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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 39 New Delhi September 15, 2018

The Identity Question of the Assamese Muslims

Saturday 15 September 2018

by Swabana Mamtaz

This article was sent to us quite sometime ago but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons.

I. Introduction

While the Muslims all over the world have a common religious identity, there is also extensive diversity among them relating to their socio-economic-cultural and political spheres. This creates their different social identities with the common feature, their religion. Therefore, it appears that the folk-cultural life of the indigenous Muslims of Assam is somewhat different from the Muslims of Northern and Southern India. Despite their assimilation, association and coexistence with the Assamese Hindu neighbours, the Muslims of Assam in their own traditional way maintain a complete separate religious identity with a distinctive blend of similarities and diversities among themselves. (Ahmed: 2010) It may be noted here that there are a number of distinctive categories of Muslims living in Assam. These are—the Assamese Muslims, Deshi Muslims, East Bengal origin Muslims, Barak Valley Muslims, the Bihari Muslims etc.

Of late, there appears a tendency that tries to bracket all Muslims of Assam into one category. This tendency is not only limited to the popular perception but percolates down to the cultural and social practices. However, the Muslims in Assam are highly diversified. The Assamese Muslims, who claim their ancestry since the time of Ahom rule, do not identify with the later entrants. This group finds themselves well-ensconced within the fold of Assamese identity, which is often imagined as a composite one. Nevertheless, there appears to be a threat to the perception of Assamese Muslims as a category which is often imagined by their Assamese-ness.

II. The Background

The history of the Muslims in Assam began almost eight hundred years ago with the invasion of Bakhtiyar Khalji from Bengal in 1205. (Kar: 1997) For over four hundred and fifty years they tried to conquer the Brahmaputra Valley consisting of the districts of Darrang, Kamrup, Lakhimpur, Nagong and Sibsagar and later Goalpara, but failed. It is on record that before the first Ahom appearance in 1228, several Muslim invasions had already taken place and affected the district of Kamrup and adjoining areas. The history of Ahoms of the seventeenth century was the history of Ahom-Mughal conflicts. In course of invasions, captive mercenaries and others settled in small numbers and could little influence the existing population. Mir Jumla’s invasion in 1662 was the last serious and well-organised effort of Mughals to conquer Assam. So, before the Ahoms, many Muslims entered Assam and settled down permanently.

The Assamese Muslim community includes (1) descendants of Muslim/Pathan/Mughal soldiers who were left behind as prisoners of war and those who decided to stay back in Assam after the wars were over; (2) medieval technicians and artisans brought by the Ahom kings from various places of northern India for various state needs for which perhaps local skills were not available; (3) preachers of Islam; and finally (4) local converts during the medieval Ahom period. (Hussain: 1993)

In the pre-colonial society of Assam, Assamese Muslims (Asamiya Muslims—Syeds, Sheikhs, Julahas, Moriyas etc.) were found to be a small but important social group. (Hussain:1993) The first Muslim invasions, which had started from the early part of the 13th century and continued till the 14th, resulted in a sizeable section of Muslims staying behind in Assam after the failure of their expeditions. This segment finally assimilated with the emerging Assamese nationality as Asamiya Mussalmans. The Ahom rulers gave positions of power and eminence to the Assamese Muslims and the latter took active part in resisting successive Mughal attempts to overrun the region. The assimilation of this segment of Muslims into the Assamese society was so complete that the historians who accom-panied the Mughal expeditions into Assam noted that they were more Assamese than Muslim. (Misra: 2001)

The Muslim migration to Assam that took place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries greatly altered the demographic profile of the State and the Assamese identity was thought to be under threat due to this migration. The Assamese Muslims are more fearful of their identity being erased by the surge of the new migrants. The persistent migration of Bengali- speaking Muslims from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, into Assam has created a crisis of identity not only for the Assamese Hindus but for the Assamese Muslims as well.

From the practical perspective, the Assamese Muslims are one of the weakest social groups of Assam who have been confronting with issues like identity, security, education, empower-ment, equal rights on national resources and participation in the decision-making process.

A community which has, over the centuries, lived harmoniously with the other communities within the broader framework of the Assamese nationality, is today being confronted by questions regarding its own identity. They are afraid that due to their identical religious affiliations, their unique identity might be lost. The intolerant attitudes of some of the Hindu Assamese are complicating the situation further.

III. Who are the Assamese Muslims?

The term ‘Assamese Muslim’ itself suggests that such a specific community has been maintaining its entity and identity within the larger framework of the Indian society simultaneously pointing to the ‘Assamese’ affiliation on the one hand and Islamic affiliation on the other. (Ahmed: 2010) In defining a community which has linguistic-cum-religious criteria, a scholar has to encounter some fundamental complications because in spite of having commonness, it has considerable diversities also. So, after under-standing their history of origin and development, we come to conclusion that the Assamese Muslims are those Muslims of Assam who have ancestry since the Ahom time and are well- ensconced within the fold of Assamese nationality and identity. Goriya and Moriya are two social sects of the Assamese Muslims. By the phrase ‘Assamese Muslim’ we mean a social group of people, who include descendants of Muslim/Pathan/Mughal soldiers left behind as prisoners of war and those who decided to stay back in Assam after the wars were over; medieval technicians and artisans brought by the Ahom kings, preachers of Islam and finally local converts during the medieval Ahom period.

