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Miyah Poets Pen Verses on Assamese Muslims Who are Victims of Environmental Displacement

'Why do we write these poems? For me, it is probably because of a desire to be heard. To make our problems known -- be it environmental, social or political,' says Shalim M Hussain.

Simantini Dey | CNN-News18

Updated:June 5, 2018, 10:51 AM IST
Miyah Poets Pen Verses on Assamese Muslims Who are Victims of Environmental Displacement
(File photo/Getty Images)
Sigh!* (2016)

What we did not have?
Green paddy fields,
Fish frolicking in fisheries,
Homesteads raised on the laughter of children
Rows upon rows of coconut, betel nut trees,
On Pushura our wide courtyard filled
with people, joy, festivities.
What do we have today?
Only the chain of slavery on our necks
and the whole world to conquer.

The poem above is written by Hafiz Ahmed, in which he talks about what it feels like to lose everything in the erosion of Brahmaputra. “Due to the changing course of Brahmaputra and its tributaries, massive riverbank erosion takes place every year," said Ahmed.

"These rivers wash away approximately 76 square kilometers in Assam and leave almost 15 lakh people homeless. Out of this 15 lakh, approximately 12 lakh belongs to the poor Muslim community," he added.

Through his poems, he draws attention to the deplorable plight of these marginalized, poor Muslims who live on chorchapori (river islands) of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, and the discrimination they face for being Muslim when they are forced to migrate from these river islands, because of the erosion. Ahmed, who is also a teacher at a secondary school in Assam, calls himself a Miyah poet.

While for most of us, the word 'Miyah' may mean a Muslim gentleman, the term comes loaded with negative connotations in Assam. "In Assam 'Miyah' is used as a slur. It is generally used to denote that a Muslim man is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh. Someone who is neither Assamese nor Indian. Someone who is a 'Bangladeshi' -- which too, happens to be a slur." said another Miyah poet, Shalim M Hussain. The reason Hussain, Ahmed and many other Muslim poets have decided to call themselves 'Miyah' despite the negative connotation attached to the term, is to reclaim the word itself, and in the process, reclaim their identities as Assamese as well as Indians.

In a poem titled, Nana I Have Written, Shalim M Hussain writes:

Nana I have written attested countersigned
And been verified by a public notary
That I am a Miyah
Now see me rise
From flood waters
Float over landslides
March through sand and marsh and snakes
Break the earth’s will draw trenches with spades
Crawl through fields of rice and diarrhea and sugarcane
And a 10% literacy rate
See me shrug my shoulders curl my hair
Read two lines of poetry one formula of math
Read confusion when the bullies call me Bangladeshi
And tell my revolutionary heart
But I am a Miyah

A domino effect kicks in with every flood or river erosion in Assam. With natural disasters, people lose all their lands, and homes. Children cannot go back to schools anymore. With no land to cultivate there is often the scarcity of food. The government does not even provide proper healthcare and poor communities like these are the worst hit. Therefore, the only way to deal with these natural disasters for them is to move and find employment.

"When they move out of these regions, because of their language or the way they look, the way they dress and the religion that they follow, they (members of Muslim community) often become victims of xenophobia," noted Hussain. "It begins with the climatic aspect, but with time, it escalates into other matters," he added.

Therefore, although poems by Miyah poets begin as reflections on tragedies that poor Muslims encounter in the face of natural calamities, often they go beyond environmental issues. Their poems are also polemics of the severe discrimination based on religion that Muslims encounter in Assam; it chronicles their struggle for political identity and is a diatribe against government's apathy towards them.

However, on certain levels, they also serve as a cautionary tale for all of us, who do not think of climate change issues. These poems with powerful words create a visceral imagery of how nature is changing, and what kind of impact this change can have on us. "With climate change, our society is also being changed," said Ahmed. "The worst victims of river erosion are mostly women and children... The government does not take any measure to rehabilitate these people. Out of 12 lakh people, not even 5 lakh has been rehabilitated. So where will they do? There is no industry, no land to cultivate, no place to live." he added.

"I think because poetry has a larger emotive value, then journalism or a purely scientific explanation it touches people in a deeper way," said Hussain, when asked about the impact Miyah poetry is creating. "I think we understand the limitation of what we are doing; I mean we can only achieve so much," he added.

Roughly 100 poems have been written by the Miyah poets so far, and while Hussain is trying to put together an anthology, he has been happy with the way media has reported about them so far. He believes a localized impact is important and many local Assamese magazines and print publications have been talking about them. In national media too, several big media outlets have spoken about their works.
Miyah poetry is not a collective of poets. Neither is it an organization. While some of the poets, who call themselves Miyah poets, know each other personally, all the Miyah poets have never met together as a group. The phenomenon of Miyah poetry started after Ahmed wrote a powerful poem saying, “I am a Miyah” on the social media platform, Facebook and that brought together several Muslim poets who have a passion for similar issues such as environment and a strong urge to reclaim their identity as Miyah.

"Why do we write these poems? For me, it is probably because of a desire to be heard. To make our problems known -- be it environmental, social or political," said Hussain. The language of Miyah poetry may appear to be confrontational at times, but it has a very constructive purpose of making humanity aware of how climate change is a real phenomenon that is already devastating lakhs of lives in Assam and unfortunately how religion-based discrimination is still entrenched in our social structure.

At a time when world leaders are still denying climate change, it is not only important for scientists to remind people of the magnitude of the threat that looms on entire humanity but also for writers, painters, dancing, and musicians to help people understand this threat, and provoke them to take actions. They are painting the picture that hits hard.

#ClimateArt is our series to discover how art, music, and literature have the potential of changing opinions and beliefs about climate change.

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