The latest flashpoint in Assam’s cultural and ethnic battles is a proposed museum. Earlier this month, Sherman Ali Ahmed, a Congress legislator from Lower Assam’s Baghbar constituency, wrote to the state’s director of museums, requesting him to speed up the construction of a museum “reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” within the premises of the Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra in Guwahati.

The chars and chaporis are the shifting sand bars of the Brahmaputra river. These densely populated riverine islands are largely home to Muslims of Bengali origin, although other communities also inhabit them.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, minister in the state cabinet and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s point-man in the North East, went public with the letter. In a tweet on October 24, Sarma wrote: “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.”

A museum in a cultural complex

The Kalakshetra, named after the neo-Vaishnavite reformer Srimanta Sankardev, is a cultural complex in Guwahati, aimed at “preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the people of Assam”. The complex was set up under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, an agreement that Assamese nationalist groups signed with the Union government in 1985. It was the culmination of the six-year-long anti-foreigners agitation in Assam, largely directed against so-called illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Assamese nationalist groups argued this alleged large-scale migration threatened to obliterate local communities and cultures.

The chars and chaporis have often been vilified as providing sanctuaries to these alleged undocumented migrants, often pejoratively referred to as “Miyas”.

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord promised “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.

The construction of a museum reflecting the culture of char dwellers, as Ali Ahmed noted in his letter, was recommended by a committee of legislators in a report submitted to the state assembly in March. The committee was headed by a legislator of the Asom Gana Parishad, the party that grew out of the anti-foreigners movement and is now a coalition partner in the BJP-led state government. Several BJP legislators were also part of the committee.

Yet, Sarma has doubled down on his stance. On October 25, Sarma reiterated that the Assam government would not allow the setting up of a “Miya Museum” under any condition.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal also told journalists that the Kalakshtera epitomised the ideals of Sankardev and the government would make sure that continued to be the case.

Gateway to the Kalakshetra complex. Credit: Bishnu Saikia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Electoral matters

Opposition leaders have attacked Sarma and BJP for “politicising the whole issue to garner political mileage” and “distorting history for the sake of power”.

Assam goes to polls early next year and the BJP is battling discontent among a section of Assamese voters for amending India’s citizenship laws to make undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship.

Communities considered indigenous to the state believe the Citizneship (Amendment) Act will open the floodgates for more migration from Bangladesh and legalise existing undocumented Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.

Assamese nationalist politics demands that all undocumented migrants, whether Hindu or Muslim, be expelled from the state. The BJP, for its part, has tried impressing upon the aggrieved Assamese that the threat to the state’s “indigenous” lands and cultures comes not from Hindu “refugees” but Muslim “infiltrators”.

So far, the argument has failed to convince critics of the citizenship law in Assam.

Of Assamese culture

Yet, many of Sarma’s recent critics, including sections of the Assamese media, seem to be backing him on the subject of the museum. “Here, the community has basically raised the question of recognising them as a distinct ethnic group from Assam through this museum,” said Ankur Tamuli Phukan, a cultural historian from the state. “But the mainstream Assamese are reluctant to do so because the idea of the Assamese nation is that the Bengali Muslims in the Brahmaputra Valley should assimilate as Assamese and not have any cultural agenda of their own.”

Indeed, attempts by the community to claim a cultural space of their own have not gone down well with the native Assamese population in the past too. A controversy broke out in 2019 when public intellectuals in Assam took umbrage to Muslims of Bengali origin writing poetry in their native dialect – they called it “Miya poetry”, in a bid to reclaim the much-maligned word – as opposed to the standardised written Assamese.

‘Miya separatism’

Hiren Gohain, one of the state’s most well-known public intellectuals, had also questioned the idea of Miya poetry at the time. He argued that the community’s decision to not use standardised Assamese, a language their ancestors had adopted and declared as their own in official censuses over the years, could shatter the fragile peace that existed between so-called indigenous and the immigrant populations in the state.

As for a museum, Gohain told that he had “no objection, in principle, to the cultural heritage of the dwellers of chars and chaporis”. “A very large number of people live in the milieu of their culture, as do many other ethnic groups,” he said. “So along with other ethnic groups they also deserve a place in the museum.”

But what purpose, Gohain asked, would such a museum serve? “Is it to foster understanding and fraternity, or to promote Miya separatism, which has vocal supporters?” he said, expressing the same concerns as he did during the Miya poetry movement.

The timing of the proposal, Gohain said, made him “suspect some election politics”. “And I am wary of it,” he said.

‘Just like other ethnic communities’

Representatives of Muslims of Bengali origin insist that concerns about “Miya separatism” were unfounded. Hafiz Ahmed, who heads the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, the largest literary body representing the community, reasoned, “They say that if we have assimilated and become Assamese, why should we have our own culture? But just like the other ethnic communities from the state, we have our own cultural motifs and symbols. We deserve a museum like the others.”

Almost all ethnic communities of the state have a gallery in the Kalakshtra dedicated to their culture and history.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah said that the story of migration and assimilation of Assam’s Muslims of Bengali origin spoke “extremely well of the integrative capacity of Assamese culture”. “As a visitor to the Kalakshetra, I see the cultural complex as celebrating that integrative capacity,” he said. “Such an institution must find ways to incorporate newer layers of our culture.”