What Hiren Gohain's bitter criticism of Miyah poetry tells us about Assamese nationalism

Angshuman Choudhury and Suraj Gogoi
Despite its rare acridity, Gohain’s position isn’t out-of-the-blue. He represents a swelling group of jatiyatabadis, spread out evenly across the political spectrum in Assam, who argue that the emergence of Miyah poetry is a threat to the Assamese language and perhaps, even an affront to the Assamese identity.

Recently, noted Assamese scholar and public intellectual, Hiren Gohain, wrote a brief note on 'Miyah poetry' €" a vibrant body of literary work produced by Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam, often pejoratively called 'Miyah', in their own unique dialects.

In his one-page piece published in the Assamese daily Asomiya Khobor, Gohain, who is generally regarded as one of modern Assam's leading leftist intellectuals, presented a critique of the "discourse of Miyah poetry". He asks, in a rather interrogative tone, as to why the new generation of Miyah poets use their own "artificial" dialect, rather than Assamese, to write their poems.

If they wrote in Assamese, Gohain says, their poems would appeal more to the Assamese-speaking majority. Using their own dialect, he argues, plays into the hands of "outsider forces" like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters.

Gohain cites the example of prominent Assamese playwright and novelist, Arun Sarma, to drive his point. Sarma, as he writes, penned a novel called Ashirbadar Rong (The Hues of Blessings), in which an Assamese man goes out to save a Miyah family from violence and ends up marrying the "hasina" (woman) of the house. Gohain tells us how that €" writing a novel in the Assamese language about Miyahs €" won the hearts of the Assamese people and even got Sarma the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award (Gohain himself is a winner).

Gohain also calls out the younger generation of Miyah poets for writing about the Nellie Massacre of 1983 in their verses. Why? Because these poets were either yet to be born or were kids when Nellie happened.

In case you haven't heard of what went down in 1983, then it should suffice to know that on a late winter day that year, amidst the tumult of the Assam Movement, more than 2,000 Bengali-origin Muslims, including women and children, were slaughtered by members of the Lalung tribe and caste Hindu Assamese in just six hours around the central Assam town of Nellie.

Finally, Gohain ends on an unenviable note of whataboutery.

"If the Miya poets are actually concerned about injustice and atrocities, then why don't they write a few lines about the ill-treatment of women in their communities due to religious bigotry?" Gohain asks emphatically in a post-script.

For a left-liberal intellectual who was once the most powerful voice against Assamese chauvinism (including chauvinism from the Left), Gohain's stinging rant is quite unusual. It reads like a bitter letter written with scorn, not love. In fact, for many of us from the state who have looked up to him as a beacon of reason in the midst of virulent ethno-nationalism, it was a heartbreaking read.

But, what Gohain wrote is also dangerous €" it directly panders to and legitimises the cultural-linguistic majoritarianism that mainstream Assamese jatiyatabadis (ethno-nationalists) patently practice in the name of preserving their "unique identity". It pours fuel into that all-consuming machine of exclusion and xenophobia, which the dominant political class has run since the 1970s and still continues to produce discriminatory regimes like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Foreigner Tribunals.

If that wasn't enough, Gohain's curt position establishes a narrowly-bounded, totalitarian, "Axomiya or nothing" imagination of the Assamese language in the minds of the "Assamese ruling class" (term borrowed from his own writings).

Despite its rare acridity, Gohain's position isn't out-of-the-blue. He represents a swelling group of jatiyatabadis, spread out evenly across the political spectrum in Assam, who argue that the emergence of Miyah poetry is a threat to the Assamese language and perhaps, even an affront to the Assamese identity.

In their nationalist imagination, the Miyah language is an irrelevant subsidiary of a larger, more important linguistic-cultural mainframe that is premised on the dominant "Axomiya way of life", of which the Axomiya language is a key component. One must pledge loyalty to the latter to become a legitimate character in this national script. Any deviance is not just unnecessary, but also treasonous.

Unsurprisingly, yet funnily enough, the Assamese jatiyatabadis make it a point to flaunt their so-called multicultural tradition in the breath as criticising Miyah poetry, not unlike how all nationalists do so to sanctify their hegemonic biographies and ride the moral high horse. This the Assamese do by citing instances where the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the self-proclaimed torchbearer of the modern Assamese literary tradition, invited Miyah poets to hold audience and express themselves in the Assamese language.

