On July 6, the BJP-led government in Assam approved the identification of five Muslim sub-groups as ‘Khilonjia Musalman’ or indigenous Assamese Muslims to set them apart from Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims usually referred to as Miyas.
This was based on the recommendation of a government-appointed ‘Subcommittee on Cultural Identity’ that the ‘Assamese Muslim’ subgroups — Syed, Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha — be given identity cards as distinct, indigenous communities and a Census undertaken to document them. This subcommittee, headed by TV journalist Wasbir Hussain, was set up in July 2021.
It was constituted along with six other subcommittees that submitted their recommendations together to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The other subcommittees submitted their reports on the issues of health, education, financial inclusion, skill development, women empowerment and population stabilisation.
Soon after the subcommittees submitted their reports on April 23, an organisation representing one of the subgroups said some of the recommendations would set a dangerous precedent.
“The suggestion to identify a section of Muslims in Assam by their religion instead of their ethnicity is faulty and divisive since our history has no reference to ‘Assamese Muslims’,” the Sadou Asom Goriya Jatiya Parishad (SAGJP) said.
In April 2021, three months before the panel was set up, another organisation called Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad, Assam (JSPA) launched a portal to conduct the first-ever ‘Census’ of Assamese-speaking Muslims. The exercise by the JSPA, which has been campaigning for a ‘janagosthi’ or ethnic group status for the community, is yet to be completed.
“We welcome the government’s decision to recognise Assamese Muslims as a distinct group but the cultural panel’s recommendations could do with some amendments,” JSPA’s chief convenor and BJP leader, Syed Mominul Aowal said. He did not elaborate on how the recommendations could be tweaked.
‘Define Assamese first’
Yasmin Saikia, who is the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and a Professor of History at Arizona State University, said the ‘Assamese Muslim’ tag is essentially flawed as the “Assamese people” have not yet been officially defined.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had in 2019 formed a high-level committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord (meant to provide certain safeguards to the Assamese people, which are not available to those who migrated to the State between 1951 and 1971) headed by Biplab Kumar Sarma, a retired judge of the Gauhati High Court.
This committee, which had Mr. Hussain as a member, submitted its recommendations to the then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, to be forwarded to Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
The signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 ended six years of a violent anti-immigrant movement sparked by the large-scale migration of refugees from present-day Bangladesh, during India’s 1971 war with Pakistan, into Assam.
The accord accepted as an Indian citizen anyone who came before midnight on March 24, 1971. But it did not define who falls under the ambit of “Assamese people”.
The MHA’s silence on the report made the Clause 6 panel “reveal” its key recommendations in February 2020. These included considering five categories of people residing in the territory of Assam on or before January 1, 1951, as Assamese — Assamese speakers, other indigenous communities, other indigenous tribal communities, all Indian nationals and descendants of the people from these four categories.
“The Assam government’s decision conveys divisiveness, which goes against the Assamese ethos of assimilation. Filtering out a small group within a larger religious group and giving them identity cards will lead to socio-economic complications,” Ms. Saikia said.
The 2011 Census, without finer categorisation, had counted 1.06 crore Muslims (34%) out of a total population of 3.12 crore people in Assam.
The subcommittee put the current Muslim population in the State at 1.18 crore. It specified that 42 lakh of them belonged to the five “indigenous” groups — Syed, Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha — and that almost half of these 42 lakh people were Deshis.
The five subgroups
The subcommittee constituted in July 2021 described the five communities in its report.
The Deshis, believed to be among the earliest people in Assam to have embraced Islam, trace their lineage back to Ali Mech, a Koch-Rajbongshi chieftain who converted during the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish-Afghan military general around 1205 AD.
The panel described the Syeds as descendants of Sufi preachers and their followers. The most prominent among these preachers were Syed Badiuddin Shah Madar (Madan Pir) and Syed Moinuddin Baghdadi (Shah Miran or Azan Fakir) who came to Assam around 1497 and 1630 respectively.
The subcommittee cited certain documents to say the Goriyas are the descendants of Mughal soldiers who, during the Mughals’ several attempts to invade Assam between 1615 and 1682, were taken prisoners by the ruling Ahom regime.
