Even as Muslims across India continue protest against the combination of Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Population Register exercise, indigenous Muslims in Assam have found a different reason to hit the streets. Instead of opposing the CAA-NPR, they are demanding a special population counting exercise to identify the indigenous Muslims of the state in a bid to regain their lost pride.
According to the leaders and intellectuals leading the movement, mass scale immigration of Muslim population that happened over the last century from present day Bangladesh has not only deprived the indigenous Muslims from their rights and social status they enjoyed earlier but also threatened their cultural heritage. To restore their status as indigenous population they demand a special census or a head-counting exercise to be carried out to distinguish them from the immigrant Muslim population. They also demand that a special autonomous council be set up to protect their culture, heritage and also their rights.
Hafizul Ahmed, president of Goriya Moriya Desi Jatiya Parishad, a pressure group of ethnic Assamese Muslims clarified their stand on the issue. "It is not that we are supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act. Though we are against this law our opposition has reasons very different from the Muslims in mainland India," he said.
He added that the CAA will damage the political and cultural rights of the Assamese Hindus more than the indigenous Muslims as it may trigger another wave of migration of Hindu population from Bangladesh turning the indigenous Hindu population into a minority in their homeland.
"The passage of the CAA in the Parliament is a matter of grave concern for our Assamese Hindu brethren. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them at this moment of crisis. But at the same time, through our movement for autonomous, we are seeking remedy to the damage already done to the indigenous Muslims in the state by mass scale influx of immigrant Muslim population from Bangladesh in the last Century," he said.
Since the passage of the CAA, Assam has seen continuous protest against the new law. Hafizul said that the protest of the Assamese Muslims demanding a special census and autonomous council should be seen as a fortifier of the ongoing anti-CAA movement as it throws light on the plight indigenous Muslim population also caused by migration.
Indigenous Assamese Muslims can be divided into three distinct ethnic groups namely Goriya, Moriya and Desis. The history of the indigenous Muslims in Brahmaputra valley dates back to the early part of the thirteenth century.
The three ethnic groups saw their culture flourish during the nearly six hundred years long Ahom rule which ended in 1826 with the annexation of Brahmaputra Valley to the British empire.
Imran Hussain a writer and educationist said that the culture of these communities grew organically with their own distinct devotional music, literature, legends, stories, social customs, ethnic dress, inter community and intra community relationships.
"Most of the indigenous Muslims in Brahmaputra Valley are converts from other ethnic groups in the region. Though we converted ourselves into Islam, our culture remained intact. Culturally, we are similar to Assamese Hindus. This is the reason we hardly share any affinity with Muslims from other parts of the world," he said.
Many ethnic Muslims consider the Ahom rule in Assam as the golden age for their community as they were recruited in respectful positions in the monarchy's bureaucracy, army and diplomacy — a status which they feel is now lost due to mass scale immigration of Muslim population from the erstwhile east Bengal.
"During the rule of the Ahom kings who accepted Hinduism as their faith in 16th century, people from our community had respectful representation in the government. But now Goriya, Moriya and Desis do not have a single member in the Assam Assembly," said Mominul Awwal who is also the chairman of the Minority Development Board.
The Goriya Moriya Desis have an approximate population of 40 lakh, which is scattered across the Brahmaputra valley in small numbers. Hence, it is almost impossible for them to get their candidates get representation during state and municipal elections. "In the earlier elections, one or two leaders from the Desi community used to get elected as lawmakers. But in the 2016 Assembly polls we were wiped out of the political scene as none of the 28 Muslims elected to the Assembly belong to our community," Hafizul said.
Mass scale immigration, mainly of Muslims, began during the colonial period and continued through the post-colonial period. The influx caused massive demographic change in the state turning nine districts into Muslims-majority ones. The demographic change in the state resulted in emergence of a powerful immigrant Muslim population and an economically-deprived indigenous Muslim society.
"Since we do not have representation in the Assembly, the funds meant for minority development are often distributed among the districts that have large immigrant Muslim population leaving paltry sums for the indigenous Muslims," said Awwal. He also added that unless the ethnic Assamese Muslims do not get adequate representation, their rights can never be taken care of.
Onslaught of immigration along with globalisation has threatened the very existence of the home grown Islamic culture of the state. Syed Hakikur Rahman, a curator of traditional Assamese Muslim devotional songs says that most of these songs known as Zigirs are now lost.
The tradition of creating Zigirs was initiated by Azaan Pir, a revered cultural icon in the state who travelled all the way from Baghdad to Assam to spread Islam in the Seventeenth Century. "It is said by scholars that Azaan Pir himself wrote 160 Zigirs. But a good number of them have been lost as the practice of singing them declined with onslaught of globalisation, which has caused a change in cultural preferences of the people," he said.
He also added that though he has collected more than 100 of them by travelling across various districts of the state, it involves huge expenditure. "Such exercises can only be taken by government agencies. We hope that the government listens to our demands to protect our culture," he says
Apart from globalisation, socio-religious dominance of the immigrant Muslims has also greatly influenced the indigenous culture of the Muslims.
"Most of the religious organisations of the Muslims are led by immigrant Muslim leaders and they infuse their own culture in them. As a result, many of the local traditions stand threatened. If this continues than our identity would be wiped forever," Awwal added.
"To empower the indigenous Muslims with political rights as autonomous councils they have to be identified first. For that a separate census to count them out is required," Hafizul said. For the state budget for 2019, the Assam government declared its will to conduct such a survey but the work of the enumeration has not yet started.
"We demand that the government should initiate the process as early as possible," Hafizul added.
Significantly, the sixth clause of the Assam Accord provides for protection of the culture and rights of all the indigenous ethnic groups. Though the Government of India has initiated the process of implementing the provision, Assamese Muslims fear that this may not help them in meeting their goal.
"There is still debate over who should be considered an Assamese as Assam has a cosmopolitan society with mixed races. Some say that anyone who has been living in Assam since prior to 1971 should be considered an Assamese and be provided reservations on the basis of that. On the other hand some organisations demand that 1951 should be the base year. But in both the cases a big chunk of the immigrant Muslim population would enjoy equal rights as an Assamese Muslims. For immigration of Muslims began as early as 1906, as per recorded history. If both immigrant and ethnic Assamese Muslims get identified than distinguishing one from the other would be rather impossible and resultantly the present condition of Assamese Muslims would become irreversible," Hafizul further said.
Adding that having an autonomous council is a better option for them, Hafizul said that the protection under the clause six was provided for the indigenous population that suffered the onslaught of migration and not for the migrants themselves. If it ends up providing protection to immigrants then it will lose its purpose.
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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2020 18:20:02 IST