Call Me By My Name: How ‘Miyas’ in Assam are reappropriating the slur

They are young, full of dreams, and are calling themselves the ‘Miyas’ of Assam. What does poetry, identity and the NRC offer them?

For three years every day at 5 pm, Mirza Lutfar Rahman’s voice would crackle on radios across Assam: “Nomoskar, Yuvabani’loi xokolu srotak’e moi Mirza Lutfar Rehman’e swagatam jonaisu” (Greetings, I am Mirza Lutfar Rahman, welcoming all listeners to the Yuvabani programme).

Soon after he started working as an “announcer” at the All India Radio (AIR) office in Guwahati in 2012, someone told him: “Do you know you are the first person from your community to be an announcer for AIR?”

That evening Rahman raced back to call his family who lived in a riverine island, called a char-chapori, in Boko, about 100 km away. “Aami aru Axomiya hoboloi baaki nai”, the young man had thought to himself with pride. “This is as Assamese as we get.”

Rahman grew up, like all Assamese children, listening to the music of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha. When he was older, it was Bhupen Hazarika on loop. For his char’s Bihu programmes, Rahman would edit its annual magazine. And yet, Rahman has keenly felt the question of identity throughout his life.

He is a “Miya”, a pejorative word used to describe Muslims who migrated from East Bengal to Assam over several decades, starting from 19th century. He recalls how a colleague at AIR had lashed out at him with that slur. Though poorer people from his community would quietly give in to routine abuse, Rahman didn’t. “I told him ‘What’s the difference between you and I? I came from a char, you came from elsewhere but we both got jobs here. The only difference is in our minds’,” recalls 30-year-old-Rahman.


Two weeks ago, a Guwahati-based journalist filed an FIR against 10 Miya poets. He alleged that Miya poetry — a newborn genre of poetry written by those like Rahman who wish to fight back against the slur — had the potential to create “communal disturbances in the state” and was painting the Assamese as “xenophobic”.

As a young Miya as well as a poet, Rahman was dismayed at the bitter debate that unfolded on social media and in newspapers. In the background were the anxieties triggered by the ongoing process to finalise the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. “We initially thought that the NRC would end discrimination against us. But it has made matters worse,” says Rahman, “It has birthed a strain of ultranationalists in Assam who have no inhibitions. They target poets too.”

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in July 2019. Full article here.