The Identity Quotient
Assam is a land representing cohesive social and cultural tapestry and Muslims have a history of over seven-and-a-half centuries in the state. They came to Assam in various phases. Ali Mech is believed to be the first person to convert into Islam sometime in the early 13th century and ever since, Muslims have merged into the socio cultural milieu of Assam.
This syncretism is different from other parts of the country. Over the years, they have assimilated to the greater Assamese society to such an extent that barring religion, there is not much to differentiate them. They have contributed significantly to the composite heritage of Assam and adopted Assamese as their mother tongue. Some even share surnames like Hazarika, Saikia, Bora, Borbora and Khanikar with the Assamese Hindus.
Literatus 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”.
I grew up in an area in Dibrugarh in upper Assam where you hear the sound of the doba (a big drum) from a namghar (Vaishnavite prayer house) more prominently than the azan from a mosque. We happen to be the only Muslim family in this area. Eid for us meant having lunch together with our neighbours and we would all gather for the Bihu bhuj or feast every year. My father, who was a professor of Botany in Dibrugarh’s prestigious DHSK College, was often invited to various events organised in the namghar premises.
The 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 adopted Islamic faith and the name Ali Mech and is believed to be the first person in Assam to have embraced Islam.
Bakhtiyar’s exploits find mention in the Kanai Barakhi Bowa Sil rock inscription in North Guwahati. The event is recorded in Sanskrit which translates to: “On the 13th of Chaitra in the Saka era of 1127 (1206 AD), the Turks (Muslims) coming into Kamarupa were destroyed.”
In the subsequent years, Assam saw the advent of Aryans and non-Aryans from various parts of the world. 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 work by the kings. No women accompanied them and so those who stayed back married local Assamese women.
Shihabuddin Talish, who accompanied Muslim general Mir Jumla in his expedition of Assam, wrote in his chronicles that the manners of these Muslims were very much Assamese and they had very little of Islamic characteristics except their names. Their hearts were inclined far more towards mingling with the local people than associating with fellow Muslims.
Assam has over the years set a perfect example of Hindu-Muslim unity. After one of his visits to Assam before independence, Mahatma Gandhi wrote an article titled Situation in Assam in which he mentioned how he was impressed by the “complete friendliness” between Hindus and Muslims in the state. “… Since my visit, I have not seen one sign of Hindu-Muslim enmity. In every gathering, Hindus and Muslims are equally represented.”
But of late, this indigenous community has been suffering the ignominy of being bracketed with illegal immigrants as ‘Miya’. And the community is also questioned over its Muslimness, thanks to the changing socio-political environment across the country. An Urdu word meaning gentleman, ‘Miya’ is, however, used in Assam for Bangladeshi-origin Muslims who mostly live in char areas or floating river islands.
The contribution of Assamese Muslims has been multi-faceted, diverse and immense. Be it politics, civil services, literature, art, education, law, sports, music, films and entertainment, they have excelled in every other field. Of the most valuable contributions to the cultural richness of Assam are the religious and philosophical Zikir and Zari songs. These parables are ascribed to Azan Pir, who came from Iraq in the 17th century and made Assam his home and Assamese his language.
Litterateur Imran Shah says that the contribution of Assamese Muslims to the greater Assamese society is unparalleled. But it’s a case of “little done and vast undone” as far as documentation in concerned.
The columnist is the author a book -The Identity Quotient that deals with the background of Moriyas, Deshis, Julhas, Muslims of Barak Valley, Azan Pir and his Zikirs; Dargahs, mazars and mosques; food and cuisine, marriages, contribution of Assamese Muslims to movies, music and literature; besides NRC and CAA
The views expressed by the writer are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.