By Yoginder Sikand
A clear sign that many younger generation Meos are now beginning to give more importance to worldly success than what the Tablighi authorities might approve of is the enthusiasm with which they are now taking to modern, secular education. The general practice in much of Mewat now seems to be that young boys and girls are sent to the village Maktab early in the morning or late in the evening, while the rest of the day the boys usually spend at a regular school where secular education is imparted. In line with the trend elsewhere in India, growing numbers of Meo parents now aspire to send their sons to relatively expensive English-medium schools. Modern education is now increasingly being seen as the road to success. Articles regularly appear in the Meo press stressing the lack of modern education, and not just the lack of faith in Islam, as the root cause of Meo backwardness.
Traditional madrasa education is now no longer the source of prestige it once was when Madaris themselves were but few in Mewat. Today, nearly every Meo village, at least in the more Islamised Meo tracts in Haryana, has a Maktab, and the number of higher Dini Madaris in Mewat is now considerable. These Madaris seem to attract mainly students from families of humble means to whom they offer free boarding and lodging, and the prospect of working as teachers at Makatib and Madaris or as religious specialists in mosques once they graduate, occupations which are not particularly lucrative. Most of the better-off Meo families, however, would clearly want their sons to go in for more modern professions that carry more prestige and earn greater financial reward, such as teaching, law, business, politics, and medicine and, most of all, government service. For them the pathway to success in achieving this goal is through modern secular education. Many of them would, therefore, agree with a Meo writer and educationist when he lashes out at the traditional Islamic schools, saying:
“The system of Maktab education in Mewat presents a miserable picture today. Our 'lovers of [Islamic] education' are under no circumstances willing to emerge out from the environment of the sixth century [...] their sort of education encourages asceticism and withdrawal from the world, which is forbidden in Islam. As regards the syllabus, the children are taught such things as might enable them to become mullahs and Pesh Imams at mosques and Madaris at best, but cannot succeed in setting off a revolution in their minds (quoted in Arya 1994:20).
It would, however, be misleading to suggest that the Tablighi Jamaat is fast disappearing from Mewat today. Many young Meos still do go on Tabligh tours and most Meos still display a strong emotional attachment to the Tablighi Jamaat, although this does not necessarily imply active participation in its activities. While critics are not wanting who allege that many among those who regularly go off for jama'at work do so to gain social prestige as pious men or even because they have no other work to do or have no food in their homes (Jamaats are often invited for meals by the local people), what is undeniable is that the Tablighi Jamaat has become, in some sense, an integral part of many Meos' sense of community identity. According to a Meo teacher at a school in Ferozepur-Jhirka:
“We may not be very active in Jama’at work today but our attachment to the Tablighi Jama'at will always remain. After all, it put Mewat on the map of the world! Before that who knew about us? Now, when we meet Muslims from outside they kiss our hands and say that we are like the Ansars of Medina of the Prophet's time. Just as they gave shelter to the Prophet, we, too, gave shelter to Maulana Ilyas.”
What seems to be the case is that the Meos have over time managed to work out a creative yet highly selective adoption of the Tablighi message. Thus, for instance, the Tablighi insistence on men growing their beards is almost universally followed by the Meos today, even by those who are not particularly religious themselves. Likewise, all Meonis or Meo women now wear the 'Islamic' Shalwar-Quameez, though not, it is significant to note, the Burqa (veil). This seems to have much to do, as we have earlier remarked, with the role of dress and external appearance as community boundary markers, separating Meos from Hindus, enabling, in the process, the construction of a distinct Meo-Muslim identity.
