Dr. Ohi Uddin Ahmed
An inland Muslim fishing caste predominantly settled in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and the Barak Valley of Assam and their adjoining regions is known as Mahimal (Maimal in the local Bengali dialect). The word Mahimal comprises the two Persian word mahi meaning fish and mallah meaning boatman. Therefore, the word Mahimallah or Mahimal stands for fisherman and boatman. The origin of Mahimal as an inland Muslim fishing caste was inherent in the regional geography.
WW Hunter, in his Statistical Account of Assam, describes the nature of Sylhet and Cachar. Ecologically, the Sylhet-Cachar region was characterized by the presence of rivers and their tributaries, marshes and wetlands, natural lakes, and permanent water bodies within marshes called beel. The region experienced devastating annual floods. It created a vast flood plain that remained inundated for 7-8 months. Under such circumstances, a boat was the only means of transport. Thus, the fishing people were excellent boatmen and agriculturists who grew crops on the fertile land created due to continued sedimentation. Fishing and cultivation were two important professions of the people.
Since time immemorial, non-Aryan fishing tribes like Kaiberta, Chandal, Mallah, Dom. Patini etc. settled in the region. Aryanization in the region led to social inequality and injustice downgrading the native people to the extent of untouchables. These people embraced Islam in large numbers. The famous Sufi Saint Sheikh Shah Jalal Yameni (1346) and his 360 disciples played a significant role in the spread of Islam in Sylhet and its adjoining region. East Bengal in general and Sylhet in particular experienced the highest conversion to Islam in India.
The native fisherman who converted to Islam came to be known as Mahimal. Rice and fish were the two staple foods of the people. Therefore, the newly emerging Muslim society came to be divided into two- fisherman (jalia) called Mahimal and cultivator (halia) called Bangal. The Mahimal were the first converts in the region but even after that they remained tied to their ancestral occupation looked down upon by the upper caste Muslims or Ashraf. Fishing was considered the most stigmatized occupation and thus hardly any Muslim liked to profess it.
James Wise wrote that no Muslim in East Bengal earned his livelihood by fishing except the Mahimal of Sylhet. Hillaluddin Arefeen, a researcher from Bangladesh, wrote that the occupation of fishing was considered as low throughout Bangladesh. The fishing people also excelled in boating. Robert Lindsay in his autobiography ‘Anecdotes of an Indian Life’ mentions the excellent boat building and boating in Sylhet. A ceremonial ritual called nouka puja (boat worship) was also prevalent there.
However, the Mahimal were Sunni Muslims and practiced the socio-religious traditions like the upper caste Muslims of the region. Due to their occupational background, their cultural life was somehow influenced by the Hindu fisherman. Yet, they contributed tremendously to the Islamic Movement. They established large numbers of Islamic seminaries, educational institutions, and madrassas. Similarly, they generously contributed to the establishment of numerous madrassas. The famous Sylhet Aliya madrassa located at Sylhet city, Raipur Madrassa including lofty mosques were built by them.
This society produced numerous ulema, pious persons, scholars, statesmen, etc, but social prejudice against Mahimal in Sylhet was a living example caste and social discrimination prevalent among Muslims.
As a Muslim country, speaking about caste and social discrimination among Muslims was not so easy and led to strong reactions by the orthodox Muslims, unlike India. Therefore, such a phenomenon was hardly discussed in any platform and writings. Abdullah Bin Sayed Jalalabadi, a writer from Sylhet had written a few articles on alkawsar.com. These articles exposed many aspects of caste practices and social prejudice against the Mahimal. They were very often abused by their caste names. One common proverb used by the upper caste Muslims was “Maimaler chakut rakta nai’ (rustic looks or no blood in the eye of Mahimal)
Jalalabadi wrote that the worst form of caste discrimination was evident from the attitude of the elite class towards the Mahimal in Sylhet. The new Muslims of Sylhet failed to eradicate the sentiment of the Brahminical caste and realize the Islamic principle of social equality. They had indeed deeply learned to perform the namaj, roza, etc but could not practice the ideal of Islam in their life. Their prejudice towards Mahimal indicates that Jahiliyat (age of ignorance) had appeared in its complete form in Sylhet, the holy land of Shah Jalal.
