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Tablighi Jamaat in Mewat-1: Background, Socio-Economic Profile, Meo Peasant Rebellions



By Yoginder Sikand

13 April 2010

The Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) is today the single largest Islamic movement in the world, in terms both of number of activists as well as geographical spread. No study of the history of the TJ would be complete without an account of the people among whom it first took root—the Meo peasants of Mewat, a culturally distinct region in north-western India. Much of that which is unique to the TJ, particularly its method of Tabligh or Islamic missionary work and its approach to and understanding of the process of Islamisation, seems to have been moulded largely by the social context of early twentieth-century Mewat. Mewat also provides an interesting case of shifting socio-political contexts within which the TJ has been able to establish strong roots in a local environment.

The genesis and early development of the TJ in Mewat is particularly worthy of attention. Mewat, which is seen in Tablighi circles as the movement's most successful 'experimental ground' (Ishaq 1972:4), poses a seemingly insoluble sociological paradox. The Meos had for centuries been only the most nominal Muslims as the 'Ulema saw them. After three decades of Tablighi efforts among them they appear, at least in the literature, to have transformed themselves into such committed Muslims that many leading 'Ulema went so far as to exclaim that they had undergone a veritable 'revolution' (Falahi 1996:301). This chapter will address this apparent paradox by tracing the origins and development of the TJ in Mewat in terms of the many social roles that it came to play in the lives of the Meos in the context of major social changes that Mewat has had to contend with starting from the last years of the nineteenth century.


Extending southwards from the township of Sohna, some 65 kilometres south-west of Delhi, and covering large parts of the districts of Gurgaon and Faridabad in the present-day Indian state of Haryana and the former princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan, is the region of Mewat, the land of a peasant caste known as the Meos. The Meos are Muslims who have retained many of their earlier cultural and religious traditions.1 It was estimated in 1983 that they numbered around 800,000, of whom a quarter resided in present-day Pakistan and the rest in India (Shams 1983:17).2

Many Meos claim high-caste Hindu Rajput or warrior descent, and while it may well be the case that some of them are indeed of Rajput stock, it seems likely that the majority are descendants of 'low'-caste converts who, either prior to or alongside their gradual Islamisation, laid claim to Rajput ancestry to enhance their social standing (Harris 1901:23; Channing 1882:28). Evidence for this is provided by the names of many gots or exogamous lineages which the Meos have in common with such lower status Hindu castes as the Minas, the Jats and the Gujjars who live in their vicinity. It thus seems likely that, 'the Meos belonged to many different castes and not just to the Rajputs' (Aggarwal 1978:338).

Little can be said with confidence as to how Islam managed to take root in Mewat.3 Living in the vicinity of Delhi, the Meos were, from at least the twelfth century onwards, in constant conflict with the Muslim monarchs of the imperial capital (Sikand 1993:10). Ravaged by regular drought and famine, bands of Meos would often swarm into Delhi for loot and plunder, provoking violent reprisals from the Delhi Sultans. Formal acceptance of Islam often followed military defeat at the hands of the imperial army. With Mewat coming under the control of the Muslim rulers of Delhi, various Sufi orders entered the region, as a result of which, over the centuries, the Meos seem to have undergone a process of gradual, though very partial, Islamisation, in the course of which they adopted several practices associated with Islam, while retaining many of their local religious and cultural traditions. From time to time, 'Ulema and Sufis attempted to do away with some of what they saw as their more glaring Hindu practice (Mewati n.d.). In the second half of the nineteenth century these included numerous 'Ulema of the Waliullahi tradition (Shakur 1974:381-84).4 They were, however, unable to reach beyond a narrow circle of followers. The time was not yet ripe, it seems, for the Meos to give up their popular religious traditions and to take to scripturalist, shari'at-centred Islam instead.

