Last month, a panel constituted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Assam proposed issuing ID cards for Assamese Muslims, in addition to conducting a census to “identify and document” the Assamese Muslim community. Recently, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that his government intended to formalise a definition for who an ‘Assamese’ is. He also spoke of a section of Muslims that is “indigenous to Assam [and] which has no history of migration in the past 200 years”.
It is important to ask why there is a need to define Assamese Muslims as indigenous to Assam, and why the Assam government is interested in these definitions at all. And for that, it’s important to go back into history.
When Choosing Friends Became Important
In the early colonial period, Assam was viewed as a wasteland. Later, resource extraction and revenue consolidation required the colonial administration to ‘populate’ various groups beyond the province into the wasteland. This generated revenue for the Crown, but it abruptly altered the socio-economic profile of the province.
As the colonial wasteland got transformed into a post-colonial borderland of a partitioned India, the existing cultural anxieties became an important element of the state’s politics. In this social and political journey in Assam, choosing fellow travellers and strangers became crucial.
How Maulana Bhasani Fought for Immigrant Peasants
The principal contradiction in Assam politics during the 1940s was the issue of wasteland settlement for immigrants and the restrictions imposed by the ruling establishments.
The Assam Provincial Muslim League was reconstituted in November 1939 and Maulana Bhasani became its vice-president. He organised branches of the League in Sylhet and Goalpara. The uncompromising role of Bhasani and his followers in acquiring the right to cultivate land without adhering to the restrictions imposed by the Line System vexed Muhammad Sadullah’s government in Assam at that point.
But come what may, Bhasani would never heed the government’s proposals, be it by the Congress or the Muslim League, for any conciliation in terms of restricting immigrant peasants from cultivating or acquiring land in reserved areas.
When the provincial Muslim League conference was organised at Barpeta in April 1944, there was an open deliberation between Bhasani and Sadullah over the issue of wasteland settlement with immigrants. While Sadullah blamed middlemen and power-brokers within the immigrant society for acquiring hundreds of acres of wasteland, running their own zamindari and accordingly violating the Line System (which was an administrative tool to segregate the immigrants from the local population), Bhasani, reiterated his stand on opening up more land for landless immigrant peasants by removing the restrictions imposed by the Line System. He criticised Sadullah for dividing the immigrant peasantry between the pre-1938 and post-1938 categories in terms of allotting wastelands.
To the over 25,000 people who attended the meeting, it was a debate in which Bhasani triumphed over Sadullah. The division between these two leaders over the land settlement issue was so sharp that in 1945, two all-India leaders were called upon to deal with the two warring factions, but the differences never died owing to the rigid stand of Bhasani and his followers.
Bhasani Had Nothing to Lose Except Bondage
In the meantime, the Muslim League, with the organisational abilities of Bhasani, was able to expand its base in the Brahmaputra Valley by aligning with Assamese Muslims, who were somewhat alienated by the elitist leaders of their community in Assam. This alignment of Bhasani and a section of Assamese Muslims was perceived as a threat by various other influential stalwarts of the Muslim League, namely, Sadullah, Sayidur Rahman and Keramat Ali.
In contrast, Bhasani, with his humble background, uncompromising conviction, and grassroots mobilisation had – like his followers – nothing to lose except bondage. His mission was to acquire land for the impoverished immigrant peasantry, and in order to do that, the only option was to fight for Pakistan. He reiterated in a session of the Assam Provincial Muslim League: “We shall have to shed our blood and become Saahids on the path of Allah for the sake of Pakistan. Besides the withdrawal of the Line System, we want to attain freedom by kicking slavery.”
Why the Insistence on 'Assamese'?
The new migrants who migrated to Assam for East Bengal during the colonial period were termed ‘Na-asamiya’ or Neo-Assamese, by Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Ambikagiri Raichoudhury. This prefix of “new” was not without conditions. For a narrow nationalist like Ambikagiri, who also was crucial in forming the Assam Self Defence Force to counter the politics of the Muslim League, it required cutting off the roots and embracing the Assamese language to become this ‘new’ Assamese subject.
This insistence on Assamese carried two meanings, if not more. First, it was seen as a minimum criterion to establish one’s 'fidelity' to Assam and the Assamese culture. Second, it would also politically help increase Assamese speakers.
The Many Muslims in Assam
Writer Monirul Hussain categories the Muslims in Assam into four groups. They are:
Assamese Muslims: captured soldiers and descendants who stayed back in Assam, artisans brought into Assam by the Ahom kings, preachers and local converts during the Ahom period,
Neo-Assamese Muslims: the group we discussed earlier,
Muslims of the Barak Valley: most of them moved into Cachar from the neighbouring districts of East Bengal during the British period, and
North Indian Muslims: those who moved into Assam primarily from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Assamese Muslims can be further divided into Garia, Moria, Desi and Jhula, who form the core of what is being defined as 'indigenous' to Assam. Occupation is the mainframe that is used to divide them. However, today, not everyone is strictly tied to the same professions.
