The recent controversy has stroked a debate around the identity of people living in the sandbars and islands along the rivers in Assam

Guwahati: Top Assam Cabinet Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma threatened to jail Congress MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed for his alleged “insulting remarks” on Saturday as war of words continued over a proposed museum showcasing the culture of the “chars and chaporis”.

With Assembly elections round the corner, Ali’s demand seems to have given the BJP an opportunity to target the opposition.

“Chars and chaporis” refer to the sandbars on the mighty Brahmaputra river. They are inhabited mostly by Bengal-origin Muslims, disparagingly referred to as “Miyas”, often viewed with suspicion as Bangladeshis. Several other communities, including Mising, Muttock and Kaibartas also live along the rivers of Assam.

“Sherman Ali Ahmed will be sent to jail after the elections. He will be sent to jail for saying lungis should be kept at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra,” Sarma said addressing the media in Guwahati on Saturday.

“His place will be in jail. This is not acceptable. I don’t know why the intellectuals are silent on this issue,” Sarma said clarifying that he is not against the Muslim community.

The controversy started with Ahmed’s letter to the Director of Museums, Assam on October 18 made public by Sarma on Twitter.

“Since the majority of the population of these areas is from the so-called Miya community, therefore it should be named as Miya museum,” Ahmed demanded.

“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 sahab,” Sarma wrote on Twitter attaching a copy of the letter.

Sankardeva Kalakshetra, established to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of the people of Assam, was inaugurated in 1998.

It is named after a 15th-16th century Vaishnavite saint-reformer Srimanta Sankardeva.

It was set up under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which assures constitutional, legislative, and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.

The Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra is a centre exhibiting the cultural heritage of the state

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The Cultural Complex was conceived by the Cultural Advisory Committee of the Government of Assam in 1986. It was decided to set up a complex to serve as a centre of activities in the field of dance, drama, music, fine-arts, literature, etc. with a view of preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the people of Assam.

Almost every ethnic community of Assam has received recognition at the complex through various artefacts and scriptures depicting their culture and heritage.

Meanwhile, as controversy raged on, opposition politicians referred to the recommendation of the Department Related Standing Committee (DRSC) which had suggested the setting up of the museum in the first place. Ali had quoted the proposal in his letter.

Ajit Bhuyan, an independent Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from the state, pointed out that such a proposal was already placed by the 16-member DSRC panel, which included six MLAs of the BJP.

Bhuyan posted a series of tweets mentioning the details of the committee which recommended setting up of the museum. He alleged how the ruling BJP government in the state is playing politics over the issue.

“The Char-Chapori museum was recommended by the Departmentally Related Standing Committee (DRSC) whose majority members are from the BJP and its ruling coalition. Now, after passing a recommendation with support from majority members, BJP is politicising the whole issue to garner political mileage. What a shame!” Bhuyan tweeted.

The DSRC committee was headed by Utpal Dutta, MLA from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the main ally of the BJP-led state government. Apart from the six MLAs from BJP, the DSRC had two MLAs from the AGP, two from BPF, three MLAs from the Congress, and two from the AIUDF.

Sarma, when asked about the recommendations of the Committee, made it clear that it won’t be implemented.

“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’,” Sarma said on Monday according to the Indian Express newspaper.

The chief of the state unit of BJP also said no to any such museum.

“Why a ‘char-chapori’ museum should be established at the Kalakshetra? No community barring the minorities live on the ‘chars’, and all of us know where most of them are from,” said the state BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Das while talking to journalists.

Das also defended the BJP legislators who are the members of DRSC that had recommended the ‘char-chapori’ museum in its report to the Assembly on March 24.

“Only five of the MLAs were present at the DRSC meeting, which anyway can only make recommendations that are not binding on the government,” Das clarified.

He further pointed out that DRSC haven’t mentioned anything about a “Miya Museum” that Ahmed referred to in his posts and interviews.

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“The Congress MLA used the term because his party wants to create a controversy,” Das said.

The BJP cadres took the issue to the streets.

At Nalbari, the Bharatiya Janata Yuba Morcha (BJYM) burnt Ahmed’s effigy. A protestor was heard claiming how the Land of Sattras was encroached upon during the Congress rule, and now the Congress MLA wants to set up the Miya Museum at Sankardeva Kalakshetra. The protestor added that the MLA Ahmed should apologize immediately.