The Islamisation of the Meos through the agency of the Sufis and as a result of political exigencies was, as we have observed, partial and nominal. Thus, writing in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Major Powlett, the settlement officer of Alwar state, remarked:

The Meos are now all Musalmans in name, but their village deities are the same as those of the Hindus and they keep several Hindu festivals. Thus, the Holi is with the Meos a season of rough play and is considered as important a festival as Muharram,, Id and Shab e Barat, and they likewise observe the Janma Ashtami, Dashera and Diwali. They often keep Brahmin priests to write the note (Pili-Chitthi) fixing the date of marriage. They call themselves by Hindu names, with the exception of Ram; and Sinh is a frequent affix, though not so common as Khan. On the Amawas, or monthly conjunction of the sun and moon, the Meos, in common with the Hindu Ahirs, Gujjars, etc. cease from labour; and when they make a well the first proceeding is to erect a platform to Bairuji or Hanuman. Meos, in their customs, are half Hindu. In their villages there are hardly any mosques [...] The Meo places of worship are similar to those of their Hindu neighbours, as for example, Panchpira, Bhaiya and Chahund. Chahund or Khera Deo is dedicated to Mahadevi to whom sacrifices are made (Polett 1878:38).

In their dress, too, the Meos were indistinguishable from the other peasant castes of Mewat. Meonis (Meo women) wore the Rajasthani skirt and blouse and heavy silver jewellery. Men wore the dhoti, and also put on various ornaments. Most Meo men grew the choti or tuft of hair as was the general Hindu custom.

As for the Meos' observance of the externals of Islam, it seems to have been restricted largely to male circumcision, Nikah (the Islamic form of marriage) and the burial of the dead, though even these were recast in a Hindu mould (Aggarwal op. cit.:339). Most Meos knew but little about Islam. As Powlett observed, 'As regards their own religion [Islam] the Meos are very ignorant. Few know the kalima, and fewer still the regular prayers, the seasons of which they entirely neglect' (quoted in S.A. Haq 1972:105).

According to another observer, 'Reading of the Qur'an was less popular than reading the Hindu epics Ramayan and Mahabharata. Hindu shrines far outnumbered mosques in Mewat. Few Meos prayed in the Muslim manner, but most of them performed the puja—worship at the shrines of the Hindu gods and goddesses' (Aggarwal op. cit.:339).

The popular religious tradition of the Meos appears to have proved a rewarding strategy. As cultivators of most of the agricultural land in Mewat, the Meos were a local dominant caste, at least in terms of numbers. Retaining their local, non-Islamic customs and institutions, such as their got-pal system5 and the practice of untouchability towards the 'low'-castes, enabled them to maintain their claim to a dominant status in the local social hierarchy even after having undergone a degree of Islamisation. The non-Muslim artisan and service castes as well as the Brahmins thus carried on serving their Meo patrons in return for a share in the agricultural produce. As long as their economic and social life remained undisturbed, these client castes of the Meos were quite willing to overlook their ambiguous religious identity. The Meos therefore felt, says a Meo scholar, 'no pressing need to bend in either direction [Hindu or Muslim] because their position in Mewat was secure. None of the other caste groups in Mewat questioned the Meo dominance' (Shams op. cit.:35).

On the other hand, as the Meos were often in conflict with the Muslim rulers of Delhi, their popular religious tradition provided them with a sense of unity, an identity clearly opposed to that of their imperial foes. Interestingly, the local feudal elite in Mewat, the Khanzadas6, close allies of the Muslim rulers of Delhi, were considerably more Islamised than the Meos, keeping their women in strict Purdah and observing other Ashraf practices. Mewati history is replete with stories of wild bloodletting between the Khanzadas and the Meos, and it is, therefore, not surprising that until the early twentieth century, when Khanzada supremacy in Mewat began to erode rapidly, the Meos do not seem to have displayed much interest in emulating the religious culture associated with a class of people whom they viewed with great hostility.

The popular religious tradition of the Meos faced little internal challenge until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. At this time, developments brought about by wider social changes began to make themselves felt in the Mewati countryside. These were to have important consequences for Meo self-perception and religious identity. Rapid social change in Mewat in the early decades of the twentieth century resulted in what may be termed a pervasive social crisis. It was this that provided the context for the emergence of the TJ among the Meos.

