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Interfaith Dialogue ( 6 Jan 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Cheeta-Kathats: Beyond 'Muslim' and 'Hindu'

By Yoginder Sikand,

Textbook definitions characterise religions as separate, well-defined entities, a homogeneous wholes neatly separated from each other by distinct beliefs, doctrines and rituals. Consequently, community identities premised on such understandings of religion come to be seen as wholly distinct from each other, and as possessing no overlaps or commonalities with each other at all. It is presupposed that it is logically impossible for someone to be a member of two or more religious communities at the same time or for someone to simultaneously identify with two or more religions. For someone conventionally identified with one religion and religion-based to be inspired by or to follow practices and beliefs associated with another is seen as incongruous, at best. This seems, however, to be, at least in the Indian context, a fairly modern understanding of religion and religion-based community identity. In the past, before the intrusive modern state began demanding its citizens to publicly identify themselves as adhering to one or the other religion and, thereby, to declare their membership in one or the other religiously-defined community, understandings of religion and community identity were remarkably more fluid. It was, for instance, possible for someone to follow practices and adhere to beliefs associated with two or more religious traditions, and to identify herself as, for instance, neither Hindu nor Muslims but perhaps a bit of both. This explains how, for instance, British colonial census enumerators in India were confronted with scores of cases of caste groups that could not be neatly categorised as either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’. To resolve what they perceived as this almost insurmountable dilemma, they invented the category of ‘Hindu Musalmans’ to describe such groups. Even today, scores such communities that defy the logic of conventional ways of conceiving and categorising religions and religious communities continue to exist, as illustrated in the People of India series published some years ago by the Anthropological Survey of India.

One such remarkable community, among whom I have had the opportunity of doing fieldwork, are the Cheeta-Kathats of Rajasthan. With a population of almost a million, they are concentrated in the Pali, Ajmer and Rajsamanad districts of the state. They are a peasant community, eking out a bare existence in remote hamlets strewn across the Aravalli mountains. Neither fully ‘Hindu’ nor fully ‘Muslim’, as these terms are conventionally understood, they are a bit of both. For centuries, the Cheeta-Kathats have observed certain both ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ practices. It is common for Cheeta-Kathat children to be given both Hindu and Muslim names, and for their marriages to be conducted in either the Hindu or the Muslim fashion. Many Cheeta-Kathats worship in both temples (mainly small villages shrines dedicated to local heroes and deities) and Sufi dargahs, and, occasionally, in mosques as well. ‘Hindu’ festivals such as Diwali and Holi, and local festivals associated with local religious figures, are celebrated with equal gusto as Muslim festivals such as Eid. In Cheeta-Kathat homes, it is common to find placed in alcoves built into walls framed pictures of Hindu deities as well as Muslim shrines, such as the Kaaba in Mecca and the dargah of the Sufi Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. Animal sacrifices are regularly made at shrines dedicated to local gods, but the Cheeta-Kathats insist that the animals must be slain in the conventional Muslim way. A Cheeta-Kathat temple priest might identify himself as a ‘Muslim’, while another member of the community who occasionally prays in a mosque might marry in the Hindu way and give his son a ‘Hindu’ name and a ‘Muslim’ name to his daughter. Even the most ‘Hindu’ of the Cheeta-Kathats follow three Muslim-related practices: khatna (male circumcision), dafnana (burial of the dead), and eating halal meat, slaughtered in the conventional Muslim fashion. Legend has it that Katha Dada, one of the ancestors of the Cheeta-Kathat, had vowed that his descendants would always abide by these three customs, which have now becoming binding on all the members of the community, irrespective of their own religious preferences and beliefs. But as far as their other religious beliefs, practices and aspects of daily life, including dress, are concerned, there is little to distinguish most Cheeta-Kathats from other ‘Hindu’ peasant castes who live in their vicinity. In all these ways, the Cheeta-Kathats powerfully challenge conventional notions of Islam and Hinduism and of Muslims and Hindus as being necessarily separate from, indeed defined in opposition to, each other.

