Ashraful Hussain’s Victory: Neither “Poetic Justice” nor an Opportunity for Bigotry
This is a response to Dutta’s piece, through a fact-based and conceptual refutation of each of her arguments, while also being a response to Apoorvanand’s claim of Hussain’s win being “poetic justice”.
Picture Courtesy: EastMojo.
The Indian Express published two articles on the electoral victory of Ashraful Hussain, from Chenga constituency on an AIUDF ticket in the recently concluded Assam Assembly elections. The first article is by Prof. Apoorvanand, who claims that Hussain’s win is a win for ‘Miya Poetry’ (a form of protest poetry by young educated Assamese Muslims of East-Bengali origin, voicing the suffering and humiliation that they as a community continue to face in Assam, Hussain is a Miya poet). The article in response by Ankita Dutta, a doctorate from JNU and from Assam, claims that Hussain’s win is nothing but a manifestation of divisive politics. The response article has seen tremendous virtual debates and renewed xenophobia, particularly on social media. This article is largely a response to Dutta’s piece, through a fact-based and conceptual refutation of each of her arguments, while also being a response to Apoorvanand’s claim of Hussain’s win being “poetic justice”.
Dutta claims that the Bengali Muslim population and Miya poets are on a path similar to Jinnah’s and Muslim League’s. On what evidence this astounding parallel has been drawn between the two scenarios is kept in the dark. The Miya poets, in fact, have never espoused the cause of a separate national or regional territory, away from Assam or away from India. Their poetry simply gives voice to the pain, violence and discrimination they have faced over the years at the hands of the caste-Hindu dominated Assamese state and society alike. To compare it to the two-nation theory is not just a poor understanding of Miya poetry but is divisive and extremely inflammatory.
Bengali Muslims are well within their rights to celebrate their history and identity, according to constitutional provisions. The people of Assam constitute a heterogenous, diverse community. The celebration of diversity can be a threat only to those upper caste Hindu Assamese who seek to continue to dominate narratives and be gatekeepers of who is an Assamese and who is not. The fact that the author does not talk about the historical socio-economic and political context behind the demands for Bodoland and Kamatapur serves to whitewash the dominance and discrimination that these communities had to contend with for decades. The Bengali Muslims of Assam who continue to celebrate with pride their Assamese identity even after the humiliation and violence they face is something to be learnt about.
But if a community cannot articulate their suffering, cannot celebrate their unique culture simply because this threatens the dominance of another community’s narratives, then the problem lies with the latter.
Dutta’s faux-naivete, which tries to classify Miya as a purely nomenclatural term, falls flat when confronted by anyone who has grown up in Assam. Such a person doesn’t even need to consult scholarly or literary sources to know ‘Miya’ is used as a slur in Assam. Furthermore, she erases the lived experience of a marginalized community.
Dutta trots out the well-worn bogeyman of demographic change through Muslim population growth. We are not even going into how this is a reproduction of dominant far-Right Hindutva rhetoric. This is a bogeyman that has already been disproved time and again by experts in popular media. No causal evidence has been provided as to how one can claim that immigration has resulted in the alleged increase of Muslim population. Besides, it is not a hidden fact that the fertility rate of Muslim population is linked to their socio-economically weaker status. This is true not just of Muslims but of other demographic groups as well; in the period 1971-91, Prof. Abdul Mannan finds, the population growth rate of Muslims in Assam was actually lower than that of the SC and ST communities. But what is also missed and conveniently left out by Dutta is that Barpeta and Dhubri districts are also Char-dominated districts. Chars are river-islands and are extremely unstable and submerge during heavy floods and then also re-emerge post-recession of water, often after a few years. Chars, mostly inhabited by Bengali Muslims, go through constant erosion such that inhabitants have to constantly shift. Often entire Char villages shift and move to nearby districts like Goalpara and then once their Chars re-emerge, shift back. These movements of char-dwellers to and fro from other districts is another reason why in some Censuses Muslim population shows sudden increase. The author does not however point out how in subsequent censuses, particularly Barpeta, the Muslim population shows a decrease too.
Statistics is a dangerous field and can be used for propaganda. The politics of Assam’s anti-immigrant politics has always been based on the number of ‘illegal immigrants’ in the state, from Governor S. K Sinha’s report to the current NRC project. However, there has never been any conclusive proof to validate these numbers and this has been accepted by the Government itself. Abhishek Saha, a journalist who filed an RTI asking for clarification of numbers (30 lakhs Bangladeshis) given by then Governor S.K. Sinha and used by BJP President Ranjit Dass writes in his book ‘No Land’s People’ that the MHA responded back saying that the information sought is more than 20 years old and such data is not centrally maintained. And it is impossible to give a correct estimate. Further, in response to a question asked in Rajya Sabha on 14 July 2004, the MHA responded saying that the reported numbers of ‘illegal immigrants’ is not based on any comprehensive sample study but hearsay and from interested parties.
