The Muslims of Assam is not a historical but political category of "immigrants", so Prannoy Roy of NDTV pronounced on April 8, 2016. How could such a reputed journalist be so terribly misinformed about the history of Assam?
Assam's Muslim population is 1/3 of the 30 million people, which is the second-largest Muslim population in term of percentage, following Kashmir. The Muslims of Assam are a composite community constituted by at least four different groups — Muslim-Axamia (also called Goriya, Tholua or Khilonjia), Bengali speaking or Bhotia, up-country or Juluha (from UP and Bihar), and immigrant Muslims, referred to as Miya. The history of these diverse communities is important to know because they are a window to understanding Assam's composite culture created by Hindu, Muslim, Ahom, and many other groups that call themselves Axamia.
The literatus Imran Shah attributes the Axamia as xanmiholi — blended and fused community. The geography of Assam, as a place straddling South and Southeast Asia, enabled the process, and the culture of emotions — morom (love) and sneh (fellow feeling) facilitate and sustain the Axamia. The current politics of excising the Muslims from the Axamia community transforms them into the Other — for gains of exclusive Hindutva politics.
Although, Assam produced its own history called buranjis, which records the process of xanmiholi, the colonial administrator-historian, Edward Gait who wrote the well-known History of Assam (1906) omitted the cultural phenomenon, instead he privileged the Mughal-Ahom war during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb as the pivotal moment of Muslim beginning in Assam. War is not history, it is the shattering of continuity, and thus the Muslim settlement in Assam was cast in a negative light. Noted Assamese historian, S.K. Bhuyan, adopted Gait's narrative identifying the Muslims as the defeated and abandoned soldiers of the Mughal army. In the twentieth century, the Indian National Congress transformed the Muslim as a "minority" in need of protection.
Historically speaking, a different story is available. Muslim settlement in Assam followed multiple pathways over eight centuries. Ibn-Batuta mentions the Muslims of Kamarupa in his twelfth century Rehla. From the early thirteenth century, following the invasion of Bhaktiyaruddin Khalji's (a renegade general of Sultan Iltutmish), which is corroborated in the Kanai Barashil Bowa Sil inscription found in North Guwahati, Muslims settlement appeared in Assam and the community is referred to as Turuksha. The conversion of a tribal man named Ali Mech during Khalji's invasion commences the local roots of the Muslim community.
Further, the conversion of the Kamata ruler, Chakradhvaj (1455-1485) to Islam provided new fillip. Trading groups arrived and Sufis settled in the outlying areas as, the American historian, Richard Eaton has argued (1992). By the sixteenth century, Muslim communities were established and is recoded in the Vaishnava literature of Assam. In the Assamese buranjis, Muslim are called Bongals or Goriya and they lived in the midst of other groups in the Ahom kingdom.
My father's family history is a case in point. The progenitor of the Saikia clan, Sheikh Azimuddin came from Delhi and was inducted into the service of the Ahom king through a land grant, title, and all its benefits in perpetuity. He became a Saikia and an Ahom noble in 1595. The Saikias, like other Muslim families who served the Ahom kings, are recorded, but several other unrecorded narratives of assimilation and integration also survive to this day.
The "othering" of Muslims happened in the colonial period and the first recorded event is a religious riot in 1930. It involved the sale of a cow for sacrifice, which led to violence between up-country Hindus and immigrant Chittagonian Muslims in the Assam Oil Company town of Digboi. This incident is important because it became indicative of the slow transformation of Assam from outside.
The colonial government's greed for revenue collection encouraged migration from Bengal for increasing agricultural productivity, which, in turn, changed the demographic composition of Assam. The impact of this change became evident after 1919 and the implementation of new electoral rules for provincial assembly elections under the system of Dyarchy. People became population groups and their importance was tabulated in terms of voting power during elections. The story persists even today.
But can politics change history? In this question emerges for me a memory that the xanmiholi Axamia have survived for centuries, and thus it will continue even though its death may be desired by the current Hindutva rulers of Delhi.
Yasmin Saikia is Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies & Professor of History, Arizona State University