On September 1, Congress MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed uploaded a photo to his Facebook account that created a furore. Taken on the premises of Assam Bhawan, a state government property in Delhi, it showed Ahmed wearing a lungi. The MLA was smiling gently, perhaps aware that this innocuous picture could scandalise an entire state.
A wrap-around lower garment worn though large parts of South and South East Asia, the lungi is a politically charged outfit in the state of Assam. The reason: its association with the marginalised Bengal-origin Muslims of the state. Indeed, that is exactly the point Ahmed was making with the photo, which he captioned “traditional Miya attire”. Used as a way to stereotype Miyas, as the Bengal-origin Muslim community is often called in Assam, Sherman was reappropriating the lungi as a marker of pride.
Ahmed’s Facebook photo was an example of how the politician has moved aggressively to represent Assam’s one crore-strong Miya Muslim community. His belligerence comes at a time when Hindutva is rising in the state. Other Miya politicians have thought it wise to stay low and let even egregious attacks on the community pass by without comment. As a result, Ahmed is now seen as one of the state’s most prominent Miya representatives, unafraid to speak out for the community’s rights and its sense of identity.
Protesting anti-Miya policies
After the BJP’s win in the 2021 Assembly elections, the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led government embarked on an eviction drive to remove allegedly illegal encroachment from government and forest land. Most of the drive’s targets have been Miya Muslims. In spite of this, the state’s Miya politics have been unusually quiet.
One of the exceptions: Sherman Ali Ahmed. The 55-year-old legislator has described the eviction drives as “anti-minority and illegal” as well as “politically motivated”.
“This government after coming to power has been indiscriminately evicting people – mainly Muslims for political benefits,” Ahmed said. “The primary objective of the eviction is that they want to delimit the constituencies in such a way that Muslims can’t be in the majority in more constituencies.”
To back up his point, he referred to the forceful relocation of more than 2,000 Miya families from the Hindu-majority Sipajhar constituency of Darrang district to the Muslim-majority Dalgaon constituency as part of an eviction drive in September.
Building an identity
Most interestingly, however, Ahmed has made a set of comments around taking pride in being a Miya. Given that the community is poor, marginalised and often accused of being undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Ahmed’s statements have been highly controversial in Assam.
For one, Ahmed is strongly in favour of taking back the word “Miya” in order to carve out a separate identity for the state’s Bengal-origin Muslims. “From the 1980s, these people have been derided by calling them Miya,” Ahmed said, speaking to Scroll.in. “Since they are deriding us by calling us Miya, so we said ok, we are Miya. So what?”
Once a pejorative in Assam, from the common use of the honorific “miya” among South Asian Muslims, the term has now been reappropriated by the community as a self-descriptor to refer to Muslims who migrated to Assam from Bengal during the colonial era.
“It is a kind of rebellion; now this miya word is almost unanimously accepted,” Ahmed said. “It is important to have a distinct Miya identity.”
A place in a museum
Ahmed’s Miya pride pitch has seen him court controversy in the state. In the run up to the 2021 Assembly elections, the MLA demanded that Miyas receive a place in Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a state government-run institution meant to display the “life and culture of the people of Assam” and “of its diverse ethnic groups and sub-groups”.
“We are Assamese and our culture and traditions also should be reflected in Kalakshetra like other ethnic groups,” Ahmed argued. ”Miyas have contributed hugely in the building of greater Assamese society, whether it is in the agriculture or the construction sectors. How can the culture of a community comprising lakhs not be reflected in the state museum?”
In spite of the museum’s own diversity pitch, Ahmed’s demand to reflect the “culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” – or the shifting riverine islands formed by the Brahmaputra where many Miya Muslims live – was a bridge too far. The state government brusquely rejected it, using a xenophobic dog whistle: the Miyas had migrated in from Bangladesh, alleged Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, and would not be allowed into a museum meant for the display of “Assamese culture”.
‘Assamese’ or ‘Neo Assamese’?
The incident captures the incredible complexity of the modern Miya identity in Assam. After Independence, Miyas have used standardised Assamese as a written language and declared that as their mother tongue to the census. This saw them being called Na-Axamiya or Neo Assamese. However, they are still seen as socially distinct by native Assamese speakers.
Further, Kalakshetra was a result of the 1985 Assam Accord, the culmination of the six-year-long Assam Movement against undocumented migrants from Bangladesh – a charge often hurled at Miyas themselves. Even if they were Assamese on paper, for Ahmed to demand a place for Miyas in the Kalakshetra created a storm in the state.
Ahmed pointed out this contradiction. “Miya people use Assamese to write and read,” he told Scroll.in. “If the Miyas are a community under the greater Assamese community, their culture should be acknowledged and preserved. But the government and [also] my party [the Congress] took a different stand when I demanded a museum.”
He continued: “Aren’t the Miyas part of the greater Assamese society? If they are not Assamese, the Congress should declare that the Miya is not a part of Assamese society.”
On Monday, Ahmed repeated his pitch for a Miya section in the Kalakshetra outside the state Assembly, making sure to additionally underline that Miyas were a third of Assam. “The Asam Sahitya Sabha describes the Miya people as Na-Axomiya,” he said. “They should also clarify whether they are Assamese now or still Na-Axomiya.”
