Abid Hussain had just completed his afternoon namaaz at his gaushala (cow shelter) in Nuh district of Haryana’s Mewat region. A devoted manager of the cow shelter, the 23-year-old explained how his day revolved around taking care of the 50 cows now under his care. Three years ago, soon after completing his Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Hussain decided to take charge of the first Muslim-owned cow shelter in Mewat that his brother, Mohammad Habib, had opened. Since then, his foremost priority is to get rid of the ‘cow slaughterer’ tag attached to his community. “Hum logon ko yeh sabit karna chahte hain ki Musalmaan gau hatyara nahin hain. Musalmaan gau palak hain. Yeh toh sirf rajneeti ki vajah se hum logon ko kalankit kiya ja raha hain (We want to prove to people that Muslims are not cow slaughterers. Muslims are cow protectors. It is just because of politics that we are being targeted),” he says.
Abid Hussain belongs to Mewat, a region that spreads across parts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Inhabitants of the region, the Meos, exhibit a unique identity with a blend of Hindu and Muslim ethos. Driving across the dry, barren lands of Mewat, you see bearded men in skull caps and women in colourful Rajasthani lehenga cholis.
In recent times, the Meos have been in news after 55-year-old Pehlu Khan from Alwar (also in Mewat) was allegedly lynched by a mob while transporting cows for his dairy farm. Following the brutal murder, the Meos demanded that the cow be declared India’s national animal, and its slaughter be banned. Underlying the Meo call for the ban, however, is an unusual religio-cultural identity that manifests itself in a combination of ‘cow worship’ and namaaz in the community.
The Meo’s unique Hindu-Muslim culture
“Hum Meo qaum ka itihaas gaate hain, jaise Heer-Ranjha, jaise Kaurav-Pandav, Bharat-Hari, yeh local itihaas gaate hain hum (We recite the history of the Meo community, the tales of Heer-Ranjha, Kaurav-Pandav, Bharat-Hari, stories from our local history),” says Aash Mohammad, who belongs to the Mirasi caste among the Meos. The lower-caste Mirasis are folk singers, whose presence in weddings and other cultural events is considered auspicious. As he prepares to perform the most popular ballad among the Meos, the Pandun ka Kada, the Meo version of the Mahabharata, Aash Muhammad explains that this particular folk song has a special significance in their community and is widely sung during their weddings.
The Meos claim an ancestry that dates back to the Pandavas. “I had once asked a jagga (Hindu genealogist) to tell me my family history, and he explained that my ancestors came from Hastinapur near Delhi and that we are the sons of Arjun,” said Arif Mohammad, a member of the audience at Aash Muhammad’s ballad recital. Historical records suggest the Meos were converted to Islam sometime in the early 15th century when Firuz Shah Tughlaq was the Sultan of Delhi. This date is, however, at best an approximation, and many historians are of the opinion that the Meos underwent a gradual process of conversion that began in the 10th-11th century, and was led by a series of Sufi saints.
“We use the word ‘conversion’ as a modern concept. There was no such large-scale complete conversion in the time we are talking about, the 14th-15th century,” Professor Shail Mayaram, an authority on the ethnic composition of the Meos, said. The Meos, she said, did come under the influence of certain Sufi pirs, but continued their traditional practices, which led to a situation of “multi-religiosity”. Being of high-caste Rajput descent and predominantly landholders, they were reluctant to give up their Hindu cultural practices, even when they gradually adopted Islamic ways.
The unique identity of the Meos, however, underwent a massive transformation in the 1920s and subsequently, at the time of partition, under the influence of the Tablighi Jamaat movement started by Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi. The Tablighis’ first major experiment was among the Meos, which began with efforts in the 1920s to educate the community on the importance of the namaaz, keeping a beard, and the study of the Holy Quran. These first cultural interventions failed to make much headway against deep-rooted practices followed by the community — but the horrors of Partition helped break down popular resistance. “During Partition, there was a genocide against the Meos carried out by the Alwar and Bharatpur states. Overnight their villages were burnt,” Mayaram said. The Tablighi Jamaat preyed on human tragedy, preaching that the violence was a manifestation of the anger of God, the result of the Meos being “bad Muslims”, Mayaram said
Since 1947, the religious identity in Mewat has largely been defined by the discourse of Sunni Islam. However, people still continue with their older, ‘Hindu’ cultural practices, albeit at a gradually diminishing scale. “Earlier there would be worship of the Goddess. There is a Mewati Mahabharata in which Draupadi is the form of the Goddess. In their weddings they would sing about the marriage of Mahadev and their descent from Krishna,” Mayaram said.
Even so, these ‘Hindu’ practices have not yet disappeared altogether. Arif Mohammad said that even today, practices like ghur savari — a custom in which the groom arrives for his wedding on a horse — and other Hindu rituals remain in vogue. The Meos also continue to follow the Hindu system of recording ancestry known as the gotra, and the tradition of tracing their lineage through Hindu genealogists known as jaggas.
“The modern idea of religion, which has come to us from the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation, is the that you can only have one religion. Similarly, it is understood that once converted, you completely opt out of your earlier religious identity,” Mayaram said. That’s a model that does not work in the case of the intermixed Meo religious identity.
“The tendency in scholarship is to see religion as something that is pure, and syncretism as something that is mixed. This is an unfortunate binary. I think religion is something that is in any case mixed, and the Meos are a prime example of that,” Mayaram said.
The Meo’s respect for the cow
In this unique socio-religious context of Mewat, the cow holds a very special position. While the animal is largely considered to be a Hindu religious symbol, it is equally revered, if not worshipped, by the predominantly cattle-rearing Meo Muslim community.
Social activist Mohammad Habib, who opened the first Muslim gaushala in Mewat, said, “The Meo Muslims rear the largest number of cows in India. Very few people indulge in slaughtering the cow and the entire community of Mewat, both Hindus and Muslims, are against it.We have grown up believing that Islam says that cow milk is like medicine, and its meat spreads illnesses. Islam clearly notes this and we are trying our best to spread awareness about this among the ordinary masses.”
The Meos relationship with the cow is clearly rooted in the socio-economic built of Mewat. “They are part of the tradition of the worship of the cow,” Mayaram said. The Meos, she said, live in the Braj region, where the Ahirs and Yadavs, the principal cow worshipping communities, are numerically significant and socially dominant. “The Meos are part of that tradition,” she said. The special position of the cow in Meo life is manifested in many ways — such as the fact that married Meo women make the sacred batevra (stacks of cow dung cakes), and the community celebrates Govardhan puja.
Siddique Ahmad, an independent researcher of Mewat’s history, said that in an agricultural community like that of the Meos, the cow has an importance of its own. “The Meos had a lot of faith in the cow, and still do. During the first month of the monsoon, a festival called ‘khansotiya’ is celebrated here. In that festival, the cow is washed, decorated with a teeka on her forehead, and her horns are oiled. She may not be worshipped in the technical sense, but there is a certain faith in her that is rooted in the economic necessities of the community,” he said.
Islam prohibits the worship of living beings. The loyalty of the Meos towards the teachings of Islam is manifest in the ambivalence they maintain about their relationship with the cow. Their respect and affection for the animal is, however, hard to miss. On being asked if he considered the cow as mata, Abid Hussain said: “Hum Islam dharam se hain. Toh hum gaay ko maata toh nahin keh sakte, gaay ki pooja toh nahi karte, par roop hum isey maata ka hi dete hain (We are Muslims. We don’t consider the cow our mother, we do not worship her. But we give her the same respect as we would give our mother.)”