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Tablighi Jamaat in Mewat-4 Partition, Mewat, Islamisation and the Tabligh



By Yoginder Sikand

Partition, Mewat and the Tablighi Jamaat

In 1944, when Ilyas lay on his death-bed, he called a group of six close disciples and asked them to choose his successor from among several names he suggested. After much discussion they decided upon Ilyas' son, Maulana Muhammad Yusuf, as his successor, even though there were more capable and experienced people available and despite the fact that Yusuf had shown very little interest in his father's work, preferring scholarly pursuits to active involvement in the Tablighi Jamaat. Yusuf, it is said, was 'hesitant, or rather averse, to meeting people who did not conform to the Shari’ah', such as were most Meos, and that because of this 'he did not appear to be the proper man to succeed Ilyas' (S.A. Haq 1972:158). Yet, he was chosen as the next Amir of the Tablighi Jamaat because Ilyas finally intervened to say that, 'Yusuf can attract far larger number of Mewatis than anyone else can' (Hasni 1989:205). The leadership question thus came to be decided not on the basis of personal qualities or merit, but because, being llyas' own son, Yusuf would be seen by the Meos as the rightful inheritor of the post of Amir.

After having been installed as the new Amir of the Tablighi Jamaatin 1944, Yusuf resumed the work of his father and began touring the Mewati countryside in an effort to further galvanise the movement. Such tours soon became a regular feature, and Yusuf now made it a rule that all those who came to Banglewali Masjid In Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi for Tabligh should spend a few days doing missionary work in Mewat. In several of his own tours of Mewat, mass initiation ceremonies were conducted at which large numbers of Meo men, clutching Yusuf s spread-out turban, solemnly undertook to accept their new leader. The reportedly enthusiastic participation of many Meos in these ceremonies cannot be attributed simply to a sudden change in their religious beliefs. Rather, association with a charismatic leader like Yusuf, and participation in a movement like the Tablighi Jamaat, was valuable because of the crucial social functions that they served. Thus, for instance, at the village of Churgadhi in Bharatput, when, during a mass initiation ceremony, Yusuf asked the Meos to repeat after him that they would renounce stealing, they all at once dropped the turban-cloth from their hands, exclaiming, 'But that is our profession!' (W. Khan 1988:72-73)

Crisis of 1947

In the months immediately preceding the partition of India in August 1947, fierce riots broke out between Meos and Hindus in Gurgaon. This was soon followed by the launching of a planned series of attacks against the Meos in Rajputana. Alwar and Bharatpur had by this time emerged as strong centres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha, organisations known for their fierce opposition to Muslims. Narayan Bhaskar Khare, a one-time Congressman who later served as president of the Hindu Mahasabha, had taken over as the prime minister of Alwar. Mauli Chand Sharma, later president of the Hindu nationalist Jan Sangh, as well as leading Hindu Mahasabha ideologues such as T.J. Kedar, Girdhar Sharma Sidh and Ramachandra Vyas, were also active in the state. In Bharatpur, the state military forces worked in collaboration with the RSS, providing it arms and training. The ruler of Bharatpur, Maharaja Brijendra Singh, called an All-India conference of RSS leaders in 1946 at the state's military headquarters at Kanjori, which was presided over by the then head of the organisation, M.S. Golwalkar. At RSS meetings all over Bharatpur, Hindus were exhorted to 'drive out the Muslims' and such bloodshed was foretold, the like of which the country had 'not seen in the last two thousand years' (Mayaram 1996:133-34).

In the wake of unprecedented violent attacks unleashed against them in 1947, the entire Meo population of Alwar and Bharatpur was forced to flee their homes. An estimated 30,000 Meos are said to have been slaughtered in what Mayaram calls 'a genocide' (ibid.: 139) by the forces of the two princely states along with local non-Muslims out to grab their lands in the riots that continued till well after independence in August 1947. Orders for the 'clearing up' of Alwar and Bharatpur of all Muslims reportedly came from the new Indian home minister, the Congress leader Vallabh Bhai Patel, who is said to have supplied the armed forces of the two states with weapons for the purpose. Many local Congressmen, besides activists of Hindu chauvinist groups, took an active part in leading murderous mobs to attack Meo villages. The princes themselves possibly saw this as a convenient means to get rid of the recalcitrant Meos, whose revolts against their authority were still fresh in their minds. The ruler of Bharatpur, Brijendra Singh, and his brother Giriraj Saran Singh, believed that once their state was cleared of the Meos they would be able to established their own Jat state, Jatistan, independent of both India and Pakistan (ibid.: 136-49).

