With polls close by, politics heats up over a proposed museum in Assam
Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the government will not allow such a museum dedicated to a particularly community to be set up Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra that could “distort” Assamese culture.Updated: Oct 26, 2020, 15:51 IST
With assembly polls in the state just few months away, ruling and opposition parties in Assam have started targeting each other over setting up a museum dedicated to the people, predominantly Muslims, living in sandbars and small river islands.
The issue came to public notice last week following a letter written by Sherman Ali Ahmed, an opposition Congress MLA, to the director of museums in the state seeking setting up of a museum “reflecting the culture and heritage of the people living in ‘char-chaporis’” (sandbars and small river islands).
In Assam, these sandbars and islands, which spread across the state, cover about 3.6 lakh hectares and are home to around 24.90 lakh people (according to the directorate of char areas development) mainly comprising those who migrated from erstwhile East Bengal and present day Bangladesh over many decades.
“I would therefore like to request you kindly to expedite the process of establishment of the same,” Ahmed wrote seeking setting up of the museum in Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra, a cultural complex set up by the government in Guwahati,
Ahmed’s letter went viral on social media with many questioning how a “Miya museum” can be set up in the state with government funding. Miya is a term used for Bengali speaking Muslims from Bangladesh who started settling in Assam from British days onwards.
The term is also used to denote illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, which has recently upped the attack on ‘Mughals’, an indirect reference to the Muslim migrants, in view of the coming assembly polls, soon got involved in the issue.
“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’,” Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted on Saturday attaching a copy of Ahmed’s letter.
On Monday, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal told journalists that Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra has been set up with ideals of the Srimanta Sankardeva (a 15th-16th century saint-scholar) and the state government would ensure that they are upheld.
The BJP, which came to power in Assam for the first time in 2016, with a staunch anti-immigrant stance, is facing flak from some sections for backing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The legislation seeks to grant citizenship to religious minorities from three neighbouring countries including Bangladesh - a move many indigenous groups in Assam oppose vehemently.
“Sorry Himanta Biswa Sarma Sir. Ancestors of these people (residents of ‘char-chaporis’) migrated from erstwhile Bengal, which was integral part of undivided India. Kindly don’t distort history more just (for) sake of getting power,” Congress Lok Sabha MP from Assam Abdul Khaleque tweeted.
The matter took a turn on Sunday when journalist-turned-politician Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, who entered Rajya Sabha earlier this year with support from opposition Congress and All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), posted a series of tweets on the issue.
“The char-chapori museum was recommended by DRSC (departmentally related standing committee-on education) whose majority members are from BJP and its ruling coalition. Now, after passing a recommendation with support from majority members, BJP is politicizing the whole issue to garner political mileage. What a shame,” Bhuyan, who floated a political party in June, called Anchalik Gana Morcha, tweeted on Sunday.
Though Ahmed’s letter had mentioned about the DRSC’s recommendations, it was only after Bhuyan’s tweet it became clear that the 15-member committee, which presented its recommendations to the Assam assembly in March this year, was chaired by a ruling Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) MLA and had 6 members from BJP, 2 from AGP and two from Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), another partner of the ruling coalition.
Congress’s Ahmed, who wrote the letter to the director of the museums, was also a member of the committee.
Incidentally, besides setting up a char-chapori museum, the committee had also recommended that there will be a separate museum on the Gorha community of Assam at Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakshetra.
Assam goes to polls in March-April next year.