The Assamese Muslims are also known as Asomiya Mussalman (Assamese Muslims), Tholuwa Mussalman (Native Muslims of Assam) and Khilonjia Mussalman (Indigenous Muslims) in the local tongue. They are concentrated in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. Their mother tongue is Assamese. The Assamese Muslims integrated themselves with the Assamese identity and nationality on the basis of language, not religion.

The Assamese Muslims of Assam have two broad categories—the Gariya and Mariya—with different historical contributions to the greater Assamese society. The word Gariya is used in multiple meanings. Different historical sources give different stories regarding the origin of the word Gariya. According to one source, Gariya refers to those people who came from Gaur. Another source says Gariyas are those people who came with Mohammad Gauri. Another convincing explanation says that those people were called Gariyas, who were converted into Islam due to various caste-related conflicts and other social exploitations in medieval Assam. To quote Leela Gogoi,

“The converted indigenous Muslims have blood relation with the Hindus. These Muslims opened the path of national integration with a fold of religion. Through marriage the local population integrated with the converted people. Though among the local indigenous converted people, most were Koch-Mech, some other families were also there from other communities. Mainly among the Mongoloid inter-community marriage was there, but marriage as a result of illegal sexual relations did not get social recognition and they were out of society or got isolated. People from all communities were done the same. Like Satkuliya people had separate village, the people from out of society established separate village and these villages were called as Goriya gaon. Later Azan Pir converted them into Islam and they were established with social recognition again.” (Gogoi: 2012)But this explaination of Dr Gogoi was contested by Professor Muhiuddin Ahmed (2013: 118) as firstly, the Ahom ruled Assam for six hundred years and Azan Pir only lived in Assam for about fifty years. So, it is impossible for Azan Pir to convert all the socially isolated people for six hundred years in just fifty years. Secondly, with the Muslim invaders hundreds of soldiers were held captive. There was no scope for them to be converted by the Pir, because they were Muslims from earlier times. Thirdly, before the Ahom stepped in Assam, Ali Mech was converted into Islam. So, he tried to deny the opinion of Gogoi regarding the Goriya. Professor Ahmed claims that the descendants of thirteenth century captive Muslim soldiers, pir, fakir, auliya, Muslims established by Hussain Shah and Makram Kha in lower Assam people came voluntarily from Gaur, imported Muslim technicians and artisans by the Ahom rulers and the local converts; though there are some distinctions in their occupations, their religion and dress are the same. These people were called Goriyas by the common people. (2013: 219)

It may be noted here that every native Muslim living in the Brahmaputra Valley, excluding the Moriyas, are called Goriyas by the non-Muslim Assamese people. The Sheikh, Syed, Mughal, Pathan etc. are included in them. The Assamese Muslims themselves categorise as Syed, Goriya, Moriya etc. (Malik: 2014)

In the social life of Assam, the Moriyas have a great influence. They have been protecting the traditional brass craft of Assam for about five hundred years. By strengthening the economy of Assam, the things produced by the Moriyas are used in the temples, Satras (religious institution of Vaishnavism) and mosques. According to the 1891 census, the total number of the Moriya population was sixteen hundred seventyseven only. At present the total number of the Moriya population is approximately five lacs twentythree thousand. There are eightyeight Moriya villages in Assam. Most of them are situated in upper Assam, specially in Sivasagar district. The Moriyas are concentrated mainly in the urban areas. Because they are mainly braziers by profession, they need market for availing the raw materials and selling the finished products. But because the Moriyas did not take other occupations like agriculture, business, governmental services from initial stage, they were left as backward. But in present times, except Hajos, other Moriyas left their traditional profession.

The contribution of the Assamese Muslims is not limited to the socio-economic and cultural life of Assam but extends to the political sphere as well. It is a historical fact that the Muslims of Assam, together with others in the Ahom militia, fought against the Mughal army in many battles including the famous one at Saraighat in 1671. (Hussain: 1993) During the Ahom rule, they took up weapons against their own community brothers of the Indian imperialist Muslims and proved their loyalty to the Ahom king and Assamese identity. The Konch king Parikshit’s military general Fatekha fought against the Mughal. Another knight who took up weapon against the Mughals was Saraighat’s Bagh Hazarika.

IV. Identity Question of the Assamese Muslims

Identity is a socio-political term which is the conception, qualities, beliefs and expressions that make a person or group different from others. It is a sense of belongingness. A person’s sense of identity is made up by two components— internal and external. The internal component includes physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual characteristics and the external com-ponent includes its group affiliations like family, religion, caste, class, nationality etc.

