, by DR. SYED AHMED
Assam has a long history of cultural co-existence and communal harmony and Muslims in the state have made immense contribution to the various fields, said Chief Minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi while inaugurating a 2-day symposium on “Muslims in Assam: Challenges and Opportunities” organised by Guwahati-based Centre for Development and Peace Studies (CDPS) at Guwahati on January 16.
“In the history of Assam, Muslims played an important role. Even today, Assamese Muslims are an integral part of the society of Assam. Be it sports, culture or literature, they are bringing glory to the land in all fields. Different tribes and communities are part of the rich culture of Assam and this is something we should take pride in…. Involvement of all the communities is a prerequisite for the development process. There is, no doubt, a feeling of neglect among several communities in Assam. People should speak out their heart and engage in dialogues to try and resolve their problems,” Gogoi said.
He said Assam faced problems of influx of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, however the issue must not be blown out of proportion and communalised. He questioned, “Who is not a migrant? Even I am a migrant to Assam since my forefathers came from China. Migration is a natural phenomenon.”
The first day of the symposium had two sessions: one on Chord of Harmony: Co-existence in Assam and the other on Natives and Aliens: Muslims and Politics of Migration in Assam. The second day had three sessions including one on Islam and Modernity, a Perspective from Assam.
Prolific scholar and champion of Muslims’ rights, Dr. Syeda Hameed assured, in her keynote address, that Planning Commission will promote Assam’s unique tradition of communal harmony in the rest of India. Dr. Hameed said she was moved by the unity and peaceful co-existence of Hindus and Muslims in Assam which is rarely seen in other parts of the country.
Sharing her experiences of Assam, she said, “During my visits to Assam, I came to know about the ideals of the 15th century Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardeva which embrace all religions and communities. I also heard about Ajan Pir, a Muslim mystic, who came to Assam from Arab to preach Islam blended with humanism and universal brotherhood propagated by Sankardeva. Teachings of these two great souls are sill inspiring the people of Assam to lead a life of peaceful co-existence.”
Dr. Hameed further said Planning Commission had numerous rounds of consultations on the challenges and problems faced by Muslims in Assam and other parts of India at different levels and would include these in the approach paper for the XIIth Plan.
At the end of her speech, Dr. Hameed said different areas have different problems and needs; so we have to engage in field studies to identify the requirements and issues. She said, “Sitting in Guwahati, we cannot rightly estimate the problems faced by people living in char areas. Before chalking out development schemes, it is therefore important to do an on-field study and survey.” She concluded by saying that Muslims should never consider themselves a minority; they should rather consider themselves the second largest majority.
British Deputy High Commissioner, Sanjay Wadvani emphasised that the symposium is one of the many activities they have been involved over the years with the Muslim community in India to promote and share experiences of religious harmony.
“Assam is famous for its rich diversity in religion, language, ethnicity and culture. Indeed, if a place is to be judged by the history and cultural heritage of each and every community, then Assam must surely be one of the richest states. While celebrating the richness of our diversity and our range of faith, both countries have also had to continually work hard to promote peace and harmony between religious communities,” Wadvani further said.
Director of CDPS, Wasbir Hussain said there has been harmonious co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in Assam and we have to further strengthen this bond. “Muslims in Assam practise Islam. We can call them moderates. They have adapted well with the broad Assamese culture and way of life. But the society cannot afford to remain complacent. Assam shares a 300-km long border with Bangladesh and illegal migration is a big issue in this state. There has been harmonious co-existence between Muslims and other communities in Assam. We all need to be conscious of the need to strengthen this bond and way of life. This can be achieved if we deliberate on issues, however delicate, in an objective manner and this is what we seek to do in this symposium,” Hussain said.
On the second day of the symposium most of the speakers addressed the poor socio-economic and educational status of the Muslims in Assam and stressed that the state government has neglected the community.
MP from Dhubri constituency and President AIUDF, Badruddin Ajmal identified a number of factors that have brought the present pathetic condition of Muslims in Assam. He also particularly highlighted the poor educational status of the Muslims who lived in remote areas such as chars and chaporis. He stated that education is one of the most crucial challenges facing the community, and lack of it has closed the avenues of development for many people.
Ajmal said absence of strong Muslim political leaders is another factor that had left the Muslims helpless in the state. Most of the political leaders have failed to address the need of the already deprived community, he added.
Ajmal also said Muslims in Assam continued to feel insecure as they have been targets of violence. Referring to the 1983 massacre in Nellie, he said no proper enquiry on the incident has so far been done.
Citing several instances, Ajmal identified that discriminatory attitude to Muslims, especially by the state government, was one of the big hurdles in achieving a just and equitable society. He claimed the state government failed to provide employment for Muslim youth in the recruitment drives over the recent years and blamed it for not fully utilising the funds sanctioned by the central government for the welfare of the minorities.
A senior faculty member of Sociology and Political Science Department of Guwahati University and renowned Muslim scholar in the state, Dr. Monirul Hussain emphasised that Muslims in Assam, as in rest of India, did not constitute a single homogenous group. He identified at least four major groups of the community in Assam with distinctive cultural and linguistic traits: Assamese Muslims, Na Asamiya, Urdu and Hindi speaking Muslims and Muslims in the Barak Valley. He said that many of these Muslims have felt the effects of political developments.
Hussain said, “A section of Muslims in Assam, including the immigrant Muslims, felt the pressure when it came to issues such as citizenship. The situation is made more complicated by the fact that there was no credible data to substantiate the real size of the migrant population in Assam. The Muslim community was in difficult situation because of existing political dynamics of the state. While a section of them was put under pressure by certain quarters, another political group tried to take advantage by promising them political support and patronage.”
Hussain states that education is one of the ways for the Muslims to get empowered and its effects in time will be felt in many others spheres. Emergence of a larger middle class through education and economic growth would have its impact in areas such as family planning in the near future, he added.
Many of the speakers also discussed the madrasa education system in the state and stressed the need for a modern curriculum.