But this unique religious identity and culture of the community is now under grave threat. A film recently telecast on Doordarshan, aptly titled Bit of Both: The Disappearing Horizon, directed by the award-winning documentary film maker Merajur Rahman Baruah, highlights how Hindu and Muslim revivalist organisations and movements are now frantically engaged in a race for numbers, each seeking to draw the Cheeta-Kathats into their respective fold, both condemning, in the name of ‘reform’ and ‘purification’, the shared religious traditions of this fascinating community. Fiercely opposed to each other, these outfits are united in seeing the shared religious traditions of the community as an ‘aberration’ that needs to be ‘cleansed’ for they clearly threaten, indeed completely overturn, their shared understanding that Hindus and Muslims are necessarily opposed to each other, indeed defined against each other, and that they share nothing whatsoever in common in terms of belief, ritual practice, dress and customs.

This frantic contestation between Hindu and Islamic outfits for the bodies and souls of the Cheeta-Kathats is said to have begun in the early 1980s, in the wake of mass conversions to Islam among Dalits in Tamil Nadu, which led to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to galvanise its till-then dormant shuddhi or ‘purification’ campaign to convert non-Hindus to the Hindu fold across India. The Cheeta-Kathats, being on the borderline, as it were, of Hinduism and Islam, were seen as an easy target for Parishad activists, who began working with the community in earnest. The film highlights the fact that re-writing the history of the Cheeta-Kathats has been central to the Parishad’s campaign of ghar vapasi (literally ‘returning home’) among the community. In the Parishad’s version of history, the Cheeta-Kathats were originally ‘high’ caste Rajput warriors, descendants of Delhi’s last Rajput Hindu king, Prithvi Raj Chauhan, who is projected in Hindutva discourse as a valiant Hindu hero who bravely resisted invading Muslim hordes. As supposed descendants of an allegedly anti-Muslim hero, the Cheeta-Kathats are exhorted to renounce all practices (including the three ‘Muslim’ customs that Katha Dada is said to have accepted) associated with the mortal foes of their putative ancestor, and, accordingly, to become ‘pure’ Hindus. The ‘Muslim’ practices of the Cheeta-Kathats that a venerable ancestor of theirs insisted his descendants must always observe, are now, in the words of a Parishad activist who figures in the film, branded as kuritis or ‘abominable customs’. Offering the Cheeta-Kathats a Rajput identity, in place of the ‘degraded’ one that they possess as half-caste Hindus, ‘tainted’ with association with Muslims, is a crucial means for Hindu missionaries to attract potential Cheeta-Kathat neophytes. This offer of upward social mobility within the caste system and a new, more ‘respectable’ identity that Hindu missionaries offer the Cheeta-Kathats goes hand in hand with ‘real-world’ benefits that they also hold out—education for their children, for instance (in schools which Hindu groups have set up for the community throughout the region, where they are carefully indoctrinated in Hindutva’s fiercely anti-Muslim worldview) and free medical services. The Parishad and its affiliated outfits have also embarked on a frenzied temple-building spree in the Cheeta-Kathat belt, where, earlier, the only religious structures that existed were diminutive thans (stone platforms with plaques dedicated to ancestors, local heroes and godlings), in the hope of thereby weaning away the Cheeta-Kathats completely from their ‘Muslim’ beliefs and practices. To further galvanise this process, they regularly despatch missionaries, in the garb of sadhus, to tour Cheeta-Kathat villages and spread the Hindutva message.

