Ethnic tension looms large

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Assam is by far the most populous state in Assam and numerous ethnic communities thrive together on its land and islands alike. Given this fact, clashes between ethnic communities are nothing new for the state. In the past, many such ethnic clashes have occurred between the communities of the state. The clashes between the Karbi and Dimasa tribes or the bloodbath of Nellie, the state has witnessed many such clashes in its history.

However, over the recent past, the state has managed to prosper and bask in the development, given the decreasing incidents of ethnic clashes. But now in 2021, the old ethnic tensions over identity politics are set for a revival. The Jana Gosthiya Samannay ParishadAsom (JGSPA), a fairly new organisation has lately been conducting, what it calls a digital census for homegrown Assamese-speaking Muslims only. The objective of the organisation was to identify native Assamese-speaking Muslims from the ‘Miyas’ meaning Bengali-speaking Muslims settled in Assam from the 1920s and thereafter. Well in one point it would help the state to identify the native language speaking Muslims as, during the last census work, both Assamese and Bengali speaking Muslims declared themselves as ‘Asomiya’, and their native language being Assamese.

Now Muslims account for approximately 35 percent of the average population of Assam. Many observers and long-time Assam residents are of the opinion that the Assamese-speaking Muslim population may be around 20 percent. On the other hand, the Bengali-speaking Muslims, ‘Miyas’ as they are referred to, account for a much larger population in terms of their numbers. But the Census officials left with no other option, had to register them as ‘Assamiyas’ distinct from the tribes or other communities. Having said this, many others are worried over the main objective and sponsorship of such a parallel census operation, that too, to be conducted among Muslims only. These are but just the right ingredients for ethnic tensions in the state already recovering from the pandemic. It is very dangerous waters that the people behind such a census programme are treading. History of Assam is evident that such divisions within the diverse Assamese community on the basis of religious and linguistic identities have often taken dangerous turns. This current parallel census that singles out the Assamese-speaking Muslim population might have huge repercussions in the near future. But who would sponsor or sanction such a critical project?

Many are of the opinion that the Bharatiya Janata Party who has recently resumed office in the state after winning a second term in power with a reduced majority in Assam, may be behind it. The BJP after assuming power and failing to grab over a hundred seats for its alliance as imagined may want to draw clear lines between the native-speaking Muslims and Miyas. The recent elections proved that Miyas cannot be overlooked if retaining power is the agenda. The Congress alliance with minority-backed All India United Democratic Front led by MP Badruddin Ajmal did give the BJP a run for their money in many constituencies. Had it not been for the poor performance of the student leaders and activists backed Assad Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, the BJP might have even lost the battle. However, the BJP might now want to fill in that gap by the next assembly polls making it even harder for the Opposition to return to power. Interestingly, the chief minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma had during the election campaigns stated that he did not look forward to Miya votes as he knew that they are politically aligned elsewhere, suggesting that BJP had no interest in that electoral group. All in all, such surveys that may be mired in controversies must be avoided and the decorum of the greater Assamese society preserved.

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