A proposed census of four Muslim groups in Assam, who are recognised as “Assamese Muslims” in society although not formally defined as such, underlines the significance of sub-communities in Assam, beyond the traditional linguistic and religious binaries of the rest of India.
Assam’s migration history gives additional context to dual identities — Assamese Hindu, Assamese Muslim, Bengali Hindu, Bengali Muslim. These sub-identities drive the narrative about which communities have a longer history in Assam, and which ones migrated later. While the Census of India includes a language census and a religion census, these do not account for these sub-identities.
In Census of India data, the Assamese-speaking population fell from 57.81% in 1991 to 48.38% in 2011, while the Bengali-speaking population rose from 21.67% to 28.91% in the same period. Simultaneously, the Hindu population declined from 67.14% to 61.47%, while the Muslim share grew from 28.44% to 34.22%.
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These trends have been interpreted variously by scholars, organisations campaigning for indigenous rights amid the effects of migration, and politicians playing on the communal divide. While many read these as a sign of continuing migration, there are several factors to consider:
> The Muslim population includes groups considered indigenous — including Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha, the groups listed for the proposed census. The Muslim population also includes Bengali-origin Muslims whose families were already living in Assam before the 1971 cutoff date for legal migration as stipulated in the 1985 Assam Accord.
> The Muslim population has grown significantly in districts with a predominant Bengali-origin Muslim population. One theory is that the growth is driven by a higher fertility rate among Bengali-origin Muslims — which would include families who were already living in Assam before 1971.
> The other view is that post-1971 migration has largely driven the growth of the Muslim population, which some see as too rapid to be explained by natural factors.
> The migrant population includes both Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims. In the religion-neutral agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the state, Assamese civil society is protesting against citizenship being given to Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh beyond the cutoff date.
> A section of Bengali-origin Muslims identify themselves as Assamese-speaking in the Census of India. The proposed census of specific Muslim groups, on the other hand, will go beyond declared language and look at ethnicity. In effect, it will seek to distinguish these four Muslim groups from Muslims who have a migrant ancestry.
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