The ethnicity of Assamese muslims

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By: Haamim Kutub Javed Ahmed

 At a time when Assam is struggling hard to identify who is an Indian Assamese through its long drawn process of NRC ( National Register of Citizens), the Muslims here are facing another uphill task in keeping its ethnic identity intact as an indigenous community. With the draft NRC published, a majority of Muslims have found their names enlisted in it. But then again, the exercise was to identify the illegal Bangladeshis- both Hindus and Muslims. Bangladeshi Muslims being mostly in large numbers, as highlighted by certain quarters ( Lt. Gen S.K. Sinha, the then Governor of Assam submitted a report on the influx) the threat to the ethnicity of Assamese Muslims looms large.  The hon’ble Supreme Court of India had been closely monitoring the whole process. During its course of hearing, the clause of OI ( Original Inhabitants) found place wherein the tea tribes of Assam were given the OI status. Just as preparation was on for filing an Interlocutory Petition in the Supreme Court claiming OI for indigeneous Muslims of Assam, the hon’ble Supreme Court came up with the view that OI status will not give a special status to any community residing in Assam. Hence, the matter rest at that.

 Why Muslims of Assam are different?

Muslims of Assam has a history of its own. Historical chronicles dates  back to the Ahom era in 1205 AD when an Ahom king Swardadeo Sukapha was accompanied by a Goriya family. ( Hiteswar Barua, Days of Ahom, page 26) The indigeneous Muslims of Assam comprise of mainly four classes- Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha. All of the four are “sons of the soil”. Edward Gait writes that “the ordinary Mahammadan of Assam call themselves as Garia, an indication of their claim and have come originally from Gour, the ancient Mahammadan capital of Bengal”. Shihabuddin Talish writes “ as for the Musalman who had been taken prisoner in former times and had chosen to marry here, their descendant acts exactly in the manner of the Assamese and have nothing of Islam except the name, their hearts are inclined for more towards mingling with the Assamese than towards association with Muslims”.

The indigenous Assamese Muslims trace their lineage to the captive soldiers and others who came along with Muslim invaders during the Mediaeval period with a few local converts.  Although there is a common religious identity, however, there is considerable diversity amongst them with respect to their socio-cultural sphere. Such diversity resulted in different ethnic identity such that Muslims are divided into sub-groups on the basis of their ethnic identity and their respective presence is spread across the state of Assam. Historians like Haripad Deva Goswami writes in Saptahik Nilachal , that there used to be a village called “ Go –Goriya”, indicating, thus, that Goriya had its presence since a long period of time.

Similarly Moriyas, another class of Assamese Muslim is identified to be among those Muslims who have derived their class-name from the Assamese word “ Maar” meaning to beat or to strike. This class of Muslim engaged themselves in making brass utensils etc. Since making of these brass utensils involved excessive “ beating”, hence the name “Moriya” came to be prevalent and those involved in making f the brass utensils were called “ Moriya”. This class can claim their lineage to that of early Pathans who came to Assam under their leader Turbak. They were defeated by Ahom king Suhungmung and they, instead of going back, decided to stay back in Assam

Likewise, the Deshi or Desi trace their roots to the ancient kingdom of Kamrup and contend that they originally belonged to a range of indigenous Assamese communities, such as Koch, Rabha, Mech, Garo, Nath, Yogi and Kalita. Historians in their treatise say that the Desi were the first people in the area to convert to Islam in the 13th century – following in the footsteps of Ali Mech, a tribal man widely regarded by historians as the first person in the region to have embraced Islam.  

Maimal are a Muslim community found in the state of Assam in India. They are a community of inland fishermen found in Western Assam. A few are also found in the Sylhet District of Bangladesh. It should be worth mentioned that the “Maimal” were there in Shylhet district in the undivided India, and after the Independence some parts of that Shylhet district were merged with the state of Assam in free India. Now, this community people are spreading more or less everywhere in the Barak Valley districts in Assam.

The Maimal are said to have converted to Islam at the hands of the famous Sufi saint of western Assam, Hazrat Shah Jalal. They are found along the banks of the Sonai and Barak rivers. The community are found mainly in the districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, and speak the Sylhet dialect of Bengali.

Going by such a vivid mixed cultural and traditional Assamese ethnicity, they, the Assamese Muslims stand apart vis a vis rest of Muslims of India. They can be termed as “Ethnic tribes” of Assam.

 Identity crisis

With the exercise of updation of the NRC, the Muslims of Assam has been clubbed together with the “other Muslims” ( the ones who are known as Miya Muslims or Pomua Muslims migrating from Bangladesh). This has eventually led to an identity crisis. Muslims comprise of 34% in Assam ( 2011 Census). The Muslims in Assam are time and again put in the same pedestal that of illegal Bangladeshis. The 2011Census report invariably depicts a “demographic invasion” with 11 of the districts of Assam turning out to be “Muslim majority”. Surpringly this growth is not among the indigeneous Muslims. It is the migrant population which has added to the growth. Eventually, the indigeneous Muslims are turned into a minority. Hence, indigeneous Muslims are gripped in psychosis of losing their ethnic identity. They cannot and will not cow down to the invasion of the “migrant” population into their ethnic fabric. The indigeneous Muslims have a culture of their own- that of Assamese culture. The migrant population, with their fanatical and radical approach try to mingle with the Assamese Muslims by propagating sense of belonging to one religion- Islam. True, Assamese Muslims follow Islam but they are very much Assamese- they follow Assamese culture. Not limited to celebrating Bihu, a custom among the Deshi is the use Shatashi, a wedding thali. At the groom’s home, the same thali has nine lamps. Sindoor, the first thing to be bought before the parties embark upon their grand Deshi shadi, is the most important thing. Some married women even sport sindoor on their foreheads. The use of turmeric-green gram (mah-halodhi) paste is also considered auspicious at weddings, where the Assamese gamosa and dhoti are customary outfits. Talking about festival, just like the Boisagu of Bodos and the Boishu of Rabhas, the Deshi Muslims also have their own Bihu which they call Beshoma. With varying locations it is also called Bishma orChait-Boishne. As Deshi Muslims have converted from Rajbongshis, the rituals of Beshoma are very similar to the celebrations of Rajbongshis which they call Bishma or Bishuma. These and many rituals are prevalent among the indigenous Muslim. They want their identity to be intact. They do not want to be branded simply as Muslims. Rather they want to be identified by their ethnicity. The fear of being assimilated with Muslims, in general, has led the indigenous Muslims forming various organisations like the Sodou Axom Goriya Moriya Deshi Jatiya Parishad, Sodou Axom Goriya Chatra Parishad to bolster their demand to be identified as ethnic tribes.

 The road ahead

The present day government in Assam have stated in their election manifesto to protect the rights of the indigeneous Muslims. The gargantuan task remains that how to identify the indigenous Muslims of Assam. It is time that a Census to identify the indigenous Assamese Muslims should be carried out forthwith by the Government. The identification of the existing indigeneous Muslims of Assam will be watershed in order to thwart the nefarious design of usurping rights and privileges of Assamese Muslims. The need of the hour is that indigenous Muslims of Assam should be identified as Goriya, Moriya, Deshi etc and not by their religion. Constitutional safeguard should be provided to them as per the Assam Accord and the intelligentsia must play a pivotal role demanding it. The protection of rights and privileges of the indigenous Muslims should be a priority in order to save the Assamese Muslims from being turned into a minority in its own homeland.

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