What do the 2021 elections in Assam mean for the indigenous Assamese Muslims? This essay explores the socio-political and cultural space that the indigenous Muslim communities occupy in the state’s electoral politics.
Zafri Mudasser Nofil
Will jatiotabadi (sub-nationalist) sentiments hold sway in the upcoming elections in Assam? Where will the ‘Assamese vs non-Assamese’ debate reach? Will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gain from pro-incumbency or suffer due to anti-incumbency? Will the Congress-All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) alliance be able to make an impact? And what will be the role of Ali-Kuli (migrant Muslim-tea garden labourer) voters, if any?
These are questions galore as Assam gears up for one of its most crucial polls, to be held in three phases – March 27, April 1 and April 6.
CAA: MAKE OR BREAK
The elections are billed as a referendum to the contentious citizenship law, which has faced strong opposition from several political parties as well as from various strata of society. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), which was notified on December 12, 2019 and came into force from January 10, 2020, is being perceived to be a dominant issue this election going by the strong protests it generated in 2019. But, it would be clear only on May 2 (when the results of the elections will be declared) whether these strong pro, as well as, anti-CAA sentiments will translate into votes for the parties concerned.
Just to reiterate, the reasons for opposition to CAA are very different in Assam from what they are in the rest of the country, a fact which the Supreme Court of India has also acknowledged.
CAA protesters contend that their agitation is not about Hindus, Muslims or Bengalis, but all Assamese, irrespective of their religious faith or economic class. There is no communal angle attached to these protests. It is only about Assam and Assamese self-preservation. Their argument is that, Assam already has accommodated far too many illegal immigrants beyond its capacity and does not want any more. People cannot allow Assam to become a ‘dumping ground’ or the culture of the Assamese communities to be diluted.
In Assam, the opposition to the CAA is more about how many may get included because of the legislation and not who are excluded. Many people also fear a threat to cultural and linguistic identities from the Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
Mass movements for protecting culture, identity and language are not new to Assam. In 1836, when Bengali was made the official language of Assam, Assamese intellectuals took up cudgels against the move. With active participation by the American Baptist missionaries in this struggle, Assamese was finally restored as the official language of the Province in 1872. More than a hundred years later, the six-year Assam Agitation from 1979 against illegal migrants, took centre stage and culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord. The protesters against CAA say that the new law shows no respect or consideration towards the Assamese identity.
The CAA seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Jain and Parsi communities who came to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. After the implementation of CAA, Assam has two cut-off dates for identifying illegal immigrants: March 24, 1971 according to the Assam Accord and December 31, 2014 according to CAA.
Given the master strategists the BJP has in its ranks, the party must have certainly factored in the political cost of pushing through this citizenship law despite massive opposition to it. Talking of its first challenge, it was in no time able to win back its main ally in Assam, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which had parted ways with the saffron party, soon after the CAA was enacted.
In recent election campaigns in both Assam and West Bengal, the BJP is however, trying to sugar-coat the citizenship law in Assam though it has attempted to hard-sell it in West Bengal. The issue does not figure in the party’s Assam manifesto. Influential Assam minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said, the BJP is “committed to the CAA” though it is not a poll issue in Assam. He claimed the CAA issue has taken the backseat in Assam due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “But post-COVID, people do not want to hear anything that would bring back agitation in the streets, either for or against,” Sarma told a TV channel. “There is no space in people’s mind on CAA or any debate on that,” he asserted.
THE MUSLIM FACTOR
Are parties still dependent on the Ali-Kuli voters to win elections?
There are nearly thirty-five seats where migrant Muslims can play a key role, but such is not the case with the indigenous Assamese Muslims. I am sure there is not a single constituency in the state where Assamese Muslims can decide the fate of a candidate.
According to the 2011 Census, Assam’s population was 3.12 crore, with the number of Muslims being 1.07 crore or 34.22 per cent. The state’s total population was projected to reach 3.60 crore in 2020. The 2011 Census notes that Islam is followed by the majority population in nine out of twenty-seven districts. In 2015, six more districts were carved out and now the total number stands at thirty-four. Assam Minority Development Board Chairman Muminul Aowal, claims the state has a Muslim population of 1.3 crore, of which around 90 lakh are of Bangladeshi (East Bengali) origin and the remaining 40 lakh are indigenous.
