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Faith or ethnicity? Jury still out

Till ’80s, it was ‘Bodos vs Miyas’; now Muslims and ‘miyas’ are used interchangeably.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2012 22:57 IST
Zia Haq

“Na-na, position kharab. Musalman-Bodor gondogol (no way... things are bad. Muslims and Bodos have fallen out), Abhijit Ghosh, proprietor of a run-down hotel here said, warning this correspondent that his place wouldn’t be open for dinner.

Is this a communal riot — a simplistic term for Hindu-Muslim clashes — as perfume baron and Assam MP Badruddin Ajmal has portrayed? Or is it an ethnic clash, rooted in tribal identity, as arch-rival and chief minister Tarun Gogoi has maintained?

The hotelier’s choice of words offers a clue.

The language commonly used to describe a vicious old war —between natives and settlers — has indeed changed, at least in the Bodo heartland. Almost 80 have been killed so far and 400,000 displaced.

Migrants were almost always pejoratively referred to as “miyas” or “Mymensingiyas” by locals to distinguish them from native Muslims, who are well accepted. The migrants mostly came from Mymensingh district of Bangladesh.

Till the early-’80s, it would always be “Bodos vs the miyas” or “Assamese vs the miyas”. Now, it is “Bodos vs Muslims” and “Muslim” and “miya”

are now being used interchangeably.

Assamese anti-immigrant leader Samujjal Bhattacharya blames Ajmal’s “polarising politics” for this tragic mix-up.

Such confusion has only delayed peace and sharpened prejudices. “Now, even I’m called a miya... it’s so disgusting,” said Saidur Rahman, a clerk at Chapor primary health centre here and a native Muslim.

What does Khudeja Khatoon — a migrant Muslim who fled an unsparing Bodo assault —think? “They think we are Bangladeshis who want to convert Bodoland into a Muslim land,” Khatoon said about those who shot her husband and brother-in-law.

Sociologists said the seeds of discord remain ethnic but some blurring of lines has surely happened. “This mix-up is part of a general shift to put all Muslims in one box from where it is difficult to come out,” Sanjay Barbora, associate professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus, said.

And this muddle is only complicating matters.