The census will meet a long-standing demand of the state’s indigenous Muslims who want to distinguish themselves from their co-religionists who have migrated from East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The immigrant Muslim community are bent on getting themselves labelled as ‘Assamese people’ to avail of the benefits that will accrue to the indigenous people.
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Assam has initiated the process of conducting a socio-economic census of indigenous Muslims of the state.
This will meet a long-standing demand of the state’s indigenous Muslims who want to distinguish themselves from their co-religionists who have migrated from East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Assam Minorities Development Board Chairman Syed Muminul Aowal told Swarajya that the objective of the planned census is to “segregate indigenous Muslims of Assam from migrant Muslims”.
Aowal said that Assam’s indigenous Muslims called Gorias, Morias, Deshis and the Jolhas among the tea tribes are facing a severe identity crisis due to being reduced to a minority by migrant Muslims, who are colloquially referred to as Mias.
“We (the indigenous Muslims) have been overwhelmed by migrant Muslims with whom we have little in common. We have our distinct culture, religious traditions, dress, customs, music and practices and are closer to Assamese Hindus than the migrant Muslims,” said Hafizul Ahmed, the president of the Sadou Asom Goria Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad.
Aowal said that the indigenous Muslims of Assam, scattered all over the Brahmaputra Valley, now number only about 40 lakh. “We constitute only a fraction of the estimated 112 lakh Muslims in Assam and since we are distinct from the migrant Muslims, our identity needs to be protected,” he said.
The survey of indigenous Muslims is the first step towards providing safeguards for the community like reservation of seats in elected bodies and educational institutions and the setting up of an autonomous council for them.
Nekibur Zaman, a senior lawyer at the Gauhati High Court and a vocal advocate of rights of indigenous Muslims, told Swarajya that migrant Muslims decide the electoral outcomes in at least 25 of the 126 assembly seats of Assam.
“All the 28 Muslim MLAs in the current assembly are of East Bengal, East Pakistan or Bangladeshi origin. Till 2016, one or two indigenous Muslims used to get elected to the assembly, but that’s a thing of the past since we (indigenous Muslims) are so few in number and are scattered all over the state,” rued Zaman.
Hafizul Ahmed said that since the migrant Muslims are far greater in number than the Assamese Muslims and thus have much more political power, they corner all the benefits of government welfare schemes meant for Muslims.
“This has to be corrected and, thus, we (Assamese Muslims) need seats reserved for us in elected bodies like the state assembly, in civic bodies and in panchayats and zilla parishads. An autonomous council aimed at the welfare of Assamese Muslims and protecting and promoting our distinct culture and traditions is also necessary,” he added.
The Assam government had, in its budget proposals for the 2019-2020 financial year, announced the socio-economic census of Assamese Muslims and establishment of a corporation with a seed capital of Rs 100 crore for the all-round development of the community.
“The census work will start soon after I hold a meeting with various bodies representing Assamese Muslims on Tuesday (February 11). We are also in the process of setting up a Minorities Development Corporation aimed specifically at the welfare of the (indigenous) Assamese Muslims,” Minorities Affairs Minister Ranjit Dutta told Swarajya.
Assamese Muslims can be divided into three distinct groups — Goria, Moria, and Deshi. Apart from these three major groups, there are smaller ones like Moimal, Jolha, Ujani and Syed.
The Morias are descendants of Muslim soldiers who were part of several failed Muslim invasions of Assam and were captured by the Ahom kings. The Gorias are said to have come from Gaur kingdom of Bengal in the seventeenth century and settled in Assam while the Deshis are indigenous people, mainly Koch-Rajbonghsis, who converted to Islam.
Prominent writer and educationist Imrah Hussain says that the culture of Assamese Muslims grew organically. “We have our distinct devotional music, literature, legends, social customs, dress etc. Culturally, we are closer to Assamese Hindus and hardly share any affinity with Muslims from other parts of the world,” he said.
The onslaught of immigration of Muslims from East Bengal (which became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971) has threatened the indigenous and unique culture of Assamese Muslims, says scholar Syed Hakibur Rehman.
“Assamese Muslims have their unique devotional songs called Zigirs. But the tradition of singing these songs is vanishing since the dominant Islamic culture and practices in Assam now are those of migrant Muslims with whom we have little in common with,” said Rehman.
“Assam has been flooded with Muslim migrants from East Bengal since the turn of the last century. And that has nearly obliterated the distinct identity and culture of Assamese Muslims since we have been reduced to a minority by the migrant Muslims,” said Assam Minorities Development Board Chairman Syed Muminul Aowal.
“Almost all Muslim religious and social organisations in Assam today are led by immigrant Muslim leaders and they infuse their own culture in them. As a result, many of our (Assamese Muslims’) local traditions stand threatened. If this continues, our identity would be wiped out forever,” Aowal added.
Aowal said that since Assamese Muslims do not have any representation in the assembly, funds meant for minority development are often distributed among the districts that have large immigrant Muslim population leaving paltry sums for the indigenous Muslims.
Sadou Asom Goria Moria Deshi Jatiya Parishad president Hafizul Ahmed pointed out that in order to empower the indigenous Muslims with political rights, like setting up autonomous councils for the Assamese Muslims, they have to be identified first.
“That is the purpose of a socio-economic census for Assamese Muslims. For that a separate census to count them out is required,” he said.
The Parishad is also against including migrant Muslims in the definition of ‘Assamese people’ under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord that provides for protection of the culture and rights of all indigenous ethnic people of Assam.
The Union government had set up a committee last year to recommend measures for implementing this clause and also to define ‘Assamese people’
“Protection under Clause 6 is meant for the indigenous people of Assam who have suffered the onslaught of immigration from East Bengal (and East Pakistan as well as Bangladesh) and not for these immigrants. It will be a cruel irony and totally pointless if it ends up protecting the immigrants. Hence, Muslim immigrants should not be included in the definition of Assamese people,” said Hafizul Ahmed.
But the immigrant Muslim community, who are much larger in numbers and wield a lot of political clout, are bent on getting themselves labelled as ‘Assamese people’ to avail of the benefits that will accrue to the indigenous people once Clause 6 of the accord is implemented.
The fault lines between the Assamese Muslims and the Mias in Assam are thus set to deepen.