The following is an excerpt from Insider/Outsider, an anthology of writings on the issue of belonging in Northeast India. This is part of an account on the miya experience in Assam, by Shalim M Hussain.
When I ran away from my boarding school in Barpeta Road in 1993, there were no telephones in my village. The village police outpost was sent a telegram instead. The distance between my village Sontoli and Barpeta Road is a little less than fifty kilometers and can ideally be covered in an hour and a half. However, the river Brahmaputra passes between Sontoli and Bahari the nearest bus stop and it takes a motor boat more than an hour to complete a one-way trip. Today auto-rickshaws and electric rickshaws ply between Sontoli bazaar and Sontoli ghat but two and a half decades ago one had to cycle or walk to the ghat and wait for one of the two ‘line’ boats or country motor boats to carry them to the other side. When the telegram with my missing report reached home one January evening in 1993, my father hired a motorboat and immediately left for Bahari. He had booked an entire motorboat only thrice in his life, once when he brought my mother home in 1986, then when my maternal grandfather passed away on 21st March 1991 (on the same day prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated) and in 1983, almost exactly ten years before I went missing, on a fact-finding mission after the Nellie massacre.
The day the telegram was sent, my friend Rose and I decided that we had had enough of boarding school. We were both a little over five years old and had been at school for only a month. His parents and my grandmother lived in Kalgachia, a village 27 kms south of Barpeta Road, and their families knew each other quite well. I don’t remember now who suggested the idea but we decided to run away one Saturday afternoon. The National Highway 27 connects Barpeta Road to Sorbhog. From Sorbhog a narrower, almost perennially potholed, road leads south to Kalgachia. I had very little knowledge of the roads then but my companion was street smart and said that he could easily lead me to my grandmother. We dressed in our ‘outing dress’- shorts, shirt and sweater vest, socks and black school shoes- and waited for the school gate to open. At around 12 in the afternoon which was time for our nap, the washer-man came with the laundry. He usually bundled the clothes in a large bed sheet and pushed it to the school gate on a handcart. He then opened the gate, carried the bundle on his head and walked into the school building. It took him about an hour to sort out the clothes and this was our window of opportunity. Rose and I waited until the dhobi was in the hall and then casually walked out of the gate. We walked hand in hand through the market and from Simlaguri took the right turn. We were now on the National Highway and on our way to Sorbhog. I have very vague memories of what happened next but I remember a lot of rain and lightning. The first showers of the year were upon us and we were not properly clothed for a walk, much less a daring escape.
Rose was smart. He suggested that we walk slowly if there was a flash of lightning or if there were cars on the street. When the road was empty we could run. We stopped to let vehicles pass and because of the heavy downpour our clothes were wet and our shoes had started making squishy noises. The streets in Sorbhog didn’t have streetlights, so there were long stretches of dark nothingness when our imagination took over. I am not sure if it’s a fake memory but at one point I might have seen lightning hit a cow. I vaguely remember the cow jumping in the air and falling on its back and a large red spot forming on its belly. When I was back in school in 1994, someone noticed the white birth mark on my right arm and asked what had caused it. I told him that on a dark evening in February 1993 a lightning bolt had grazed my arm. That was also why I had straight stiff hair, I said. Anyway we got as far as Sorbhog, close to where the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya now stands. There we suddenly felt strong hands on our shoulders and turned around to see a man standing behind us.
Apparently he had been following us for some time and our lack of an older companion and our clothes, particularly our shoes, made him suspect that we were runaways. He held us firmly by the shoulders (at this point we were too tired to run any more) and asked where we were from and where we were going. We told him about our relatives in Kalgachia and then because we were so cold and scared, we gave him the name of our school. The gentleman, Mr. Sadananda Das put two and two together and took us home. He lit a fire in the cowshed and made us take off our wet clothes. His wife gave us blankets and served rice and boiled eggs while Mr. Das cracked jokes to make us feel more comfortable and hung our clothes on a string over the fire. We had walked almost 12 kilometers and it was almost eight at night. Our legs were swollen and we were running high temperature. At night when I woke up to pee, Mr. Das was awake. He remained awake all night so that we couldn’t attempt another escape. In the morning he took us to the police station. Already the telegram to my parents had been sent from the Barpeta Road police station and as we were walking to Mr. Das’s house from Sorbhog, we saw a car stop on the highway. My grandmother, great-aunt and aunt and Rose’s parents came running out of the doors. Our great escape was over.
