Assam polls: Conflict of cultures likely to be BJP's political discourse

According to BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, Muslims want to impose “Miya culture” on Assam
“Ali, Coolie, Bengali” was a phrase which for decades signified Assam’s brassbound demographic divisions, until the exigencies of statecraft forced political parties to blur the ethnolinguistic lines and diversify their support. “Ali” was a moniker for the Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh; “Coolie” alluded to tea-plantation workers who were largely Adivasis brought from central and east India; “Bengali” primarily meant Bengali Hindus who were settled for long in the state but regarded askance by the Assamese people because of their alleged “insularity”.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s emergence as a key player virtually dissolved the Assamese-Bengali divide electorally, but the party never assimilated Muslims in its bounds. Its age-old classifications of the Bangladeshi immigrants — it defined Muslims as infiltrators and Hindus as refugees — helped speed the absorption of the latter in its body politic. The BJP assiduously nurtured tea-garden migrants and the recent incomers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as well as different tribes, but Muslims never figured in its larger scheme. “There’s no point in seeking out Muslims because they will never vote the BJP,” said an Assam party insider.

The communal fault lines were accentuated with the amendment of the Citizenship Act that was intended to legitimise the rights of Hindu emigrants and deprive and possibly deport Muslim incomers and the swiftness with which the National Register of Citizens (NRC) sought to identify and list “infiltrators”. The pandemic put the NRC drive on hold, but as the Assembly polls loomed (five months away), the fears resurfaced: Of deportation among Muslims, and among the Assamese the uneasy prospect of Hindus coming in droves from Bangladesh and claiming citizenship. “It’s up to the Supreme Court to facilitate things, but the apprehensions of a fresh influx of Bangladeshi Hindus are untrue. It is mischievous propaganda started by the Congress,” said Rupam Goswami, the BJP’s chief spokesperson.

The BJP realised mid-way that the citizenship package was a double-edged sword that might alienate the Assamese Hindus and tribes. It practically abandoned it as a poll plank: The goal line has moved to another spook, the “Miya culture”, conceptualised and elucidated by Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s finance minister and convenor of the North East Democratic Alliance. 

A confidant of Amit Shah, Union home minister, Sarma told Business Standard: “It started when a section of Muslims first declared they will speak in a unique language called Miya, then demanded Miya schools, and a Miya museum. If these Muslims attempt to impose Miya culture, we must protect the composite Assamese culture. It’s a conflict between two cultures.”  

The “Miya” phenomenon was rooted in two developments. The word that means a gentleman is used derisively in Assam to denote all Muslims. In 2016, when rumours first started over the tweaking of the citizenship law, Hafiz Ahmed, a social activist of Assam, wrote a poem that went viral. It said: “Write. Write down I am a Miya, A Citizen of Democratic Secular Republic without any Rights.” The poem birthed a genre of protest poetry which proliferated when the law was amended. 

In October this year, Sherman Ali, Congress legislator from Baghbar, proposed the government set up a Miya museum in Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, an aesthetic complex, to reflect the “culture and traditions” of the “char-chapori” — that are shifting riverine villages on the Brahmaputra inhabited by Bengali Muslims. “This is an affront to Axomiya culture,” alleged Phanindra Nath Sarma, Assam BJP general secretary, and rejected the idea of Sankardeva, the 15th-16th century polymath, saint and social reformer co-existing with “an alien” civilising stream. 

Would the debate over culture resonate with the people? Goswami stated: “In Assam, people prefer culture over religion. If someone wants to attack Sankardeva, the masses will not take it.” Himanta Sarma was more expansive.: “In Assam, the practice for 500 year — started by Sankardeva — is that you assimilate into a broader Assamese culture and we will pick up your positive elements. But here is a community which has distorted Assamese language and created a language called Miya. This is aggression.” 

The point at which “culture” conflated with religion and fell into a larger and potentially divisive political theme was when the Assam government shut down state-run madrasas, ostensibly to square off competition for non-Muslim students. In 1955, the state government started the “higher education madrasa” schools that allowed their students to study the general subjects, as well as the Quran. The BJP charged that the “high” marks scored in religion enabled madrasa students to get ahead of their peers in the other schools. The government also closed down Sanskrit schools. 

As the BJP sought to regroup Assamese Hindus, insiders conceded it would have to balance the interests of the other social groupings that voted it in 2016.

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