Jalalabadi mentions in the year 1913, a meeting was held in the outskirts of Sylhet City (Kanishail), Sayed Abdul Majid Kaptan Miah (an ashraf Muslim and later the Education Minister of Assam) urged the Mahimal to contribute funds for the establishment of a Madrassa in Sylhet. Out of the funds so collected from among the Mahimal, several acres of land were purchased with necessary construction in it. This was the famous Sylhet Aliyah Madrassa, later undertaken by the Government. Since its inception, a major share of its expenses has come from the Mahimal people. Later the Ashraf friend of Kaptan Miah charged him about the collected funds from the low caste Mahimal for such a noble effort. This incident was mentioned in the biography of Kaptan Miah.
Soon the Sylhet Aliyah Madrassa became an eminent institution of Islamic learning and produced numerous well-known ulema and scholars like Mohd. Tahir, author and principal, Aliyah Madrassa, Kolkata, Abdul Jalil Choudhury, Amir-e-shariat and MLA, Assam, Tafajjul Hussain, author, Mohd. Helal Uddin, Professor, Suhrawardi College, Dhaka, and many more.
The Mahimal of Sylhet also founded Lamargoan Madrassa in Jakiganj, and Fatehpur Title Madrassa (with science laboratory). During that period, there was no school for girls in the entire Bengal and Assam. In 1936, a well-known personality from among the Mahimal, Sheikh Sikandar Ali established ‘Moinunessa Girls High School’ at Sylhet in memory of his late mother. Some upper caste miscreants tried to remove the name of Sheikh Sikandar Ali and his mother from the school signboard as they could not tolerate the same.
In the year 1962, a teacher in a High School resigned in protest against the appointment of a Talukdar as headmaster. Although both Choudhury and Talukdar were from the Ashraf class, the Talukdar held a low rank. Jalalabadi also mentions that a very brilliant student was once expelled from the Sylhet Aliyah Madrassa by several Choudhury teachers mainly because he was from the Mahimal caste, who had made a tremendous contribution in the establishment of the said Madrassa. The Mahimal were more open to charitable works than the upper-caste Muslims.
Jalalabadi wrote that the caste and social discrimination among Muslims towards the Mahimal and other low castes was a major obstacle to attracting neighbouring non-Muslims like Khasi, Singhpoh, Manipuri, etc. to embrace Islam. A well-known Moulana from Sylhet, Abdur Rahman tried to spread the message of Islam among the Khasis but failed to convince them. The Khasi Sardars (leaders) in turn asked them whether their sons and daughters would be able to marry the sons and daughters of Muslim ulema. The Muslim ulema unaware of the valued principle of Islam and the larger benefits of Muslims, miserably failed to give any appropriate response, and the preaching of Islam suffered a serious setback. This was the reality just seven or eight decades back. Jalalabadi lamented that the demography of the country could have been different had the Muslim ulema truly inculcated the actual ideals of Islam.
Harun Akbar, a prominent author from Sylhet writes that the Sudras and Chandals worshiped images of Gods with flowers and entered mosques with the same flowers in their hands. The caste prejudice was not eradicated. The Muslims dared not to embrace the Sudras. The equality and brotherhood failed to influence them despite changing their faith. The upper caste ashraf remained as exploiters to the neophytes as before.
The Mahimal leaders of Sylhet formed an organization during the 1930s named ‘Assam-Bengal Fisherman Conference’ in coordination with the Hindu fishermen. The conference held its first meeting and proposed that the then-UP government decided to include the ‘Momen’ as a backward class. Hence the backward Muslims of Assam should be accorded the same. The Mahimal intellectuals and ulema right from the beginning promoted secular politics and vehemently opposed the two-nation theory of the Muslim League asserting their self-identity as indigenous. A candidate from Mahimal, Afaz Uddin contested the Assam Assembly election against League Candidate Dewan Abdul Baist Choudhury and was defeated by a small margin.
During the Sylhet referendum, the Mahimal voted in favour of India despite serious provocation from Muslim League to communalize the situation. Hussain Ahmed Madani was very much influential in Sylhet. But thousands of ulema campaigned in favour of Pakistan. Finally, a portion of Sylhet presently named Karimganj merged with the Indian territory of Assam. There was no inter-caste marriage among Muslims due to the strict practice of endogamy. Therefore, social prejudice against the Mahimal could not be eradicated.
(Dr. Ohi Uddin Ahmed, Teacher, Social Researcher, and Pasmanda Activist from Silchar, Assam)