A day after the Nitish Kumar-led Bihar government declared the results of its caste survey, the BJP-ruled Assam government on Tuesday announced that it has issued directions for conducting a socio-economic survey of the state’s “indigenous” Muslim sub-groups.
The Assam Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) stated that these communities include Goria, Moria, Deshi, Syed and Julha – the five Assamese Muslim sub-groups whose identification as “indigenous” Muslim communities were approved by the state Cabinet headed by CM Himanta Biswa Sarma last year.
“The latest decision to go ahead with a ‘Socio-Economic Assessment’ of the members of the State’s five indigenous Muslim communities is expected to provide a push for their inclusive development in the fields of healthcare, cultural identity, education, financial inclusion, skill development and women empowerment, among others,” the CMO’s statement said.
The Sarma government’s decision is a part of its exercise undertaken over the last three years to consolidate an identity for these Muslim sub-groups different from Bengali-speaking Muslims, seizing on the demand made by some of the “Assamese Muslim” bodies. These moves are being perceived in some quarters as seeking to distinguish these Assamese-speaking Muslims from the much larger population of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
While welcoming the move, Nurul Haque, working president of the Sadou Asom Goria-Moria-Deshi Jatiya Parishad, said that it is in line with a meeting that the organisation’s representatives had with Sarma last month. He said they hope that a socio-economic survey will open up the ways for these Muslim sub-groups to be granted the OBC status. At the root of these demands, he said, is that these communities’ “separate culture and identity be safeguarded” and not merged with the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The first move in this direction was made by the BJP dispensation in February 2020 when the Assam Minorities Development Board proposed a “census” for “indigenous” Muslims on the basis of the 2019 state Budget that had provisions for a “Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims” for “holistic development” of the community as well as a “socio-economic census”. However, this never took off. The next year, seven sub-committees were formed, which submitted their reports in April last year. Apart from the recommendation that a notification be passed to identify “Assamese Muslims” as a distinct group in the state, another proposal made by these reports sought a census to “identify and document” the Assamese Muslim community.
The 2011 Census enumerated 1.06 crore Muslims (34%) in Assam out of the state’s total population of 3.12 crore, but did not give their break-up by ethnicity. A sub-committee’s report submitted to the Assam government put the current Muslim population at 1.18 crore, out of which it estimated the figure of five “indigenous” sub-groups at 42 lakh.
“Our history in the state is 1,000 years old, we are sons of the soil. 99% of people among us are those whose forefathers had converted here from other tribes and religions. There are others who have come from outside and their numbers are much larger, but they have a history of just around 100 years here. Our culture, traditions, food habits are all different but because our religion is the same, we are clubbed together, something that had started from the British period,” Haque said.
“So we want our separate culture and identity to be safeguarded. One thing we have wanted is that a census be done so that the government can take steps to uplift the communities and grant OBC status. We have also been pressing for a separate directorate for the welfare of indigenous Muslims,” he said.
In April 2021, the Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad (JSPA) – an umbrella body of 21 “indigenous” organisations in Assam – launched a website with the avowed objective to conduct such a census and announced the commencement of an exercise. This however lost steam and was dropped later, but the demand persisted.
“This demand has been raised since 2008 and had been communicated to Rajnath Singh when he was the BJP national president,” said Syed Muminul Aowal, a BJP leader and the JSPA’s chief convener. “Then after the BJP came to power in Assam, the matter began to proceed step by step and last year, the Cabinet recognised five sub-groups as indigenous. If this effort for a socio-economic survey works out then steps for their uplift in health, education, communication and economy can proceed as well… Since their population is spread across Assam and not concentrated in pockets, and they are not socially or politically strong, they do not get benefits of schemes for minorities,” he said.
However, even the attempt to identify certain Muslim sub-groups as “indigenous” is contested by those left out of it – the Bengali-speaking Muslims – and the move to conduct such a socio-economic survey specifically for “indigenous” Muslims is being castigated for allegedly creating a division among Muslims in the state for political and electoral dividends.
Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Literary Parishad, said such a survey would not be possible because the Assam government is yet to officially define who is “indigenous” — a fraught subject in a border state which has witnessed many waves of migration.
“What is the definition of indigenous on the basis of which indigenous Muslims can be enumerated? Has it been defined constitutionally? We have no problem with such a survey but the definition should be arrived at. The most backward among the Muslims in the state are the ‘Miyas’ (Bengali-speaking Muslims), but the last time a survey was done of people living in char-chapori (riverine islands and low-lying riverbanks inhabited predominantly by Miyas) was in 2003-2004… At the end of the day, this is purely politics and these are tactics to divide Muslims and draw out votes from a section of Muslims,” he said.
This was echoed by Aminul Islam, general secretary of the AIUDF, whose primary support base involves Bengali-speaking Muslims. “The intention is clearly to divide Muslims. We support the concept of a socio-economic survey like that in Bihar for the entire state, which can help allocate development benefits according to a community’s share. There should not be any kind of discrepancy,” he said.
On Sunday, Sarma said the BJP does not need the votes of “Miyas” for the next 10 years until they “reform” themselves by “abjuring” practices such as child marriage. “BJP will do public welfare and they (Miyas) will support us, but they don’t need to vote for us. There is no harm in supporting us. Let them shout ‘zindabad’ for Himanta Biswa Sarma, Narendra Modi and BJP,” the CM reportedly told media persons.
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