In fact, Assamese nationalists ardently believe that it is because of their cultural largesse and tolerant attitude that the Miyahs have become an integral part of the Assamese society. This, in their unilateral worldview, reflexively implies that the younger Miyah poets should drop their own dialects and write in Assamese. If not anything, this is only a collective attempt at maintaining a so-called benevolent hegemony in a fissured society.

Also read: Miyah poetry €" How Assam's Bengali-Muslims used words to capture a lifetime of oppression and abuse

For the Miyahs, who originally settled in the riverine islands of the Brahmaputra basin when they arrived in Assam from some districts of what is now Bangladesh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, language has been a key pillar of identity and assimilation. Many of them dropped their own dialects as Assamese linguistic nationalism gathered steam, reporting Assamese as their mother tongue in the 1951 census. The Miyah dialects, thus, was relegated to the private space.

This has had far-reaching effects on not just how the Bengali-origin population views itself in today's Assam, but also how others view them. As shown by the current deluge of criticism against Miyah poetry, the Assamese-speaking majority, including left-liberals, take no issue with the Miyah dialects insofar as it is used in the private confines of a Miyah household and only to make "private", not political, expressions. For this dominant class, only one language can be political, and that is Assamese.

So, it is the politicisation and the visibilisation of the Miyah language that the ethno-national majority in Assam fears. It is the act of giving the Miyah language prime agency in the "Assamese national discourse" that unsettles the dominant majority psyche of cultural hegemony. No wonder today's Assamese dailies are flushed with alarmist, and rather bizarre, headlines such as this: "'Miyah Poetry' is the blueprint for destruction of the Assamese language."

The forced invisibilisation goes as far as the Miyah community's collective memory of trauma. The jatiyatabadis, much like Gohain, jeer at the young Miyah poets for talking about Nellie (or other instances of anti-Muslim violence). Some even argue that doing so "brings bad name" to Assam and spurs social tensions, much like how many mainstream Indian nationalists believe that talking about caste violence in India brings bad name to the country and flares up tensions.

To deprive a community of material and political benefits is one thing, but to rob it of its right to remember and grieve its losses is perhaps the zenith of apathy. If anything, it only reveals the textbook character of the Assamese national project where the victors write history, and the weakest are pushed to the darkest nooks.

The ultimate aim here, of course, is to preserve the sanctity of the Assamese nationalist utopia as a benevolent entity €" one that militates reasonably, but does not kill.

Internal othering and mainstreaming produce exclusion of a variety. The opposition to Miyah language in fact questions their culture. By questioning their culture, what is indeed questioned is their being. Miyahs in Assam have been thrown inside out, yet again, by the Assamese jatiyotabadis by denying their language and celebration of their life-world. In doing so, the legitimacy of the critique itself is under attack, despite being apposite in their worldview.

The insolence by the powerful elites on the margins of Assamese society creates a rapture on the plural social fabric. It further alienates the already alienated by questioning the right to speak one's own dialects. By denying the freedom to speak and write, it creates rigid boundaries of culture and shows us that being Miyah in Assam is still horrific.

At the core of this opposition is the question of language. St Augustine thought that language lights up our world and we become aware of this world through language, without which there will be total chaos.

The native or the ordinary language as opposed to the constructed language of physics and mathematics inducts us into the emotional, moral and ethical life of a community, into one's culture. By refusing to acknowledge Miyah poetry, one indeed is refusing to participate in the moral and ethical life of the community.

It then becomes not just a question of nationalism, but something far more grave where the powerful elite simply refuses to participate and accommodate the other, and continues to set the terms of the dominant culture.

Also See: Firstpost Editor's Picks: US-Iran tensions, Deve Gowda's threat to Karnataka parties, Miyah poetry; today's must-read stories

Additional Assam NRC draft exclusion list published, features names of over 1 lakh 'ineligible' people; check addnl.nrcdrafts.com

India and the Indian: New nationalism has put inclusive Hindutva on offer, writes Makarand Paranjape

Read more on India by Firstpost.