Socio-Economic Profile

Although the Meos cultivated most of the land in Mewat, barring some Chaudhris (local community leaders), there were very few large landowners among them, the vast majority being small owner-cultivators, most of whom were greatly impoverished (Gibson 1909:13). The productivity of the land was low and modern irrigation facilities were minimal.7 Consequently, Mewat had to face spells of severe drought at regular intervals, driving the Meos deep into debt at the hands of Jain and Hindu Bania moneylenders.8  Their dismal economic conditions in the early twentieth century, far from improving, actually seem to have fast deteriorated. As the annual administrative report of the government of the Punjab (1916) noted:

The condition of the Meos is rapidly becoming hopeless. They live so literally from hand to mouth, carelessly contracting debt for marriages, funerals and petty luxuries even in average years that when a year of drought comes they are thrown on the moneylender who can make with them what terms he likes (Rathee 1971a:43).

According to one source, the Banias would charge an exorbitant rate of 5 per cent per month on their loans to the poverty-stricken Meos, the equivalent of an astounding 60 per cent per annum (W. Khan 1988:34). Many Meos simply could not repay their loans, as a result of which much of their land began passing into Bania hands. By 1910, nearly 40 per cent of Meo land was under mortgage to the Banias (Rathee op. cit.:43). This increasing land alienation was a direct consequence of the new conception of land ownership that the British had introduced, in which land was now seen as a commodity and as private property, capable of being bought, sold and mortgaged. Meos could now pledge their lands, and not just their crops as before, to the Banias for credit. This is precisely what their rapidly growing impoverishment was forcing them to do.

As the Meos sank deeper into poverty, they increasingly saw the Banias as not only gaining from their plight but also as the very cause of it. Insofar as the Banias were looked upon as the local repositories of 'high'-caste Hinduism, increasing resentment against them gradually translated into a distancing from Hindu religious traditions, making the Meos more receptive to Islam. This was further facilitated by the fact that, despite the Meos' claim to Rajput status, the Banias actually looked down upon them and refused to take food cooked by them, deeming them to be a source of ritual pollution.9 In this changed situation, it was no longer the Mughals or other Muslim rulers who were seen as the threatening 'Other' against whom the Meos would seek to define themselves. Rather, this role was now increasingly taken over by 'high'-caste Hindus. The emphasis that the Meos, as participants in the TJ, were to lay on their Muslim identity was in large measure a strategy to solidify community boundaries by marking off 'insider' Meos from 'outsider' Hindus.

Social dislocations by themselves do not automatically generate mass movements. For a charismatic leader from outside a community to be able to mobilise people in such a situation, there must be at least a few socially significant individuals within the community who can understand, and are receptive to, his message and who can help transmit it to their own people in their own idiom. In the case of the TJ in Mewat, this was made possible by an expanding chain of Islamic Madaris as well as by the network of primary schools that the British began setting up from the late nineteenth century onwards in the Meo territory under their rule. Urdu, the language in which a large number of Islamic texts were readily available, was the medium of instruction therein. This enabled a new generation of literate Meos to gain access to Islamic literature. By the early 1910s, there were enough Meo boys who had received a primary education to call for the setting up of a high school in the region. Mewat's first secondary school, named after its founder, Frank Lugard Brayne, the then deputy commissioner of Gurgaon, was founded at Nuh in 1923. In the years that followed, a number of students of this school went on to pursue higher studies at Muslim institutions such as the Jami'a Millia Islamia at Delhi and the Aligarh Muslim University. Thus, by the time the TJ was launched in Mewat, there were Meos who were in a position to identify culturally with the message of Muslim brotherhood. Some newly educated Meos were to play a significant role in relaying this message to the wider Meo community. Ilyas was himself to come to rely, among others, on such Meos who had received a modicum of education and held important posts in the village administrative hierarchy—such as Nambardars, Zaildars, Munshis, Chaudhris—as well as madrasa students in galvanising the TJ in the Mewati countryside. Most of these, however, had not obtained high secular education, but were largely the products of the new chain of Islamic schools that had begun to appear in the region by this time.

Education gradually brought in its wake an increasing redefinition of Meo identity, an awareness of their increasing marginalisation, and a growing familiarity with Islam. Thus, commenting on the ignorance of the Meos of even the Kalima, a British administrator observed that, 'this, however, applies only to the Alwar territory; in British India the effect of the schools is to make them more observant of [Islamic] religious duties' (S.A. Haq 1972:105). The Hindu ruler of Alwar had declared Hindi, instead of Urdu, to be the language of instruction in the schools of his state. At that time Islamic literature in Hindi was almost totally non-existent, the' language being seen as specifically 'Hindu'. Thus, Meos in British territory were now exposed to Islamic influences to a considerably greater degree than their brethren in the Hindu-ruled states of Alwar and Bharatpur, and in the years that followed, the Gurgaon Meos were to take the lead in spreading the message of the TJ in the rest of Mewat.