Such a separate identity assumes particular salience at crucial times such as elections to local body councils, the state legislatures and the national parliament, when Islam is often invoked by Jvleo politicians to garner Meo support, especially in cases where the opposing candidates are non-Meos. The Tablighi Jamaat has an interesting dual purpose to play in Mewati politics. On the one hand, because it remains aloof from party politics it allows space for the Meos to associate with secular political forces, this being no small advantage in a context wherein, as a result of Muslims being a marginalised minority, Islamic or Muslim communal political parties do not appear as a viable option. On the other hand, the TABLIGHI JAMAAT provides key Islamic symbols around which Meo politicians seek to garner Meo votes in a political system where communities generally tend to vote together en bloc. In this regard it is interesting to note that the vast gatherings that the Tablighi Jamaat holds periodically in Mewat, which attract thousands of Meos, provide the Meos an arena for the display of strength, a symbol of assertion of considerable political import in a context wherein the Meos find themselves a beleaguered minority. More generally, the links which the Tablighi Jamaat opens up for the Meos with the wider Indian Muslim world and, indeed, with the Muslim Ummah as a whole, provides, in symbolic terms, a crucial sense of empowerment in a situation of considerable social and political marginalisation.
Not all, or even most, Meos would, of course, see the external symbols of Islam that the Tablighi Jamaat provides them with as performing just a boundary-making function. Many would actually invest them with deep religious significance, for they are said to have been part of the sunnat of the Prophet. According to a Meo peasant from Ferozepur-Jhirka:
“The reason why even the most irreligious Meo keeps a beard is that on the Day of Judgment at least Allah will be able to recognise him as a Muslim and thereby save him from hell-fire.”
It is not that the Meos are themselves completely unaware of their selective adoption of the teaching of the Tablighi Jamaat , accepting and acting upon those that suit them and paying lip service to the others. While for many Meos their own expression of religion is itself seen as unproblematically Islamic, several others will readily concede that in many respects they still cling tenaciously to their customary Hindu practices which, they admit, may not be in accordance with the Shari’ah. Thus, the Meos continue to maintain a strong sense of ethnic identity quite distinct from other Muslims, with whom they do not marry. In matters of Islamic law, too, such discrepancies are glaring between theory and practice. Thus, although the Shari’ah gives considerable inheritance rights to Muslim women, Meonis are almost nowhere allowed to exercise these rights.
While under the Shari’ah dower in the form of Mehr should be paid to the bride by her husband at the time of marriage, among the Meos the practice is precisely the reverse. Dowry is rapidly becoming a major social evil among the Meos today, driving the parents of many girls into penury and debt (Habib 1996:47). Then again, while the Shari’ah, as the Tablighi Jamaat authorities would interpret it, enjoins upon Muslim women to confine themselves just to housework and to heavily drape themselves when going out, if at all, the Burqa is almost non-existent in Mewat. This is because, barring the ploughing of the fields, almost all the agricultural work in Mewat is performed by the Meonis in the full gaze of 'strange' males, helped only very occasionally by their men folk. Obviously, this would have been impossible if they were to wear the Burqa and remained confined at home. In this context Mayaram (1997:265) quotes a Meo peasant as saying that the local mufti of the village mosque who teaches that women should be kept at home in strict Purdah himself makes his own wife work in the fields.
In several other spheres, too, the Meos continue with their customary practices and social institutions which are not in consonance with the Shari’ah. In some of the more remote parts of Rajasthan, where Tablighi influence is still slight, Hindu customs and festivals are still observed by many Meos. Even in the core region of Tablighi influence in Mewat—the Nuri and Ferozepur-Jhirka Tehsils in Haryana—Meo customary laws are still followed widely. Thus, Zakat, the charity tax incumbent upon all Muslims who can afford it, and one of the 'five pillars' of Islam, is said to be paid by just a few Meos who are eligible for it. Adoption of sons is a common practice among the Meos, though this goes against Islamic law. An important customary Meo institution that has withstood numerous onslaughts from Tablighi-influenced Maulvis is the got-pal system. Under this system, marital relations among the Meos are governed by a strict and very complex set of rules governing family, lineage, clan and village exogamy. Violation of these rules is considered to be a crime tantamount to incest.
