At a two-hour meeting during which Sarma met over 150 intellectuals, writers, educationists, doctors, cultural workers, historians and people from different walks of life representing the minority community, discussions were held on issues confronting the indigenous Assamese Muslims and the threat to their identity, cultural tradition and heritage.
“The meeting emphasized the need to protect and preserve the uniqueness of indigenous Assamese Muslims. However, in the broader landscape, it has been agreed that population explosion in some parts of Assam has been posing a real threat to the state’s development, more particularly in the economic front,” Sarma told the media after the meeting. “If we have to be among the top-five states in the country, then we have to manage our population. That has been agreed today,” he added.
In order to achieve that goal, Sarma said it has been insisted upon that eight sub-groups be constituted to work on a range of issues — health, education, population control, cultural identity, financial inclusion, women empowerment and skill development.
“The entire range of issues will be discussed by the sub-groups and after three months, we will be here again to prepare a roadmap for the next five years,” the chief minister said. The sub-groups will be formed from within the community. Each of the sub-groups will have a chairman from within the community and a member secretary from the government side.
Several eminent personalities including Padma Shri Dr Illias Ali, Padma Shri Eli Ahmed, Syed S K Alam, Dr S I Ahmed and Nekibur Zaman attended the meeting and highlighted the socio-economic problems facing the indigenous Muslim population in Assam.
While representatives of political parties were not invited to the meeting, Sarma said it would be done in the next round of talks along with the legislators. Also, opinion of students’ bodies and social organisations representing the minorities will be sought.
Sarma said that the indigenous Muslim population, being an integral part of Assamese society, needs accelerated development so that it can become a significant contributor to the state’s growth.
Differentiating between indigenous Muslims and those who have roots in erstwhile East Bengal, the chief minister said the government will have another round of discussion with the latter. While political parties claim this to be divisive, Sarma said indigenous Muslims and those having roots in erstwhile East Bengal have a distinct cultural and linguistic difference.
Congress welcomed the move but said focusing on one particular community regarding population control is undesirable. “What they need is guidance through education and health awareness programmes,” said Bobbeeta Sharma, chairperson of the media department of Assam Pradesh Congress Committee. She reminded that Sarma was the longest serving health and education minister during 15 years of Congress rule. “What was his contribution towards this end?” she asked.
The AIUDF, meanwhile, termed the exercise an effort to divide the Muslims of Assam and put the entire blame on one community. “If population explosion is a problem in Assam, law should be brought for all communities to check population growth. Why should only Muslims be under the radar?” asked AIUDF general secretary Aminul Islam.