Identity crisis grips indigenous Muslims of Assam
One group of Muslims in Assam, whose ancestors or they themselves migrated to the state from erstwhile East Bengal and present Bangladesh, are in focus for past few months following the updated the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the amended Citizenship Act.
Reports of how many from this section have got excluded from the final NRC list released last year and non-inclusion of Muslims from Bangladesh (and also those from Pakistan and Afghanistan) as beneficiaries of the CAA are getting highlighted in newspapers, TV and social media.
But there’s another group of Muslims, whose ancestors didn’t migrate from East Bengal and Bangladesh, who are not in focus. This group known as indigenous or Assamese Muslims is feeling a threat to their identity due to Muslim migrants and wants measures to protect them and their interests.
Who are Assamese Muslims?
In Assam, indigenous Muslims can be divided into three distinct groups called Goria, Moria and Deshi. Some smaller groups like Moimal, Julha, Ujani and Syed are also called Assamese Muslims.
Unlike the Muslims who migrated from East Bengal and Bangladesh, members of these groups use Assamese as their mother tongue and follow and cultural traditions and festivities similar to Assamese Hindus which clearly differentiate them from the migrants.
While the Morias are mainly descendants of Muslim soldiers who were part of invasions to Assam and were captured by Ahom kings, the Deshis and Gorias are people from indigenous communities in lower and upper Assam respectively who converted to Islam.
“Deshis were from Koch-Rajbongshi communities. Besides captured Muslim soldiers, Muslims engaged in various tasks by Ahom kings are also known at Morias. Gorias comprise of Muslims brought from outside Assam by Ahom kings, captured Muslim soldiers and those who converted locally,” said Muminul Aowal, chairman, Assam Minorities Development Board.
Assamese Muslims have contributed a lot to the state’s history, right from the time of the Ahom kings when they distinguished themselves in the army to the Assam Agitation of 1979-85 against Bangladeshi immigrants and also towards embellishing Assamese literature and culture.
Change of fortunes
Fortunes began changing for the Assamese Muslims with the end of the six-century long Ahom rule in 1826 following signing of the Yandaboo Treaty, which brought Assam under British colonial rule.
Large scale immigration of people from East Bengal, mostly Muslims, to Assam during British rule and even after Independence changed the population dynamics in the state and over the next few decades Assamese Muslims become marginalized.
“If we look at comparative census figures between 1891 and 1931 of four districts in Assam and equal number of districts in neighbouring Bangladesh (when both areas were under British rule), they show the scale of migration,” said Hafizul Ahmed, president of Sadou Asom Goria Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad, the umbrella body of the three indigenous Muslim communities.
While Mymensingh, Rangpur, Bogra and Pabna districts in Bangladesh saw population decline as high as 8.3% during that period, the four Assam districts of Goalpara, Darrang, Kamrup and Nowgong (later renamed Nagaon) saw sharp rise in population (Nowgong recorded a 61.3% jump).
A microscopic minority
The six-year-long agitation against illegal Bangladeshis culminated with signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, which stipulated March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for entry of foreigners.
According to Census 2011, there are over 10.67 million Muslims in Assam. This includes Muslims who migrated from East Bengal and Bangladesh, those who came to Assam from other parts of the country as well as Assamese Muslims.
“At present fates of nearly one-fifth of the total 126 assembly seats in Assam are decided by votes of migrant Muslims and their descendants. The Assamese Muslims, who are scattered all over Brahmaputra Valley don’t have a single representative in state assembly,” Nekibur Zaman, a senior advocate and vocal activist for rights of Assamese Muslims, said.
“Since we don’t have any representative, the benefits of most government schemes for minorities are availed by Muslims who migrated to Assam. We are a microscopic minority,” he added mentioning for nearly 1.5 lakh indigenous Muslims have been left out of the final NRC released last year.
Need for a census
In order to have an identity separate from the Muslims who migrated, Assamese Muslims have been demanding a separate census where people from the community could be identified and enumerated. Some say the total number of indigenous Muslims could be anywhere between three to four million.
In its 2019-2020 annual budget, Assam’s BJP-led government announced conducting of a socio-economic census of Assamese Muslims and setting up of a corporation with a sum of Rs 100 crore for the all-round development of the community. Neither task has been initiated yet.
“We are aware of the unique problems faced by the Assamese Muslims. Process of registering the corporation is underway and will happen very soon. Once that is done, a survey will be done to find out the exact number of indigenous Muslims,” said minorities welfare minister Ranjit Dutta.
The urgency for a separate census is also because the provisions under Clause 6 of Assam Accord, which seeks to give constitutional safeguards to indigenous Assamese through reservation of seats in legislature and jobs, are likely to be implemented this year and Assamese Muslims don’t want to be left out.