In a research paper presented at Jamia Millia Islamia, academics Nazrul Haque and Malini Bhattacharjee highlight why Assamese Muslims are now asserting their ethnic identity alongside their religious identity
The ethnic violence in Bodo Territorial Council areas of Assam has been in the news for some years. Particularly bloody and recurring has been the conflict between the Bodos and the largely Bengali-speaking Muslims, leading to many from both the communities living in uncertainty and fear in camps for some time now. The accusations of the Bodos against the Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who occupied their fallow land — and therefore ‘outsiders’— have been at the core of the conflict.
Not just in the Bodo areas but across Assam, the fight against illegal immigration from Bangladesh has been long, and at times bloody. A porous international border, unfulfilled promises of the Assam Accord and both State and National parties perennially playing vote bank politics, have contributed to the protracted problem. The emergence of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) — on largely religious lines — has added to the complexities.
In this din, a critical voice seems to have gone unheard — that of the Assamese Muslims, locally called Goria, Moria or Desi. Many political and religious groups, time and again, have tried tying them to the Bengali-speaking Muslims highlighting their religious identity. However, lately, the community is seen to be asserting its ethnic identity as equally important as its religious identity, thus situating them in a peculiar position in the politically charged and religiously polarised milieu of the State.
The complexities of the topic got rare attention at a recent conference in New Delhi on the North East. Nazrul Haque and Malini Bhattacharjee, from Bangalore’s Azim Premji University, presented a paper — Identities in Quandary: The Complex Narrative of ‘Assamese Muslims’ — at “Reimagining the North East: Narratives, Networks and Negotiations”, hosted by Jamia Millia Islamia’s Centre for the North East. The research paper stood out for throwing light on an important slice of Assam history, often overlooked.
Haque and Bhattacharjee expounded on the advent of Islam in Assam through the invading Muslim armies since the 13th Century; their defeated soldiers taken captive by the Ahom kings creating, first, the Gorias, and later the Morias in the mid-16th Century. While Desis are people from the Koch and Nath communities converted to Islam, they highlight that many others became Muslims in Assam at the call of the Sufi saint Azan Fakir in mid-17th Century.
The Bengali-speaking Muslims, the paper points out, emigrated from erstwhile East Bengal to Assam during the British rule from 1826 to 1947. It “reached its peak during 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh”, leading the 1971 Census to record a 34.98 per cent increase in Assam’s population from the 1961 Census. However, Assamese language and local culture continued to be the binding force for the rest of the communities across religions.
In this interview, the duo states that language being the defining factor of the 1980s Assam Students’ Movement against illegal immigration, Assamese Muslims took part in it but “later became suspicious in an increasingly communal environment.”
Excerpts from the interview:
What attracted both of you to the topic? How long you have been researching on it?
Haque: We both are from Assam and have grown up witnessing the syncretic nature of our local culture (irrespective of religion and in spite of it) and also the changing narratives of that ethnic bonding. For the last few years, we could also sense a tension among indigenous Muslims of Assam and the various reasons for that — rise of global Islam, increasing religious intolerance in India, demand of democracy and politics, controversy surrounding the issue of ‘immigration’, etc. That made us interested in the topic as this case study speaks to a very important and global phenomenon. We did our first field interviews last November.
What is the size of their population?
Haque: There are no government figures, for obvious reasons. However, organisations like All Assam Goria, Moria, Desi Jatiya Parishad quote a number of around 30 lakhs. Some academics point out that in 1901, there were 2,48,842 Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley. The count, as per 1951 Census, was 19,81,859 (15 lakh were estimated to be of East Bengal origin).
In this identity war of ethnicity versus religion, how much are Assamese Muslims under pressure to side with religion? How much of it is political pressure?
Haque: The force of religion is quite powerful, as almost everyone we interviewed had admitted. There are changes in important social ceremonies, food habits, folk music, literature, the way people dress and conduct their daily life. There are political pressures too and more so because of the rise of the BJP and AIUDF in Assam politics, almost simultaneously.
How representative of the community are organisations like AAGMDJP?
Haque: It seems there are too many contradictions even within organisations ‘representing’ indigenous Muslims of Assam. Who are ‘indigenous’ and who are not? However, one fact is important — of all such bodies, AAGMDJP is the only one well accepted by all other ethnic organisations (Tai Ahom Students Union, Ahom Royal Society, Moran Students Union, Motok Students Union, Dimasa Students Union, Sonowal Kachari Parishad, All Bodo Students Union) and for some years, they are almost working together. That was evident in some public meetings we attended.
How much have Assamese Muslims suffered in the Bodo-Muslim violence? How strong is the tendency to club them with Bengali-speaking Muslims because of religion?
Bhattacharjee: There are many layers to this question and they are complex. One thing is distinct — the Bodoland violence was not (only) because of religion. Even now, the stands taken by various groups (including the BJP, the RSS or Hindu Yuva Chatra Parishad) are clear and publicly so — that one can’t club all Muslims in Assam under one religious umbrella. However, interests representing people from East Bengal origin (even Na Asomiyas) definitely try to make it a Hindu-Muslim issue and our sense is that so do intellectuals who don’t have first-hand knowledge of the region.