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The Hindu
The Hindu
Rahul Karmarkar

Minority certificate plan triggers fears in Assam

The Assam government’s plan announced in March to provide minority certificates to six communities has caused disquiet among certain groups while raising hope among others. While several “indigenous” and Bengali-origin Muslim forums see in it a divisive ploy on the part of the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government, some non-Muslim communities have welcomed it as a step that could help them being “finally counted as minorities”.

The fears primarily emanate from the Chief Minister’s statement about redefining minorities district-wise, “depending upon the geography, population and threat perception”. Mr. Sarma in March called Muslims a majority community, and has often cited examples such as of the scene in western Assam’s South Salmara district to buttress the point that Hindus are a minority in several districts.

The government has, however, not spelt out yet if the status of a minority community would get affected if it is the dominant community in terms of numbers in a certain district.

Deepening the confusion, the Chief Minister on Wednesday said the State Cabinet will decide by August 15 a separate classification for indigenous minorities, including Muslims, who have not migrated from other places. There again, he did not clarify whether the non-indigenous minorities will continue to get the minority benefits once this new classification is made.

The six communities to be issued minority certificates are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis. According to the 2011 Census, Hindus account for 61.47% of Assam’s total population and Muslims 34.22%. Christians constitute 3.74% while the percentage of Buddhists, Sikhs and Jain is less than 1%. The State hardly has any Parsis.

‘Why separate certificate?’

The All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) sniffed a design to go beyond the Hindu-Muslim divide and drive a wedge within a religion behind the certificate move. The party, headed by perfume baron and MP Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, is seen as one that caters to the Bengali-speaking or Bengal-origin Muslims.

“What is the need for a certificate when the Constitution of India has already given minority status to these [six] communities?” said AIUDF general secretary and MLA Aminul Islam.

The indigenous or Assamese Muslims – they are divided into Goria, Moria, Deshi and Julaha according to the community they converted from – are also not convinced.

“We see a political conspiracy to put all Muslims in the same basket. The government should rather give us Scheduled Tribe status,” said Moinul Islam, president of Sodou Asom Goria Jatiya Parishad.

Official legitimacy

Habib Mohammad Chowdhury, the Chairman of the Minorities Development Board, defended the certificate move as a “historic” one. “This is an important decision that will benefit the minorities in availing of government schemes, although there has been no decision on which department will issue the certificate and what the criteria will be,” he told  The Hindu.

A minority certificate helps students secure scholarships in educational institutes: for example, under the post-matriculation scholarship scheme in Assam, minority students studying in Class XI to PhD are offered up to ₹10,000 annually to pursue higher education. The certificate is mostly issued by community-specific welfare boards or religious institutions. A candidate can also give a self-attested affidavit to claim the minority status.

“A government certification carries more weight than that of a religious organisation. We have seen many students lose out on scholarships because of their inability to prove their minority status. The board has at times issued letters as proof but they are often not accepted,” said Mr. Chowdhury, adding that a government certificate could ensure that only genuine citizens benefit from schemes.

BJP MLA Jayanta Malla Baruah offered the same rationale. “The certificate will safeguard the rights of genuine minorities and only those seeking votes from illegal immigrants will oppose such an empowering move by the State,” he said.

The Assam Christian Forum did not want to be dragged into the debate of whether the move was targeted against any particular minority community. “The point is, who is the government of Assam to certify me as a Christian? How will a clerk decide whether or not Azizul Haque, who retired as the pastor of the Guwahati Baptist Church recently, is a Christian or not by his name? My religion is personal and this (certificate) colours my identity as an Indian citizen,” said Allen Brooks, the forum’s spokesperson and former member of the Assam State Commission for Minorities.

Other minority groups welcomed the move. “The certificate will put all minority communities, irrespective of the numbers, on equal terms. Earlier, minority used to mean only one community. Now, we can also be counted as minorities and the underprivileged among us get a share of the minority funds unlike in the past,” said Mahavir Jain, the president of the Assam Jain Samaj.

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