According to historian Edward Gait, Garias are Muslims who belong to the Gaur province of Bengal. Other colonial accounts have also classified them as tailors. The Morias are popularly known as a group of people who specialised in bell-metal work. The Deshis are descendants of people who can be traced back to the Dhubri-Goalpara-Cooch Behar area of Lower Assam, which were part of the Bengal Presidency at the time of annexation of Assam through the treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Julhas, on the other hand, are Muslims among Assam’s tea tribes, who were traditionally known to be weavers.
After Bhasani, East Bengali Immigrants Became a Leaderless Group
The fissures between the Congress and the Muslim League, and those within the League itself, influenced the underlying class consciousness of the leaders, too. Major stalwarts of the League, such as Sadullah, Sayidur Rahman and Keramat Ali, were all property-owning leaders who had modest interest in tea gardens and were also government title holders at one time or the other.
The only exception, of course, was Bhasani, the League leader who rose to prominence and became the reflection of the angst of the East Bengali immigrant community.
His politics remained uncompromised even after he moved to the other side of the border. But post-1947, the departure of Maulana Bhasani to East Pakistan made this community leaderless and rudderless.
The Precarious Lives of Miya Muslims
While there may be no significant difference in the socio-economic status of the Muslims in Assam, it goes without saying that the precarity that afflicts the Miya community is the worst. While almost all categories of Muslims in Assam are engaged as labourers in agriculture and urban areas, along with doing petty trade, there are marked differences in the land they dwell and cultivate in.
Assamese Muslims other than the Miya are mainly settled in permanent land. On the other hand, the Miya Muslims remain ensconced in Central and Lower Assam, occupying floodplains and the char areas. The impermanence of these lands forces them into penury. The socio-economic survey of the Char areas of the Brahmaputra indicates that the proportion of char dwellers who fall below the poverty line increased from 48 % in 1992-93 to 67 per cent in 2002-03 according to a socio-economic survey conducted by the Directorate of Char Areas Development, Government of Assam.
For Middle-Class Muslims, Victims of NRC are 'Collateral Damage'
It is important to first ask why the government is bent on defining Assamese Muslims as being 'indigenous' to Assam.
Politically speaking, this inclusion benefits both Assamese Muslims and the caste Assamese. Assamese Muslims, by being considered Assamese, will be given benefits and made rightful claimants of the Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985, which states that “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.
But this automatically excludes other Muslims of Assam from the mainframe of culture and society, as well as from the purview of various safeguards mentioned in Clause 6, thus rendering them real minorities in the state.
One can then potentially claim that anyone who is left out of the preview of Clause 6 is an absolute minority in the state of Assam, which includes Miya Muslims, the Neo-Assamese and the Muslims of Barak Valley (with different connotations and political permutations).
These omissions in the definition of ‘Assamese Muslims’ are by no means trivial or non-political.
These divisions within the Muslims in Assam serve another political purpose: keeping the Muslims divided. By breaking them, the majority keeps them politically differentiated.
This class politics also benefits the middle class in Assam when it comes to citizenship. Oliullah Laskar, a lawyer at the Guwahati High Court, points out that “there is an alignment of interest and desire between the middle-class Muslims of Assam and caste Assamese middle class when it comes to the question of citizenship process.”
The support coming from middle-class Muslims in Assam for a process like the National Register of Citizens (NRC) can also be understood from a class angle, where sacrificing a few people is just ‘collateral damage’ for removing the stigma faced by a community.
The Hindutva Virus of 'Victimhood' Has Been Planted Among Assamese Muslims, Too
In today’s Assam, while the definition of Assamese continues to be an undecided subject, the State seems to have short-circuited the process by categorising Assamese Muslims into a politico-administrative category. The Hindutva ‘virus’ of victimhood that has been implanted in the minds of the majority Hindu population in India has been extended to the Muslims in Assam, too. While nowhere in South Asia’s multi-ethnic milieu can the followers of one religion be lumped into a homogenous category, the heterogeneity within the Muslim community in Assam is used as a means to divide them.
The anxieties around the ‘Assamese’ nationality generate various political outcomes. For example, for cementing the Assamese language as the official language in the state, the categorisation and acceptance of the neo-Assamese (read ‘Miya’) was paramount in the Congress era. But with changing times and ideologies, and with the deepening of the citizenship debate, they have become redundant.
Making ‘non-citizens’ out of the neo-Assamese is easy, as they carry the ingredients required to be seen as the ‘other’ due to their history. And the attempt to define Assamese Muslims as ‘indigenous’ deepens this ‘otherisation’ of the real minorities.
Manufacturing definitions is the new normal in Assam today. It's the state that selects ‘experts’ who decide who should be straitjacketed into which category. India, the land that Tagore identifies as “the holy place of pilgrimage on the vast shore of humanity”, is being reduced to petty definitions.
(Suraj is a sociologist based in Singapore and Gorky teaches at Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)