In the wake of the launching of the genocide of the Meos in Rajputana, several hundred thousand Meos crossed into British India for safety, and following independence, almost a third of the community fled across the new international border into Pakistan. Several thousand Meos in Rajputana were forced to renounce Islam and accept Hinduism by undergoing the Arya Samaj's Shuddhi ceremony, to which was added a humiliating pork-eating test. In Gurgaon, fewer such conversions were reported but there too a large number of Meos lost their lives. Scores of Meo women were raped or abducted. There were accusations that in Gurgaon 'the government [of India's] apparatus generally took the part of the Hindu rioters and fought on their side' (Haye 1966:323) and that the Jat and Sikh troops stationed there, 'far from stopping Hindu invaders, actually helped them' (ibid.:328-29)

Following the upheavals of 1947, leading Deobandi 'Ulema, many of whom were also actively involved in the TABLIGHI JAMAAT, such as Maulana Ibrahim, Mufti Jamaluddin Qasmi, Maulana Hifz ur Rahman of the Jamiat-ul ‘Ulema-i-Hind and others, did what they could to supply relief to the Meos and to get their seized lands returned to them (M.S. Miyan n.d.:35). In this tumultuous hour, besides the Jami'at leaders the Meos had few others to turn to for help. The active involvement of the Jami'at in assisting the Meos naturally worked to further strengthen the growing identification of the Meos with Islam. In this regard it is significant to note that though Yusuf had arranged for shelter, food and water for some Meo refugees who had fled to Delhi, his main focus in this period was to simply carry on with Tabligh work. He is said to have gone around preaching Islam in the Meo refugee camps, for, according to his biographer, he was convinced that, 'at that crucial hour the most pressing need was to teach them the Kalima and prayers' (Hasni 1989:289). Their present plight, the Meos were told, was simply an expression of the wrath of God for their not having been good Muslims (Mayaram 1996:162).

It is generally accepted that the Tablighi Jamaat was able to draw the majority of Meos into the least formal identification with it only after the traumatic upheavals of partition. A Mewati Arya Samaj writer, obviously hostile to the TABLIGHI JAMAAT, has an interesting, if not convincing, explanation for this. He writes that till early 1947 the Meos had expected that the entire province of the Punjab, including Gurgaon, would be included within the borders of the proposed Muslim state of Pakistan and that the Mewati areas of Rajputana would either join it or else be granted an independent status. As a result, he says, the Meos, egged on by virulent Muslim League propagandists, began fierce attacks on neighbouring Hindu villages in a concerted effort to empty Mewat of its Hindu population. However, when the British finally announced the partition plan, according to which Gurgaon, along with the rest of the eastern Punjab, would go to India, there was a complete volte face in the Meo position. Sensing that they would be forced to remain in India, the Meos now turned to the Congress party and its allies, the Jami'at-ul 'Ulema-i-Hind and the Tablighi Jamaat, turning off their radical anti-Hindu zeal (Arya 1994).

