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Taking Aim At Harmony

The Cheeta-Merats, an intriguing people who defy conventional notions of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, are under attack, finds YOGINDER SIKAND

Sixty-five-year-old Naseeb Khan recently arranged for his son Prakash Singh to marry Sita, daughter of Ram Singh and his wife Reshma. Three months ago, Hemant Singh's daughter Devi married Lakshman Singh in a nikah ceremony solemnised by a maulvi. Salim Khan keeps pictures of Hindu deities and local folk heroes in an altar in his hut, and regularly visits a neighbouring dargah of a Muslim saint. His neighbour and first cousin, Madho Singh, has been offering the Eid prayers in the village Eidgah for as long as he can remember. Yet, like everyone else in his village, he also celebrates Holi and Diwali with equal gusto.

These intriguing people who defy conventional notions of 'Hindus' and 'Muslims', belong to a little-known community known as the Cheeta-Merat, a 400,000 strong community that inhabits some 160 villages in the vicinity of Ajmer and Beawar in Rajasthan. The Cheeta and the Merat (also known as Kathat) are two separate clans of mostly small peasants and landless labourers who have a long tradition of inter-marriage. They call themselves Chauhan Rajputs, and identify their religion variously as 'Hindu-Muslim', or either 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' or simply 'Cheeta-Merat'. While there is little in terms of dress, language and food habits that set them apart from the other castes they live with, the Cheeta-Merat's distinguishing feature is their syncretic religious identity.

Different stories are told about the origins of the community. Most of them are based on the claim that they are descendents of the clan of Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Chauhan Hindu ruler of Ajmer, who was killed while fighting the forces of Muhammad Ghori. This claim is not, however, widely accepted by the Hindu Rajputs and might well be a contrived means to claim a higher social status for the community, which has roamed the Aravalli mountains for centuries, attacking and plundering trade caravans.

According to one story, a conquering Muslim Sultan gave one of the ancestors of the Cheeta-Merat, Har Raj, the choice of converting to Islam, death or having his womenfolk raped. Har Raj is said to have selected the first option, but, instead of fully converting to Islam, is said to have only accepted three things of Islam for himself and his descendants: male circumcision, eating meat slaughtered in the Muslim halal fashion and burial of the dead. This is why, according to this story, most Cheeta-Merat still follow only these three Islamic practices, while remaining almost indistinguishable from the other local Hindu castes in other respects.

This theory appears to be a newly invented one, and does not find mention in reliable historical chronicles. It is, however, forcefully articulated today by Hindu groups active in the region, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, who are trying to bring the Cheeta-Merat into the Hindu fold. The identity of the 'Muslim Sultan' in the story is confused: some name him as Aurangzeb, others as Mohammad Ghori, yet others as Mohammad Ghazni or Alauddin, Sultan of Malwa.

A different, though related, version of the story is that the Muslim Sultan provided Har Raj with a sizeable estate as a reward for giving up his community's practice of raiding trading caravans. This made Har Raj's six brothers jealous of him, because of which Har Raj chose to become a Muslim, feeling that a Muslim Sultan had treated him better than his own brothers. However, despite his conversion to Islam, his descendents, the Cheeta-Merats, retained only a very nominal link with Islam, owing to the remote terrain in which they lived. They thus practised only three customs, mentioned above, that drew from Islam.

Another theory about the Cheeta-Merat is that their ancestor Har Raj voluntarily converted to Islam at the hands of the renowned Sufi, Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. This is why, it is argued, he is also known as Pir Har Raj, having received the honorific title of Pir, which is used for a Muslim saint. No surprisingly, this theory finds favour with Muslim groups active today among the Cheeta-Merats, who are seeking to provide them with a more distinctly Muslim identity.

The Cheeta-Merats' identity has come under increasing challenge starting from the early decades of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, the Arya Samaj launched efforts to bring into the Hindu fold various communities like the Cheeta-Merats who could not be easily classified as either 'Hindu' or 'Muslim', as the terms were conventionally understood. The powerful Rajput Sabha, allied to the Samajis, appealed to the Cheeta-Merats to abandon their Islamic practices and turn Hindu. Some Cheeta-Merats are said to have formally declared themselves as Hindus at this time.

