In July 2019, while working as the Northeast correspondent for The Indian Express, I broke a story that a police case was filed in Assam against ten poets—most of them Muslims of Bengali descent—over poems written in their own dialect that allegedly depicted the Assamese as ‘xenophobic’.
Based on a late night tip-off and police confirmation, the brief report led to a deluge of follow-up stories, op-ed articles, and social media angst against the criminalisation of poems and poets.
Muslims of Bengali origin in Assam are often derogatorily called ‘Miya’, a term that sections of the community have appropriated and used for cultural assertion.
Assam’s Crackdown on Ethnic Communities Is a Story That Repeats Itself
One of the accused ‘Miya’ poets I interviewed then had asked me how writing poetry about the plight of one’s own community could be deemed unlawful. Today, considering the recent controversy in Assam surrounding a so-called ‘Miya Museum’, I find myself struggling with similar thoughts—how criminal can it be if someone chooses to display a few items of everyday use and call it a museum of his community?
However, in Assam, where claims of identity and belonging are routinely contested, any such otherwise innocuous artistic or cultural activities can assume immense socio-political value, build narratives, and even lead to state action.
The now sealed ‘museum’ was essentially a skeletal display of a few items including a lungi (a colourful wraparound used as a lower garment that is commonly worn by Bengali Muslim men in Assam), a langol or plough, and fishing equipment in a nondescript house in Goalpara district. The house, built under the PMAY-G scheme, belonged to Mohar Ali, the president of a hitherto lesser-known organisation called the Assam Miya Parishad. Ali, who set up the display, claimed it was nothing but an attempt towards further assimilation of the community into the broader Assamese society.
After the inauguration of the private display in Goalpara, things escalated rather quickly. Within days, the house was sealed, and Ali and two of his associates were arrested and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, UAPA for conspiring to wage war against the state.
Police have said the trio will be interrogated for their alleged links to Islamic terror outfits Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
As further investigations and due process of law are awaited, one cannot help but notice the critical political context of the development, which comes on the heels of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) constant vilification of the Bengali-origin Muslim community in the state, calling it a threat to indigenous identity and culture.
Indigenous vs Bengali Muslims: BJP’s Communal Ploy In Northeast
Muslims constitute around 34% of Assam’s over three crore population and the Bengal-origin Muslim community is said to be the largest subgroup. In Assam, which has seen waves of migration from what is now Bangladesh at different points in time, both Hindu and Muslim Bengali migrants and migrant-origin residents have historically been in the crosshairs of ethno-nationalist politics as well as citizenship determination exercises.
But today, with the rise of the BJP, the specific rhetorical targeting of Bengali Muslims has increased manifold. And this political otherisation continues despite the Bengali-origin Muslim community allying with the Assamese mainstream by adhering to the majority’s linguistic and cultural practices for decades now.
On the other hand, the state’s Hindu Bengali community largely supports the BJP and hopes to benefit from the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Parallelly, the BJP also makes a categorical, socio-cultural distinction between the Bengali-origin Muslims and the ‘indigenous’ Assamese Muslims.
Earlier this year, the BJP-led Assam government officially granted ‘indigenous’ status to five Muslim communities – comprising around 40 lakh people – to further distinguish them from Bengali-origin Muslims.
Can ‘Miya’ Identity, Poetry, Cultural Preserves Pose Threats?
For those who have followed recent Assam politics, the issue was a rerun of the 2020 controversy when the Congress MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed was lambasted by the BJP for demanding a ‘Miya Museum’ within the premises of Srimanata Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a cultural institution in Guwahati.
In the run-up to the 2021 state elections that the BJP swept, the party has relentlessly attacked the ‘Miya’ Muslims and their attempts at cultural assertations like writing poetry. The BJP associates its anti-Miya stand with protecting Assam’s indigenous culture, language and heritage.
The Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, arguably the BJP’s most influential leader in the Northeast, has called the Goalpara museum a ‘threat’ to the Assamese identity and challenged how could the founders claim farming equipment like a plough as their own when people belonging to several other communities use it.
Moreover, Sarma said that if the museum founders cannot explain to the government that the objects on display are part of a separate, distinct culture, then the state would act against them. Sarma has discounted any claims of a distinct ‘Miya’ identity, reflecting a stark contrast with views that the museum was an attempt to preserve the culture and heritage of the ‘Miya’ Muslims.
His comments beg larger questions—for instance, how far can the state intervene in people’s attempts to preserve their culture in the way they see it? Even if a plough is used by scores of communities, can it be an offence to showcase it as a part of the lived experiences of one of the communities that use it? How far can the state and its arms question people’s understanding of their memories and historical experiences?
Assam Needs To Review Its UAPA Law
The intellectual difference over cultural representations is one thing but the looming threat of criminal charges for writing poetry or showcasing a museum is another. The three persons arrested for establishing the museum have been swiftly booked under the stringent UAPA by the Assam police.
Since April, Assam police have cracked down on individuals allegedly linked to Bangladesh-based extremist outfits like the ABT, arresting over 40 individuals including a Bangladeshi national but it’s not clear yet as to how the three men involved with starting the museum are linked to them or how an act of cultural assertation could attract such harsh charges.
The law will take its own course but a note of caution might be beneficial here – First, in India’s criminal justice system, the process itself often becomes the punishment, as the former CJI NV Ramana has noted; and second, laws like the UAPA have been extensively criticised by both legal experts and civil society activists for being grossly misused.
For Sarma and his government, the establishment of the museum is a problematic attempt at cultural appropriation by the ‘Miya’ community with a possibility of terrorist linkages, on the other hand. For the community in question, the museum is a display of artefacts representing their culture within the ambit of the broader Assamese culture.
The cultural assertion by a linguistic and religious minority community has turned into a device through which a majoritarian political view is forwarded by channelling fears of socio-cultural inundation by migrant-origin communities. This tussle keeps the political pot boiling in a state rife with identity politics.
(Abhishek Saha is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. He is the author of No Land’s People: The Untold Story of Assam’s NRC Crisis (HarperCollins, 2021). He tweets at @saha_abhi1990. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)