Assamese Muslims at crossroads of identity and development

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By Syed Miraz Ahmed

Background

The National Register of Citizens was first published in independent India in 1951 to document genuine Indian citizens in Assam in the wake of post-partition woes. Documentation was completed but 100 per cent coverage of people was not possible. The Government of India had already brought into effect the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 since March 1, 1950, which mandated expulsion of illegal immigrants from Assam and the NRC of 1951 was an exercise in this direction. In 1960 the Government of Assam passed the Assam (Official) Language Act ensuring safeguard of Assamese identity based on Assamese language while according Bengali the status of official language only in the district of Cachar. Immigration from East Pakistan was in continuation through the 1960s to 1970s and after. On August 8, 1967, the All Assam Students Union was formed. In 1971 the Bangladesh War of Liberation resulted in large scale displacement of people both Bengali speaking Hindus and Muslims in the form of refugees to Assam. There is no official estimation available of the exodus that Assam hosted from time to time.

On February 2, 1980, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) presented a memorandum to then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi conveying their profound sense of apprehension regarding the continuing influx of foreign nationals into Assam and the fear of adverse effects upon the political, social, cultural and economic life of the state. From 1979 to 1985 Assam played theatre to Assam Movement also called Assam Agitation against illegal immigrants in the state. The Movement received support from Assamese Muslims but waned slowly. It also widened the rift between the tribals and Assamese speaking.

The evolving narrative was one of Assamese nationality, genuine Indian citizens and Assamese versus foreigners (migrants). Several rounds of talks after in August 14 1985, a Memorandum of Settlement in the form of Assam Accord was signed with the Government of India to address a slew of issues in the clauses mentioned significant being Clause 6 demanding provisioning for constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese People.

Assam being an ethnological museum of peoples became home to an array of social groups that migrated to the state since pre-historic times. It was only during British India censuses that identification of peoples and social stratification became a subject of interest and importance. By 2003, the Citizenship Act 1955 was amended to make the registration of all Indian citizens mandatory by way of documenting all the legal citizens of India so that illegal migrants can be identified and deported.

While keeping pace with socioeconomic developments and popular identity based upheavals, the Assamese speaking Muslim milieu began to cringe when identified with Muslims of Bengal and East Bengal origin on the basis of a common belief system. Slowly, the process of organizing people on class lines resulted in the formation of identity based civil organizations in the Brahmaputra Valley bellowing Assamese identity. It became important how the Assamese speaking Hindu communities perceived the Assamese speaking Muslims. This pushed them into the crisis of identity in the sociocultural space. To assert their identity keeping those of Bengal descent in contrast, organizations began to frequent sit-ins echoing for constitutional safeguards with likeminded organizations representing different social identities. The perceived threat of a foreigner (immigrant) in the pie translated down to resource claim. Funds for socio-economic development were now being demanded to be decentralized on the basis of identity.

In February 2015 following the intervention of the Supreme Court the exercise of updating the already incomplete 1951 NRC began. On August 31, 2019 the Government of Assam released the final NRC leaving out 19, 06,657 people having spent Rs, 1, 220 crore much to the displeasure of the Government of Assam, All Assam Students Union and Assamese Muslim bodies, the mammoth exercise was termed “erroneous.”

What is this identity?

Muslims in Assam came to be identified along class lines in the rank of hierarchy similar to what was prevalent in India in the medieval period. Historians confirm that Syeds occupy the top in order of how they appeared in the social plane, seconded by converts (Sheikhs, Gorias and Desis), war prisoners (Marias) and occupational Muslim groups (like weavers, tailors, architects, masons and artisans, zari artisans, engravers, transcribers, percussionists, metallurgists, gunmakers and learned men) additionally imported from mainland India by the monarchs of Assam.

To voice their issues over time, the Marias, Gorias, Jolhas and Desis formed organizations in the pockets of Eastern, Central and Western Assam on class lines while the “Syeds” resorted to nothing. They projected their identities from the purview of being ethnic (Assamese), indigenous (pre-colonial settlers) and deprived from socioeconomic and allied benefits (when compared to Muslims of Bengal origin). Their demand for constitutional and legislative safeguards intensified from about 2003 much in the mouthing of Clause 6. The conscious of the common Assamese speaking Muslims across class began to be impacted upon with mass mobilization for protests, sit-ins, separate census, ethnic tag and political aspirations.