Kalakshetra wasn’t the first time Ahmed had delineated a distinct Miya identity. A year earlier, in 2020, he had organised an oath-taking ceremony in his Assembly constituency, Baghbar. “I am a Miya, I am an Assamese. I am a part of Assamese society. I feel proud to identify myself as a Miya,” Ahmed declared on stage to a crowd of people.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a researcher from Assam said there is nothing called “Miyaness” to define who is a Miya, but “calling ourselves Miya is both therapeutic and strategic in nature”.
“With respect to the former, it helps us heal our trauma and suffering through collective recognition and acceptance and with respect to the latter, to achieve our socio-political goals of social justice and human rights,” Azad told Scroll.in. “We need to solidify and develop our own distinctive voice, our own story, signature and discursive practices to highlight the injustice meted out to us and thus to seek justice”
He added: “The pride in the Miya identity is not because the term is given by their oppressors but in not being oppressors, we are proud of our ability to remain humane.”
Azad has himself been associated with the Miya poetry movement which saw Miya Muslims writing in their native dialects rather than Standard Assamese. Like Ahmed’s politics, this cultural movement created controversy for allegedly carving out a separate identity for Miyas.
Questioning historical narratives
Most controversially, Ahmed has questioned the official narrative of the Assam Movement, which lasted from 1979 to 1985 and demanded the deportation of undocumented migrants from Bangladesh who had crossed over during and after their country’s 1971 Liberation War.
While the official, state government narrative echoes that of the agitators, many Bengali speakers in Assam – both Hindu and Muslim – have a diametrically opposite view, viewing it as a time of violence and strife.
In September, 2021, Ahmed claimed that a 1983 clash in Chalkhowa village in Darrang district, which had seen eight Assamese-speaking young men allegedly killed by Miya Muslims, was a result of self defence. “If we term robbers and looters as martyrs then it would be a disgrace to the real martyrs,” Ahmed said in September. Dayanath Sharma [an Assam movement martyr involved in the Chalkhowa incident] himself killed a lot of people with his rifle. Any sort of killing should be condemned and I agree with the facts, but a murderer who went about killing people cannot be called a martyr. It would be inhumane and shameful to legalise such acts.”
Speaking to Scroll.in, Ahmed was forceful in stating that he did not agree with the official narrative of the Assam movement. “The eight Assamese youth were responsible for the death of many from the Bengali-speaking Muslim community,” Ahmed claimed. ”The Bengali-speaking Muslims had killed the youths in order to save themselves.”
By alleging that some of the official martyrs of the Assam movement were actually attackers, Ahmed caused a furore in the state. So much so that the legislator was arrested on October 2. “I didn’t distort history,” he said. “I do stand by whatever I have said because it is a fact. It is history and it has been recorded in many books. Although I was arrested for that statement and spent two months and five days in jail, the government could not chargesheet me, suggesting my statement was correct.”
Ahmed even went on to attack his own party, the Congress, in his challenge to the official narrative of the Assam Movement. “It was the duty of the Congress government to declare the Muslim victims who were massacred in cold blood during Nellie Massacre as martyrs,” he said referring to India’s bloodiest communal killing that took place in 1983 in Assam that saw around 2,000 Miya Muslims killed. “But Congress did nothing. They didn’t even compensate them, they sat on the fence.”
Ahmed’s radical stand on the official narrative of the Assam Movement meant that even his own party, the Congress, suspended him after his arrest.
Trying to establish a separate Miya identity and even questioning the official narrative of the Assam movement marks out Sherman Ali Ahmed as a somewhat unique politician in Assam. The Bharatiya Janata Party has won back-to-back Assembly elections in Assam, with one of its major planks being attacking the Miya Muslims of the state. In the run up to the 2021 elections for example, soon-to-be chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma called Miyas a “threat to Assam’s culture and identity” who were trying to “take away the rights” of everyone else.
This pressure means the state’s prominent Muslim politicians have gone quiet, trying to weather the storm. Even the All India United Democratic Front, a party mainly representing Miyas, is now laying low.
“Most Muslim leaders are silent on the issue when come to Miya identity and protection of rights of the Miyas,” said Hafiz Ahmed, head of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, the largest literary body representing the Miya community. “Even Badruddin Ajmal and most of the minority leaders both from Congress and AIUDF did not raise the issue of Nellie massacre and the ongoing eviction drive, the way Sherman Ali Ahmed did.”
Argued Hafiz Ahmed: “It is only Sherman who is raising the issues of the Miyas in Assam”.
Dhubri-based political scientist Parvin Sultana echoed Hafiz Ahmed’s contention that Sherman Ali Ahmed is one of the few politicians in Assam speaking up for Miya rights. “Others have not been as consistent as Sherman I feel,” she explained. “He has also been vocal about issues like misuse of Waqf board property, erosion induced displacement and eviction. While this has no doubt turned him into a powerful voice of the community which is often unheard, many might feel that he essentially speaks [only] to his constituency.”
‘Will help BJP’
In contrast, some people from the community feel that Ahmed’s aggression simply plays into the BJP’s hands, helping establish the politics of Assam as a Hindu-Muslim binary. “It is this situation that the right wing ecosystem and politicians like Ahmed are exploiting to keep the pot boiling,” said senior advocate and former AIUDF leader HRA Choudhury. “His political strategy will help BJP in further polarisation.”
Congress MLA Abdur Rashid Mandal backs Choudhury. “Sherman should not have said such things, which create more division in an already polarised society,” he argued. “This atmosphere is desired by the RSS to propagate their divisive agenda. In such a situation, Miyas will end up suffering more as they are a targeted group. An aggressive stand will not help the community, but, on the other hand, will create more division, thus helping the BJP and RSS.”