Muslims in Assam ‘headlines’ in all seasons
By Swati Deb
Muslims are the second largest population in the world with Islam as their religion spread all over the globe. But they are also the most “victimised” because of their religion, language and sectorial conflict. Everyone knows that India was partitioned by the Britishers on the ground of religion Later Bangladesh came out Pakistan basically on ground of language, though both were Muslim countries.
But this division has not brought an end to woes and “victimisation” of Muslims in the three countries. Hindus and other minority groups both in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been targeted too. Muslims are in majority in Kashmir and the Hindu- Muslim relationship here could be good at ‘social level’, but quite bitter politically and in the perspective of nationalism. Eviction of Kashmiri Pandits was a gory episode. Terrorism here is a major concern and at times Muslim youths also fall
victims to both armed forces and so-called radical elements.
Northern, Southern, Western and Eastern West Bengal have sizable Muslim population but large-scale communal riots are past. But Assam which has witnessed a serious demographic change for past years is a flash point. 2001, six districts in Assam were Muslim dominated, but in 2011 it increased to nine. This was based on the official census. The Muslim majority districts in Assam include Barpeta, Dhubri, Karimganj, Goalpara, Darrang, Bongaigaon, Hailakandi, Nagaon and Morigaon. The Hindu- Muslim relationship and the related socio-political rows are the flavours of the season, one may say every season in Assam. And it has been a trend since the 1970s. They are more intense in Assam because there was a history of ‘Bongali Kheda’ stir in the 1970s.
In Assam, the visible demographic transition in some pockets — closer to the international border with Bangladesh and some even away from the border —always sparked off the debate over the Bangladeshi influx. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that in the 1970s during the peak of the long students’ agitation against the ‘influx of Bangladeshis’ even Hindu Bengalis were at times at the receiving end of the local anguish.
Even in 2012, Assam witnessed a bloodbath owing to conflicts of interest between Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslims. The clashes and subsequent remarks from mainland politicians including from BJP and from the likes of Hyderabad-based Asaduddin Owaisi aroused passions. These also had created an upsurge for a violent protest in Mumbai. The aftermath of Babri Masjid demolition and subsequent riots also took a severe turn in Assam. Lately some intellectuals met and held a brainstorming session on the complex issue. The simpleton issue of ‘insiders/natives and outsiders’ is precisely very vast and hotly talked about issues in Assam and other North Eastern states. Some of these issues came up for closer analyses naturally.
In the context of Assam, it is always a case to argue that statistics often conceal more than what they reveal. But for people of Assam, these census figures are like hot potatoes! Assam’s Muslim population has increased in 2011 to 34.22 per cent, a quantum leap of over four per cent from 2001 while the Hindu population has been around 61.46 per cent. Some claims are now being made that the Muslim population has probably witnessed further north-bound graph between 2011 and 2021. During the UPA regime, Home Minister P Chidambaram had said that illegal immigration had been ‘one major issue’, but that point often gets lost in the din. That’s the paradox of North East India and precisely a factor for ‘agony’ of Assam. The present Union Home Minister, Amit Saha said that the infiltrators from Bangladesh are ‘termites’.
From census figures it seems Muslims are growing in Assam in numbers in some districts— that there’s a decline in the Bangladeshi influx? But this could be a fallacy. Sociologists maintain that ‘substantial Bangladeshis’ have made ways in states like Kerala and various parts of Assam, Maharashtra and West Bengal essentially for employment.
In 1993-94 while the then Assam Chief Minister Hiteshwar Saikia had told the assembly that there is “no Bangladeshi influx” in his state, the fellow Congress leader S C Jamir (then CM of Nagaland) said - “Bangladeshis are increasing like rabbits”. Another leader said that Muslims breed like bunnies. Many years later even Assam Governor Lt Gen S K Sinha submitted a detailed report to the President (during the stint of Vajpayee government) and flagged off issues related to influx of Bangladeshi Muslims. The real issue is who will bell the cat?
What actually should be a matter of concern is that the political class, including the BJP, in its ambition to wrest/ retain power in Assam can actually lead the society into radicalisation. Starting from Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which came to power on evict outsider’s slogan, also resorted to communal politics in the sensitive border state at different times as part of opportunistic politics. Social worker Mofidul Islam in Guwahati says, “Unfortunately, radicalisation is a double-edged sword and Assam and the North East India often have fallen vulnerable to this malady”. It may not be erroneous to say that the government led by Himanta Biswa Sarma has taken a number of tough stance vis-a-vis Muslim community. The passage of the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 2021 was one such step.
The act is aimed at regulating slaughter, consumption and transportation of cattle (mostly cows). This created a stir in other parts of NE since the three Christian dominated states- Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland (all once part of undivided Assam) beef is part of the main foods. Another radical step was recent curbs on Madrasas which are causing unrest though underneath. At the same time, the maverick Congress turn BJP politician Sarma has raked up the concept of indigenous Muslims of Assam for whom he seems to have all sympathy.