So, it can be said that identity is basically of two types—individual and social. James D. Fearon argues that identity is presently used in two linked senses, which may be termed ‘social’ and ‘personal’, where in the former sense, an identity refers simply to a social category, a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and characteristic features or attributes and in the second sense of personal identity, an identity is some distinguishing characteristic that a person takes special pride in or views as socially conse-quential but more-or-less unchangeable. (1999: 2) According to Erik Erikson, “a sense of identity means a sense of being at with oneself and it also means at the same time, a sense of affinity with a community’s sense of at one with its future as well as history or mythology”. (1975: 27) The Assamese Muslims share a definite group identity which comprises of various commonness among the members of the community in character. This cannot be explained as only ‘Muslim’ or only ‘Assamese’. Prominent economist-cum-social scientist Amartya Sen (2009: 19) claims that any real human being belongs to many different groups, through birth, associations and alliances. Each of these group identities is quite important in a particular context because it gives him or her a sense of affiliation and loyalty. It suggests that identities are essentially plural and people have choices to make regarding the attachment, loyalty and priority to any group he or she wants in a particular context. Social identity is a person’s sense of who one is based on one’s group membership. A social identity is the portion of an individual’s self-concept resulting from perceived membership in a relevant social group. Individual identity becomes collective or group identity when solidarities become organised for collective action and decision. This process usually takes place in the context of time and its coherence and intensity depends on the culmination of overlapping symbols of assimilation and inclusion, essential in the formation of group consciousness. (Hasan: 1989)

In the present article, the ‘Assamese Muslims’ are assumed as a ‘social group’ where each Assamese Muslim person is a ‘self’ and they show some kind of belongingness to the ‘group’ by social and historical process. A social group consists of a number of people who feel and perceive themselves as belonging to this group and who are said to be in the group by others. (Tajfel and Turner: 1979) Tajfel and Turner conceptualise a group as a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership in it.

They have some degree of solidarity in their ‘in-group’ behaviour. In general, identity is defined with the help of sameness and difference. Sameness focuses on the ‘self’ of identity whereas difference focuses on the identity of ‘others’. This perception helps to distinguish one group from another and stratifies the society. To have an identity, a thing must have features that are both relevant and enduring. (Bhargava: 2002)

The identity of the Assamese Muslims is thought to be under threat. The problem of identity arises only when the relevant features of an identity are believed to be under threat and if nothing is ever lost there would not have been the problem of identity dominating the political scene. (Deka: 2014) The Assamese Muslims, with other social, cultural or economic identities, share Islam as their religious identity. But in contemporary times it is observed that they are primarily identified with their Islamic identity rather than other identities. In Assam, there are different groups of Muslims which share different socio-economic and political background. But the common perception categorises all the Muslim groups in Assam into one. A person’s religion need not be his or her all-encompassing and exclusive identity. Muslims, like all other people in the world, have many different pursuits, and not all of their priorities and values need be placed within their singular identity of being Islamic. (Sen: 2006) There is no doubt that identity is basic to both the individual and collective life and is formed in a process of interaction and relation-ship with ‘others’ in a multi-cultural context and the only reason of its assertion in the political sphere is to secure a group’s social as well as material domination. (Deka: 2014)

The Muslims in Assam are highly diversified. Assamese Muslims, who claim their ancestry since the time of Ahom rule, do not identify with the later entrants. This group finds themselves well-ensconced within the fold of Assamese identity, which is often imagined as a composite one. “As far as the Mussalman who had been taken prisoner in former times and had chosen to marry here, their descendants act exactly in the manner of the Assamese, and have nothing of Islam except the name; their hearts are inclined far more towards mingling with the Assamese than towards association with the Muslims.” (Gait: 2013) Historians observed that the ‘Assamese Muslims’ are more Assamese than Muslim. But there appears to be a threat to the perception about Assamese Muslims as a category which is often imagined by its Assamese-ness because of late there appears to be a tendency that tries to bracket all Muslims in Assam into one category. This tendency is not only limited to the popular perception but percolates down to the cultural and social practices.

The same tendency of categorising all Muslims into one category can be seen globally too. Huntington’s work, Clash of Civilisations, pointed out that ‘civilisational identity will be increa-singly important in the future and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilisations—Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilisation’. (Huntington: 1996) Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilizations categorises all Muslims into one category and describes India as a Hindu Civilisation which is subject to be criticised because it has many more Muslims than any other country in the world. At the same time, it cannot be categorised by placing all Muslims into one because identities are multiple. The identities of the Muslims may also be different due to geographical, political or cultural causes regarding the context.

V. Conclusion

The socio-political scenario of contemporary Assam witnesses the dilemma of the identity issue of the Assamese Muslims along with the other indigenous social groups of the State. Identity crisis refers to a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society. In this case, it is seen that even when somebody is clear about how one wants to see oneself there is still difficulty in being able to persuade others to see one in just that way. (Sen: 2006) If the Assamese Muslims are likely to give more importance to the identity of their nationality than their religion, the problem arises for others to accept them as they want to portray themselves.


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The author is a Ph.D Research Scholar, Department of Political Science, Gauhati University.

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