Some Meo Maulvis seem to regard these rules of exogamy, while not specifically as un-Islamic, as a Jahili institution that the Meos should discard, the reason being that marriage between close kin is a preferred form of marital relationship among Muslim communities elsewhere. According to a Meo informant, sometime in the 1950s, when the Tablighi Jamaat was at its peak in Mewat, a group of Maulvis began preaching against the Meo custom of got exogamy, branding it as a Jahili practice, calling upon the Meos to lift the ban on intra-family marriages. This is said to have so provoked the Meos that they called a large panchayat of the entire community, in which some leading Chaudhris went so far as to threaten that the Meos would renounce Islam if the Maulvis were to carry on with their crusade. More recently, Amir Ali cites the instance of a young Meo man being burnt to death by angry relatives for having married his own female cousin (Ali 1970:45). Consequently, it is said, the Tablighi Jamaat authorities in Delhi sent a hurried message to the Maulvis, instructing them not to raise any contentious matter that night antagonise the Meos. As a result, Tablighi Jamaat workers now studiously avoid raising the issue of the Meo ban on marriage between cousins, and have even gone so far as to refrain from insisting that the Meo women remain in Purdah (Mayaram 1997:262-63).
Given the resilience of Meo tradition in the face of decades of Tablighi Jamaat efforts in Mewat, Ilyas' dream of complete Islamisation of the community has hardly been fulfilled. Put simply, then, the Tablighi Jamaat has yet a long way to go in bringing about a total transformation in the lives of the Meos. Mayaram (1997:263) sees the limited impact of the Tablighi Jamaat in Mewat as a reflection of the dilemma between a sense of a new Islamic spirituality, on the one hand, and a strong resistance to the ideology of Deoband and the Tablighi Jama'at on the other. Many Meos themselves see this as a continued tension between what they claim to be their Rajput traditions and the laws of Islam, and, as one informant put it, 'in this clash, when it suits Meo interests, the Rajput traditions are given the upper hand.' A Meo writer notes that while as far as external symbols of Islam are concerned, considerable change has occurred because of the Tablighi Jamaat , 'at root their old customs still reign supreme among the Meos' (Habib 1996:74), as a result of which, 'in actual fact religion does not exercise a great influence on them' (ibid.:51). In general, what has happened, notes this Meo scholar, is that the Meos 'have replaced one set of customs and external symbols for another'. This is, then, he says, largely a 'ritualistic' change rather than 'genuine' or 'proper' Islamisation. Ironically, this has been facilitated by the Tablighi Jamaat itself. By focussing almost entirely on the Faza’il and deliberately remaining silent on the Ikhtelafi Masa’il, the Tablighi Jamaat provides the Meos a way out to carry on with those customs and practices—which fall within the realm of the Masa’il—which are in contrast to the dictates of Islamic law. Thus, according to Hafiz Ismail, a teacher at the madrasa at the Jami'a Masjid, Malab, near Nuh:
“Hardly any Meo ever asks his Maulvi about the injunctions of the Shari’at on matters relating to the Masa’il other than those about rituals—matters such as inheritance rights, business dealings, dowry and Mehr and so on. In these matters they prefer to follow their old customs. If they do at all approach the Maulvis it is for largely inconsequential things that don't make too much of a difference in the eyes of Allah—things like how high on your chest you should place your hands while praying in the standing posture or, according to the Shari’ah, how many buckets of water to remove from a well if a lizard falls inside it and so on. We, in the Tablighi Jama'at, too, don't talk about the Masa’il in our public lectures. Maybe, the Meos find that this suits them.”
Babri Masjid Crisis
The destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu mobs on 6 December 1992 marked a major turning point in Indian politics.64 This tragic event, which was followed by large-scale killings of Muslims, had a major impact on inter-communal relations in Mewat. Hindu chauvinist groups known for their extreme hostility towards the Muslims enjoy particularly widespread support among the Jain and Bania traders of the small townships of Mewat where they are concentrated. In the weeks just before as well as immediately after the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, Hindu leaders began touring Mewat, whipping up Hindu sentiments and spewing venom against the Muslims. It is said that several young Bania men from Nuh even went to far-away Ayodhya to participate in the demolition of the mosque. The mosque having been torn down, exultant Hindus celebrated in the streets of Mewat's townships, bursting crackers, excitedly singing and dancing and distributing sweets.
