Targeted by Hindutva Goons and ‘Gau Rakshaks’, Centuries-old Culture of Meo Muslims Faces Erasure
Charo taraf dekh lo, vaado ka vaad-vivaad hai,
Kahin jaativaad hai, kahin khestravaad hai, kahin aatankwad hai.
(All around, only disputes over promises made,
Casteism here, regionalism there and terrorism all around.)
Alwar, Rajasthan: The couplet, written by folk artist Yusuf Khan, a Meo Muslim (a Muslim Rajput community from Mewat), could easily be recited to introduce a play on the current socio-political atmosphere in his native place — Alwar. The small city recently shot to limelight for a string of infamous lynchings and cow-related violence which fractured the community in these regions, creating a deep divide between the Meo Muslims of the region and other right-leaning religious groups.
For centuries, Meo Muslims have been keeping the folk performing arts alive and have taken immense pride in their syncretic culture. They have never been shy of displaying the cultural fusion of their society, which borrows from both the Hindu and Muslim communities.
However, incidents of violence and animosity over the last decade have become a cause of worry for the Meos. Comfortable with both religious identities, they now prefer “Hindu-sounding” names for their children in order to camouflage themselves and avoid being targeted by hardline Hindutva fundamentalists, who inflict violence on marginalised communities in the name of “cow protection”.
“My father had named his son Anand and his nephew is called Aman so that they could be shielded against unnecessary hardships that arise out of a Muslim identity,” says Yusuf.
Born into Zahoor Khan Mewati’s family, Yusuf’s father Umar Farooq gave up his cosy government job to pursue the classical art of Bhapang, which he had learned from his father. At present, Yusuf, also a civil engineer, is taking his grandfather’s legacy forward and has introduced the artform to a member of the fourth generation in his family — his son, whom he has named Anand. His father Umar Farooq passed away of cardiac arrest last year.
Meos with Muslim names often face trouble in government offices when they approach with requests. “When we go to get caste certificates under OBC category, we are questioned how can we be under that category if our name has a ‘Khan’?,” says Yusuf, adding that he had to dig out his grandfather’s records to convince the authorities to issue him an OBC certificate.
Syncretic culture being lost
Meo Muslims have settled across Mewat region — which also spreads to parts of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh — apart from being concentrated in Alwar and Bharatpur districts of Rajasthan. In Mewati villages, Muslim folk artistes stage musical performances based on Mahabharata, Ramayana and Krishna Leela as part of their tradition. The performances draw huge crowds from Mewati community and the artistes are showered with gifts and cash rewards, which help them sustain their lives.
Yusuf says he has staged shows in 14 countries so far and claims that his father Umar Farooq had performed in 44 countries and his grandfather Zahoor Khan had enthralled audiences in 66 countries. “Despite belonging to a talented and dedicated family which preserves a traditional form of folk music, we live in fear,” he laments, adding that he is pained by the state of the situation in Alwar.
The syncretic culture of Meo Muslims can be assessed from the fact that despite being followers of Islam, these communities also follow the gotra system. Yusuf says that Meo Muslims in Mewat have 12 gotras (ancestry), of which five belong to Tomar ancestry who performed the Mahabharata stories. Five other clans, who are identified as Pal or Yaduvanshi, are more inclined towards Krishna Leela, while the remaining two clans, including the Kachwahas, focus more on the Ramayana.
According to Yusuf, his ancestors promoted Hindu scriptures among the Muslim community, but over the years the Muslims in Mewat succumbed to the diktat from their clergy which discouraged patronising music and drama. Though extremism and hardline slowly crept into the Muslim villages in Mewat, Yusuf’s ancestors embraced and promoted communal harmony and Ganga-Jamuna tradition. But they seem to form only a small minority within this minority community of folk artists.
In the Alwar district, there are four tribes — Jogi, Mirasi, Bhaand, and Nat – which have been preserving the traditional folk arts in Mewat. However, they barely manage to eke out a living by performing folk arts as people look down upon them, considering them as beggars doing antics. As a result, many of them have given up performing folk arts such as Chikara, Algoja, Pungi, Bakribeen, and Bhapang, which are going extinct.
Yusuf suggests that if the government wants to preserve the centuries-old arts and culture, a colony should be established in Alwar where all the performing artists from faraway interiors could be brought and given a platform to nurture their arts and earn a living.
According to Pappu Khan, a trader who runs a shop in Nasopur in Ramgarh, the affinity between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Mewat was also reflected in the clothes they wore and the food they ate. “Members of both the communities mingle with each other at weddings and social functions. Even at the time of the Partition, there was no tension between the two communities in Mewat. However, the situation has changed drastically now,” he points out.
Pappu Khan recalls that even when the Babri Masjid was demolished, political elements attempted to drive a wedge between the Hindu-Muslim population, but both the communities steered clear of incitement and instigation. “But, the region has been in the throes of fear and strife over ‘cow politics’ over the past six-seven years,” Pappu adds.
While Pappu Khan’s ancestors had Hindu names like Roop Singh, Bhoop Singh and Chand Singh, his surname — different from his family’s — causes him much trouble. And hence, his son is named Rahul Singh.
“With the Khan tag, one cannot even chase away stray cattle from the fields as it could lead to mob lynching in the name of ‘cow smuggling’. Most Muslims in the region raise livestock, but cows seem to be a danger signal for them,” he adds.
‘Divide and rule’
The people of the region, who are traditionally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters, unanimously allege that major political parties, especially the BJP, have done little for the Mewati community.
Political observers in Alwar feel that after BJP MLA Gyandev Ahuja and former Congress MLA Zubair Khan, whose wife Safiya Zubair got the Congress ticket from Ramgarh this time, entered politics, peace and communal harmony have been disturbed causing polarisation in a society which had resisted communalisation for over decades.
Countering the allegation that he is indulging in anti-Muslim tirade, Gyandev Ahuja alleges that the Muslim community in the region is pursuing a secret agenda of converting Hindus to Islam, engaging in cow smuggling and slaughter, and love jihad. “It’s an organised racket,” he points out. “Even the police fear cow smugglers because the latter open fire when challenged,” he adds. Congress candidate from Ramgarh Safiya Zubair Khan accused the BJP of using the ‘divide and rule’ tactic before the elections and conveniently forgetting the Hindu-Muslim issue later on.
‘The birds are better than us’
Nawab Khan, a Meo Muslim from Hajipur, says his family has been engaged in raising cows for a living and currently takes care of around 80 cows. “I cannot be at rest till all the cows, who go out for grazing, return home safely. If they don’t, I have to step out to bring them back, which is risky. I am often unsure if I will return home safe and sound or not,” he says while describing his plight. Nawab also suggests that the government should set up a licensing system so that cow owners feel safe while escorting their flock.
The above-mentioned problems plaguing the Meo community leave Yusuf feeling restless who wants to promote communal harmony between both communities.
“Hum kya banane aaye thay, kya bana baithe. Kahin mandir, kahin masjid, kahin gurdwara bana baithe. Humse se toh achche who parindey hain jo bina bhedbhav kiye kabhi mandir aur kabhi masjid par ja baithe (What did we come for and look what we ended up building. We built a temple here, a mosques there and a gurudwara somewhere. The birds in the sky are better than us since they perch on all religious structures),” he recites.
[Click here to read this story on NewsCentral24x7 where it was first published.]