I remember February 1993 with great fondness (though my memory of the actual events gets foggier every year) to remind myself that there is good in the world. The night Sadananda Das took Rose and me into his home, there was a small commotion in his locality. His prudent neighbours said that it would be better if we were taken to the police station immediately. Some of them said that it might not be a good idea to let two Miyah boys (our accented Assamese was a dead giveaway) stay in his house for the night. Communal tensions were on an all time high in India then. The fear and distrust caused by the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots had travelled to Assam too. The Assam Agitation had ended only eight years ago but the wounds still remained exposed. Besides, there was another practical fear. The neighbours were scared that if Rose and I took seriously ill at night or worse, Mr. Das would be in trouble. The good gentleman, however, stood his ground. He would take us to the police station in the morning after we had had dinner and a good night’s sleep, he said. Had Mr. Das not rescued us from the street, had he not shown us basic human decency, Rose and I would have had to walk the remaining 15 kilometers to Kalgachia. I don’t know if we would have survived the long walk.
My parents kept me home for a few months and then, after repeated requests, the school decided to take me back. Rose’s parents admitted him to a school in Kalgachia. We haven’t met since. In 1993 the fragile peace in Assam began to unravel. In October around 50 people were killed in ethnic violence between the Bodos and the Muslims in the nearby district of Bongaigaon. In July 1994 violence erupted between the Muslims and Bodos in Barpeta. Around 100 people were killed, including many Muslims who had been sheltering in a relief camp in Bansbari, just twelve kilometers north of Barpeta Road. As school children in the sheltered atmosphere of boarding school we didn’t get wind of the violence that was happening almost literally outside the school campus. Our minds were occupied with more quotidian concerns: the school was being moved out of its temporary premises to a new location close by. Every Sunday after mass at the colonial-era St Joseph’s Church we walked in line to the construction site of the new school building. We ran around the half-completed corridors, carried bricks and established a close friendship with Hazrat and Shabkhatun, two of the labourers. Since we were not allowed to go outside the school campus or interact with the people of Barpeta Road (except during the annual sports week or during festivals when we were chaperoned by the warden), the only Bengal-origin people I met during the early years of my schooling were these friendly labourers. Hazrat worked off and on as the school was slowly built storey by storey over the next five years but Shabkhatun became a permanent fixture. When she was not doing manual labour, she was appointed as a cleaner. My brother who joined me at school in 1995 developed a very familial relationship with Shabkhatun and she would share her lunch with him. It was very plain stuff, usually rice and mashed brinjals but it tasted like home he said.
It was during my final year in school that I understood the seriousness of the 1994 violence. Ten years had passed and many of the children who had memories of that turbulent year were, like me, appearing for the Classs 10th board exams. Some of them had lived ‘beyond the railway lines’. The railway tracks cut Barpeta Road into two parts- the town and the rural suburbs. On one side was our school and on the opposite side, hidden behind a thick row of betel nut trees was the great beyond. All we knew about the village beyond the railway tracks was that terrible things had happened there. During my final years at school I had started quizzing and it was for a Quiz competition that I crossed the railway lines and realized for the first time that civilization didn’t end at the railway station. After this initial visit I kept visiting the village, especially because my best friend in school lived there in the staff quarters of the Gram Sabha. In August and September 2017 I was travelling in Barpeta Road after a gap of almost a decade. I was meeting poets from the Bengal-origin Muslim community who had decided to call themselves ‘Miyah Poets’ and were writing remarkable poems on their lived experiences of poverty, exclusion and disillusionment. These were intensely political poems, guided by a deep feeling of angst and desire for self-expression. One of the first poets I met and interviewed was Abdur Rahim, a young school teacher who lived beyond the railway lines.
Rahim asked me to meet him at a printing press his friend and fellow Miyah poet Shahjahan ran in Barpeta Road. I wanted to get their poems on tape, so we travelled to his house deep in the village. The monsoon was receding but the earth was still soggy. The road that led to Rahim’s hamlet was unmetalled and it was a little difficult for Rahim to guide his motorcycle through the mud. The house was built on a raised plinth, almost one and a half meters high and looked new. There, seated on his front yard Rahim told me of October 1994. He was six years old when many houses in his village, including his, were set on fire. All the members of his family abandoned the burning house and took shelter in the tall grass. They couldn’t salvage much, except some valuables and their ‘documents’. These documents- land revenue receipts, identity cards and land deeds were the only proof that they were genuine citizens of India and like all Bengal-origin Muslims who live under the constant ignominy of being called illegal migrants in their own country, they valued these strips of paper as much as their lives. They remained hidden in the grass without food and water while their world burnt around them and it was only after the violence had subsided that they returned home and started work on rebuilding their homes and futures. When crowds of arsonists walked by the tall grass, Rahim’s parents stuffed his mouth with a gamcha to stop him from crying. At one point Rahim’s father went to their neighbours begging for food. Most of the neighbours, Bodos, were scared of taking them in but one family offered them a plate of soaked leftover rice.