While this thesis can be contested, what can be said is that, as during the holocaust of 1947 in Mewat, in times of acute social crisis communities need strong and effective leaders who can give them direction, protect and promote their interests and negotiate with external forces. In the post-1947 Mewati case, the Tablighi Jamaat seems to have played, at least in part, such a role. In 1947 and soon after, most economically better-off Muslims of Mewat, who were generally supportive of the Muslim League, fled to Pakistan, leaving behind thousands of others now bereft of any strong and effective leadership? The Tablighi Jamaat now stepped in to fill the vacuum left by their departure, taking advantage of what Rathee (1971b:23) calls a 'leadership lag', as a result of which the movement now saw a vast expansion. Thousands of Meos turned up at the rallies that the T'J began organising in Mewat after a semblance of peace was restored, and Meo participation in the work of the Jamaats now registered a great increase. Heightened insecurity in the wake of the great sufferings that they had undergone in the partition disturbances drove the Meos to close ranks, turning inwards and stressing, in particular, their Islamic identity, for on that basis alone could they foster the social cohesion they so desperately needed in this hour of trial. Now, with the changing character of the state, no longer was physical resistance to oppressive powers, as in the Meo rebellions of the early 1930s, a realistic possibility. Uprisings against petty chieftains, whose jurisdiction at the village level had often been nominal, may have been possible in the past. But bands of Meo fighters were simply no match for the might of the new, centralised and immensely powerful post- 1947 Indian state. As Mayaram notes, 'Partition violence was a departure in terms of form from the "feud"', the traditional mode of settling disputes between groups and between groups and the state. What obtained now, she writes, was 'a modern form of political violence in which the mutuality of the feud was rendered obsolete' (Mayaram 1996:143). Consequently, protest was shifted to the symbolic sphere, with the Meos struggling in the path of Tabligh seen as Allah's faithful allies against the forces of unbelief, who, although they may have appeared invincible, were certain to be ground to dust by God's wrath in time to come. Thus, it came to be that within just a few years of partition most of Mewat, barring pockets in Alwar and Bharatpur and a few villages in Gurgaon, came under the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat.

Partition and Islamisation

The bitter humiliation and torments that the Meos had to undergo at the hands of Hindu attackers are said to have bred in them an extreme revulsion towards many of the more glaring Hindu customs that they themselves had been practising for centuries. Thus, it is said that almost as soon as they reached the comparative safety of Gurgaon after fleeing from Alwar and Bharatpur, Meo women from those areas gave up the 'Hindu' skirt and blouse for the 'Islamic' Shalwar-Quameez instead.

Once a semblance of normalcy had been restored and the Meos were resettled in their homes, those who had been forced to convert to Hinduism enthusiastically re-entered the Muslim fold. Many of them seem to have been disillusioned by the fact that despite undergoing Shuddhi, the Hindus still viewed them with suspicion, looked down upon them and continued practising untouchability towards them in matters such as food, refusing to accept them as co-religionists, possibly because the Hindus had their eyes on Meo lands. Further, as a Meo historian notes about the Meos who had been forcibly made Hindus,

“They intensely disliked the intrusion into the domain of their beliefs and dogmas. But what really alienated them were the attempts by some Hindu zealots to force them to eat pork in the belief that it would make their conversion permanent. It, however, produced quite the contrary effect. The Meos felt extremely antagonistic towards their oppressors” (Shams 1983:90).

This sudden reaction to Hindu customs and practices on the part of the Meos, as a response to the violence unleashed upon them by the Hindus, in turn translated itself into a close attachment to the Tablighi Jamaat and its programme of Islamisation. Adding to this was the fact that, 'the only groups outside of Mewat which were willing to accept them socially were the Muslims. In these circumstances, the Meos felt that they had no other choice than to turn to Islam' (Aggarwal 1966:160).

Another set of factors behind increasing Islamisation, and parallel to it, de-Hinduisation, among the Meos after 1947 was economic. In the disturbances caused by the partition, much Meo-owned land was seized by 'low'-caste Hindus. Moreover, lands belonging to Meos who had fled to Pakistan were now allotted by the government to the incoming Punjabi Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab (Sharma and Vanjani 1990:1728-34). While earlier the 'low'-castes had hardly owned any land, being employed instead as hereditary servants (Kamins) of the Meos, their taking over the lands of their former masters served to weaken the traditional Jajmani (patron-client) system in which the Meos had occupied a high position owing to their control over the land and their claim to Rajput status. This system also came under increasing attack from the growing monetisation of the village economy, greatly reducing the earlier interdependence between the Meos and the 'low' service and artisan castes. Consequently, the powers and privileges the Meos had earlier enjoyed as a dominant caste in Mewat began to be sharply curtailed. The former Kamins now increasingly began to offer their services to clients in the towns for which they were paid in cash. Consequently, as Aggarwal noted in 1966, 'today, [in Mewat] one rarely hears the word Jajman mentioned' (ibid.: 160).

