Assam: Five sub-groups identified as Indigenous Assamese Muslims

While state claims this is done to enable better healthcare, education, financial inclusion etc., Bengali-speaking Muslims have not been designated indigenous, further alienating the community

Indigenous Assamese MuslimsImage Courtesy:

On Tuesday, July 5, the Assam Cabinet led by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma approved the inclusion of five sub-groups in a list of Indigenous Assamese Muslims in the state. The Cabinet has identified Goriya, Moriya, Jolha, Deshi, and Syed sub-groups of Assamese Muslims as Indigenous.

The official purpose, according to a statement by the Cabinet, is to “ensure their development in health, cultural identity, education, financial inclusion, skill development and women empowerment.” However, the move could further alienate Bengali-speaking Muslims who are often perceived to be “outsiders” or “illegal Bangladeshis” despite being born in the state.

CM Sarma announced the decision as part of a slew of SOPs for ex-servicemen and small businesses.

The Economic Times quoted Sarma as saying, “(Indigenous) Khilonjia Muslims have lived in Assam for 100 years. They are worried about losing their identity. That’s why we declared them indigenous.”

Arithmetic of exclusion?

But if the state’s aim is minority welfare, then the numbers don’t quite add up. The total population of the five identified sub-groups comes to approximately 35 lakh people.

According to the 2011 Census, the Muslim population of Assam, stood at approximately 34 percent at that time. As the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented a census from taking place as scheduled in 2020-21, current official figures are unavailable, though the Muslim population is now estimated to be around 40 percent. If we go by Assam’s current estimated population of 3.29 crores, it means Assam’s Muslim population is around 1.3 crores. Therefore, nearly 1 crore Muslims, largely Bengali-speaking Muslims, in the state will be left out of the developmental schemes.

Readers would recall that in July 2021, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had held a meeting titled Alaap Alochana – Empowering Religious Minorities with 150 intellectuals and respected members of the Assamese Muslim community. Here several matters related to Assam’s Muslim community were discussed including the “two-child” policy to control the growth of Muslim population, and how to distinguish between “indigenous” Muslims and those who allegedly entered the state illegally from Bangladesh. It was decided at this meeting to form eight sub-committees to come up with a roadmap for addressing a variety of challenges faced by the community.

It was one of these committees that submitted a report on April 21 to the Chief Minister, in which it proposed a definition for “indigenous” Muslims.

Ethno-linguistic equations have always been complicated in Assam. The influx of Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim, from Bangladesh has been viewed as a threat to the demography of the state. But the regime has over the years added a distinct communal hue to the conflict, with the Sarma himself openly declaring that he did not need votes from Miya Muslims (a term used to refer to Bengali-speaking Muslims) in the run up to State Assembly elections last year.

But all this belies historical facts such as:

·        Movement of people of different ethnicities and faiths was rather fluid across the entire eastern and north eastern region that comprises modern day West Bengal, Assam as well as Bangladesh and even Myanmar.

·        It was the British who brought Bengali speaking Hindus to Assam to assist with civil services, and Bengali speaking Muslims were brought to work as labourers in the fields

·        It was the partition of Bengal in 1905 by the British that sowed the seeds of communal discord, that was further fuelled by the partition of India in 1947

All this ethnolinguistic and communal discord has now been manipulated into another “Divide and Rule” strategy where one group of Muslims is being pit against another. What will we accomplish by following in the footsteps of manipulative colonisers who left behind a harvest of hate?

Timing of the announcement

This announcement also comes at a time when people of the flood-ravaged state are struggling for basic necessities like drinking water and safe shelter in many parts of the state.

Congress MLA Rakiul Hussain has not only questioned the definition of indigenous, but also told media persons, “This is an attempt to divert attention from the prolonged floods in the state.”

According to Azizur Rehman, who is presently a leader of the Raijor Dal and was previously an advisor to the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU), “This is a policy aimed at appeasement,” and that it is a clear case of “divide and rule”.

Prominent social Activist and writer Har Kumar Goswami told SabrangIndia, “This is just another method to create a cheap labour class in Assam, by barring a particular community i.e Bengali speaking Muslims from various schemes. While those identified as indigenous Muslims would get cards that entitle them to various benefits, the excluded Muslims would be exploited and forced to work at lower wages.”

Meanwhile, according to former All Assam Bengali Youth Students Federation leader Chitya Paul, “The Himanta biswa Sarma government in Assam has deprived Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims of various entitlements, by not including them in the indigenous list, even though they have lived here over two hundred years, and even learnt Assamese.”


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