Assam’s ‘indigenous Muslims’

Source: By Kabir Firaque, Tora Agarwala: The Indian Express

Recently, the Assam Cabinet approved the identification of five Assamese Muslim sub-groupsGoriya, Moriya, Julha, Deshi, and Syed — as “indigenous” Assamese Muslim communities. This effectively sets them apart from Bengali-speaking Muslims, who — or whose ancestors — had migrated at various points of time to the region that was once East Bengal, and later became East Pakistan and now Bangladesh.

How many Muslim groups live in Assam?

While many sub-groups exist, this aspect of population dynamics is best understood by looking at Muslims of Assam as belonging to two broad categories. Muslims outside these two categories would account for very small numbers relative to Assam’s large Muslim population.

The larger of these two categories comprises Muslims who speak Bengali, or whose roots lie in Bengal, and who settled in Assam at various times after undivided Assam was annexed to British India in 1826. These Muslims are often referred to as Miyas.

The numerically smaller broad category comprises the “Assamese Muslims”, who speak Assamese as their mother tongue, and who trace their ancestries in Assam back to the Ahom kingdom (1228-1826). By and large, they see themselves as part of the larger Assamese-speaking community, together with Assamese Hindus, and many of them are very conscious about being distinct from Bengal-origin Muslims.

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, who 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,” Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said following the Cabinet decision.

And what are these groups?

These are described in the report of a sub-committee on ‘Cultural identity of indigenous Assamese Muslims’ constituted by the state government in July last year. It was on the basis of the report of this committee, headed by journalist and commentator Wasbir Hussain, that the Cabinet took its decision on the five sub-groups.

DESHI: Believed to be among the first batch of people in Assam to have embraced Islam, Deshis trace their lineage to Ali Mech, a Koch-Rajbongshi chieftain who converted to Islam during the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khilji around 1205 AD.

SYED: Sufi preachers settled in Assam at various times, the earliest by some accounts being Syed Badiuddin Shah Mada (Madan Pir) in 1497, and the best known being Syed Moinuddin Baghdadi (Azaan Pir or Azaan Fakir) around 1630. The Syed community comprises descendants of their followers.

GORIYA: In a series of attempted invasions by the Mughals between 1615 and 1682, the Ahom regime took several soldiers prisoner. Many of these belonged to Gaur in ancient Bengal, and hence got the name Goriya. “These people settled in Assam and married local women and gradually became a part of the Assamese society,” the report says. It also mentions tribals/Hindus who converted to Islam during Azaan Pir’s time; they too became subsequently known as Goriya.

MORIYA: These too are descendants of prisoners of war, captured by the Ahoms after an attempted invasion by Turbak Khan in the 16th century. They “took to working in brass, an occupation which their descendants, who are known as Moriyas, carry on to this day”, the British historian Edward Gait wrote in 1933 (A History of Assam).

JULHA: A small community, originally from undivided Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, and believed to be converts from Adivasis. They migrated to Assam in two phases: as weavers during the Ahom regime, and as tea garden workers brought by British tea planters in the 19th century. Julha is listed as an MOBC community in Assam.

Prominent Assamese Muslims through history include the navy general Bagh Hazarika who fought under the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan against Mughal invaders in 1671; Sir Syed Muhammad Saadulla, Assam’s first prime minister during colonial rule; the 20th-century poet Syed Abdul Malik; and India’s late President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

What are their numbers?

The census of 2011 counted 1.06 crore Muslims (34%) in Assam out of a population of 3.12 crore, but does not record a break-up by ethnicity. The sub-committee report to the Assam government puts the current Muslim population at 1.18 crore, out of which it estimates the five “indigenous” groups at 42 lakh. That implies that out of every 3 Muslims in Assam, 1 is “indigenous”. Of these 42 lakh, the report estimates the Deshis at 20 lakh, and the Moriyas at 2 lakh.

So, who are not “indigenous” as per the report?

The omission of the Bengali-origin Muslims, or Miyas, is apparent. But the definition also leaves out at least one Muslim group with a long history in Assam. In south Assam’s Barak Valley, dominated by Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims, there is also a group called Kachari Muslims, who trace their origins to the Kachari kingdom (13th century to 1832). They consider themselves distinct from the Muslims who migrated from East Bengal.

Atiqur Rahman Barbhuyan, president, Society for Indigenous Muslims of Barak Valley, called the Cabinet decision a “great injustice” to the Muslims of Barak Valley. “Our ancestry is not of migrant origin. Our history goes back to the 1600s,” he said, adding that he had made a presentation to the committee before it filed its report.

What is the point of this exercise?

The demand came from within the community itself. In a state whose history and politics have been shaped by migration, some Assamese-speaking groups and individuals have long sought to be identified as distinct from the Bengali-speaking Muslims.

Assamese Muslims “are bracketed as Muslims, along with the Bengali-speaking Muslims”, the report says, citing “…the lack of a separate identity bestowed upon the Assamese Muslims”.

Apart from recognition as indigenous, the report recommends greater political representation including reservation of a Rajya Sabha seat, reservation in jobs, and various measures for preservation of Assam Muslim culture.

How do Muslim groups feel about it?

The All Assam Goriya-Moriya Deshi Parishad welcomed the move. Its president Hafizul Ahmed said Assamese Muslims were “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 is very different,” he said.

Others are concerned that the move would lead to further marginalisation of Bengali-origin Muslims. AIUDF MLA Aminul Islam earlier told The Indian Express that the panel’s proposals were part of a “political rhetoric” to “isolate Bengali Muslims further”.

Yasmin Saikia, professor of history and endowed chair in peace studies at Arizona State University described the move as “shortsighted”. “To me, as an Assamese humanist, it is very sad. The labels given to various Muslims are a strategy to divide the Muslim community,” she said. “If the aim of this move was to improve the socio-economic status of Muslims in Assam, why neglect a chunk of them? Identifying a tiny group within a group, giving them identity cards and certificates is unlikely to serve any purpose. In fact, it will lead to more vulnerability, greater socio-economic problems, and more antisocial elements,” she said.