Ethnic group pins culture hopes on Gogoi

Ten villagers of a small community in Assam sit in the Buddhist monastery, chanting and praying for the re-election of their favoured candidate in the upcoming Assembly elections.

Numbering only 35,000, the Tai Khamyang, who trace their ancestry to 13th century migrants from Thailand, are one of the smallest ethnic groups in India, but they have a powerful patron in Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and are determined to keep him in power, hoping he will help them preserve their culture.

''Our community has no political leaders to represent us. So, we support those candidates we think have worked for the interest of our people," said Pabitra Shyam (29).

Gogoi won their loyalty by paving the dirt track that links the village, with its collection of stilt houses, to the highway.

''In the absence of buses or other vehicles, I cycle every day to college. Now with the road being improved, buses will ply the route and I can travel in some comfort," said Rimjhim Shyam (17).

Betbari, a rice growing village 300 km east of Gauhati, Assam's capital, is part of the Titabor constituency where Gogoi is seeking re-election after winning the seat in 2001.

Not satisfied with appealing for divine assistance for Gogoi, the village made a collective decision to vote for him too. "This time we held a meeting chaired by our village headman and decided to vote for Tarun Gogoi," Phatik Chandra Shyam (76), a former schoolteacher, said after the prayers.

The villagers want to return Gogoi so he can help them with their biggest concern: their unique culture and language, the Tai Khamyang dialect, is dying out. "One of our major demands is the introduction of Tai as a subject in schools located in areas where our people live," said Hasna Hana Shyam (40), a community leader who heads a group of female entrepreneurs engaged in weaving.

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