Follow us on

|

Photo Essay

Living on the edge: Assam's Mising tribe

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
Fishing nets  put out to dry. The Misings are expert fishers.

Fishing nets put out to dry. The Misings are expert fishers.

Catching fish in a waterhole in Dhemaji district.

Catching fish in a waterhole in Dhemaji district.

A Mising woman tends to silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves, in Dhemaji district.

A Mising woman tends to silkworms feeding on mulberry leaves, in Dhemaji district.

The Misings have   a rich tradition of weaving. Seen here, preparing yarn for the loom, in Bokakhat district. Living in flood-prone areas of Assam with no other sustenance options, the Mising women have upgraded their traditional weaving skills and adapted to the needs of the market.

The Misings have a rich tradition of weaving. Seen here, preparing yarn for the loom, in Bokakhat district. Living in flood-prone areas of Assam with no other sustenance options, the Mising women have upgraded their traditional weaving skills and adapted to the needs of the market.

A WOMAN   sifts crushed rice to prepare Apong, the traditional elixir of the Mising.

A WOMAN sifts crushed rice to prepare Apong, the traditional elixir of the Mising.

 dried chillies  are smoked in a traditional Mising kitchen.

dried chillies are smoked in a traditional Mising kitchen.

Pounding paddy  in a ‘kipar’, or wooden grinder.

Pounding paddy in a ‘kipar’, or wooden grinder.

Displaced Mising villagers  construct a house with strips of bamboo on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Majuli district.

Displaced Mising villagers construct a house with strips of bamboo on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Majuli district.

  A villager  in Bokakhat district indicates the level to which floodwaters rose in 2021. The Mising live in houses built on stilts, to cope with frequent floods.

A villager in Bokakhat district indicates the level to which floodwaters rose in 2021. The Mising live in houses built on stilts, to cope with frequent floods.

T he catch of the day.  A Mising fisherman shows off an Ari, or long-whiskered catfish.

T he catch of the day. A Mising fisherman shows off an Ari, or long-whiskered catfish.

They are river people, whose lives ebb and flow with the waters of the Brahmaputra in a timeless rhythm. But now, hydroelectric projects and homogenising exercises raise uneasy questions in the Mising tribe about notions of ‘belonging’.
Assam is considered the gateway to the north-eastern region. It is also the State that has been among the worst impacted by climate change, with flash floods and erosion wreaking havoc even as it bears the brunt of the Brahmaputra’s annual deluge. The wet tropical climate, though, makes Assam one of the richest biodiversity zones in the world, and it boasts forests, grasslands, and wetlands that nurture an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

Equally rich and diverse is its populace, which boasts some 30 tribes, of which the Mising are the second largest, making up 17.8 per cent of the State’s population. The Mising are river people—their name comes from ‘mi’ (man) and ‘asi’ (water)—and they live on the banks of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. They are, thus, also among the worst affected by the river’s annual flooding.

Nothing, however, will persuade them to move off their ‘chars’, the semi-permanent islands on which they form their settlements. They cling tenaciously to their lifestyle, in their unique flood-resilient houses called ‘chang ghar’, which perch daintily above the ground on bamboo stilts.

The Mising, sometimes called the Miri, are dispersed mostly in Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Dhemaji and Golaghat districts of the State. Records of the Ahom kingdom carry some of the earliest references to the Mising, identifying them as people living in the Himalayan foothills, north of the Brahmaputra. There are no surviving records of when they migrated south to Assam, but they appear to have come in waves, slowly settling into an agrarian life that depends heavily on paddy cultivation, animal husbandry, and fishing.

Also read: Deepor Beel on the brinkThe rhythm of this life has a unique fluidity and temporality built into it, with entire ‘chars’ with their fields and houses disappearing during the floods, new ‘chars’ formed when the waters recede, lives rebuilt, crops sown anew. This distinctive pattern of life is under increasing threat today—first, from mega projects to harness rivers for hydroelectricity, such as the Subansiri Lower Project, which carry risks of flash floods, bank erosion and sedimentation, and greatly disrupt the lives of riverine people while giving them little commensurate gains.

The second threat is the more insidious cultural one, an inkling of which came with the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Act that threatened to strip many people in border areas of their citizenship rights. While the Mising were not directly impacted, the Hindutva project’s desire to subsume tribal and regional identities within its fold has raised uneasy questions about the nature of ‘belonging’ among tribal communities such as the Mising. This community follows the Donyi Polo faith, which is mostly animistic, with some features of the Vaishnavite tradition absorbed from the region.

In 1995, the Mising Autonomous Council was formed following a persistent demand for greater autonomy over the years. A second demand for Sixth Schedule status, which protects traditional cultural practices and gives tribal communities continued access to natural resources, has not yet been granted.

For the Mising, it is not so much the imperious moods of the Brahmaputra as the continuous chipping away at their identity and livelihoods by the state’s multi-pronged efforts that makes life precarious.