It appears, or so the film suggests, that Muslim groups might not even have known of the existence of the Cheeta-Kathats had Hindutva groups not arrived on the scene, fired by an irrepressible zeal to ‘purify’ the community, which, for all practical purposes, means ‘cleansing’ them of their Muslim beliefs and practices. Instigated by the intervention of these Hindu groups, a number of Islamic outfits, the film tells us, rushed to the scene, to ‘rescue’, as they saw it, ‘the fallen Muslim’ Cheeta-Kathats from the very real threat of apostasy on a mass-scale. To stave off the Hindutva threat, they resorted to precisely the same strategies as the Hindu missionaries have adopted with such resounding success—building schools, mosques and madrasas in the area (where, the film shows, children are taught chaste Urdu and Arabic, languages as completely foreign to them as Sanskritised Hindi and Sanskrit that are taught in the Parishad-run schools), and arranging for roving missionaries of the Tablighi Jamaat to popularise what they regard as ‘Islamic’ dress and appearance (such as skull-caps for boys and beards for men). They began speaking out against the observance of ‘Hindu’ festivals, occasions of joy and gaiety, branding them as ‘un-Islamic’ anathema. The sort of Islam that they sought to promote was dour and sullen, with little occasion for celebration, quite in contrast to the lively, earthy traditions of the community. All these were part of a wider agenda of providing visible external markers of ‘Muslim’ communal identity that would clearly mark the Cheeta-Kathats off from the Hindus, starkly confirming them as ‘complete’ Muslims, thereby coaxing them to identify with other Muslims in the area and beyond. As the film very strikingly suggests, the war for converts being fought among the Cheeta-Kathats by Hindu and Islamic outfits is not about making them better human beings (in what one might think ought to be the truly spiritual sense of the term). Rather, it is all about prodding them to unambiguously and explicitly identify themselves with either the Hindus or the Muslims, as the case might be, these communities and their religions being defined in fierce opposition to each other. In other words, it is a communal struggle in which exclusivist and intolerant notions of religion and religious identity play a central role.

The film starkly brings out the painful implications of the ‘reformist’ interventions by Hindu groups (such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other outfits associated with the RSS), and Islamic organisations (such as the Jamaat-e Islami, the Tablighi Jamaat, the Tamir-e Millat) for the ways in which the Cheeta-Kathats define themselves. Scenes of ‘ordinary’ Cheeta-Kathats going about their daily lives and conducting crucial life cycle rituals wherein ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ customs unproblematically commingle are transposed against other scenes, of Cheeta-Kathat children studying in schools set up by Hindu revivalist groups raising fiery slogans in favour of ‘Bharat Mata’, Ram and Prithviraj Chauhan, and worshipping in VHP-built temples. The camera then shifts to other Cheeta-Kathats—young boys donning skull-caps, seated in rows and rocking back and forth reciting the Quran under the supervision of bearded, sombre-looking maulvis appointed in the area to counter the Hindu missionaries. Very rapidly, the film tells us, the Cheeta-Kathats, who for centuries have lived comfortably with what others might have thought of as their ambiguous religious identities, are now being forced to declare themselves as either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ as outside forces, in the form of Hindu and Islamic revivalist groups, drive them to consider their identities to be a matter of shame and regret and as something in urgent need of ‘reform’. The community, once strongly-knit, is now increasingly divided into two rival camps, one clearly ‘Muslim’, and the other unambiguously ‘Hindu’, and these two factions now refuse to inter-marry.

Yet, mercifully, the film tells us, many Cheeta-Kathats seek to resist, in their own perhaps not overtly strident ways, this invasion of their lives and the erasure of their unique centuries’-old culture. This resistance takes the form of celebrating their traditions and identities, such as holding these out as a model of ‘practical secularism’ and ‘peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims’, which other Indians, they say, could emulate. These are also presented as a solution to the seemingly intractable Hindu-Muslim conflict. Resistance to the destruction of their culture also takes the form of refusing to renege on the promise given by their putative ancestor, Katha Dada, to the effect that his descendants would, effectively, be neither Hindus nor Muslims but a bit of both. ‘God is everywhere, in the mosque as much as in the temple,’ they rightly aver, to the obvious disgust of both Hindu and Islamic revivalists who are fired by an obsessive concern to ‘reform’ them. An expression of this resistance that I find most appealing takes the form of philosophical musings on the oneness of humankind and the One behind it all, insisting that ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ are simply man-made labels, and that what is important is not identifying with one or the other community but, rather, with the One behind the multiplicity that characterises all of creation. As I see it, far from being a source of shame and an aberration, as Hindu and Islamic revivalists portray it, the principle underlying the unique religious traditions of the Cheeta-Kathat (as distinct from their particular contents) can well be construed as a blessing and as an inspiration for liberation from the suffocating cages of reified notions of religion and community that implicitly set people against each other as inveterate foes.

A regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.