BJP leader Pabitra Margherita stated that the museum should be established at Rajiv Bhawan and AIUDF offices. He went on to warn both the parties to stay away from places associated with Srimanta Sankardeva.

Caught off-guard on the sensitive issue, the Congress has tried to distance itself from Ahmed’s statements.

“Our party is not for the Miya museum. There is no recognition of a Miya community. There has neither been any official proposal for a “Miya” museum. Why has the term been used repeatedly? And “char-chapori” does not equate to “Miyas”. This entire issue has been politicized,” said Debarata Saikia, Congress MLA and leader of opposition in the Assam Assembly.

Almost every ethnic community of Assam has received recognition at the complex through various artifacts and scriptures

Saikia claimed the entire row is a gimmick to divert the attention from the real issues that the Indian people are currently facing.

“Our GDP is falling; at this point of time such talks are irrelevant, we should work for development. Such demands rise quite often, but our party does not indulge in such matters. We only expect the ruling government to fulfil the promises they made during elections,” Saikia said.

Congress leadership also issued a formal warning and gag order to MLA Ahmed, directing him not to make any controversial statements.

Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC) president, Ripun Bora wrote a letter to Ahmed on the issue.

“The recent controversy on your statement in different forums of media on the issue of a museum for Miya culture at Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra has given scope to BJP for polarization by doing disinformation campaigns and mass propaganda,” Bora wrote in the letter.

Bora reprimanded Ahmed for referring to it as the “Miya” Museum.

“Your letter dated October 18, 2020 to the Director of Museums, Government of Assam, to follow up the recommendation of DRSC on Education 2020-2021 in its 47th Report on Art and Culture (Grant No. 27) to expedite the museum reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in Char-Chaporis of Assam in Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra was in perfect order, and you have done your duty as an MLA. But the recent controversy arose due to your reaction and statement made in the media for a Miya Museum which was out of the content of your above letter,” Bora said in the letter.

Bora reminded Ahmed in a telephonic conversation on October 26; he urged the legislator to abstain from speaking any further on the matter.

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“But despite that you have been repeatedly hammering the same matter which has given BJP and RSS a serious controversy by dragging the name of our Congress party. Your statement at this critical juncture on the eve of the upcoming Assembly Election is totally unwanted. Therefore, you are hereby restrained not to make any further controversial statement from now onwards,” Bora wrote.

Congress leadership recognizes how a polarized election could hurt its interests. The BJP has been attacking the Congress on the possibility of contesting elections in alliance with the AIUDF, the party headed by Badruddin Ajmal. It is perceived to represent interests of the Bengal origin Muslims in Assam, and it enjoys little support among the other communities of the state.

But members of the Bengal origin Muslim community demand that their culture also get some representation.

Hafiz Ahmed, who heads the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad said that there should be some artefacts recognizing their heritage and culture placed at the Sankardeva Kalakshetra in Guwahati.

“It has been said that people living in char-chaporis have no culture at all. Seventy lakh people who are living in similar conditions definitely have built a shared culture. There are more than 50 books on char-chapori. So it is wrong to say that we don’t have a culture of our own,” said Hafiz Ahmed while speaking to EastMojo.

Nilay Dutta, a senior advocate at the Gauhati High Court pointed out that this row over the museum would hurt the political ambitions of the Congress in the upcoming assembly elections of the state in 2021.

“What APCC should have realized is why did Sherman Ali bring out the issue at this sensitive stage and who gained and will continue to gain till March 2021. Is this the beginning of the end of the Mahagotbandhan?”

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Ismail Hussain, a literary expert who has been working on the issue of “char-chapori”, states that the demand for a “Miya” museum is not acceptable to the people living in the sand bars neither to the rest of Assam.

“Char chaporis can get a museum for reflecting their culture and heritage but not in the name of Miyas. Be it in Kalakshetra or any other place, a museum can only be for the people of char-chaporis and no other identity is acceptable,” said Hussain.

“Sherman Ali has played politics over the issue. The recommendations of the DRSC should be followed, and I believe everyone will accept it. There are not only Muslims living in those lands, but there are also people belonging to various communities such as Mising, Deuri and Kaibarta who are living there” Hussain added.

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