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Explained: Why Assam is proposing a census of some Muslim groups

The Assam government has proposed a census of four Muslim groups. Who are these groups, seen as indigenous, and who are the other Muslims left out of the census? The history and the emerging debate.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: February 14, 2020 5:17:14 pm
Explained: Why Assam needs a census of indigenous Muslim groups Census will count four groups; method of identification not yet clear. (Express Archive)

Assam’s Welfare of Minorities and Development Department has announced plans to hold a census of four communities broadly known as “Assamese Muslims” —Goriya, Moriya, Deshi, and Julha. Following a meeting with representatives of these communities this week, Welfare of Minorities Minister Ranjit Dutta said this would aid the development of these communities, and a ‘Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha Development Corporation’ would also be set up.

Where did this idea spring from?

Last year’s Assam Budget provided for a “Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims” for “holistic development” of the community as well as a “socio-economic census”. On February 6, 2020, a memo from the Minorities Welfare Department called for a “meeting regarding a socio-economic census of indigenous Muslims of Assam —Goria, Moria, Ujani, Deshi, Jola, Mainal, Syed etc”. After the meeting, it was decided that the word khilonjiya (indigenous) was contentious and would be replaced with the names of the four specific communities.

Who are these communities?

While documentary evidence is little and definitions are vague, society has traditionally counted Goriyas, Moriyas and Deshis under the umbrella of indigenous Assamese, with a history dating back several centuries.

Yasmin Saikia, professor of history and endowed chair in peace studies at Arizona State University, said that taking “oral traditions, cultural practices, and languages into account, Muslims have settled in Assam at least 600-700 years ago”. She said while it is possible that Muslims lived in Assam “even earlier” than the Ahom kingdom, evidence of the settlements in Assam date back to the early 13th century following Bhaktiyaruddin Khalji’s invasion. This can be corroborated in the Kanai Barashil Bowa Sil inscription in North Guwahati.

GORIYA: “Whom we now call the Goriyas can trace their lineage back to the time of the 13th-century Ahom kings. Many came with Muslim armies and were captured in warfare. When they were released, they mingled with the mainstream society — so even today, most of their cultural traditions match Assamese customs,” said Azizul Rahman, general secretary of the All Assam Goriya-Moriya Deshi Parishad. In Edward Gait’s A History of Assam, Goriyas are described as hailing from Gaur, the ancient “Mahammadan capital” of Bengal.

MORIYA: “The Moriyas came later, around the 1500s. They were exceptionally good with crafts — especially bell metal,” said Rahman.

JULHA: Prof Saikia said Julha Muslims were “up-country” people (from Bihar and UP) who came to Assam along with the railway expansion during British rule. “When the trains came to Tinsukia and Lido, so did the Julha Muslims — they were of various professions: tent-makers, rope-makers, weavers, machine drillers,” she said. However, minister Dutta said the census will look only at those Julhas “who belong to the tea tribes and primarily reside in Golaghat and Jorhat”.

DESHI: While Goriyas, Moriyas and Julhas trace their roots to upper and middle Assam, the Deshis hail from lower Assam, in what used to be the undivided Goalpara district. Their ancestors are said to be converts from the Koch Rajbongshi kingdom in the early 13th century. “What we know is that a tribal chieftain called Ali Mech converted to Islam. His followers converted too. The Deshis speak the Deshi language, which is very similar to the Koch Rajbongshi language, and are approximately 20 lakh in population,” said Parveen Sultana, assistant professor at P B College, Dhubri.

Due to the lack of documentary evidence, many Assamese Muslim individuals often find it difficult to pinpoint which group they can trace their lineage to.

Are there Muslims other than these communities?

The census leaves out the Miya Muslim community — which comprises descendants of migrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh). After Assam was annexed to British India in 1826, the British settled migrants from Mymensingh, Pabna and Dhaka (of the united Bengal province) starting from the 1850s. In the conversation about continuing migration from Bangladesh after that country was created in 1971, even the descendants of the colonial-area migrants are often seen with suspicion and branded “illegal migrants”.

It is unclear what plans the government has about Muslims of Barak Valley in southern Assam. This region includes a part of what was Sylhet district in undivided Bengal (the larger part is now in Bangladesh). Syed Muminul Aowal, Assam Minorities Development Board chairman, said discussion on these sections of Muslims — who include Pangals, Maimals, Kirans and Cachari Muslims — is “pending”, keeping in account “their history”.

Also read | In Assam, the identities within identities

What is known about their population?

According to Census 2011, Muslims constituted over a third (34.22%) of Assam’s 3.12 crore population. It is generally understood that Miya Muslims form the largest group. “But one needs an in-depth study to estimate the numerical size of each sub-group. No such survey has been done yet,” said Abdul Mannan, retired statistics professor of Gauhati University. “Only district-wise religion data is available. But one can estimate that the percentage of Bengali-speaking Muslims is more than Assamese-speaking Muslims, especially in lower Assam.”

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How will the census identify the four specific communities?

This is unclear. “The method for identification to carry out the survey will be discussed soon,” Aowal said, and added: “The social identity of Goriyas and Moriyas can be determined by the language they speak and the places they reside in.”

Not many think this is feasible. “For example, the Jhula community are also weavers. Some are ‘indigenous’ and some are ‘migrants; some speak Assamese, some speak Bengali. So where do you count them,” said Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Literary Parishad. “In previous economic censuses, I have been listing my family as Jhula since my ancestors were weavers but I also belong to the Bengali-speaking Miya community — so where do I stand in this census?”

Sultana, too, noted grey areas: “For example, the Deshi community is a religious-linguistic community. It’s not an ethnic community. In Dhubri most Muslims, including the Miya community, communicate mostly in Deshi — so how do you set them apart?”

She added: “Also, what about children of mixed marriages?”

The census leaves out the Miya Muslim community — which comprises descendants of migrants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh). (Express Archive)

What purpose will the census serve?

All eyes in Assam are on Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord, which provides that “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. A central-government appointed committee is finalising a report that is expected to bring some clarity in the definition of “Assamese people”. “The census will help the indigenous Assamese Muslims benefit not just from Clause 6 but other schemes too,” said Aowal.

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How do the communities feel about it?

The Goriya-Moriya Deshi Parishad has welcomed it. General secretary Rahman claims it will end an “identity crisis”. “We face a major identity crisis since we are confused with Bangladeshis,” he said.

Sultana said if the census is done with the intention to record and conserve a community’s culture, it “might be good”. “For example, increasing awareness about the community through research grants etc since people know nothing about the Deshis. But they should not use it to put one community against the other,” she said.

Prof Saikia said while “short-sightedness” might make people think this is a good idea, in the long term, it will have negative consequences. “For a community that saw itself as ‘Muslims of Assam’ to becoming tiny little communities will not only create divisions but also a sense of insecurities” she said.

Hafiz Ahmed said it will marginalise the Miya community even more. “Bengali-speaking Assamese have been in Assam as far as back as the 19th century. If the intention of the government was to aid development, don’t the Bengali-speaking Muslims who live in char areas (floating river islands) deserve that too?”

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