The Miyas of Assam, and their char-chapori culture

A proposal for a museum reflecting char-chapori culture has triggered a controversy. Who are the Miyas, what are the char-chaporis, and what is controversial about the proposal?

Months ahead of the Assembly elections, a proposed “Miya museum” reflecting the “culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” has stirred up a controversy in Assam.

What is the controversy?

Last month, Assam BJP minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted out a letter from Congress MLA Sherman Ali that requested the government to expedite the process of constructing a museum “reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” in Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra.

Char-chaporis are shifting riverine islands of the Brahmaputra and are primarily inhabited by the Muslims of Bengali-origin (pejoratively referred to as ‘Miyas’).

Sarma tweeted: “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.”

In response, the Opposition has accused the BJP of trying to polarise the state before 2021 elections.

Incidentally, the museum was recommended in March by a legislative panel — Departmentally Related Standing Committee (DRSC) on Education — comprising BJP and its allies. Asked about this, Sarma told reporters: “Whatever committee, whosoever’s committee has given whatever report… that report will just remain in their files in their cupboards only. The Assam government is clear that in the Kalakshetra there will not be any ‘Miya museum’.”

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 demographic composition of the region. Years of discontent among the indigenous people led to the six-year-long (1979-85) anti-foreigner Assam Agitation to weed out the “illegal immigrant”, who was perceived as trying to take over jobs, language and culture of the indigenous population.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in November 2020. Full article here.