ASSAM’S HEALTH, FINANCE and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has stirred a controversy in the state by saying that his government would not allow a ‘Miya museum’ despite a legislative committee dominated by BJP and its allies recommending a museum to showcase exhibits from Muslim-majority riverine areas.
On October 18, Sherman Ali Ahmed, a Congress MLA from Baghbar constituency, wrote to the state’s Director of Museums requesting him to “expedite” the process of establishing “one museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in Char-Chaporis of Assam in the premises of the Srimanata Sankardeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati” as recommended by the Departmentally Related Standing Committee (DRSC) on Education in March.
‘Char-Chaporis’ refer to the riverine sand belts of the Brahmaputra, which are home to a vast majority of Muslims of Bengali-origin, a community which colloquially — and often derogatorily — is called ‘Miya’ in Assam. However, people from other communities also reside in such riverine areas in some districts.
On October 24, Sarma tweeted Ahmed’s letter with the comment, “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 Kalakhetra, which is the epitome of Assamese culture, we will not allow any distortion. Sorry MLA Sahab.”
Abdul Khaleque, a Congress MP from Assam, replied to Sarma, “Sorry Sir, @himantabiswa. Ancestors of these people were migrated from erstwhile Bengal, which was integral part of undivided India. Kindly don’t distort history more just sake of getting power (sic).” On Monday, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal told reporters that the Kalakshetra was established on the ideals of Srimanta Sankardeva. “We will always work, with devotion, to deep those ideals intact,” he said.
When asked by journalists on Monday about the DRSC’s recommendations, Sarma said, “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’.” Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal too told reporters that the government would always work with devotion to keep the ideals of Srimanta Sankardeva intact.
The MLA from Baghbar, Ahmed, is himself a member of the 15-member DRSC on Education. The committee is led by an MLA from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an ally of the BJP in the state. Of the 15 MLAs, BJP and its allies have 10. The DRSC has six members from the BJP, two from the AGP, two from the BPF, three from the Congress and two from the AIUDF.
In its report to the Assam Assembly on March 24, DRSC had said, “The Committee recommends that one museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in the Char-Chaporis of Assam shall be established at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati.” Ahmed said none of the BJP leaders said anything then. “Now, they are trying to polarise Assam prior to 2021 elections,” he told The Indian Express.
When contacted, Yasing Shimray Wunglengton, Director, Directorate of Museums, said, “As a government servant, I have nothing to comment on this political controversy.”
When contacted, renowned academic Sanjib Baruah, professor of political studies, Bard College, New York, told The Indian Express over email, “I think the Assamese have good reasons to be proud of the integrative capacity of their culture… But no culture is ever static. The current leadership of Kalakshetra will have to find ways to incorporate newer elements of our culture into its collection to show that this integrative capacity of Assamese culture has not weakened.”
Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, former journalist and now a Rajya Sabha MP with the support of Congress and the AIUDF, tweeted on the DRSC recommendations, “Now, after passing a recommendation with support from majority members, BJP is politicising the whole issue to garner political mileage. What a shame!”
“If the Kalakshetra can showcase the cultures of so many communities, then what is the problem with having a museum reflecting the culture of a community that comprises one-fourth of Assam’s population. There should not be any objection,” asked the MLA Ahmed. He added that 7-8 million people live in Assam’s char-chapori areas.
Hafiz Ahmed, the founder president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, a cultural body of the community, told The Indian Express, “They have a very rich cultural heritage. A museum can showcase their farming equipment and their boats. Their folk music is a fusion of Bengali and Assamese cultures, as assimilation of over a hundred years.”
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