Meo Peasant Rebellions

Developments in the Meo countryside towards the end of 1910s, then, all pointed to a growing agrarian crisis (for details, see, M.H. Siddiqui 1986:442-67). This, combined with the gradual emergence of a class of educated men who could articulate the grievances of the peasants, provided fertile ground for the outbreak of a series of peasant uprisings in Mewat in the 1932-34, in which successful efforts were made to link up specifically Meo economic demands with a wider pan-Indian Muslim agenda, facilitating, in the process, a greater identification with Islam on the part of the Meos. The rise of the TJ in Mewat cannot be properly understood without taking into account these uprisings which broke out immediately prior to the sudden spurt of Tablighi activities in the region in the early 1930s.

Hostility towards the Muslims in the ruling circles of Alwar and Bharatpur appeared intermittently in the nineteenth century interrupted by periods in which Muslims were allowed to play a significant role in administrative affairs. Hostility surfaced again in the early decades of the twentieth century, and this time with greater intensity (Mehta and Mehta 1985:399). The ruler of Alwar, Maharaja Jai Sigh (1892-1937), introduced several policies clearly aimed against his Muslim subjects. This went alongside a deliberate Hinduisation of the Alwar administration itself. The Maharaja began to flaunt his Hindu credentials in public and established personal ties with several top leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj, organisations whose extreme antipathy for the Muslims was well known.10 Soon after it had launched its shuddhi campaign among the Malkanas of the United Provinces, the Arya Samaj extended its missionary activities to Rajputana, attempting to convert back to Hinduism the local Muslim Rajputs, Jats, Gujjars and Meos, and in this is said to have received the official backing of the rulers of Bharatpur (Mayaram 1991:10-12).11

The marked Hinduisation of the Alwar administration and its consequently growing anti-Muslim orientation had less to do with religion than with the increasing challenge by the state's subjects, both Hindus and Muslims, to the Maharaja's heavy taxation of the peasantry and fiercely autocratic rule.12 By the mid-1920s, peasant revolts had broken out in several parts of the state. One of the most serious of these occurred in 1925, in which the Alwar forces gunned down scores of Hindu Rajputs in the village of Nimuchana protesting a sudden rise of 50 per cent in the land revenue. In these uprisings both the Meos as well as the Hindu peasantry were involved. Faced with such determined opposition to him, the Maharaja appears to have felt that a policy of cultivating a fiercely pro-Hindu image for himself would help create a homogeneous Hindu community and postpone the demand for democratisation.13 Targeting the Muslims as the menacing, threatening 'Other' and fanning the flames of Hindu-Muslim rivalry would help divert the attention of his largely Hindu subjects from the oppression they were undergoing under his rule.14

It was in this communally surcharged climate that in 1932-34 the Meos of Alwar rose up in violent revolt. It seems that it was the particularly harsh and oppressive conditions under which they were labouring that ignited the sparks of rebellion. Their plight is portrayed by a Meo historian thus:

The Meo tracts in Alwar and Bharatpur were victims of the extreme authoritarianism and ruthlessness of their rulers. Government servants would do nothing without extorting heavy bribes. The peasants were being grossly overburdened with ever increasing taxes. Like birds of prey, the guards of the forest department and the sepoys of the customs department would swoop down on the hapless peasants and rob them of the paltry income that they earned through shedding their sweat and blood. The rights of the people were being mercilessly trampled upon. The Mewatis were being treated like goats and sheep, as nothing better than mere dumb animals (Haye n.d.:10).