Yet, the vast majority of the community refused to budge, citing the promise that their ancestor, Pir Har Raj, is said to have made to the Muslim Sultan. To abandon the Islamic customs that their ancestor had adopted, they believed, would be to go against his wishes. However, things began to change from the mid-1980s, when both Hindu and Muslim revivalist organisations entered the Cheeta-Merat belt in order to win the community to their respective folds.

"We say 'Ram-Ram' to Hindus and 'Salaam' to Muslims. We hold a laddu in each of our hands', says Salim Khan smilingly when I ask him how his community responds to the contradictory appeals of Hindu and Muslim revivalist groups. "Most of us do not know how to do intricate Brahminical pujas or say the Muslim namaz. We just bow our heads before temples, mosques and dargahs," he explains. He talks of how, over the years, his community is now being increasingly divided into two factions—one Hindu and the other Muslim. 'Inter-marriages still occur, but their number is reducing," he laments. "However," he stresses, "whether Hindu or Muslim, we all think of ourselves as brothers, descended from the same ancestors."

In some parts of Ajmer district, particularly in the Merat belt around Beawar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has been able to make numerous conversions. Many of these converts belong to the Gola sub-caste, who worked traditionally as servants of the Merats, who treated them with disdain as 'low' castes. Other Cheetas and Merats have also now come under the influence of the Parishad, which, in order to spread its message, has set up a number of temples, schools and clinics in the area to attract the poverty-stricken community. The Parishad's claims that the Cheeta-Merat are descended from Prithiviraj Chauhan and that their ancestors were allegedly forcibly converted to Islam form the thrust of its missionary appeal. For some Cheeta-Merats a new, more distinct Hindu, particularly Rajput, identity is also a means for upward social mobility and a quest for more acceptance by the surrounding Hindu community.

Yet, there is strong resistance among large sections of the community to conversion to Hinduism (or 'home-coming' to Hinduism as the Parishad sees it) because it is felt that this would not only mean going against the 'promise' of their ancestor Pir Har Raj but also because other Hindus would still refuse to establish conjugal ties with them, seeing their Muslim association as having somehow 'polluted' them. Stories are told of how some Cheetas refused to have their sons circumcised, hoping to provide them with a surer 'Hindu' identity. However, when they grew to marriageable age they discovered that no Cheeta family was willing to give their daughters to them because they had transgressed the tradition of the caste. Hence, they were circumcised just before marriage and, despite considering themselves 'Hindus', their marriages were solemnised in the Muslim fashion.

Reports of mass conversions of Cheeta-Merats to Hinduism through shuddhi or 'purification' ceremonies that appear from time to time in the press are hotly contested. While advocates of Hindutva see these as brilliant victories, those Cheeta-Merats who wish to retain their centuries-old identity dismiss these as cheap publicity gimmicks arranged to 'demoralise' the community.

Islamic groups active in the region, particularly the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e Hind, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Hyderabad-based Tamir-e-Millat, have set up numerous madrasas and mosques, and this has had a visible impact. Even critics of these groups admit that the last two decades have witnessed a considerable degree of Islamisation of the community, and this despite the opposition of Hindu groups and hostile elements in the government administration. Even though Muslim groups have done little for the social and economic betterment of the community, Islamisation does operate as an alternate vehicle of upward social mobility by assuring them of a more concrete identity.

Yet, even in villages where mosques and madrasas have come up and the Cheeta-Merats identify themselves as unambiguously 'Muslim', old practices die hard. Alcohol consumption is widespread and so are child-marriages, visits to temples and village ancestor shrines and the celebration of Hindu festivals. Maulvis (mainly from Mewat) stationed in the area complain that few Muslim Cheeta-Merats attend mosques or enroll their children in madrasas. In some places, Maulvis have been harassed and their efforts to set up madrasas or announce the azaan through loudspeakers have been resisted, including by some Cheeta-Merat converts to Hinduism.

"Our philosophy of life is to live and let live. People must be free to worship God in whatever way they like," says Buland Khan, an elderly Cheeta-Merat. "Some of us," he confesses, "feel ashamed about their identity. People mock them, saying they are confused and are trying to ride two boats at the same time". But," he stresses, "I think we are right. Some of us are Muslims and others are Hindus. But still we live together in harmony. We dine together and intermarry. Religion is a personal issue and does not affect our relations."

This is the full version of the article that appeared in TEHELKA's print edition
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 13, Dated April 5, 2008