The Assam government’s approval to classification of five Muslim groups as “indigenous Assamese Muslim” communities is another chapter in the state’s long and troubled ethnic, linguistic and religious history.
In accepting the recommendations of a panel on this, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma fulfilled the long-standing demand by these groups — Goriyas, Moriyas, Julhas, Deshis and Syeds — for a “distinct identity”.
Loosely identified as “Assamese Muslims”, they consider themselves distinct from Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are believed to be migrants from Bangladesh (earlier East Pakistan) or their descendants.
Sarma said the classification as “indigenous” would “safeguard the groups’ cultural identity”. “Assam has a significant Muslim population. Within that, there is a section that has migrated to Assam at different points of time. However, there are certain Muslim groups, too, that are native to the state, and have long agitated to safeguard their cultural identity. We have recognised their struggle, and identified these groups as ‘indigenous’ or ‘khilonjiya’ Assamese Muslims,” he said.
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The panel to identify “indigenous” Muslims had been set up last July after the CM’s meeting with “Assamese Muslims” from various fields – writers, doctors, cultural workers, lecturers, historians, and musicians. In the meeting, he had emphasised that the “uniqueness of the indigenous Assamese Muslims should be protected and preserved”.
However, the move has also raised a fresh set of questions. Some asked how the state would implement this on the ground given that multiple committees over decades have failed to arrive at a definition of who is ‘indigenous’ to the state. Yet others fear that this will lead to further marginalisation of Muslims of Bengali origins. The largest among Muslim subgroups in Assam, they have traditionally been persecuted for their ethnicity, often branded as“illegal immigrants”.
State Minorities Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary said the SOP to implement the Cabinet decision was being made.
Among those to have welcomed the move is the All Assam Goriya-Moriya Deshi Parishad. President Hafizul Ahmed said the “Assamese Muslims” were becoming “a minority within a minority” and “losing their identity” because they were often clubbed with the “Bengali Muslim migrant community”. “Since we have similar sounding names, it is easy to confuse us, but our culture and history are very different,” he said.
The Parishad’s vice-president Azizul Rehman said many “indigenous” Assamese also found themselves harassed for authentic documents during the NRC process, and even at Foreigners’ Tribunals where they had to prove their identity. “When actually we should have been considered as Original Inhabitants (the category of citizens who were protected from a second rung of NRC verification because of their surnames). Now such an identification will help them make the link,” he said.
The Goriyas and Moriyas are essentially based in Upper Assam and trace their lineage to converts as well as soldiers, artisans etc. who came to the region during the Ahom rule. The Deshis, from Lower Assam, are 13th-century converts from communities such as Koch Rajbongshi and Mech. “The Deshi language is very similar to Koch Rajbongshi,” said Islamul Haque Mandal of the Desi Janagosthiyo Manch.
Smaller groups such as Julha Muslims also fall under this category, and are believed to have come to Assam from Bihar during expansion of the Railways under the British. The Syeds are known to be descendants of preachers and disciples of Prophet Muhammed.
Ahmed said “Assamese Muslims”, whether Gorias or Deshis, have “social customs that are different from other Muslims”. “Our religious identity as Muslims is one thing, but we have always identified as Assamese first, then as Muslims,” he said, adding that their social customs were a reflection of that.
Mandal too emphasised on ethnic identity over religious one, adding that they would have been “even happier” if the government had dropped “Muslim” from the new identification. “If they had identified us as just Deshis, it would have been better. Religion cannot be the social identity of a person. It’s a personal issue,” he said.
The government’s move is expected to run into fierce criticism from the AIUDF, seen to represent the Bengali Muslims of Assam. Pointing out the fraught nature of an attempt to define “indigenous” in a state such as Assam, and the ambiguity of the term, its leader Aminul Islam earlier told The Indian Express that the proposal was part of a “political rhetoric” to “isolate Bengali Muslims further”. “They want to bring yet another division among Muslims. Till now, we do not have a base year to define who is an Assamese,” he said.
A high-level report on Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord, meant to give safeguards to preserve “the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”, has been in cold storage since it was submitted in 2020. The report, among other things, had aimed to identify a base year to define who is an Assamese.
Islam didn’t expect a move to classify “indigenous” groups to ultimately be implemented, since it is not “constitutionally legal”.
A Congress legislator, who did not wish to be named, agreed that the step was not good news for Bengali Muslims. “It is true that Assamese Muslims have long felt deprived of benefits, but yes, this will isolate Bengali Muslims further,” he said.
Others have raised questions about the feasibility of the exercise. “There have been lakhs of inter-caste marriages among Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims and these Muslims. What about their children?” Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Literary Parishad, said.
Noting that Bengali-speaking Assamese have been in Assam “as far as back as the 19th century”, Hafiz Ahmed added: “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? The government should work for the socio-economic development of all the Muslims living in Assam.”
Sarma dismissed such doubts speaking to reporters Wednesday. “In Assam, we do not need a definition of ‘khilonjiya’. We may need it for legal matters, or constitutional safeguards. But apart from that we do not need a definition. If we leave out one section, the rest are all Assamese,” he said, without specifying whom he meant.
In its report, the panel to identify “indigenous” groups said Muslims were a part of the “greater Assamese society”. “According to organisations representing Assamese Muslims, of the 1.18 crore Muslim population in Assam, nearly 42 lakh (35 per cent) belong to these indigenous Assamese-speaking communities. But, in the absence of any census of these groups, it is difficult to arrive at an authentic population figure… But one thing which is clear is that the Assamese Muslims have been living in this land for centuries and are bhumiputra (son of the soil),” it said.
Quoting Edward Gait’s A History of Assam, the report said that the history of Muslims in Assam can be traced to “early thirteenth century”. “It began after the invasion of Kamrup by Bakhtiyaruddin Khalji around 1205 AD,” it said.
Earlier, in February 2020, the Assam Minorities Development Board had proposed a ‘census’ of Assamese Muslims”, for “holistic development” of the community. But it had not taken off, with Sarma eventually setting up the panel in July 2021.
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