Dr Payal Tadvi (26), committed suicide in her hostel room on May 22, allegedly due to harassment by three seniors at Mumbai’s T N Topiwala National Medical College. Payal was a Tadvi Bhil Muslim, a tiny community with low literacy rates that lives in small pockets of four states: Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.
The Islam practised by the Tadvi Bhils is syncretic and unrigid, and the community retains many aspects of Hindu culture and tradition. “They wear saris, and even though they offer namaaz, they will fold and join their hands in front of an idol,” said Shekhar Madhukar Sunarkar, a Gandhian social worker who has worked closely with the community.
Jalgaon-based researcher M S Tadvi has reported that Tadvi Muslims don’t wear the burqa, usually have a tattoo and, while observing Ramzan, also celebrate Holi and Akshay Tritiya. Tadvi Bhil Muslims seek divorce through jaat panchayats.
Payal was from Jalgaon, which is home to the largest number of Tadvi Bhil Muslims in Maharashtra — estimates of numbers range from 62,000 to over a lakh, concentrated mainly in the district’s Raver, Yawal, and Chopda blocks. There are Tadvi Bhil populations in Nandurbar (where more Hindu Tadvis live) and Dhule as well. The 2011 Census, however, put the total number of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) Bhils in Maharashtra at 66,578; the Tadvis are one of the 12 Bhil clans in the state.
Razia Patel, a retired head of the minority cell at the Centre for Educational Studies at Pune’s Indian Institute of Education, said the original nomadic lifestyle of the Bhil Muslims was disrupted by the Forest Acts passed by the Raj, and members of the community gradually took up farm jobs.
Sunarkar said that large numbers of Tadvi Bhils converted to Islam during the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707). Tadvi has written that those who converted were initially called Muhammadan Bhil and, subsequently, “Tadvi”, which means “piece (tukde)” in Marathi, and “one who shows the way” in Arabic. Tadvi’s book quotes the British officer Capt John Briggs as saying that the Tadvi Bhils served in the police from 1815-21; Tadvi’s research has found that members of the community joined the 1857 revolt against the British.
Explained | Who are Tadvi Bhil Muslims?
Payal’s husband too, is a Tadvi Muslim and a doctor; however, very few in the community are educated, and have generally failed to derive benefits from government schemes and quotas for STs. Shirish Chaudhary, a former MLA from Raver who runs the Satpura Vikas Mandal for education and agriculture, said only about half of all Tadvi Bhil children study up to Class 10, even though literacy levels have been rising of late.
According to Payal’s family, she was the first woman from the community to become a gynaecologist. Sunarkar said a Tadvi Bhil Muslim woman had obtained an MBBS degree some three decades ago; Payal, however was the first to study for an MD. Most Tadvis are engaged in activities dependent on the forest; some sell honey or wood, others are farm labourers, and some seek government employment in towns.
While the popular perception is that most tribals are animists, Hindus, or Christians, there is a small population of Muslim tribals across India. Some 18.58 lakh of the country’s 10.42 crore STs described themselves as Muslim in the 2011 Census (1.8%). Over 70% of the Muslim tribal population lives in Jammu & Kashmir (13.20 lakh), followed by Maharashtra (1.12 lakh), Lakshadweep (61,037), and Karnataka (44,599). Maharashtra’s Muslim tribal population is limited to four out of the state’s 47 notified tribes.
However, Muslim tribal communities are the second fastest growing demographic group after Christian tribals, the Census data show. The numbers of Christian tribals grew 61% from 63.90 lakh in 2001 to 1.03 crore in 2011; the numbers of Muslim tribals grew 52% from 12.25 lakh to 18.58 lakh over the same period. Overall, the population of STs increased 23% to 10.4 crore in 2011 from 8.43 crore in 2001.