Many of these soldiers, it said, belonged to Gaur, the ancient Muslim capital of Bengal, and thus came to be known as ‘Goriya’. Although, as per one account, the name is derived from ‘Goriya gaon’, an eastern Assam village of ostracised people who converted to Islam.
These people settled in Assam, married local women and gradually became a part of the Assamese society, the subcommittee's report stated. It added that converted tribals and Hindus during Azaan Fakir’s time were brought under the Goriya fold.
The Moriyas are also described as descendants of the prisoners of war who were captured by the Ahoms after an attempted invasion by Turbak Khan in the 16th century.
According to a 1933 account by a British historian Edward Gait, the Moriyas were associated with brass work. The ancestors of some of the Moriyas were brought by the Ahom kings from other parts of India to furnish weapons and utensils.
The Julhas, listed as an MOBC (More Other Backward Class) community in Assam, are believed to be Adivasis, originally from undivided Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, who converted to Islam. They are said to have migrated to Assam in two phases — first as weavers during the Ahom rule and then as tea estate workers brought by British tea planters.
The JSPA, which launched the Census of Assamese Muslims in April 2021 with a view to publishing a separate National Register of Citizens-like list, represents three categories of the Muslim community — Goriya, Moriya and Deshi.
The Julhas were kept out of the census because the JSPA considers the Muslims living in Assam before the British takeover in 1826 as the indigenous followers of Islam.
Another reason the JSPA excluded the Julhas from its ‘Census’ is that “their association with tea plantation could eventually make them eligible for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status”.
The tea garden workers, referred to as "tea tribes", have been demanding the ST status along with five indigenous communities — Chutiyas, Koch-Rajbongshis, Mataks, Morans and Tai-Ahoms.
The "tea tribes", who prefer to be called Adivasis, comprise more than 90 communities such as Santhal, Kol, Bhil, Munda and Oraon, whom the British had relocated from central and eastern India in the 19th century. Most Julhas came along with the other “tea tribes” while some of them are said to have converted after settling down in Assam.
“If we go by the United Nations definition, the Julhas are not indigenous. But they may be considered indigenous if the cut-off year to determine who is an Assamese is considered to be 1951. Many Julhas have Bangladeshi roots like the Muslims of Mymensingh and Sylhet (regions of Bangladesh),” Mir Arif Iqbal Hussain, general secretary of the SAGJP told The Hindu.
The Julhas are culturally and linguistically “totally different” from Goriyas, Moriyas and Deshis. The Goriyas and Moriyas are similar in many aspects while the Deshis are distinguishable from these two communities, Mr. Hussain said.
There are differences within the Julhas too. The Julhas of western Assam resent the claim of the Julhas of eastern Assam — the belt from Jorhat to Dibrugarh — to be “more Assamese” than them.
“We are often looked down up as Bangladeshis who don’t belong,” a member of the community in western Assam’s Kokrajhar district said.
A section of Assamese Muslims is puzzled by the categorisation of the Syeds as a community. “Syed is not a community but a lineage and they have historically belonged to the Goriya group,” Mr. Aowal, whose JSPA did not list the Syeds as a distinct community, said.
Mr. Hussain agreed. “Syed Abdul Malik, the tallest Assamese Muslim writer, called himself a Goriya and also wrote a poem about it. Syed is not exclusive to Assam. You will find Bengal-origin Syeds in Hojai (home turf of All India United Democratic Front chief and MP, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, who is perceived to support the cause of migrant Muslims),” he said.
The “Assamese Muslims” generally see themselves as part of the larger, predominantly Hindu, Assamese-speaking community. They are conscious of being bracketed with the Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims.
Few doubted the exclusion of the Bengal-origin or Bengali-speaking Muslims from the cultural subcommittee’s list of groups “deserving” the Assamese Muslim tag. But many Muslims in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley of southern Assam say their exclusion was unwarranted.
The Kachari Muslims, who trace their origins to the Kachari kingdom that flourished between the 13th and 19th centuries, are pained by the State Cabinet’s decision to approve the identification of the five Muslim subgroups as indigenous Assamese Muslims.
The Kachari Muslims consider themselves distinct from the Muslims who migrated from Bengal, before and after the Partition of India.
Atiqur Rahman Barbhuyan, president of the Society for Indigenous Muslims of Barak Valley, said that the exclusion of the Kachari Muslims was unwarranted and called it “a great injustice”.