The All Assam Students Union in all its public and media speeches, pin on the rights of the ‘indigenous’ people and ‘sons-of-the-soil’ citing Clause 6. This became a benchmark statement for organizations aligned to it. Fact is, nowhere in the Assam Accord is the word ‘indigenous’ mentioned. Nothing in the Assam Accord defines the epithet Assamese People either. Hence, a befitting definition of Assamese People was more than necessary for the portrayal of the mosaic of people and implementation of the Accord. At first thought, the term accommodates all people who speak Assamese and or live in the state. But a definition vetoed by mass consensus was expected. By 2015, the Assam Assembly, All Assam Students Union, Assam Sahiyta Sabha, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha and former news editor Dhirendra Nath Chakraborty took turns to describe ‘Assamese People,’ with no consensus reached. All Assam Students Union advisor, Samujjal Bhattacharjee opined that, “Assamese People” means “Khilonjia Axomiya and Khilonjia Janajati.” (Indigenous Assamese and Indigenous Tribes)

Meanwhile, in July 17, 2019 the Ministry of Home Affairs constituted a 13-member High Level Committee for the implementation of Clause 6 comprising a retired justice, an advocate general, a retired IPS and IAS officer, a professor, a columnist, a journalist, three members of the All Assam Students Union and the joint secretary (northeast) at the MHA, Satyendra Garg representing the Central government. Once, MHA makes public wholly or in part the contents of the report submitted by the committee, Clause 6 and associated items will come to light.

Muslims, minorities, national religious minorities and development

The Constitution of India does not define the word ‘Minority’ and only refers to ‘Minorities’ and speaks of those ‘based on religion or language.’ The rights of Minorities are placed both in ‘common domain’ and ‘separate domain’ by the Constitution.

The United Nations in order to strengthen the cause of the minorities promulgated the “Declaration on the Rights of Persons belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities” on December 18, 1992 proclaiming that: “States shall protect the existence of the National or Ethnic, Cultural, Religious and Linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity.”

In 1993, the Congress government notified Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Jains (2014) as national religious minorities. The Ministry of Minority Affairs since its functioning in 2006 is mandated with the formulation of overall policy and planning, coordination, evaluation and review of the regulatory framework and development programmes for the benefit of the minority communities. Since, all central schemes and grants for development are released to the State Welfare of Minorities & Development Department in the nomenclature of ‘Minority,’ the demand for disbursement on the basis of identity to a section of Muslims alone is immaterial.

In Assam the Welfare of Minorities & Development Department has for the welfare of minorities under it, the: (1) Assam State Commission for Minorities (2) Linguistic Minority Development Board (3) Assam Board of Wakfs (4) Assam Minorities Development Board and (5) Directorate of Char Area Development Assam.

 

Financial Year Budget Allocation in crores
2014-2015 3734.01
2015-2016 3738.11
2016-2017 3827.25
2017-2018 4195.48
2018-2019 4700.00
2019-2020 4700.00
2020-2021 5029.00

 

Though it bodes well to find the share of budget allocation on an incline over the years, with poor utilization and unapproved projects, Muslim communities in general have not benefitted much by it in Assam. It is because of unutilization of funds that matching funds against Central funds cannot be released thereby depriving minority communities of their benefits. It is yet to deliver on Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram in the Minority Concentrated Areas despite the necessity of expediting implementation of the scheme targeted for minorities. Several Minority Concentration Districts in Assam have both socio-economic and basic amenities indicators below the national average.

The Congress during their tenure took cognizance of all identity based movements in the state and instituted Development Councils for their socio-economic, educational, cultural and ethnic advancement, counting into a total of 31 Development Councils until 2016. The Jolha and Maria Muslims were listed as OBC vide a Gazette Notification of India way back in 1993. Decades later the government instituted Development Councils for Marias, Jolhas and Gorias for their uplift, viz. Moria Development Council (2010), Jolha Development Council (2016) and Goria Development Council (2015).

The Assamese Muslim brouhaha

The turn of events towards creating a corporation for Assamese Muslim classes resulted from more than a decade of mobilization and lobbying. The BJP has been assuring their development since they came to power in the Assam Legislative Assembly Elections 2016. It promised in its election manifestos in 2011, 2014 and 2016 to conduct a separate census of the indigenous Muslims and accord constitutional safeguards.

