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BJP wants to segregate Assamese Muslims from Bangladeshi Muslims

Some members of the Muslim community in Assam have expressed fears over the Sarbananda Sonowal government’s plans to start a socio-economic census to segregate the state’s indigenous Muslims from its “illegal migrants”.

Speaking to The Print, several Muslims in the state said the government should first define who is an indigenous Assamese Muslim before having a census to segregate on ethnic lines.

“The government has not been able to define an ‘Assamese’, much less determine an indigenous Muslim,” writer Ismail Hussain said. 

“Many migrants who came to Assam after 1947 had married ‘indigenous’ Muslims. What happens to children born out of such marriages? Are they indigenous Assamese or are they migrants?” he asked. 

In a state grappling with the aftermath of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise, in which 19 lakh people were declared ‘foreigners’, questions of identity continue to create tension.

“The government simply wants to create divisions among the community by creating two categories — ‘friendly and enemy’ Muslims,” said Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Sabha.

The Sonowal government has claimed that its move comes in a bid to give indigenous Assamese Muslims their rights. According to the plan, four Muslim communities will be considered indigenous in the new census — Goria, Moria, Deshi and Julha. 

Ahmed, however, explained the “problems” in identifying an indigenous person, particularly when many among those considered Assamese Muslims trace their lineage to people who had come to the region during the Ahom rule before Independence. 

“The names of Assamese and ‘Bangladeshi’ Muslims are also often the same. How exactly will the government determine the indigenous then? I am a fourth generation immigrant from Bangladesh. I speak in Assamese, was educated in Assamese-medium and married to an ‘indigenous Muslim’. What am I then? What are my children?” he asked.

On Tuesday, Assam’s Welfare of Minorities Minister Ranjt Dutta met representatives of the indigenous Assamese Muslim community to finalise the plan, which is likely to be executed within this financial year. 

‘Indigenous Muslims deprived of benefits’

The new census exercise comes a year after the BJP government in Assam announced Rs 100 crore for the development of the state’s indigenous Muslims.  

Assam has about 1.3 crore Muslims of which around 90 lakh are of Bangladeshi origin, said Minority Development Board chairman Muminul Aowal. “The remaining 40 lakh… are deprived of the benefits of government welfare schemes in the absence of proper identification,” he told PTI.

Speaking in favour of the move, Nekibur Zaman, a senior lawyer and vocal activist for the rights of Assamese Muslims, has said the indigenous community has been denied its rights due to the influx of migrants, according to a report in Hindustan Times.

“…fates of nearly one-fifth of the total 126 assembly seats in Assam are decided by the votes of migrant Muslims and their descendants. The Assamese Muslims, who are scattered all over Brahmaputra Valley don’t have a single representative in the state assembly,” the report quoted him as saying.

Zaman added that various state government benefits for minorities are “availed by Muslims who migrated to Assam”, adding that around 1.5 lakh indigenous Muslims have been left out of the final NRC. 

The census has been announced at a time when a high-level committee, which has been tasked with defining an “Assamese”, is likely to submit its report to the central government later this month. 

The definition, which will come under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, will grant constitutional safeguards for Assamese language and culture, as well as ensure land rights for those identified as natives of the state.

‘Wasn’t NRC enough?’

The NRC — a ledger to detect and deport ‘illegal immigrants’ from Assam — has already identified ‘citizens’ of the state. The final list, published in August 2019 after a Supreme Court-mandated exercise, had identified 19 lakh ‘foreigners’.

This was less than 50 per cent of the BJP’s stated estimates of 40 lakh.  The ruling party later called for a new NRC — one that will include more Bengali-speaking Muslim immigrants. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which had pushed for the exercise, has also raised fingers at the accuracy of the final NRC numbers.

Around 1,000 ‘foreigners’ are already lodged in detention centres in Assam, and 29 of them have died in the past three years.

Many now fear that this new census plan, segregating Assamese Muslims from Bangladeshi Muslims, will further alienate the Bengali-speaking Muslim community in Assam.

“The government should do a survey of economically-deprived Muslims if it really wants to have a census for the development of the community,” said Hafiz Ahmed. 

Aman Wadud, a human rights lawyer based in Assam, said, “In the guise of championing the cause of indigenous Muslims, the BJP and its cohorts are demonising Bengali Muslims.

“BJP is on the backfoot in the state because of the Citizenship Amendment Act. It is trying everything to distract people. If the ruling party really loves the indigenous Muslims, what problem does it have with those protesting in Shaheen Bagh, Ghanta Ghar and all over the country? Aren’t they indigenous too?”

The indigenous Muslims in Assam

Of the four Muslim communities to be considered indigenous in the new census, Moriyas trace their ancestry to the Muslim soldiers who came to Assam during the Ahom rule.

The Deshis, Goriyas and Julhas are mostly converts from indigenous communities such as the Koch Rajbongshi and Mech.

Explaining the complexities in categorising Muslims in Assam, Ahmed said the Julhas belong to both Bengali and Assamese-speaking Muslim community.