The Meos were not slow to react. Some Meo college students attacked a small Hindu temple at a village near Nuh. This was followed by clashes between Hindus and Muslims, and the killing of four Meo men at Ujina, near Nuh. Security forces were rushed to Mewat and, the Meos say, the whole area was turned overnight into a vast military cantonment According to Meo accounts, the government administration itself had by this time turned completely communally partisan and blatantly anti-Muslim. Licenses for firearms are said to have been freely issued to a large number of Hindus but none to the Meos. The security forces are said to have gone on a rampage in the Meo villages, beating up innocent villagers and forcing them to flee to the forests and hills nearby for refuge.
When the tension finally eased some weeks later, inter-communal relations in Mewat had undergone a vast transformation. According to a Meo college student:
“Today, we Meos are more insecure than ever before. Not even in the days of the Partition riots did we feel so threatened. At least then we had a strong leader of our own—Chaudhuri Yasin Khan. Also, we had Gandhi and Nehru in Delhi who could keep the Hindu communalists at bay. But today, not only do we have no strong and popular leaders of our own, but all political parties have turned anti-Muslim, whether overtly or covertly. The entire administration has now turned against us, determined as they are to make this a Hindu country where we will be nothing better than slaves.”
At several places, Meos reacted to the destruction of the mosque and the ensuing wave of anti-Muslim violence by boycotting Hindu businesses. One redeeming consequence of this was that it led some Meos to open little shops of their own in townships such as Nuh and Ferozepur-Jhirka, where previously they had none, thus striking at the Bania monopoly over trade in Mewat. This move towards increasing economic self-reliance and prosperity is gradually making the Meos aware of the desperate need for modern education among them if they are ever to be saved from what they see as living completely at the mercy of the unscrupulous Banias. There is, today, a greater degree of awareness of religious identities thin in the recent past, a direct fallout of the Ayodhya controversy. This, however, may not itself lead in the direction of strengthening the Meos' participation in the Tablighi Jamaat. Indeed, the reverse might actually turn out to be the case. The issue at stake today is not religion per se but communal identity and community interests, which, typically, are seen in purely worldly terms such as access to modern education and well-paid jobs. This would suggest a possible further heightening of the Muslim component of the Meo community consciousness in time to come, with an increasing focus on the worldly interests of the community, the latter, one might expect much to the disapproval of the Tablighi authorities.
That the Meos, whose popular religious traditions played a vital role in sustaining their claims to Rajput status in the local caste hierarchy, were pressed into a radical re definition of self-identity beginning at the turn of the twentieth century can, in large measure, be seen as a pragmatic response to a growing social, economic and political crisis. It was here that the TABLIGHI JAMAAT seems to have played a range of crucial social functions. Of central importance was its role in consolidating a Meo Muslim sense of identity, sharply setting the community apart from an increasingly hostile and menacing Hindu ‘other’?
Ilyas seems to have served as a charismatic leader, the pivot around which the new Islamic identity began to emerge. As a pious man of God and as a non-Meo standing above internal Meo squabbles, Ilyas soon emerged as an arbiter of inter-got disputes among the Meos. This was a particularly crucial function at a time when, faced with strong external pressures, a closing in of Meo ranks and a heightened sense of unity were called for. For the Meos, Ilyas and his movement also seem to have served a 'civilising' function, turning them away from what begin to be seen as superstitious and wasteful Hindu customs and towards Shari’ah-centred Islam. In this, the Tablighi Jamaat seems to hare opened up new avenues for upward social mobility by granting the Meos access to valuable symbolic resources that had earlier been the sole preserve of the Ashraf and, in Mewat itself, of the Khanzada elite. With its stress on the equality of all believers, the Tablighi Jamaat offered the Meos a more democratic expression of Islam in sharp contrast to the steeply hierarchical local ‘syncretistic’ Islamic tradition as represented by the cults controlled by the Syeds and Diwans. Alongside this, and equally importantly, Ilyas' message provided the Meos a meaningful theodicy and a vision for an alternate future, a world in the hereafter where social hierarchies would be overturned and limitless riches and splendour would be made available for the poor and oppressed to enjoy forever.
