GUWAHATI: In 2012 when I was studying at the University of Delhi, I attended a conference on the future of the Kaziranga National Park held at one of our auditoriums. The chief guest, then a prominent regional politician and now a union minister made a rather problematic submission. The one-horned rhino of the Kaziranga National Park was threatened by illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, he said. He took care to refrain from explicitly mentioning the religious identity of the poachers but it became apparent that he was blaming Assamese Muslims of Bengal origin for maiming, killing and dehorning the magnificent animal and smuggling its horn across the border.

As his speech grew more powerful, his audience more concerned and his tone more resonant with grief, he upped the ante- genuine Assamese would never harm a rhino, he said. The one-rhino is a cultural and the state symbol of Assam and no god-fearing, constitution-abiding Assamese would ever touch a rhino. That was a pretty strong point to make but the honourable chief guest didn’t attempt to support it with empirical data, facts or figures. Nor was his view unique. Time and again regional and national media pin the crime of rhino poaching on illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

According to the Kaziranga National Park website, the state government’s handling of rhino poaching has been checkered with highs and lows over the years- 3 rhinos were poached in 2011 compared to 11 in 2012. The number rose to 27 each in 2013 and 2014 before falling to 17 in 2015. However, the number of arrested poachers has increased significantly. From only 7 arrests in 2011, the numbers increased to 16 in 2012, jumped to 71 in 2014 and a remarkable 88 in 2015.

Interestingly, the names of poachers published on the Kaziranga National Park Website under the heading ‘list of suspected, accused, arrested or wanted persons who have been found to be or suspected to be involved in poaching activities in Kaziranga National Park in the past few years’ include only 16 Muslim poachers out of a total of 70. Poaching and killing rhinos are heinous crimes and the perpetrators must be punished whether they are Indian citizens, Bangladeshi immigrants or people who are called Bangladeshi immigrants.

Considerable time and energy has been invested in identifying alleged Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam, housing them in detention camps and trying to deport them to Bangladesh. At present, personnel are working overtime on updating the National Register for Citizens in Assam.

March 24, 1971 has been set as the cut-off date and residents who do not have the proper documentation to prove that they or their ancestors lived in Assam prior to the given date will be identified and deported. It is hoped that this will help correct the failure of the Illegal Migrants (Determination under Tribunals) Act, 1983.

The Justice G.P. Mathur Committee (2005) which struck down the IMDT Act noted that enquiries were initiated in 3,10,759 cases under the IMDT Act, but 10,015 persons were actually declared illegal migrants and 1,481 of them expelled up to April 30, 2000. The IMDT Act is gone and its modus operandi and findings discredited but from the records we can assume that a majority of the people charged with being illegal immigrants are actually genuine citizens of the Indian republic. A large majority of these people are Bengal-origin Muslims, a community to which I also belong.

I could say Bengali-speaking Muslims but the term is outdated. In the 1962 census, this community accepted Assamese as their mother tongue making the term ‘Bengali-speaking’ no longer relevant.

The children in this community attend Assamese medium schools and write and speak in Assamese, reserving their own dialects, each vastly different from another, for use in the private space. Which leads to the question- what should they, we, call ourselves?

When our ancestors arrived in Assam in the late 19th- early 20th century, they settled in the char-chaporis (riverine islands and river banks) and were called charuwa (residents of the chars) or pamua (settler). A small (though significant in numbers) portion of these people climbed the social ladder over time and settled permanently in villages away from the chars, thus invalidating the terms ‘charuwa’ and ‘pamua’. Not all of us are from Mymensingh: thus, the now outdated word Mymensinghia doesn’t define the entire community. So what do we call ourselves then? If and only if it is impossible for us to be known simply as Indians or Assamese let us be called ‘Miyah’. The difference between Miyah and Bangladeshi must be clearly demarcated.

The word itself comes from the street. In other parts of India, ‘Miyah’ is a polite, respectable form of address but in Assam it is a derogatory term used for a specific community- Assamese Muslims of Bengal origin.

‘Miyah’ is a matrix within which fall descendants of people who migrated from Tangail, Pabna, Mymensingh, Dhaka and other districts of present-day Bangladesh. However, there is a class angle to the equation too. An educated Bengal-origin Assamese Muslim who also speaks Assamese might be able to camouflage his ‘Miyahness’.

Since I am university educated and speak decent Assamese, I might not be called a Miyah, at least until I make it explicit. My cousin, on the other hand, who drives a cycle-rickshaw in Guwahati, will always be one. My class privilege might immunize me from the feelings of disgust reserved for my cousin.

That said, the Miyah identity (even if it is articulated) will probably die a slow death. The dialects we speak are not standard Bengali or Assamese (though the mutual intelligibility is pretty high), so we don’t have the literary infrastructure to keep it alive. Like most impoverished migrant communities we have no tangible heritage. On the other hand, our intangible heritage, composed of folktales, performing arts and rituals are slowly losing out to the forces of capitalism and modernity, especially the processes of cultural homogenization.