Having already subjected the peasants to a heavy tax burden, in 1932 the Maharaja of Alwar suddenly decided to raise the revenue levy four-fold. This proved to be the last straw for the peasants, and they decided to stop paying their taxes. Soon after, the All-India Meo Panchayat, a group of Meo leaders headed by Yasin Khan (1896-1970),15 a lawyer-turned-politician, began galvanising support for the uprising, seeking to turn it into a broader struggle for the establishment of democratic rule in the state. As the rebellion gained in radicalism and strength and spread over much of Mewat, spilling across even into British tetritory, where the Meos now refused to repay their loans to the Banias, the Maharaja of Alwar decided to crush it with all the force he could command. Thus, in January 1933, when thousands of Meos had gathered at the village of Govindgarh for a demonstration, the Raja's soldiers indiscriminately opened fire, as a result of which scores lost their lives. Mewat was now in flames. Martial law was clamped in the four Meo-dominated nizamats of Ramgarh, Lacchmangarh, Kishangarh and Tijara, and reports started flooding in of widespread clashes between Hindus and Meos. Meos are reported to have attacked Bania-owned shops at many places and to have forcibly collected subscriptions from them. The violence, rooted in the economic grievances of the Meos against the Banias and the Alwar state, rapidly took on an overtly religious hue. Hindu temples were attacked and the panic-stricken Hindus, egged on by the Hindu Mahasabha, issued an urgent appeal to the Raja, 'the descendant of Raghu' (the Hindu god-king Rama), to rush to their rescue, to defend them from the Meo 'rakshasas' (demons).16 The writ of the Alwar state seems, in fact, to have ceased to run in the Meo-dominated nizamats, where the Meos managed to establish their own effective control.17

Some weeks later the situation in northern Alwar had turned so serious that the government of India was forced to intervene. British soldiers entered Alwar in January 1933 and in May the government of India forced the Maharaja to abdicate and go abroad into exile. The administration of the affairs of state was entrusted to a British officer, many of the demands of the peasants were conceded and normalcy was gradually restored.

In the course of the revolt the Meos came to establish strong ties with several Muslim leaders and organisations from outside Mewat for the first time, and it was this newly established bond with the wider Indian Muslim community that latter eased the entry of Islamic ideas among them through the missionary efforts of the TJ. It was from these outside Muslim leaders and organisations, besides some local activists, that the Meos sought leadership for their movement against the Maharaja and a means to bring their plight to the notice of the Indian public and the British authorities. Among the Muslim organisations that came to the rescue of the Meos in their uprising were the All-India Alwar Conference, the Anjuman-i-Ahrar of Bombay and Delhi, the Jami'at-ul 'Ulama-i-Islam of Budaun, and the Rajputana Muslim League, Ajmer. Several Muslim Urdu newspapers of Delhi and Lahore, too, took up and championed the Meo cause (Mayaram 1991:40-41). Significantly, the Meos received almost no Hindu support. It was only the Muslims who came to their rescue at this time of crisis.

Although these external Muslim organisations and leaders were not responsible for creating the Meo rebellion themselves, it was through their networks that, 'Meo demands received an immediate publicity' (Mayaram 1991:40). Linkages were established with the larger Muslim community of north India only after the movement had already started, and so it would be misleading to suggest that it owed itself to external Muslim instigation. Significantly, it was also only after the rebellion had taken off that the activities of the TJ really began to spread in the Mewati countryside. Moreover, at this time, the preaching teams of the TJ were by and large active only in British Mewat and had little presence in either Alwar or Bharatpur (Mayaram 1997:35). It would appear, then, that the sudden growth of the TJ in Mewat at around this time was a fallout of the agrarian crisis and the oppression which followed rather than a cause of this crisis.18 The Islamisation of the Meos through the TJ, Mayaram remarks, 'does not precede agrarian unrest as much as it is the consequence of agrarian tension and state policy'. This process cannot, then, be understood 'merely as [the introduction of] an external religious ideology', unrelated to the social conditions prevailing in Mewat at that time (Mayaram 1991:8).

Mayaram contends that the labelling of the Meo peasant uprising by the Alwar state and by Hindu organisations as an Islamic revolt was probably intended to rob it of legitimacy, to divide the peasantry on religious lines and, thereby, to divert the wrath of the Hindu peasantry away from the Maharaja's unpopular rule and towards the Meos instead. This policy, however, had the unintended consequence of making the Meos more fiercely conscious of their Muslim identity, which was now being reinforced by the state itself. The same happened in neighbouring Bharatpur, where, in 1933, the Meos rose up in revolt against the repressive measures taken by the Jat ruler, Kishan Singh.