While it was Ilyas who launched the Tablighi Jamaat as we know it today in Mewat, it was during the leadership of his son, Yusuf, in particular in the wake of the 1947 riots, that the Tablighi Jamaat managed to strike deep roots in the region. Virtual genocide of the Meos at the hands of Hindu mobs backed by fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu groups led to a dramatic shift towards an increased Islamisation and away from their more obviously Hindu customs. The loss of dominant caste status, the increasing challenge to Meo power by the 'low'-castes and the rapid breakdown of the Jajmani system all made for an increasing irrelevance of the earlier Meo popular tradition, pushing the community towards a heightened Islamisation as represented by the Tablighi Jamaat.
Faced with increasing marginalisation within Mewat itself, the Meos now turned, at least symbolically, towards identifying with the wider Indian Muslim community, and the worldwide Muslim Ummah for a sense of empowerment, and in this the Tablighi Jamaat 's wide international network served a particularly vital purpose. This could also be laid to have been the case for the Muslims of post-1947 India more generally. For an increasingly threatened and insecure minority, faced with the rapid upsurge of Hindu chauvinism based on a vehemently anti-Muslim agenda, the Tablighi Jamaat's appeal for community consolidation and cultural retreatism now began exercising a wider appeal than ever before. In part, this represented a changed political strategy; with the quietism the Tablighi Jamaat promoted replacing an earlier forceful assertiveness, as a pragmatic response to the post-1947 Indian context. In Mewat, as also in the rest of India, this political role of the Tablighi Jamaat, one that has escaped the notice of most observers, enabled pragmatic Muslim involvement in the realm of party politics, though to the Tablighi Jamaat, party politics, being a this-worldly concern, is outside its immediate focus of attention. On the other hand, the powerful impetus to Muslim communal consolidation provided by the Tablighi Jamaat has, in Mewat, and probably elsewhere in India, too, served to consolidate the Muslim vote in a political system based on vote banks defined on caste and religious lines.
Central to the Tablighi Jamaat's ability to serve a diverse range of social functions in Mewat over time, and hence to its own success in the region, is the movement's own unique Tariqa-i-Tabligh. Its strategy of gradualism, its silence on Masa’il other than those related to 'Ibadat and its focus on the Ma’ruf rather than on the Munkar provide a crucially important means for a selective adoption of the Deobandi reformist message on the part of the Meos, in the process of which Meo customs and institutions that are in obvious opposition to the reformist agenda are preserved. This, however, may not ensure continued support for the Tablighi Jamaat among the younger, more educated, generation of Meos, many of whom see the movement as outmoded, inflexible, unresponsive to their existential concerns and, as often as not, itself 'un-Islamic'.
1. A qualification needs to be made here, though. In Haryana, two young government school teachers are in charge of coordinating Tablighi activities. It is interesting to note that both of them are teachers of Urdu, which, in Mewat, is considered as an 'Islamic' subject. Likewise, some Meo trainees at the Urdu wing of the teacher's training centre at Pcrozepur-Namak are also said to be active in the Tablighi Jamaat.
2. Most Dini Madaris in Mewat run by people associated with the Tablighi Jamaat do not offer training for their students in secular subjects required for modern occupations. The syllabus of most of these Madaris has remained largely unchanged over the decades.
3. Interview with Muhammad Qasim, Ferozepur-Jhirka, 3 December 1994.
4. Interestingly, the custom of paying dowry among the Meos seems to have been a post-1947 phenomenon, coming to the fore at the same time as the Tablighi Jamaat was expanding its influence in Mewat.