Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Thursday that those who were forcibly converted to Islam during the Mughal period can get the status of indigenous persons if they return to their “original identity”.

Sarma made the announcement while speaking in the state Assembly about the initiatives his government has taken to secure land rights for indigenous communities.

“Islam didn’t arrive in India that early,” the chief minister said. “But if you seek indigenous status based on the community before you were converted, then you will get indigenous tag. Many did not convert based on their wishes but because of [the fear of 17-century Mughal emperor] Aurangzeb’s sword and so they should return.”

Sarma said that landless migrant Muslims or Bengali-origin Muslims will not get land titles under Mission Basundhara – an Assam government initiative to update land records and make land revenue services accessible to citizens. The initiative is based on a policy from 2019 on allocating land to landless “indigenous” people.

“The definition is clear,” Sarma said. “Khilonjia [indigenous] means aboriginal... In Assam, the tribal people...[communities such as] the Moran, Matak and Chutia are aboriginal. This is a worldwide recognised definition. But we are not aboriginal. We [referring to his own ancestry] are from Kannauj. We migrated 500 years ago.”

The chief minister said that “Miyas”, or Bengali-origin Muslims, are citizens but are not indigenous to Assam. Muslims of Bengali origin, often branded as illegal migrants, are among the most marginalised communities in Assam. They have been living in the state’s riverine areas since much before independence.

Sarma said: “[Mission] Basundhara is not for migrant Muslims…it is also not for Marwaris, Biharis or those who came from other states. They already have separate channels. Landless people can apply and the district administration will give the pattas [land titles].”

The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, however, clarified that landless Muslims – including the Goriya and Moriya communities – who didn’t get land under Mission Basundhara can apply for it to the district commissioner. The Goriya and Moriya communities are among five Muslim groups that were categorised as “indigenous” by the Assam government in 2022.

During the Assembly debate, some Muslim MLAs from the Opposition said that many Muslims were not selected for land allotment under Mission Basundhara. There were about 13 lakh applications, out of which only 2.5 lakh indigenous people were selected for land allotment.

The Constitution does not provide any definition or framework to determine who exactly is indigenous to Assam. Several committees were formed to create such a framework, but they could not arrive at a consensus.

According to the 2011 Census, there are 1.06 crore Muslims in Assam – accounting for 34.22% of the state’s population.

In 1985, the Assam Accord was signed between the Centre and the leaders of the Assam Movement, which was launched in 1979 to identify and deport undocumented immigrants. Clause 6 of the Accord states that the government must enact constitutional, legislative and administrative measures to protect, preserve and promote the “cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”.