Assam meeting on census to identify ‘indigenous’ Muslims tomorrow

Tora Agarwala

The Assam Budget 2019-2020 (announced in February 2019) listed the creation of a ‘Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims’. (File)

Assam's Welfare of Minorities Minister Ranjit Dutta has confirmed the state's plans to implement a census to identify Assam’s ‘khilonjiya’, or indigenous Muslim population, this year. On Tuesday, Dutta will meet with various representatives of the indigenous Assamese Muslim community to seek their "suggestions" in finalising the framework of the census.

"A sum of Rs 100 crore was announced to form the ‘Khilonjiya Muslim Development Corporation’ in the 2019-2020 state budget. To that end, the government will first do a survey or census to identify the population of the community," said Dutta.

The Assam Budget 2019-2020 (announced in February 2019) listed the creation of a ‘Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims’ aimed at the ‘holistic development’ of the community as well as a "socio-economic census" to help assess their "socio-economic condition". On February 6, 2020, a memo was issued by the Welfare of Minorities and Development Department calling for a "meeting regarding a socio-economic census of indigenous Muslims of Assam — Goria, Moria, Ujani, Deshi, Jola, Mainal, Syed etc" at 11 am on February 11 at Dispur.

However, Dutta has said the planned census is not a socio-economic one but simply to count the population of the indigenous Muslims of Assam.

Under the umbrella of the indigenous Assamese Muslim community fall three main groups: the Goriyas, the Moriyas (from Upper Assam) and the Deshis (from Lower Assam). While the Deshis are 13th century converts from indigenous communities such as Koch Rajbongshi and Mech, the Goriyas and Moriyas trace their lineage to converts as well as soldiers, karigars etc who came to the region during the Ahom rule. Smaller groups such as Julha Muslims also fall under this category.

For these groups who consider themselves distinct from the Bengali-speaking Muslims who migrated from East Bengal or Bangladesh, the demand for a census is not recent. “We have been deprived of benefits despite being ‘khilonjiya’ or indigenous to this land,” said Azizul Rahman, general secretary of the All Assam Goriya Moriya Deshi Parishad. “Since 2006, we have been demanding a census. Our other demands include an autonomous council for the community as well as political reservation and a fixed number of seats in educational institutions.”

Rahman will be part of the meeting with the Welfare of Minorities & Development Department on Tuesday. He added that many indigenous Muslims have been wrongfully tagged D-voter or Doubtful-voter in Assam. “We face a major identity crisis since we are confused with Bangladeshis. Nothing can be more shameful than that,” he said.

Explained

Who are Assam’s indigenous Muslims?

Under the indigenous Assamese Muslim community fall three main groups — Goriyas, Moriyas (from Upper Assam) and Deshis (from Lower Assam). While Deshis are 13th century converts from indigenous communities such as Koch Rajbongshi and Mech, Moriyas and Goriyas trace their lineage to converts as well as soldiers, karigars etc who came to the region during the Ahom rule. Smaller groups such as Julha Muslims also fall under this category.

According to Census 2011, Muslims constitute 34.22 per cent of the 3.12 crore population of Assam. “Around 12 per cent of that is indigenous Muslim. Because of migration from Bangladesh, this group has lost its identity and are lagging behind in terms of social and political development,” said Syed Muminul Aowal, Assam Minorities Development Board chairman.

Aowal, who is also the convenor of the Janagosthiya Samanway Parishad Asom (an umbrella body of 21 indigenous Muslim organisations in the state), said they will suggest that the state government take approval from the Registrar General of India before embarking on the census.

“There are government schemes for indigenous communities in Assam like the Bodos, Koch Rajbongshis, Sooteas, Ahoms. Just like those are indigenous groups, so are Goriyas and Moriyas. Since Muslims world over have similar-sounding names, it is important to identify indigenous Assamese Muslims through a census, so that they can benefit from the various developmental schemes in Assam,” said Aowal.

This includes Clause 6 of the Assam Accord which grants “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to the “Assamese people”. The report on its implementation is set to be submitted by the Centre-appointed high-powered committee soon. “The census will help the indigenous Assamese Muslims benefit not just from Clause 6 but other schemes too,” said Aowal.

BJP’s Dutta said the census will “most probably” be carried out by the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, and will cover the entire state. “The community has no benefits, no MLAs, no political representation. The rationale behind this is to help in the development of their identity, their culture, their literature,” he said, adding that the decision had nothing to do with the issues of “citizenship, or NRC or CAA” in Assam.

However, some fear such a census will “further marginalise” the descendants of Bengali-speaking migrants in Assam. “The survey identifies one section of Muslims so that they can get certain benefits but ignores another section completely. The polarisation and divisions will automatically increase as a result of this,” said Hafiz Ahmed, president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad.

“Also, how does one define an indigenous Assamese Muslim? Certain East Bengali-origin migrants have been living in Assam since the 1800s. Are they any less indigenous Assamese than other groups? If the government wants to really improve conditions of Muslims, why not do a survey/census of all economically deprived Muslims?” asked Ahmed.