Like other capital cities of the world, Delhi is a city obsessed with itself. The capital’s influential and always-expanding tribe of intellectuals often pontificate on and plan the state of the nation without stepping outside the city limits. And in the last decade, perhaps no subject has received as much attention as the Muslim community.
Reams have been written on the Muslim “psyche”; on the community’s response to the emergence of the Hindu Right; on the orthodoxy’s hold on the community; on terrorists being bred and the flip side of the “fear psychosis” gripping it. And come election time, every publication devotes precious newsprint to speculating on that mythical thing called the “Muslim vote.” Every reputable columnist in the city has, at some time or the other, expressed an opinion on the Muslim community.
But all these opinion-makers—whether belonging to the liberal Left or the Right—tend to describe the Muslim society in absolute terms. Hindu society is plural but Muslims are believed to constitute a huge monolithic mass. The facts belie this view.
The only thing uniform about the Muslims of India is their diverse cultural zones.
Even the brand of Islam followed by Indian Muslims varies from region to region. Few seem to be aware that there are numerous Muslim communities who profess Islam but remain steeped in the local Hindu ethos.
For instance, just outside the city boundaries begins the large pocket where the Meo Muslims live. These Muslims profess Islam but follow a fascinating composite culture that accommodates many Hindu customs. They trace their origins to Hindu figures such as Rama, Krishna and Arjuna and celebrate many Hindu festivals like Diwali, Dussehra and Holi.
And the Meos are no obscure tiny sect; they are a 400,000-strong community found in the region known as Mewat, which is spread across the border areas of the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. In Uttar Pradesh, they are found in the Chhata tehsil while in Haryana, the Meos occupy the Nuh and Ferozepur tehsils of Gurgaon district. But the area where the Meos dominate and have been able to preserve their unique culture is the Alwar district of Rajasthan, just a two-hour drive from Delhi.
The Meos are famous across the Mewat belt for their narration of folk epics and ballads. Their oral tradition is a rich source for studying and understanding the community’s history. Among the epics and ballads sung by the Meos, which are derived from Hindu lore, the most popular is the Pandun ka kada, the Mewati version of the Mahabharata.
Many Meos also trace their origins through the epic which describes them as descendants of Arjuna.
The Meos have a distinct identity, separating them from both mainstream Hindu and Muslim society. Their marriages combine the Islamic nikaah ceremony with a number of Hindu rituals—like maintaining exhaustive gotras, a distinctly Hindu practice.
One fascinating tradition still preserved by Meos is the tracing of their genealogy by Hindu genealogists known as jaggas. The jaggas are an essential part of any lifecycle ceremony in the Meo community.
The Meos are believed to have gradually converted to Islam between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. Their Hindu origins are evident from their names, as most Meos still keep the title “Singh”, revealing the nature of the community. Ram Singh, Til Singh and Fateh Singh are typical Meo names.
I met Fateh Singh, a Meo balladeer in a village on the outskirts of Alwar. After reciting the Pandun ka kada, he spoke at length on what he believed to be the community’s origins.
Fateh Singh and his fellow villagers firmly believe that they are Kshatriyas descending from Arjuna who gradually converted to Islam under the influence of Sufi Pirs. But they told me that the Meos are gradually giving up the celebration of Hindu festivals. “If you go into villages in the interior, you will see that the Meos are just like Hindus. You will not be able to make out the difference between Meos and Hindu villagers. But near the city, more and more people are giving up Hindu customs and rituals.”
It is not difficult to trace the reason for this. The Ayodhya agitation and its aftermath succeeded in infusing the communal virus even into the peaceful Mewat belt. The Babri demolition had resulted in violence in the region. Ever since, political alignments and mobilisation has been on community lines.
In 2011-’12, there was vicious communal violence in Mewat and the Muslim community there accuses the State government of targeting them in a shooting that left over 10 dead in a village.
The identity question in the Mewat belt, therefore, is being raised in a complex and changing landscape. Moreover, as one Meo villager told me when I travelled there in 2011: “Ever since the RSS and the BJP became a powerful political force in the State, more and more Meos have begun to identify themselves as Muslims.”
The orthodoxy naturally has an opportunity to show the faithful the correct path according to them. There is, therefore, a far greater self-consciousness about being a Muslim. As Chandan Singh, a schoolteacher put it: “Increasingly, the mullahs tell Meos that they are bad Muslims and that they must give up celebrating Hindu festivals if they want to be accepted by the Muslim society.”
According to him, one can see evidence of the slow Islamisation of the Meos in the number of mosques that have sprung up over the last decade. “Earlier, most Meos never went to the masjid. Now, so much money has come in for the construction of masjids from religious institutions funded by Gulf money, that the Meos are increasingly turning to the Islamic way of life.”
Earlier, all Meos traced their origins to Arjuna through the Pandun ka kada. But as a result of this deliberate Islamisation, epics such as the Shamsher Pathan and Behram Badshah —which suggest that the Meos came from Arabia —are also gaining in popularity. Caught between the pincer of Hindu fundamentalism on one side and Islamic puritanism on the other, most syncretic communities in India are undergoing a gradual transformation and the Meos are no exception.
But what is remarkable is that they have still retained much of their old ways of life. One does not have to search too hard to find a Meo singing the Pandun ka kada or celebrating Dussehra. They still remain a fascinating testament to a shared history, a shared culture in the subcontinent.
This piece first appeared on Scroll.
Excerpted with permission from In Good Faith: A Journey In Search Of An Unknown India, Saba Naqvi, Rupa Rainlight. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.