A panel from the Government of Assam recommendation to identify Assamese Muslims as a separate group has raised questions about whether it will benefit the community or fuel further divisions among Muslims, and what indigenous means in a state whose demographics have been shaped by waves of migration over decades.
Last week, the panel recommended the issuance of notification and identity cards or certificates, as well as a census to “identify and document” the Assamese Muslim community. Considered distinct from the Bengali-speaking Muslims who migrated from present-day Bangladesh, the “indigenous” Muslim community is divided into four main groups who claim to trace their origins to Assam centuries ago. These groups are the Goriyas and Moriyas (from Upper Assam), the Deshis (from Lower Assam) and the Julha Muslims (from the tea gardens).
The panel was created last July after Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma meeting with Assamese Muslims from various fields – writers, doctors, cultural workers, lecturers, historians and musicians, among others – to discuss the socio-economic challenges facing the community. The stated goal of Sarma’s outreach was the welfare of the community. At the meeting, he emphasized that “the uniqueness of indigenous Assamese Muslims must be protected and preserved”.
Divided into seven sub-committees, the panel delivered its report on April 21. He also made suggestions on issues related to education, political representation, health, skills development and women’s empowerment. Accepting the recommendations, the chief minister said they were “achievable” and added that the committee had also defined Assamese Muslims. “We have accepted the definition…now the target group will be clearer, and what work needs to be done for them,” he added.
Some members of the community see official recognition as a way to end their “identity crisis”, as they are often mistaken for Bengali-speaking Muslims. BJP member Syed Muminul Aowal, who heads the Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad (JSPA), an umbrella body of more than 30 “indigenous” organizations, said Assamese Muslims have “the same names as Bengali Muslims and are often bludgeoned with them”.
“Among the 1.3 major Muslims in Assam, Assamese Muslims are a minority. We have virtually no political representation. A step like this will help indigenous Assamese Muslims to benefit not only from Term 6 but also from other programs,” said Aowal, who previously served as chairman of the Assam Minority Development Council. He was referring to Clause 6 of the Assam Agreement which grants “constitutional, legislative and administrative guarantees” to the “Assamese people”.
Highlighting the tense nature of an attempt to define “indigenous” in a state like Assam, and the ambiguity of the term, All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) lawmaker Aminul Islam said the panel’s proposals were part of a “political rhetoric”. to “further isolate Bengali Muslims”.
“They want to bring yet another division among Muslims, that’s why they are doing this. So far, we don’t have a base year to define who is an Assamese. More than that, there are many marriages between Assamese and Bengali Muslims. How do we identify these families? He asked.
A Congress lawmaker, who did not wish to be named, agreed that the measure was not good news for Bengali Muslims. “But it is also true that Assamese Muslims have long felt deprived of benefits and for them this is a good step. But yes it will create division and further isolate Bengali Muslims,” he said. added.
Push for a census
A census of Assamese Muslims was first proposed in February 2020. After a meeting with members of the community, then Minister of Minorities Ranjit Dutta confirmed his intention to organize the census based on the 2019 budget which included a “development society for indigenous Muslims” for the “holistic development” of the community as well as a “socio-economic census”.
There was no movement on the issue until April 2021, when the government-independent JSPA of Aowal launched a website to conduct a census of Assamese Muslims “modeled on the National Citizens Register ( NRC)”. But the exercise did not take off.
Last week’s development shows that the census could indeed be brought forward. The congressional lawmaker said there had been some noise about various such efforts, but it was a topic “nobody wanted to touch on, given that it was a hot potato “. “However, the Chief Minister is a shrewd politician and he knows this will help him politically,” he added.
Aowal said the recommendations were good but added that they needed to be revised. He added: “In their current form, the recommendations refer to the identification of ‘Assamese Muslim’ – but it is important that specific groups such as Goriyas, Moriyas, Deshis and Julas are identified, given that the definition of aboriginal is unclear. ”
Islam said it would “ultimately not be implemented” as it was not “constitutionally legal” and warned that “damage would be done and further marginalize the Bengali Muslim community“.
The state‘s Minorities Minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary, said the whole idea was currently at “recommendation stage”.
“The reports of the seven commissions will be forwarded to the Chief Minister. After that it will be discussed and he will give instructions,” he said, adding: “Yes, he said the recommendations were all doable, but he also added that it would be done in three phases – short term, medium term and long term. term – and things would be taken (advanced) accordingly.