The 'low'-caste Hindus, in particular the leather worker Chamars, now increasingly began to adopt customs and practices associated with the 'high'-caste Brahmanical tradition in an attempt to improve their own social standing. As part of this process, which sociologists have called Sanskritisation, the Chamars even gave up eating food cooked or handled by Meos, emulating the higher-caste Hindu in their practice of a sort of untouchability towards them. The 'low'-castes also now began asserting themselves politically, having got the right to vote as well as representation in village councils. Since the former Kamins had now got land of their own and the Meo monopoly over land ownership in Mewat had been severely eroded, no longer were others willing to accord the Meos the exalted status of Rajputs that they had in the past claimed for themselves.

Consequently, the Meos, too, saw little advantage or point in persisting with their claim to that status and in preserving the customs associated with that identity. According to Aggarwal, the increasing defiance by their former Kamins 'irks the Meos intensely' and they now realise that 'it is futile to try to regain their high rank in the Hindu caste hierarchy'. Consequently, he says, 'the Meos think it is better for them to become full Muslims' (Aggarwal 1969:1679). In post-1947 India no longer was the earlier 'liminality' that questioned conventional communal categorisation a feasible proposition. The modern nation-state itself was unable to deal with ambiguities of religious identity, having internalised the colonial logic of monolithic 'Muslim' and 'Hindu' communities, seeing parochial religious identities as a sign of superstition and backwardness. As a Meo respondent said to Mayaram:

“In 1947, they [the Hindus] called us 'Muslim' when all along we'd been saying that we were Jadubanshis from Kishanji's khandan [Krishna's family]. We realised that there is no point in riding two horses” (Mayaram 1996:162).

Once the Tablighi Jamaat had drawn most of the Meos into at least formal allegiance to it, Islamisation carried on apace under the influence of new external factors. Improved means of communication resulted in the rapid promotion of Tabligh tours of Mewat by outside Muslims and by Meo missionaries both inside and outside the region. The opening up of Mewat to the outside world enabled Meos to travel to great centres of Islamic learning and to enrol therein. The expansion of the education system—of both Islamic madrasas as well as modern public and private schools—equipped increasing numbers of Meos with reading skills that enabled them to gain greater access to Islamic literature. All this was slowly translated into increasing identification with Islam and the rest of the Indian Muslim community on the part of the Meos.

The Islamisation of the Meos has also been a consequence of the crisis of traditional religion in a rapidly changing world. This shift from a parochial religious identity tied to local cults, spirits and deities to a world religion parallels the process observed by Hefner in his study of the Hinduisation of the Tengger in Java in recent years, where growing affiliation with a 'world religion' provides people with 'readymade cosmological tools' with which to handle 'the intellectual challenges posed by a person's involvement in a vastly expanded and unfamiliar terrain'. Modernisation, entailing the incorporation of small village communities into 'a larger social macrocosm of unfamiliar peoples, territories and customs', says Hefner, causes an immense crisis of religious identity. No longer do the local spirits and deities of traditional cosmology possess a 'sufficiently encompassing explanatory range' appropriate in the new context. Hence, religion is redefined in more global terms, being 'sufficiently general to be widely applicable to the widened social horizon' (Hefner 1989: 260-61). This same process seems to have been at work in the Islamisation of the Meos, particularly in the post-1947 era.

1. For details of Yusuf s succession, see Hasni (1989:201-05).

2. Tablighi sources, however, seek to justify Yusufs appointment by taking recourse to the Sufi theory of intiqal-i-nisbat or 'relocation of attributes', according to which, after the death of a shaikh, his attributes are believed to be transferred to his successor. For a rebuttal of the intiqal-i-nisbat theory and its alleged misuse by the TABLIGHI JAMAAT, see H. Nadwi (1986:57-65).

3. A qualification must be made here. In matters of politics, after 1947 Meos continued to follow the lead of Yasin Khan. Khan was a disciple of the Sufi Miyanji Raj Shah of Sundh, and no supporter of the TABLIGHI JAMAAT. The popularity among the Meos of both Ilyas and Yasin Khan, one for religious leadership and the other for political guidance, is itself intriguing, pointing to the Meos' selective adoption of the Tablighi message.

4. Interview with Muhammad Swaleh Khan, Ferozepur-Jhirka, 3 January 1995.

5. In many villages in Mewat today, the Chamars are far ahead of the Meos in terms of education and government employment, sections of them having considerably benefited from the affirmative action policies of the state for the ‘low’ castes.


URL of Part 3:,-meos-had-no-concern-for-their-islamic-identity/d/45936