Assamese Muslim organizations pinned their hopes on the BJP Minority Morcha for realization of their demands. BJP’s consensus that Assamese speaking Muslims should not be identified on the basis of religion but ethnicity gave them all the reason to rally for it. Principal organizations (registered and unregistered) that represent their say in shaping public and political opinion are: (1) Sadou Asom Goria, Moria, Deshi Jatiya Parishad (2) Goria, Moria, Deshi Janagosthiya Parishad Asom (3) Sadou Asom Goria, Moria Yuba Chatra Parishad (4) Deshi Janagosthiya Mancha (5) Sadou Deshi Janagosthiya Jatiya Sangsad, Assam (6) Ujoni Asom Muslim Kalyan Parishad (7) Asomiya Muslim Kalyan Parishad (8) Khilonjia Asomiya Musalman Unnayan Parishad (9) Khilonjia Musalman Suraksha Mancha (10) Goria, Moria, Desi Samannayrakhi Samity and (11) Khilonjia Moria Sanstha Asom

In 2019, the Chairman of the Assam Minorities Development Board flouted Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad Asom making it an apex body by bringing some 21 odd big and small Assamese Muslim organizations under it. Moto: the Assam Legislative Assembly Elections 2021 will require the BJP Minority Morcha to move it further and allegiance of Assamese Muslims to the party may help play a decisive role. The Assam budget in the 2019-2020 fiscal talked about a development corporation for indigenous Muslims; that upon formation `100 crore shall be allocated for various development and employment related activities. The budget presented completed a year on February 7, 2020 while a new financial year awaits. On February 6, 2020, the Welfare of Minorities and Development Department issued a memo to all representatives to convene for a meeting on February 11, 2020 regarding socio-economic census of indigenous Muslims of Assam- Goria, Moria, Ujani, Deshi, Jolha Maimal, Syed etc., in an effort to make use of the budget allocation.

The somersault

The meeting attended by all 21 constituent members of Janagosthiya Samannay Parishad Asom, and Minister, Welfare of Minorities and Development Department proved volatile as all huddled to find a name for the proposed development corporation. Actions taken: (1) indigenous tag dropped considering it ‘undefined’ (2) Syeds classed under Gorias (3) proposed corporation named “Goria, Moria, Deshi and Jolha Development Corporation” depicting classes.

This underrepresented the section of Assamese speaking Muslims who suffix their names with the Muslim honorific “Syed” certifying their linear ancestry and are not “Gorias” by any distant or relative definition of the term. The classification of the Syeds scattered in the western, central, north and eastern Brahmaputra Valley under the nomenclature “Goria” is incorrect. It is a sinister design with mala fide intent of incompetent civil groups to club Syeds who are a microscopic minority in the valley (maybe over a lakh in number) with the bulk of “Gorias.”

Historically, Syeds conform to the “nobility” and are easily identifiable everywhere in India and worldwide with their honorific. Except for in urban spaces, Syeds live distinct from other Muslim social groups in Assam. Notably, typical Syed neighborhoods are always separate from non-Syed counterparts (Gorias, Marias and others) in the social plane in Assam. Syeds over time have not diffused into Gorias or the reverse true across linguistic groups. Syeds becoming Gorias is not a case of acculturation either. The usage of the term Goria itself is riddled in contradiction and deserves consensus on the scattered theories associated with it. It is similar to the debate, as to who are Assamese People.

In medieval Assam, Syeds were spiritual preceptors and educators. Converts from the local strata comprise a distinct Muslim social class, second to Syeds. Syeds practice class endogamy to preserve the ‘equity’ (kafa’ah) status in Islāmic jurisprudence with regard to marriage and count lesser in number. Syeds were recipients of royal land endowments under the medieval monarchs of Eastern and Western Assam. Gorias were never privileged with such royal land endowments. Select Syed families still enjoy royal land endowments in Assam.

A look at the classes and their formation

Top in the hierarchy like in other states in India, Syeds trace their descent to Prophet Muhammad through their ancestors in Assam forming the “nobility.” They engaged as spiritual preceptors (religious intelligentsia) and educators, enjoying large tracts of royal land-in-grant and important offices both under the Koch and Ahom monarchies in Western and Eastern Assam. Syeds practice endogamy to maintain their identity, authority and lineal ancestry and hence form a numerical minority in the state. Clustered in the Brahmaputra Valley they are well integrated into the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious population of Assam and speak Assamese as their mother tongue. Syeds live in enclaves and are distinguishable from their non-Syed counterparts and other social groups with exception to those who live in cosmopolitan set ups like Kamrup Metro. They are distributed in Eastern, Central and Western Assam.

Category General
Concerned Department Welfare for Minorities & Development
Concerned Board Assam Minorities Development Board
Development Council None

 

The Garias aka Goriyas, Gorias form the bulk among the Muslims in the Brahmaputra Valley and were primarily converts from cultivators. The derivation and use of the term Garia connoting their class or identity is disputed, attracts contradiction and lacks consensus in its definition and origin. Theories: (1) Tai prince Siu-Ka-Pha of Möngmao (Western Yunnan Province of China) is reported to have been accompanied by a Goriya family on his way to Assam; a case in Eastern Assam (2) the composition of Garias have been linked with Gauda, a medieval city capital of Bengal following the interest of the Afghan Turks in expanding their territories into Assam up to Hajo; a case in Western Assam (3) Muslims dispose of their dead by burying called gor dia in Assamese, hence the term Garia; a common observation (4) when non-Muslims converted they were excluded (ostracized) and the process eghoria kora; eghoria corrupted to Garia; the likeness of which is place centric and cannot be considered a common nomenclature. The term found currency through social interaction of people, and (5) settled Muslim tailors were also called Garias; which group in particular is unclear.

