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Thursday, August 05, 2021

Explained: The Miyas of Assam, and their char-chapori culture

A proposal for a museum reflecting char-chapori culture has triggered a controversy. Who are the Miyas, what are the char-chaporis, and what is controversial about the proposal?

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: November 6, 2020 12:57:17 pm
Siyas of assam, Miya culture of assam, assam bjp, assam congress mla, Miya museum, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Sherman Ali, indian expressMiyas of Assam perform Lathibari. Their attire includes unmistakably Assamese elements. (Photo: Mirza Lutfar Rahman)

Months ahead of the Assembly elections, a proposed “Miya museum” reflecting the “culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” has stirred up a controversy in Assam.

What is the controversy?

Last month, Assam BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted out a letter from Congress MLA Sherman Ali that requested the government to expedite the process of constructing a museum “reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” in Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra.

Char-chaporis are shifting riverine islands of the Brahmaputra and are primarily inhabited by the Muslims of Bengali-origin (pejoratively referred to as ‘Miyas’).

Sarma tweeted: “In my understanding, there is no separate identity and culture in Char Anchal of Assam as most of the people had migrated from Bangladesh. Obviously, in Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, which is the epitome of Assamese culture, we will not allow any distortion. Sorry MLA sahib.”

In response, the Opposition has accused the BJP of trying to polarise the state before 2021 elections.

Incidentally, the museum was recommended in March by a legislative panel — Departmentally Related Standing Committee (DRSC) on Education — comprising BJP and its allies. Asked about this, Sarma told reporters: “Whatever committee, whosoever’s committee has given whatever report… that report will just remain in their files in their cupboards only. The Assam government is clear that in the Kalakshetra there will not be any ‘Miya museum’.”

Who are the Miyas?

The ‘Miya’ community comprises descendants of Muslim migrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to Assam. They came to be referred to as ‘Miyas’, often in a derogatory manner.

The community migrated in several waves — starting with the British annexation of Assam in 1826, and continuing into Partition and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War — and have resulted in changes in demographic composition of the region. Years of discontent among the indigenous people led to the six-year-long (1979-85) anti-foreigner Assam Agitation to weed out the “illegal immigrant”, who was perceived as trying to take over jobs, language and culture of the indigenous population.

What are char-chaporis?

A char is a floating island while chaporis are low-lying flood-prone riverbanks. “They are used interchangeably or with a hyphen… They keep changing shapes — a char can become a chapori, or vice versa, depending on the push and pull of the Brahmaputra,” said Abdul Kalam Azad, human rights researcher based in Guwahati.

The website of the Directorate of Char Areas Development puts the population of chars at 24.90 lakh as per a socio-economic survey in 2002-03. “The population is bound to have increased since,” said Azad.

Prone to floods and erosion, these areas are marked by low development indices. “80% of the Char population lives below poverty line,” states the website. A UNDP Assam Human Development report from 2014 describes the char areas as suffering from “communication deficits, lack of adequate schooling facilities beyond primary, girl child marriage, poverty and illiteracy”.

While Bengali-origin Muslims primarily occupy these islands, other communities such as Misings, Deoris, Kocharis, Nepalis also live here. In popular imagination, however, chars have become synonymous to the Bengali-speaking Muslims of dubious nationality. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram

How do the Miyas identify themselves?

Over the years, the Miyas have often been stereotyped and derided as “Bangladeshi”. “That’s an odd term to use since the community’s roots in Assam are much older than 1971 when Bangladesh was born,” said political scientist Dr Sanjib Baruah.

“It is a very complex community — many are generations removed from immigrant ancestors. Over the years, the community has tried to integrate into the larger Assamese society, by speaking Assamese, sending their children to Assamese schools and declaring Assamese as their language since the 1951 census.”

Dr Baruah said the community had a significant presence in Assamese literary and cultural life. He referred to sessions he has attended of the Asam Sahitya Sabha, the apex literary body. “I am often impressed by the high quality of the Assamese spoken and written by many people from this background.”

Prominent Assamese personalities such as the late human rights activist-journalist Parag Kumar Das have made efforts for greater acceptance of char dwellers. “He explored the char areas and started writing about them in Assamese publications like Prantik. He brought to light that they studied in Assamese medium schools, that they were not ‘Bangladeshis’ and that they had lived here for over a hundred years,” said cultural researcher and historian Ankur Tamuli Phukan.

“The first Assamese school in a char area was set up as far back in 1899,” said Hafiz Ahmed, who runs the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, a literary body. “Today, the community is not just made up of farmers, drivers and labourers. There are doctors, writers, researchers, engineers — but no one wants to recognise that.”

Why a claim of a distinct culture?

While identifying as Assamese, the ‘Miya’ community feels that like other ethnic groups, they too should celebrate their own culture and heritage within the larger Assamese fold.

Mirza Lutfar Rahman, who runs a YouTube channel, ‘Mi-Chang stories’ that showcases char culture, said the community’s cultural motifs and heritage are related to agriculture and the river. The community has a variety of songs (bhatiali related to the river, magan geet or harvest songs, noi khelor geet or boat songs etc), instruments and equipment to catch fish, as well as different kinds of boats.

“While this heritage may or may not have similarities with residents of present-day Bangladesh, it is unique to Assam’s char dwellers because it is a product of a hundred years of assimilation with the Assamese society,” said Rahman, “For example, we have an ancient performative martial art called the Lathibari. While the norm is to traditionally wear colourful clothes, our version has us donning a white vest and dhoti, an Assamese gamosa on our heads and waists — these are unmissable Assamese elements. Our bhatiali geet speaks of the Brahmaputra river. Now is that not Assamese culture?”

Why are some Assamese uncomfortable with that?

The museum has been proposed in the Kalakshetra, which is a cultural complex in Guwahati named after neo-Vaishnavite reformer Srimanta Sankardev, and which was set up as part of Clause 6 (“… to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”) of the Assam Accord, signed at the culmination of the Assam Agitation.

According to Tamuli Phukan, the fact that the museum is proposed to be part of Kalakshetra, a product of the Assam Accord, hurts Assamese sentiments. “The Assamese feel that these claims of a distinct cultural sphere/ identity by the community may eventually lead to political or ethnic assertions in the future. This is not a fear that has been conjured up overnight but a fear of decades.”

In 2019, a controversy had broken out regarding poetry written by the Miya community in their native dialects. Given Assam’s sensitive political history, where language is the biggest fault line, the poetry faced backlash from the Assamese-speaking community.

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What is the Miya view of this?

The community feels the issue is being politicised for vested interests. “Until now, not even one person has said that we are separate from Assamese society, and it is within that, we just want our heritage — whether art or culture — to be preserved,” said Azad, “Even if our songs, culture etc are displayed or exhibited — what is the inconvenience? It will just add a layer to the culture of the Assamese society, and make it even richer.”

“How can a community comprising lakhs not have a culture of their own?” Ahmed said, referring to BJP minister Sarma’s comments. “Maybe their culture is not as developed, but how can you say they have no culture?”

Dr Baruah said the migration and assimilation of the Bengali-origin communities reflect “an amazing success story of Axomiya culture’s capacity to integrate new people”. “The Kalakshetra should find ways to incorporate newer elements of our culture into its collection to show that this integrative capacity has not diminished,” he said.

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