Indigenous tag for Assamese Muslims raises ‘political segregation’ concern

People showing their documents during NRC exercise in Assam. | Photo: National Herald

Many within the Muslim community in Assam are unhappy with being divided into subcategories. 

Muhammed Nihad PV | 

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NEW DELHI — A fresh debate has been sparked after the Assam cabinet approved the designation of five Assamese Muslim sub-groups — Goriya, Moriya, Julha, Deshi, and Syed as “indigenous” Assamese Muslim communities. 

The move by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government differentiates these communities from Bengali-speaking Muslims who had migrated at various points in time from East Bengal, later becoming East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh.

A committee appointed by the state government in July last year produced a report on the “Cultural Identity of Indigenous Assamese Muslims.” The Cabinet made its decision based on the recommendations of this committee, which was led by journalist Wasbir Hussain. 

According to the 2011 census, among the 3.12 crore people in Assam, 1.06 crore (or 34 per cent) are Muslim. The census did not break down the population by ethnicity. It is estimated that there are currently 1.18 crore Muslims, of which 42 lakh belong to the five “indigenous” communities. From this, it follows that in Assam, one Muslim out of every three is “indigenous.” 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 the preservation of Assam Muslim culture.

Muslims of Assam
Assamese Muslims can be divided into two main groups. In terms of the size of the Muslim community in Assam, Muslims outside of these two groups would make up a very minor percentage.

The bigger of these two groups consists of Muslims who speak Bengali or have Bengali ancestry and who moved to Assam at various points after British India seized undivided Assam in 1826. Miyas is a common term used to describe these Muslims.

The Muslims, whose ancestors in Assam may be traced to the Ahom monarchy, are part of the numerically smaller wide category and speak Assamese as their mother tongue (1228-1826). Most of them are quite conscious of their differences from Muslims of Bengali descent and view themselves as belonging to the greater Assamese-speaking group together with Assamese Hindus.

Who are these five sub-groups?
The Deshis can trace their ancestry to Ali Mech, a Koch-Rajbongshi ruler who converted to Islam during Bakhtiyar Khilji’s invasion of Assam in 1205 AD. They are regarded to be among the first group of Assamese to have accepted Islam.

Between 1615 and 1682, the Mughals launched many attempts to conquer the region, during which the Ahom government captured several warriors as prisoners. A large number of them belonged to Gaur in ancient Bengal, giving rise to the name Goriya. According to research, “These people settled in Assam, married local women, and gradually assimilated into the Assamese society.” It also describes tribal people or Hindus who converted to Islam under the reign of Azaan Pir; they too afterwards adopted the name Goriya.

Moriyas are also decedents of prisoners of war who were captured by the Ahoms following Turbak Khan’s attempted invasion in the 16th century. The British historian Edward Gait noted in 1933 that they “took to working in brass, an occupation which their descendants, who are known as Moriyas, carry on to this day”.

According to some records, Sufi preacher Syed Badiuddin Shah Mada (Madan Pir) arrived in Assam around 1497 and the most well-known Syed Moinuddin Baghdadi (Azaan Pir or Azaan Fakir) around 1630. The Syed community consists of their followers’ descendants.

The Julha community is said to have converted from the Adivasis and is originally from unorganised Bihar, Odisha, and West Bengal. They moved to Assam in two stages: first, as weavers under the Ahom rule, and then, second, as workers in British tea growers’ gardens in the nineteenth century. Assam lists Julha as a MOBC community.

A Muslim group with a long history in Assam is not included in the report. A group known as Kachari Muslims, who trace their ancestry to the Kachari kingdom, also exists in the Barak Valley of south Assam, which is primarily populated by Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims (13th century to 1832). They distinguish themselves from the Muslims of East Bengali origin. Atiqur Rahman Barbhuyan, president of the Society for Indigenous Muslims of Barak Valley, called the Cabinet decision a “great injustice” to the Muslims of Barak Valley. 

Yasmin Saikia, a professor of history and an endowed chair in peace studies at Arizona State University described the move as “shortsighted”. 

“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.

While the All Assam Goriya-Moriya Deshi Parishad supported the decision, others worry that it may further marginalise Muslims of Bengali ancestry. Many within the Muslim community are unhappy with being divided into subcategories. Aminul Islam, an AIUDF MLA, said that the panel’s recommendations were a “political rhetoric” intended to “isolate Bengali Muslims more.” Critics also argue that this segregation will strengthen the hostility between Bengali-speaking and Assamese-speaking Muslims.

Muhammad Nihad PV is a sociology student at the University of Hyderabad. He tweets at @nihadbinnisar