It was thus this combination of agrarian crisis, the growth of a newly educated class among the Meos, the peasant rebellions in Alwar and Bharatpur and their brutal suppression, and the fraternal links that were now established with outside Muslim groups that provided the ideal conditions for a movement such as the TJ to emerge in Mewat at this time.

1.'The Meos', writes a leading Tablighi ideologue, 'were even unaware of the appearance of Namaz' itself. If perchance, a Muslim entered their territory and read Namaz there, they would all gather together in amazement and wonder what he was up to, thinking that he might have a pain in the stomach or that he had lost complete control over his senses, because of which he was repeatedly standing up and sitting down (Numani 1989:21).

2. For details of the Meo population distribution within India, see Hashim Amir Ali (1970:6-16).

3. For some interesting insights, see Marwah (1979:85

4. Some Meos regularly attended Shah Ismail's lectures in Delhi and attempted to spread his message in their own villages (A.R. Nadwi and M.A. Khan n.d.:63-64).

5. Gots are lineages while pals are generally territorially-based groups of one or more gots. The Meos have 52 gots and 12 pals, along with a minor pal, called pallakra.

6. For more on the Khanzadas, see Makhdum (1989: 2-3).

7. For a general overview of agrarian conditions in Mewat, see Brayne (1927).

8. This process, a consequence of the imposition of British rule, seems to have occurred not just in Mewat, but in the Punjab more generally as well (Thorburn 1983).

9. Orthodox 'high'-caste Hindus throughout India considered Muslims ritually polluting. Chaudhri Afzal Haq devotes his entire Pakistan and Untouchability (1941) to this little-understood issue. In this book, he traces the demand for Pakistan to this practice.

10. For Jai Singh's increasing public identification with Brahminical Hinduism, see Joshi (1939:79-95).

11. This conversion drive of the Arya Samaj is said to have goaded some Muslim groups into action to protect their flock. Thus, Mayaram (ibid.:13) quotes a British administrator as saying, 'When 1 met Dr Ziauddin and other Muslim leaders in March, 1933, they frankly confessed to me the fear of a revival of the shuddhi movement drove them to seek to organise the Meos and turn them into better Mahommedans'.

12. The Raja was said to have been excessively devoted to wine and women, among other luxuries. The celebrations of the silver jubilee of his reign in 1929 consumed the entire annual revenue of the state, estimated at around Rs 3,000,000 (Mayaram 1997:55-61).

13. It is interesting to note in this regard that, according to one source, the Maharaja began adopting an increasingly pro-Hindu stance after 1929, when the silver jubilee of his coronation was celebrated with much fanfare Great stress was laid during the celebrations on the public display of his newfound commitment to Brahminical Hinduism. Through this, apparently, ‘the Maharaja wanted to wash away the bad name that he had earned for himself as a result of the Nimuchana massacre’ (Gahlot 1966: 285-86).

14. For more details on the Maharaja’s growing unpopularity among his Hindu subjects, see K.S. Saxena (n.d.: 188-89).

15. The Brayne Meo High School, Nuh, Mewat’s first high school that Yasin Khan had been instrumental in setting up, emerged as the centre from which the Alwar revolt was directed. Interestingly, Maulana Ilyas, founder of the TJ, and some of his followers reportedly fiercely opposed the school, warning the Meos of the ‘evil influence’ of what they called a ‘satanic institution’ (M.H.Siddiqui, 1986: 449-50).

16. Letter from G.D. Oglive, agent of the Governor-General in Rajputana to Sir Charles Watson, Political Secretary to the Government of India, 4 January 1933, in L/P&S/13/1377 Political [Internal] Department Collection, D.O. No.15-P, India Office Records, London, p.174.

17. Letter from G.D. Oglive to Charles Watson, 13 December, 1932, ibid., p.1.

18. Interestingly, the TJ later came to be seen as instrumental in controlling, rather than instigating, Meo ‘lawlessness’ and ‘rebelliousness’ against state authorities both by the British as well as by the Alwar and Bharatpur states (Maududi, quoted in Vellori, n.d.: 59).