A ploy to divide and divert - That's how the two main opposition parties in Assam, the Congress and AIUDF, view a recent move by the state's BJP government to give "indigenous status" to five Muslim communities. It is not yet clear what this status means legally; though, citing a need for development, there's been talk of counting all indigenous people in the state.
The Muslim communities declared indigenous by the Himanta Biswa Sarma government are the Goria, Moria, Jolah (only those living on tea gardens), Desi, and Syed (only Assamese-speaking). These communities - called 'Khilonjia' in Assamese to denote they are "natives of the state" - form a small chunk of the state's population, but language identity has a role to play.
While Muslims are over 35 per cent of Assam's 3.12 crore population as per the latest census (2011), this figure can roughly be bifurcated - 31 per cent Bengali-speaking, 4 per cent Assamese-speaking. The BJP's political rhetoric in Assam is mainly against Bengali-speaking Muslims, often branded illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Political watchers say the BJP -- ruling party at the Centre too -- wants to woo Assamese-speaking Muslims, sensing a vote-bank amid a complex cultural mix.
Chief Minister Sarma has said, "Khilonjia Muslims have lived in Assam for 100 years. They were concerned about losing their indigenous identity after migrant Muslims came from other states. That's why we declared them indigenous. Other Muslims here are Assamese too; they shouldn't worry."
But Aminul Islam, a legislator from the All India United Democratic Front or AIUDF, sees this as "an open divide-and-rule policy".
"Our Constitution does not provide any separate rights for indigenous people. The government is just trying to divide the Muslims, so that a section of them can be used for political benefits," he said.
The Congress wants a definition first.
"This is all to divert attention from the miseries faced by people due to prolonged floods," said Congress MLA Rockybul Hussain, Deputy Leader of Opposition in the assembly.
"Let's define who is 'indigenous' in Assam; and let all such communities be given the status together. We'll not say anything then," he added.