Muslim artisans and craftsmen were brought by Koch kings and settled in their kingdom. Historical records show that during the period between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries many Muslim soldiers and craftsmen settled along the north bank of the river Brahmaputra on the tract between Hajo in Kamrup and Sipajhar in Darrang District. In the course of time some low caste Hindus living contiguous to the Muslim settlers converted to Islām. Mughal soldiers captured during the Battle of Saraighat were taken and settled in Howli Mohanpur in Mangaldoi and some sold at a place near Kalaigaon in Udalguri which then came to be known as Mughal-Besha. Muslimghopa in Sipajhar attest the presence of Muslims. For all certainty, these populations of Muslims cannot be classed under Garias.

The probabilities of the term Garia also meet with the term Sheikh the converts were classed into in style with the rest of medieval India during the Ahom monarchy. This section of the Muslim bulk cannot be all classified as Garia, Goriya or Goria by virtue of the fact that “a family” reportedly called Goriya accompanied Siu-Ka-Pha and therefore all are descendants of the said family in the length and breadth of the Brahmaputra Valley.

Therefore, both the term Garia and Sheikh are interchangeably related to people who converted from Tribal Hindu Assamese speaking communities and different caste Hindu groups with their associated trades. Garias take Assamese in the varying dialects as their tongue and are class endogamous. Hinduised Ahom King Suhungmung employed and settled several skilled occupational classes of Muslims from mainland north India in his kingdom. It is incorrect to class these occupational Muslims also under any definition of Garia.

 

Category General
Category in Demand ST
Concerned Departments Welfare for Minorities & Development

i.         Department of WPT & BC

 
Concerned Board Assam Minorities Development Board
Development Council Goria Development Council
Budget Released                 26.40 Lakhs (2017-2018); unutilized
Proposed Council Goria, Moria, Desi, Jolha Development Corporation
Budget Proposed 100 Cr

 

Remnants of the Mughal infantry taken prisoner, Marias were settled across the kingdom by Ahom King Suhungmung and conferred occupational titles. They took local women and resorted to brass and copper metal works. Because of their weak Muslim outlook, they were in a way left unto themselves and not married into. Vide a resolution and notification of the Gazette of India: Extraordinary in September 10, 1993, Marias was listed as Other Backward Class. Marias speak Assamese, are class endogamous and well distributed in Eastern, Central and Western Assam.

 

Category OBC
Concerned Departments Welfare for Minorities & Development

ii.        Department of WPT & BC

 
Development Council Maria Development Council
Budget Released 2, 67, 15, 670 Cr (2010-2015)

 

The Desis also known as Ujanis are collective converts from Koch and Rajbanshi stocks who maintained long interaction with Muslims outside the Koch Kingdom and are largely concentrated in Western Assam. Colonizers indentified converts from Koches as Mussalman Koch. They speak the ‘Desi’ dialect and demand Scheduled Tribe status by virtue of their Oriental (Mongoloid) roots.

 

Category ST
Concerned Department Welfare for Minorities & Development
Development Council None

 

Jolhas (weavers by tradition from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal) were brought to Assam first by Ahom monarchy followed by the colonizers. They served as weavers of the Ahom royals. During the boom of tea plantations the colonizers brought Jolhas from Chota Nagpur and engaged them as laborers in the tea gardens. They speak Assamese along with Khorusti dialect. They form the economically weak section of Muslims in Assam and vide a resolution and notification of the Gazette of India: Extraordinary in September 10, 1993, the Jolhas were listed under Tea Garden Laborers as Other Backward Class by the Central Ministry. Jolhas are primarily distributed in Eastern Assam.

 

Category OBC
Concerned Departments Welfare for Minorities & Development

iii.      Department of WPT & BC

 
Development Council Jolha Development Council
Budget Released 26.40 Lakhs (2017-2018); unutilized

 

The fine print in the run to address the crisis of identity and development among select Muslim social groups should not result in an imbroglio. There must be more questioning on fused, underrepresented social identities of all privileged and underprivileged social groups. Development is a global phenomenon and disaggregation of data for minority development is outright essential to fulfill the pledge ‘that no one will be left behind.’

 

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