There is a constant contradiction in Dutta’s words. She is accusing Ashraful Hussain’s victory of being a win for divisive politics while using bigoted language herself. She claims that for the people of Assam, the concern is with ‘illegal immigrants’ and not a “mere Hindu-Muslim concern”. But in the very next paragraph she goes on to be threatened by the speech of a Muslim political leader claiming that the next state government will be formed by a ‘dadhi, loongi and topiwala’ (an ANI news report of the speech transcript includes the entirety of those lines by Badaruddin Ajmal’s son, which calls for a government for ‘dadhi-topi-lungiwallahs’ as well as ‘our daughter who wears sindoors’, a part which has rather conveniently been omitted from discussions). We would like to question Dutta – why is the prospect of the next government being helmed by a Muslim so frightening and anger-inducing for her? Is ‘illegal immigrants’ a convenient synonym for ‘Muslims’, and a cover for Islamophobia? Despite the popular rhetoric of secularism, there has remained an under-current of suspicion towards Muslims in caste-Hindu dominated Assamese politics. This is reflected in her conspiratorial allegations of Mir Jumla’s glorification by ‘a section’ of Miyas. We would really like to challenge the author to back her claims of Mir Jhumla being celebrated as a hero by the Bengali Muslim community. One of us has worked with the community for almost two years now and never have I come across them ‘celebrating Mir Jumla’. (Interestingly a government website where Mir Jhumla’s tomb lies (the tomb that the author
vilifies) calls the general “great” and of “tall height”). Dutta also very conveniently lays the blame for religious polarisation on the Miya community’s assertions whereas religious polarisation has always existed since decades in Assam as revealed by various existing literature. Seasoned scholars such as Suhas Palashikar have tracked the consolidation of the Hindu vote in this Assembly election.
Having said this, it is important now to turn our gaze to Apoorvanand’s article on Hussain’s victory, which he claims is a win for Miya Poetry. This is wishful thinking and is nothing but romanticization of a reality that does not exist. This romanticized claim ignores the fact that there are several fractures within Miya poetry’s aims and ambitions itself, including the naming of the Poetry movement. It ignores the fact that Miya poetry remains a peculiarly niche stir restricted to a group of educated Bengali Muslims, mostly men and lacks representation at least in terms of gender identities. There remains a vast majority of poor but equally exploited Bengali Muslims who have not heard about ‘Miya Poetry’. They do not have access to the resources or socio-cultural capital required to be a part of it. Many of them may not agree to its ideals and aims.
In a recent interview in the Assamese news channel Pratidin Times, Ashraful Hussain himself clarifies that his election victory is a reflection of the years of grassroot work he has put in the constituency in the fields of education and health. According to the youngest of Assam’s current crop of legislators, the laurels or brickbats he has received in various intellectual fora for his poetry has played little to no role in the electoral choice of his under-privileged constituents. Hussain’s constituency is largely made up of Bengali Muslims. Hence, his decision to contest on the AIUDF ticket in Chenga was strategic with regard to the elections, in an area where AIUDF was already strong. The AIUDF and the polity of Assam in exchange gets a vibrant new face. Apoorvanand ignores these electoral ground realities but Ashraful doesn’t. A similar neglect of electoral dynamics led to many blaming the population of Thoubal constituency for Irom Sharmila’s electoral loss to the former Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh.
Looking back at the two articles, one which is rooted in romanticization of a non-existent reality and the other which is rooted in political divisiveness and inherent contradictions, what separates the two is the intent with which each is written. And that is why we believe it is crucial that the intent of the writing of the response article by Dutta is not just called out but vehemently shamed. The writing is done with the intent to spew hatred towards a community that already faces violence and humiliation, to make a mockery of their suffering and re-iterate the dominance of caste-Hindu Assamese patriarchal narratives. The fact that this is coming from someone who is educated in one of the most progressive educational spaces in the country only deepens our concerns.
Krishanu B. Neog is a Senior Research Fellow and Doctoral Candidate at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Bhargabi Das is Irish Research Council Scholar and Ph.D Scholar at National University of Ireland, Maynooth.