The Miyas of Assam, and their char-chapori culture

Context: Months ahead of the Assembly elections, a proposed “Miya museum” in Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra reflecting the “culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” has stirred up a controversy in Assam.

Analysis

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 the demographic composition of the region.
  • They have an ancient performative martial art called the Lathibari.
  • While the norm is to traditionally wear colourful clothes, the Miya community dons a white vest and dhoti, and Assamese games on our heads and waists.

What are char-chaporis?

  • Char-chaporis are shifting riverine islands of the Brahmaputra and are primarily inhabited by the Muslims of Bengali-origin.
  • A char is a floating island while chaporis are low-lying flood-prone riverbanks.
  • Prone to floods and erosion, these areas are marked by low development indices.
  • While Bengali-origin Muslims primarily occupy these islands, other communities such as Misings, Deoris, Kocharis, Nepalis also live here.

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.
  • 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.

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