I do not subscribe to the view that only Assamese Muslims have traditionally voted for the Congress. Even non-Muslim voters have done so and have been instrumental in electing the Congress all these years because the BJP has become a potent force only recently in Assam and came to power in 2016. So “Congress and Muslims going hand in hand” is not always correct.
Samsul Hussain from Jorhat considers himself a progressive youth. Working in a state government department after completing his studies from a prominent college and a university in Guwahati, he hates Muslims being stereotyped as Congress supporters.
“For us too, the criteria is whosoever is deserving, should win,” he asserted.
If we look back, we will not be immediately able to recall what significant steps the Congress or regional parties have taken for the welfare of the Assamese Muslims. The Congress’s current political alliance with Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF, may work in some Bengali-speaking Muslim pockets but is unlikely to make a significant impact in upper Assam constituencies, which will see polling in the first phase on March 27.
“Why will we vote for Ajmal? Only because it has Congress on his side. He may get votes in lower Assam but people will vote with a practical mind in upper Assam? We do not endorse Miyas, nor their poetry or their museum,” Hussain said.
Rubul Islam is a teacher in Hojai, hometown of Ajmal. He also does not subscribe to the view that Ajmal will work for the benefit of all Muslims of Assam.
“Ajmal is a seasoned businessman. Don’t go by his gimmicks,” he warns.
The BJP has been asserting that it is against illegal Muslim migrants, and not against Assamese Muslims. Himanta Biswa Sarma recently said his party does not want the votes of ‘Miya Muslims’. The BJP has fielded eight Muslim candidates in the 2021 assembly polls – Kadiru Jjaman Zinnah (Laharighat), Nazir Hussain (Rupohihat), Aminul Haque Laskar (Sonai), Ashadul Islam (South Salmara), Abu Bakkar Siddique (Bilasipara West), Osman Gani (Jaleswar), Shadidul Islam (Jania) and Hasinara Khatun (Baghbar).
But controversial and communally laced statements of some BJP leaders are at times a cause of worry for Assamese Muslims. A few days after the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were announced, a legislator of the ruling BJP in Assam, Prasanta Phukan, equated the Muslims of the state with cows that do not give milk.
“Assam’s 90 per cent Muslims had not voted for us in parliamentary elections. So, what is the point in giving fodder to cows which do not give milk?” Phukan responded when asked about the voting pattern among Muslims.
It is pertinent to mention that in Assam, the Muslim identity is quite complex and unique. It is more of language and culture than religion. Like I have written in my book, The Identity Quotient, Muslims have a history of over seven-and-a-half centuries in Assam and came to the state in various phases. Indigenous Assamese Muslims trace their lineage to the medieval period when Muslim rulers and generals invaded the region.
According to historical records, Qutubuddin Aibak’s general Muhammad-ibn-Bakhtiyar in 1206 led an army to Assam, which was then known as Kamarupa. Bakhtiyar is believed to be the first of the Muslim conquerors to have entered Kamarupa. During his expedition, the chief of a local Mech tribe acted as his guide. This man, Ali Mech, adopted Islamic faith in early 13th century and he is believed to be the first person in Assam to have embraced Islam. Ever since, Muslims have merged and shaped the socio-cultural milieu of Assam. This is a unique syncretism which we have and is different from other parts of South Asia. Over the centuries, Muslims have assimilated to the greater Assamese society to such an extent that barring religion, there is not much to differentiate them from other Assamese communities. They have contributed significantly to the composite heritage of Assam and adopted Assamese as their mother tongue. In subsequent years, many came to Assam, some as invaders whereas others, as tradesmen. Many of the soldiers, artisans, blacksmiths and other workers who accompanied the invaders stayed back in Assam, while some were held captive and were engaged in different kinds of labour by the kings. There are no records of women accompanying these invaders, and so those who stayed back married local Assamese women.
Noted litterateur and Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awardee Syed Abdul Malik, saw this assimilation at the grass-roots level and to a “point of almost indistinguishable oneness.”
INDIGENOUS ASSAMESE MUSLIMS IN THE CONTEMPORARY SOCIO-POLITICAL SCENARIO
Coming back to key issues, indigenous Muslims also support an error-free NRC and do not want migrants, be it of any religion.
