The recommendation of an Assam government panel to recognize Assamese Muslims as a distinct group has sparked debate over whether this will benefit the community or fuel further division among Muslims, as well as what indigenous means in a state whose demography has been shaped by waves of migration over the decades.
Last Monday, the panel suggested that the Assamese Muslim community be “identified and documented” through the issuing of a notification and identity cards or certificates, as well as a census.
Moreover, the “indigenous” Muslim community, which is distinct from Bengali-speaking Muslims who moved from present-day Bangladesh, is organized into four primary groups that claim to have originated in Assam several centuries ago.
The Goriyas and Moriyas (from Upper Assam), the Deshis (from Lower Assam), and the Julha Muslims are among these communities (from the tea gardens).
However, the panel was formed in July following a meeting between Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Assamese Muslims from various fields — writers, doctors, cultural workers, lecturers, historians, and musicians, among others — to discuss the community’s socio-economic challenges.
The stated goal of Sarma’s outreach was to benefit the community. During the discussion, he emphasized the importance of protecting and preserving the “uniqueness of the indigenous Assamese Muslims.”
The panel, which was divided into seven sub-committees, issued its report on April 21. It also presented recommendations on educational issues, political representation, health, skill development, and women’s empowerment.
Committee had defined Assamese Muslims: CM Sarma
Meanwhile, the chief minister accepted the suggestions, calling them “implementable” and noting that the committee had also defined Assamese Muslims. “We’ve agreed to the definition… Now it will be evident who the target group is and what work needs to be done for them,” he added.
Official recognition is seen by some in the community as a way to resolve their “identity issue,” as they are frequently confused with Bengali-speaking Muslims.
According to Syed Muminul Aowal, the leader of the Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad (JSPA), an umbrella body of more than 30 “indigenous” organizations, stated Assamese Muslims have “the same names as Bengali Muslims and are often lumped in with them.”
“Among the 1.3 core Muslims in Assam, Assamese Muslims are a minority. We barely have any political representation. A step like this will help indigenous Assamese Muslims benefit not just from Clause 6 but other schemes too,” said Cowal, who was earlier the chairperson of the Assam Minorities Development Board.
He was alluding to Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which provides the “Assamese people”, with “constitutional, legislative, and administrative safeguards.”
All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) legislator Aminul Islam said the panel’s ideas were part of a “political rhetoric” to “isolate Bengali Muslims further,” pointing out how difficult it is to define “indigenous” in a state like Assam and the vagueness of the term.
“They want to bring yet another division among Assamese Muslims, that is why they are doing this. Till now, we do not have a base year to define who is an Assamese. More than that, there are many marriages between Assamese and Bengali Muslims. How does one identify such families?” he asked.
“They want to bring yet another division among Muslims, that is why they are doing this. Till now, we do not have a base year to define who is an Assamese. More than that, there are many marriages between Assamese and Bengali Muslims. How does one identify such families?” he asked.
However, in February 2020, a census for Assamese Muslims was suggested for the first time. Following a meeting with community members, then-state Minorities Minister Ranjit Dutta confirmed plans to hold the census, citing the 2019 Budget, which included provisions for a “Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims” for the community’s “holistic development” as well as a “socio-economic census.”
The census may be moved forward, as seen by last week’s events. According to the Congressman, there had been talking about other such endeavors, but “no one wanted to touch it because it was a hot potato.”
“However, the chief minister is an astute politician who understands that this will benefit him politically,” he added.
The recommendations, according to Aowal, are good, but they need to be examined. “The suggestions allude to identification for the ‘Assamese Muslim’ in their existing form,” he continued, “but it is critical that specific groups such as Goriyas, Moriyas, Deshis, and Julas be identified because the meaning of indigenous is unclear.”
It would “ultimately not be implemented” because it was not “constitutionally legal,” and Islam cautioned that “harm would be done and the Bengali Muslim community would be further marginalized.”
The plan is currently in the “recommendation stage,” according to state minority minister Chandra Mohan Patowary.
“The chief minister will be presented with the reports of the seven committees.” “Yes, he did say the proposals were all implementable, but he also added that it would be done in three parts — short term, medium-term, and long term — and matters would be taken (ahead) properly,” he said.