Rahim said that it was necessary to talk about witnessing mob violence at such a young age and growing up with a constant feeling of dread and uncertainty, even if only through the medium of poetry. Rahim writes his poems almost exclusively in Assamese, though a few of his Miyah poems are written in the dialect he speaks at home. In 2016 when Miyah poetry started taking shape on Facebook, many of the poets wrote in Assamese or their regional dialects. It was a novel step, given the linguistic status of the Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam. We record Assamese as our language in the census reports and all documents, are educated largely in Assamese medium schools (English medium schools in the villages are a recent phenomenon, having started only in the early 1990s) and use Assamese for correspondence though we continue to speak our local dialects at home. This creates a great divide. Uneducated Bengal-origin Muslims are repeatedly harassed by the state authorities as probable ‘illegal migrants’ based on their lack of familiarity with the Assamese language while the educated ones can evade such discrimination. However, accepting the Assamese language or being fluent in it doesn’t necessarily allow Bengal-origin to belong to the ‘mainstream’ Assamese community. Sometimes this attempt at assimilation is mocked as insincere. ‘Our use of Assamese in public and our own dialects in private is sometimes viewed as double-facedness’, said Rahim, ‘and that puts us in a dilemma. What do we do? A couple of generations ago when we were all illiterate and couldn’t speak Assamese we were accused of clinging on to our Bengali roots. Now that we have grown into and whole-heartedly accepted Assamese language and culture, we are accused of putting on a show.’
The fear and uncertainty Rahim had faced in 1994 was faced by my mother and her family in 1983. She was still in college and the Nellie massacre had just happened. All sorts of rumours started spreading in Kalgachia- that arsonists were coming to the village looking for Miyahs, that counter attacks were being planned, that opportunists were going from village to village collecting protection money etc. Not knowing what to believe, my grandfather took his wife, children and his old father and hid in the fields at a distance from his home. They remained there for two days until my eldest aunt’s husband proposed a better idea. He would take them to his place in the evening and bring them back very early in the morning. It was important for people to know that the house was not abandoned, or it would be taken over by arsonists. A small stream of the River Beki separated my mother’s village from her brother-in-law’s, so the journey had to be made on my grandfather’s fishing boat. For the next fortnight as the situation in the state went from bad to worse, this was their regular routine. My mother had just begun college but classes were cancelled because of the violence and it took her four years to complete a course which usually took two years then. My mother and aunts hardly talk about that frightful fortnight in 1983 but when they do, they always refer to it as the year of ‘gondogol’ or chaos.
The events of 1993 and 1994 are in the distant past and since I didn’t witness either of them personally, I can’t write about them from a personal point of view. What I do remember quite vividly was the first time I took the word ‘Miyah’ seriously. It happened in the summer of 2007 when I was house-hunting in Guwahati. This, however, was not the first time I heard it used as an insult. When my father was still alive and my siblings and I were in boarding school, he would sometimes take us to school after our vacations. On one journey after the summer vacations, Abba bought three bus tickets- my brother and I had one seat each and my sister who was five or six years old then sat on my father’s lap. Now, public transit etiquette in rural India dictates that children should always sit on the lap or on someone’s knee, whether it is a parent’s or a stranger’s. An old gentleman boarded the bus at Chenga, the immediate bus stop after Bahari and asked my brother or me to offer our seat to him. This was our first adult experience of feeling the plastic seat under our butts and we were obviously not too eager to part with the honour. The man got angry and said in a low voice, ‘Look at these Miyahs! They breed so fast that their children are like a bunch of coconuts!’ I had never seen my father so humiliated in his life. He stood up and demanded an apology. The older gentleman raised his voice. The other passengers stepped in and broke what would probably have been a fight. Thankfully the old man got off the bus soon, but my father sat through the rest of the journey with a terrible sadness on his face.