A spectre is haunting Assamese nationalism – the spectre of Miyah poetry. But this spectre is nothing new to the journey that Assamese nationalism has been through. In truth, Miyah poetry is haunting Assamese nationalist consciousness not because the Assamese nationalist middle class have never seen, heard languages different than Assamese, but it is haunting because in our time – the phenomenon like that of Miyah poetry is ironically similar to what the first generations of Assamese middle class had to go through when they were struggling hard to establish the dignity and autonomy of Assamese as an independent language.
The history of Assamese nationalist movement has been mostly the history of struggle over language. When the likes of Rabindranath Tagore humiliated Assamese language by pointing towards the insignificance or lack of originality of the language and categorized Assamese as a sub-language of Bangla, some then unknown, insignificant, committed young students from Assam studying in Kolkata initiated a crusade to claim the dignity of their mother tongue, a language which they could embrace as their own. These youths, the first generation of Assamese middle class by means of their relentless struggle not only succeeded in liberating the autonomy and dignity of the language Assamese. They also produced through their works later generations of Assamese nationalists, who in turn achieved for Assamese nationalism what its forefathers could only dream about. Which is- the day has long come that Assamese stands as equal with Bangla, not merely as a sub-language but as a fully packaged independent language.
The abyss of language
If Assamese nationalism has achieved what it wanted to achieve then why there is anything to fear at all? Why is it that a so-called sub-language, a language without solid foundations considered a threat to Assamese nationalism?
For the hardcore Assamese nationalists like Dr. Hiren Gohain, Miyah poetry is a threat to Assamese nationalism because the language used by aspiring Miyah middle-class is not Assamese. In fact, for Gohain if this Miyah population has any suffering, despair, grievances they should express them through Assamese and not by means of what they hear, see and learn from their mothers. Since, Assamese nationalist middle classes have struggled for so long (as for Dr Gohain they only possess the lived experience of Assam movement, burnt through Nellie massacre and so on) it becomes imperative that whoever resides in the state of Assam use only Assamese language so as to express, communicate their emotions, desires, and aspirations. Assamese nationalist discourse thus reaches a new height as it confronts Miyah language.
But the problem for Assamese nationalism is not merely the usage of a particular language but the abyss that has been generated by language for so long. And it is this abyss which the likes of Dr. Gohain misses or deliberately ignores in order just to provide a self-deceptive consoling virility to Assamese nationalism.
The Assamese language has now reached a stage where it has been successful enough to swallow all other mother tongues (which also deserve a right to autonomy and dignity of their own) exactly the same way Bangla once aspired to do with Assamese. If Miyah language is being considered a threat to Assamese then it is not anything avant-garde or shocking. It is just that Assamese nationalism is being put to face what its forefathers once struggled so hard against – oppression by means of language.
An uncanny fate
Miyah poetry or language is not simply a threat to the integration and unity to Assamese nationalism, in truth, the fate of Assamese nationalism depends in toto on how Assamese nationalists deal with the aspirations of languages within the state of Assam. The Bengali nationalists – given their rich culture, gigantic literary and intellectual resources could not stop a mother tongue named Assamese from being liberated as an independent language from its hegemonic oppression. If some Assamese nationalists feel that they can do better oppression than the Bengalis, they have gone delusional and also are on the brink of denouncing their own past.
The phenomenon of Miyah poetry is an infantile crawling of oppressed mother tongues towards liberation and independence. And the fate of Assamese nationalism is intertwined with the acceptance or rejection of the claims and aspirations of insignificant, sub-languages – within the state of Assam.
Nirban Ray is a Phd. student at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. (firstname.lastname@example.org)