Illegal migration has been haunting Assam for decades and has had serious socio-political implications. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, was billed as an important tool to distinguish genuine Indian citizens from foreign nationals illegally living in India. But the entire NRC exercise was replete with drama and confusion, leading to hardships, especially for the poor. This hardship was mostly in the case of producing the necessary documents to prove their citizenship, which many do not have access to. In the end, this massive exercise worth 1600 crore rupees turned out to be a damp squib – a divisive and a failed exercise, and completely counterproductive from the BJP’s perspective.
Protests over the CAA took a backseat due to the coronavirus pandemic. But in December 2020, organisations in Assam opposing the law resumed their agitation, albeit on a smaller scale. A considerable percentage of the population, including indigenous Muslims, is opposed to CAA saying Assam does not want immigrants of any religion.
Many also feel that the Sarbananda Sonowal government’s decision to close state-funded madrassas will work against the BJP. However, I view it this decision differently. Madrassas have been imparting education in general subjects besides theology in the remotest of areas in Assam and to the most underprivileged. Due to these institutions, the literacy rate of Muslims in rural areas was improving. But education that yields jobs is the need of the hour. So if we see the positive side, this move is sure to widen the scope of education and learning by providing for a more holistic education system which is scoped for employment generation. However, the Assam government should ensure that those who were studying in madrassas continue their education and are also able to afford general schools.
Many indigenous Muslim groups had welcomed the Assam government’s announcement in February 2020 that a survey will be conducted to identify the state’s indigenous Muslim population and segregate them from the immigrant Muslim population. People of four communities – Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julaha – were to be identified in this exercise. The government’s argument for such a mapping was that the indigenous Muslims are deprived of benefits of welfare schemes in absence of proper identification and the survey will give protection to them from demographic changes in the state. While presenting the state’s budget for 2019-20, Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had announced that a Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims will also be created.
“Assam has a rich history of brotherhood amongst different communities, and one of the most important segments making up our unique social fabric, are the Indigenous Muslims. The indigenous Muslims of Assam have always played an extremely important role in the social and economic progress of the state. However, this community, of late, has been facing a crisis of identity and the developmental wave seems to have skipped this community. It is high time that the state initiated a special and focused program aimed at the all-round developmental of this community. As an initial step, our government intends to conduct a socioeconomic census of the indigenous Muslims of the state which will help us assess their socio-economic condition. We will also establish a development corporation for the indigenous Muslims which will take up various programs aimed at the holistic development of this section of the society, including self-employment activities, provisioning banking linkages etc. Once the corporation is formed during the course of the year, I will immediately allocate a sum of Rs. 100 crore for taking up various developmental and employment related activities,” he had said in his budget speech.
According to Assam Minority Development Board chairman Muminul Aowal, the groundwork for this survey has begun, though at a slow pace because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a welcome step as Sarma has the guts to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that there is still work to be done for the uplift of the Assamese Muslims.
What about the new entrants in Assam’s political arena – Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal? Both these parties have pledged inclusive politics and work for secular regional identity. Voters with anti-CAA feelings may opt for these parties but in the process there will be more division of votes. So the race for Dispur is bound to be interesting.
- Mazumdar, Prasanta. “Assam BJP MLA says Muslims are like cows which don’t give milk, remains unapologetic”. New Indian Express. URL: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2019/may/02/assam-bjp-mla-says-muslims-are-like-cows-which-dont-give-milk-remains-unapologetic-1971860.html (accessed 24 March, 2021).
- Nofil, Zafri Mudasser. The Identity Quotient: The Story of the Assamese Muslims. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 2021.
- Ranade, Ajit. “The True Cost of NRC”, Mumbai Mirror. URL: https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/opinion/columnists/ajit-ranade/the-true-cost-of-nrc/articleshow/72907881.cms (accessed 25 March, 2021).
- “Breaking Party’s Silence in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma Says BJP is Committed to CAA”, TheWire.in. URL: https://thewire.in/politics/bjp-caa-assam-elections-himanta-biswa-sarma (accessed 24 March, 2021).
Zafri Mudasser Nofil is a senior news editor with the Press Trust of India (PTI) in New Delhi. He has recently authored a book titled “The Identity Quotient: The Story of the Assamese Muslims” (2021) which documents the history of Assamese Muslims and clears misconceptions about the community which is facing an identity crisis. Being an Assamese Muslim himself, Nofil’s writings focus on how the community has contributed to the greater Assamese society.