Miyas of Assam and their Char-Chapori culture
Recently, a proposed “Miya museum” reflecting the “culture and heritage of the people living in char-chaporis” has stirred up a controversy in Assam.
• 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.
• A char is a floating island while chaporis are low-lying flood-prone riverbanks. They are used interchangeably or with a hyphen. They keep changing shapes — a char can become a chapori, or vice versa, depending on the push and pull of the Brahmaputra.
• While Bengali-origin Muslims primarily occupy these islands, other communities such as Misings, Deoris, Kocharis, Nepalis also live here. In popular imagination, however, chars have become synonymous to the Bengali-speaking Muslims of dubious nationality.
• The community’s cultural motifs and heritage are related to agriculture and the river. The community has a variety of songs (bhatiali related to the river, magangeet or harvest songs, noikhelorgeet or boat songs etc), instruments and equipment to catch fish, as well as different kinds of boats.
• They have an ancient performative martial art called the Lathibari. While the norm is to traditionally wear colourful clothes, their version has a white vest and dhoti, an Assamese gamosa on heads and waists.
• While identifying themselves as Assamese, the ‘Miya’ community feels that like other ethnic groups, they too should celebrate their own culture and heritage within the larger Assamese fold.
Socio Economic Status of the Miya Community
The website of the Directorate of Char Areas Development puts the population of chars at 24.90 lakh as per a socio-economic survey in 2002-03.
Prone to floods and erosion, these areas are marked by low development indices. According to Government data, 80% of the Char population lives below poverty line.
A UNDP Assam Human Development report from 2014 describes the char areas as suffering from “communication deficits, lack of adequate schooling facilities beyond primary, girl child marriage, poverty and illiteracy”.