it is being persecuted in the regime of Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. He is perhaps the first Chief Minister of Assam to openly say that his party (BJP) does not need the votes of Miya Muslims. Dr Hafiz Ahmed pointed out that the victims of the Nellie massacre are still awaiting justice.
But the CCSP programme proved that the community cannot be silenced. Hafiz Ahmed ended the event with an address where he declared: “Awake, arise or be fallen for ever.”
Moumita Alam is a poet, essayist, and teacher based in West Bengal. Her poetry collection, The Musings of the Dark, was published in 2020.