Do Bengali-Origin ‘Miya’ Muslims of Assam ‘Deserve’ a Museum?

We hope this question leads to understanding, and a serious probe into the lives of a highly deprived community.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed (in photo) caused a stir by proposing a ‘Miya museum’, for the Bengali-origin Muslims of Char-Charporis, Assam. Map of Brahmaputra river valley used for representational purposes.
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In March 2020, Sherman Ali Ahmed, sitting MLA of the Baghbar LAC of Assam, and member of the Department Related Standing Committee (DRSC), proposed the setting up of a ‘museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in Char-Chaporis’ (riverine island and river banks) of Assam, on the premises of Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati, Assam.

The proposal was recommended by the DRSC. So far, so good. On 18 October 2020, Ahmed held a discussion with the director of museums, Assam, and on 19 October he posted the photograph of his letter seeking the director’s intervention to ‘kindly expedite the process of establishment of the same’ on his Facebook page. An extract of the text following the photograph read:

“In a discussion on the 2020-21 education budget, I, as a member of the Department-Related Standing Committee, proposed the establishment of a museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in the Char-Chaporis of Assam (Miya museum) on the premises of the Guwahati-based Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra. The proposal was passed.” (translation mine)

Debate & Discussion On Proposed ‘Miya Museum’

This statement received immediate attention, first on the social media site, and then on other media platforms. Some of the responders agreed that a museum showcasing the artefacts of riverine communities in Assam was welcome, but were opposed to the use of the term ‘Miya’ as an umbrella term to define the communities.

Politicians from across the spectrum were quick to reject Ahmed’s proposal – even the Congress party which Ahmed represents. In subsequent interviews, Ahmed clarified his stand by saying that by ‘Miya’ he meant the ‘Bengali-origin Muslim residents of the char-chaporis’ and not all the other communities residing in the riverine areas of Assam. He also said that ‘Miya museum’ was just a proposed name (this phrase was not used in Ahmed’s initial proposal, nor in his letter to the director of museums) and that the expert committee was at liberty to accept or reject the name.

This led to more debates and discussions which culminated in two questions:

  1. First, was ‘Miya’ a suitable term for the Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam
  2. Second, did the so-called Miyas have enough tangible/non-tangible artefacts to justify the establishment of a separate museum

Both these questions should be taken positively.

What ‘Miya’ Really Means – And Irony Of The ‘Oppressors’ Taking Offence

In Assam, the word ‘Miya’ is used pejoratively against Bengali-origin Muslims, the community I belong to. Members of this community were brought to Assam by the British administration in the 19th century to boost rice cultivation in the state, just as Adivasi workers were brought to work on the tea gardens. They were initially settled on the low-lying char-chaporis, thus earning the name ‘char-chapori Musalman’.

Over the decades they were addressed by other terms based on their occupation and geographical location, but the verbal slur used against them was ‘Miya’. The community is further sub-divided by ancestral occupation and place of origin in undivided India, but the overarching slur ‘Miya’ epitomises the community like no other term.

In recent times there has been a conscious attempt within the community to reclaim the word and use it in its original meaning – ‘sir’, or ‘gentleman’.

The irony of the situation, especially in the case of the proposed Miya museum, is that the word seems to hurt people who might have used it as a cuss-word, rather than the community for whom it was used.

Attempts to reclaim the word can be traced back to the 1980s at least, and I have observed the unconscious use of the word as a denotative term within my community.

‘We Are Miya, We Are Asomiya’

Questions have been raised on various media platforms about the eventual solidification of the ‘Miya identity’ and its movement away from the ‘Greater Assamese’ identity. I think this is an overstatement. The Bengali-origin Muslim/ Miya community has, since its arrival in present-day Assam, maintained a strong allegiance towards Assamese language and culture. They have recorded their language as Assamese in all government records since the First Census of Independent India.

A few days after the Facebook post created controversy, Sherman Ali Ahmed held a meeting in his constituency where he raised the slogan, ‘We are Miya. We are Asomiya. We belong to the Miya community within the Asomiya jati. We are proud to proclaim ourselves Miya’.

This is in line with his earlier statements in the media, and reflects the view of a section within the community which sees no contradiction in being Miya and Asomiya (Assamese) at the same time.

‘What Do The Miyas Have That Can Be Showcased?’

The question: ‘What do the Miyas have that can be exhibited in a museum?’ is symbolic of the distance between the mainstream Assamese and the Miya community. The Char-Chaporis are distant both geographically and mentally. The Chars are the Assamese outback – low-lying underdeveloped villages located on shifting sand banks and unstable riverbanks. They have never been in the limelight other than in discussions on citizenship and ‘backwardness’, where they are sadly depicted as hubs of illegal migration, poverty, illiteracy and other social evils.

This overwhelming narrative completely erases the distinct culture – food habits, dress, bamboo and terracotta work, weaving, agricultural practices, music, dances, rituals and festivals of the Miyas.

We can only hope that this question leads to curiosity and a serious investigation of the lives of one of the most deprived communities of the country. We can only hope that this curiosity will lead to knowledge, and the knowledge will lead to understanding, at which point the mainstream Assamese community can ask itself if the word ‘Miya’ and the proposed Miya museum are necessary or not.

(Shalim M Hussain is a writer, translator and researcher based in Delhi and Assam. He can be reached at shalimmhussain@gmail.com and @ShalimHussain on twitter. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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