He said he had made a presentation to the subcommittee before it filed its reports, arguing why the “non-migrant” Kachari Muslims also qualified for the indigenous label.
Ziaur Rahman, a Kachari Muslim and leader of the Assam Jatiya Parishad, said his community was among the indigenous Muslim groups which had in 2017 sought “automatic inclusion” in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) without documentary evidence by virtue of being “original inhabitants”, a category the NRC authority had proposed. The Supreme Court had struck down the proposal.
The organisation representing all the indigenous Muslim groups is called Bhoomiputra (Islamdharmi) Samannwayrokkhi Sangram Samity, Asom. The name translates to “Coordinated Movement Committee of Muslim Sons-of-the-soil, Assam”.
“The Kachari Muslims converted from the Dimasa tribe and are perhaps more indigenous than some communities the subcommittee included in the list, which was approved by the State Cabinet. If some Muslims are to be given the indigenous tag, then all communities with an extensive history of domicile in Assam should have been included,” Mr. Rahman said.
Contrary to the popular belief in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley, a large number of Bengali-speaking Muslims have inhabited Barak Valley for centuries.
However, many feel that their linguistic affiliation may have made them “untouchable”.
“Unlike the Assam Agitation phase (1979-85), when society in the State was polarised between the indigenous and the outsiders, a cold war has developed between the Hindus and Muslims in Assam today,” Mr. Rahman said.
He added, “The Muslims of Barak Valley have probably not been considered indigenous because the religious divide is the strongest there. The BJP probably fears losing the Hindu support in Barak Valley if the Muslims there are recognised as indigenous.”
All said and done, the push for the indigenous tag for Muslims is an exercise in futility as it is designed to further the divisive agenda of right-wing political parties, Mr. Rahman said.
“One has to first ask what the constitutional validity of the term ‘Assamese Muslims’ is. The approval of the cultural subcommittee’s proposal has not been passed in the Assembly; a Cabinet decision does not guarantee indigeneity. There is nothing new in the term ‘Assamese Muslim’, which has been prevalent for decades. This is why our party does not encourage the term and why we think the recommendations are in keeping with the political agenda of divide and rule,” he said.
Members of the cultural subcommittee prefer not to comment on the recommendations. “We did our job of submitting the report. The ball is now in the court of the government,” Wasbir Hussain, its head, told a web portal a few days ago.
Organisations representing the Goriyas, Moriyas and Deshis such as SAGJP are uneasy with the ‘Muslim’ tag.
“We had objected to the term ‘Assamese Muslim’ and sought its removal through a notification when the cultural subcommittee sought our opinion. Our religious affiliation has never been as important as our ethnic identity. Goriya, for instance, is as much a historically recognised community as the Ahoms, Morans or Mataks. But the subcommittee did not give importance to our inputs,” a leader of SAGJP said, declining to be quoted.
Organisations and leaders representing the perceived Miyas or migrant Muslims said the very act of constituting a subcommittee on Assamese Muslims reflected the political motive of the BJP.
“Pitting one category of Muslims against the other is a move to further marginalise the Bengali Muslims,” said Aminul Islam, the AIUDF legislator from Mankachar, a constituency dominated by Bengali-speaking Muslims.
Among the recommendations of the cultural subcommittee is a provision similar to Article 333 (it empowers the Governor of a State to nominate Anglo-Indians to the Legislative Assemblies) to send Assamese Muslims to Parliament and the State’s Legislative Assembly. The subcommittee has also recommended that a specific number of seats be reserved for the community after the creation of Assam’s Legislative Council.
Some of the other recommendations of the other subcommittee for the Assamese Muslims have raised concern among the Muslims on either side of the “line of indigeneity”.
The subcommittee on population stabilisation has recommended enforcement of a population policy and “sterilisation services and services for the implant of inter-uterine cervical devices in hospitals that mostly service indigenous Muslim community”.
The subcommittee on women empowerment said the women should be free to discard social subjugation in matters of choice of individual dress, especially in public spaces and there “must not be coercion to wear niqab, burqa and hijab”. It also sought the implementation of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC).
The BJP and its ideological fountain, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been pursuing the population policy and the UCC.