Identity of Muslims in Assam at the time of Global Islamism

Sazzad Hussain, Tezpur University, Assam, India

Muslims in Assam has undergone tremendous changes in the political and social domain in the last three decades for reasons which were essentially external. The six year long Assam Movement led by an ultra-regionalist students union and an equally chauvinistic group to expel the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants randomly took all Muslims in the state as foreigners. This made the community sidelined to the corner of the society isolating them from the greater sphere of the Assamese society. They found a space in the assemblies of Tabligh Jamat, an evangelical Islamist mission for the adherence and practice of puritanical Sunni Islam which was gaining momentum in Assam from 1980 onwards. The influence of Tabligh Jamat brought some unprecedented changes in the practice of Islam to the Muslims of Assam and these became their identity marks. Internationally Islam was emerging as a big political force with the establishment of Islamic Republic in Iran, Islamaization of Pakistan by Gen. Zia, start of the Afghan Mujahedeen and Islamization of Bangladesh, Assam’s immediate neighbor, by Gen. Ershad. All these led to the creation of a new narrative among the Muslims in different parts of the world that they are a part of a transnational community whose interests were need not be cared by their respective nation states but by the Umma, vaguely referring to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies who, notably Saudi Arabia were pumping their petro-dollars to set up Madrassas to impart their version of puritanical Islam (Wahhabism). The Muslims of Assam, alienated from the mainstream social life because of the insensitive policies of the Assam Movement (1979-85) were greatly influenced by this new petro-Islamism which aims to homogenize Muslims worldwide by rejecting their diversity and regional socio-cultural roots. Influenced by Ahle-e-Hadith, an Indian Islamic organization linked to Saudi Arabian Wahhabism over the years most of the Muslims in Assam have emerged as more like an Arab or Arabized Afghan-Pakistani than an Assamese or Bengali. This transformation due to their “conversion” to Wahhabism from traditional localized Sufi Islam also has caused political ramifications as they are increasingly mobilized for party politics based on Islamist identity.
This paper will discuss the transformation of identity of Muslims in Assam empirically and show how this trend has shaped the political landscape of the state amidst the politics of ethnic assertion. The paper will also focus on the consequences of these transformations of Muslims in Assam and how this can be addressed with attention to the traditional practice of Islam.