By Katharine Webster
The history of the Miya people in Northeast India spans more than a century of colonial oppression, displacement and loss of land, says Psychology Assoc. Prof. Urmitapa Dutta, who grew up in the region.
But the latest chapter is particularly alarming, Dutta says: The Hindu nationalist government and dominant ethnic groups in the Northeast Indian state of Assam are stripping the predominantly Muslim Miya people of citizenship and then imprisoning them. And the government has begun building large detention centers to hold tens of thousands more.
“It’s one of the biggest cultural and political persecutions you’ve never heard of,” she says, comparing it to the state actions that led up to the mass violence against and expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from neighboring Myanmar.
Dutta, a community social psychologist whose work addresses structural and cultural violence and community resistance, is engaged in participatory action research with Miya community workers who are helping Miya people to tell their own stories, reclaim their culture and resist disenfranchisement.
The Miya Community Research Collective involves UML graduate students in psychology and global studies, as well as Miya college students in India. In a conversation about the collective’s research, Dutta discussed the historical and current challenges facing Miya communities. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Who are the Miya people, and what makes them distinct?
A: The Miya people are a predominantly Muslim group of communities in the northeast Indian state of Assam. They were forcibly displaced in the early 19th century by the British, who brought them from the region that is now Bangladesh to Assam to farm along the Brahmaputra River.
They live in low-lying areas that flood every year, including riverine islands that are created and eroded by the ebbs and flows of the Brahmaputra, one of the longest rivers in South Asia. Even though floods have often caused the Miya people to lose their lands and homes, leading to internal displacement, they have made these areas thrive agriculturally.
Q: How can the government strip them of citizenship as a group?
A: After winning independence from the British, India created a National Register of Citizens, but the requirements to stay on that list have changed several times. In 1971, the Indian government began requiring members of various ethnic groups in the northeastern state of Assam to prove that they had moved to India before Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) won independence from Pakistan (then West Pakistan).
Most recently, in 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party removed nearly 2 million people from the national register, most of them from Miya communities. They must submit all kinds of documentation to get their citizenship restored, and the documents they need keep changing; a passport is no longer enough. Miya people not only have to provide records showing that they were born in India, but also prove that an ancestor lived there before 1971 or was included in the electoral rolls of 1951.
For a mostly landless, migrant population with very low literacy who have frequently been displaced by flooding, documents like birth certificates, school records or proof of an ancestor’s presence are often lost or nonexistent. Women face even greater difficulties, as some don’t complete school and they change their names upon marriage, making it harder to prove their residency and family connections.
And citizenship is a moving target: Even if your name makes it onto the list once, that doesn’t mean you’re done. A few days later, someone could come in and complain they suspect you of being a foreigner, and you’d have to prove your right to citizenship all over again.
Q: Why does the national government want to disenfranchise Miya people, and what happens to them if they can’t get back on the register?
A: A big part of it is religious discrimination, but the national government has also exploited local language and ethnic divisions. Ever since the British relocated them to Assam, Miya people have been labeled as outsiders, “illegal immigrants” and foreigners, and there has been a long history of trying to erase their language and culture.
Those Miya people who are unable to provide the necessary documents have been placed in ad hoc detention camps within existing prisons, according to a report by a special monitor for the National Human Rights Commission. But the government is close to completing a detention center that will hold 3,000 detainees – and there are plans to build at least 10 such internment centers in Assam, local advocates say.
These detainees can be held indefinitely as “foreign nationals,” because Bangladesh and India do not have an extradition treaty. Some have been held for 10 years, although India’s Supreme Court ordered the conditional release on parole of many long-term detainees in 2019 and again during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: What is the Miya Community Research Collective doing to help?
A: First, together with Miya human rights researcher Abdul Kalam Azad, we are documenting the systemic discrimination this community faces.
We are also training Miya community workers and college students to provide psychosocial support to affected communities. There’s a lot of trauma and vicarious trauma, and there’s been a spike in suicides. We’ve made a lot of progress, but at the same time, state violence is acute, including harassment by the police and the constant threat of being sent to the detention centers.
We are also providing logistical support to the gender justice work carried out by Amrapari (We Can), a rural women’s artisans collective. And we work together with Ango Khabar (Our News), a Miya community digital storytelling platform, and with Miya poets who are using poetry to speak truth to power.
We’re trying to create spaces where Miya people can celebrate their culture and build communities of resistance through efforts involving their legal rights, climate justice and economic sustainability. We strive to center the voices and experiences of Miya people in everything we do, including co-authoring our academic papers and presentations with community partners.
My main contributions are in documenting state violence, psychosocial interventions, community capacity-building and fostering transnational solidarity.