This might be an overly fatalistic assumption though. Recently, there has been some positive recognition of the Assamese Muslim of Bengal origin. Hemkosh, the authoritative Assamese dictionary now includes a number of words which are arranged under the category ‘char-chapori’. In 2008, probably for the first time, a Bengal-origin Muslim character played a pivotal role in Mon Jai, a popular and critically acclaimed Assamese movie. There is a growing interest in Bhatiyali, the folk music of Bengal-origin Muslims. However, the middle class in this community is only beginning to emerge and where this new class will take their culture is open to conjecture.

But before the ultimate demise of Miyah languages happens, let us not be called Bangladeshis or Bangladeshi immigrants or Immigrant Muslims. Using the ‘Bangladeshi’ appellation implies that our affinities and loyalties are divided and gives rise to ridiculous conspiracy theories. Similarly, the fancier hyphenated word ‘Bangladeshi-Indian’ is not feasible. Let ‘Miyah’ be a provisional term until we find some other to define ourselves better.

The greatest problem with the word is that it is used in a derogatory sense, frowned upon in polite conversation and accepted only on the streets and in counter-narrative poetry. The self-identification of the Miyah with the term is, however, not a novel idea at all. The poet Khabir Ahmed used it in a poem titled ‘Binito Nibedon Ei Je’ (‘I Beg to State that’) written in 1985, a couple of years after the tragic Nellie massacre. The poem begins with these angst-filled, assertive lines:

I beg to state that
I am a settler, a detestable Miya
Whatever be the case, my name is Ramzan Ali, or Majid Miya
Subject: I am an Assamese Asomiya.

It might be argued that we are quibbling over semantics. After all, the residents of the char-chaporis and the Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims (both these sets almost subsume each other) have actual problems. It would be difficult to estimate the total population of this community but in the char-chapori areas of Assam, the living conditions are worrisome. About ten percent of Assam’s total population is cramped in these unstable islands which constitute only 4 % of the state’s landmass. The literacy rate hovers around 19% and the infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rate are abysmal. When the floods pay their annual visit, people from the char-chaporis migrate to hostile cities and neighbouring towns where their lack of familiarity with Assamese and Hindi and their general unkemptness makes them Bangladeshis. They are flung from the frying pan into the proverbial fire.

Here, nomenclature becomes extremely important. In 2005 when I was completing school in Cotton College, a group of boys from my hostel went out with sticks one morning to clear the pavements of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. They were not random thugs with a penchant for violence but educated, normally mild-mannered boys who went on their task with glee, beating, cursing and spitting at the people squatting on the pavement, smashing their pots and pans and tearing their flimsy tarpaulin shelters. Suddenly, the fact that they were students of Assam’s most respected educational institution didn’t matter.

A few years later there was outrage about a t-shirt brought out by an Assamese online start-up which had the following words splashed across the front (in Assamese)- ‘How many Bangladeshis have you chased today?’ Both these examples seem to imply that it is incumbent upon the Assamese youth to venture on spring-cleaning missions, to rid ‘their’ state of immigrant Bangladeshi vermin. The illegal Bangladeshi migrant tag also means that it becomes difficult for people from other ethnic communities and even from the upwardly mobile class within the community to identify with them and speak on their behalf.

Which is why it might be prudent to replace ‘Bangladeshi’ with ‘Miyah’. The latter is not a value neutral word but it doesn’t carry the political overtones its companion word does. Moreover, there is no reason why the word itself must continue to be derogatory. By using it to refer to ourselves, we can divest it of its negative connotations. The word can be appropriated with all its connotations and then turned on its head just as feminist and LGBT activists have appropriated the words ‘slut’ and ‘queer’. Under Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, a person should have the dignity to tell the world ‘Yes, I am Miyah. So what?’

These words come from the depths of sadness and frustration, from the apparent failure of years and generations of struggle to be accepted as integral and productive citizens of India and participants in the bustling, multicultural, multilingual, multi-ethnic space of Assam. But, as mentioned earlier, hope might be round the corner. Literature by Assamese Muslims of Bengal origin is three generations old now and is slowly gaining some recognition. Our stories and narratives of pain, loss and neglect were earlier ignored; now we are being heard. Despite the poverty, ignorance and deprivation, younger people are educating themselves, finding gainful employment and increasingly regaining confidence in themselves as upright, hardworking citizens.

Maybe we don’t really have to call ourselves or be labeled as Miyah, Bangladeshi or anything else. Maybe, as Khabir Ahmed writes, we can be ‘Assamese Asomiya’ or simply Assamese people of Assam. As Maulana Bande Ali, one of our earliest poets wrote way back in 1939, we can claim:

Neither charuwa, nor pamua
I am an Asomiya.
Of Assam’s earth and air
I am an equal claimant.