PUCL Bulletin, Nov., 2000

Distorting the truth
Media and communal groups manipulate reality to vilify Meo Muslims

-- By Shail Mayaram, Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur

August-September 2000: News articles in the regional Hindi and English pre4ss report the involvement of the agriculture Minister with the Government of Rajasthan, Mr. Tayyab Hussain, with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the infamous intelligence agency of the Pakistani State. The reports stem from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's complaint to the chief Minister, and evidence produce in this regard. The allegations extend to the said Minister's complicity in cow slaughter by the Meos. Strange how media reports re produce caste and community time and again. To cite a sample of recent news report titles: 'Tribals kill five in …" or Meo Muslims involved in cow killing.' Why is it that the reports never state, Brahmins kill five in …' or Agarwal Hindus involved in cow slaughter in Mewat' (as they indeed are). But media reporting is only part of the much deeper and far more disturbing phenomenon of the deliberate creation of ethnic tension, conflict and frenzy. The evidence in this regard is overwhelming in the decade of the post-babri mosque demolition. This is notwithstanding statements such as of Bangaru Laxman, dalit leader of the Bhartiya Janata party, on the party's commitment to equal citizenship of the minorities and revisions of its ethnic agenda (abandonment of Article 370, temple construction at Ayodhya, etc).

1990s: the Meos is accused time and again of cow slaughter. Dharma Sansad leader in an interview informs me how eastern Rajasthan, Haryana and an adjoining part of UP are a part of a cold belt as far as his organisation is concerned. He elaborates on how the issue of cow slaughter has to be periodically raised to generate heat. The leader is alluding to the attempts of his and allied organisations to fabricate inter communal disputes. In Mewat, the area southwest of Delhi, where the Meo Population is concentrated, they take the form of allegations most often of cow slaughter. The interview was taken in the aftermath of the riots that gripped the city of Jaipur in 1992 and, indeed, occurred through the country in the wake of the Rath Yatra. His perspective is not irrelevant even ten years later and provides and insight into the psychology of violence. This leader has been the part of the cow protection movement through much of our century. He was one of the key performers of the Roop Kanwar sati rites. He became one of the founders of the Bajrang Dal. The youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In 1992 he was one of the major orchestrators of the Babri Mosque demolition.

Media and other reports from the area of Mewat ignore the fact that episodes of cow slaughter involve individuals drawn from different castes and religious communities. But certain members of the (fervently Hindu) bania community are just as either buyers or as sellers of dead cows or hide. I underline the word some and certain implying that the involvement of some members of the particular social group can in no way constitute grounds for the castigation of the entire group. Some years ago when the banjaras were found to be involved in the cow trade in central Rajasthan they were let off at Hindu nationalists insistence that they were 'Hindus'. We need to remember also that poverty and landlessness are major issues in people's life worlds in this area. But questions of marginality and livelihood (or its lack) have not been addressed by then states, which exercise rule over the Mewat region. The state proclaims its commitment to tribal and minority development through agencies such as Tribal Area Development And Mewat Development. But the funds are spent on are development' (with infrastructure claiming a large chunk) rather than on targeting the all round development of the marginal groups in question. The top-heavy membership of these agencies/boards comprises ministers, bureaucrats, and legislators. The voice of activists working in the area on health, education or watershed development, of local level leaders and workers, of women and other significant individuals or sections are hardly taken into cognizance. Social development, ecological and livelihood concerns and cultural development thus take backseat while the building of roads (which should in any case be taken care of by the Public Works Department) gets priority.

Further, what is referred to as cow slaughter (for which Muslims and Christians are exclusively held responsible) is actually and illicit trade in cow hide. States of the Indian federation and their bureaucracies, which are involved in lisencing leather processing of factories, are equally complicit in this respect. There is also the extensive export of beef from India to other countries.

The large ecological context of cow slaughter, however, is the changing mode of production. The pastoral, peasant economy grounded on the cow has undergone dramatic change. The healthy, white cow of the Hindu mythic imagination has been substituted in real life by the milk yielding, buffalo based political economy. Emaciated cows thrown out by their 9more often than not Hindu) owners are left to fend for themselves in the countryside or to die. During the recent drought, the practice of abandoning cows by villagers was widespread and referred to locally as tika laga ke chor diya. The application of the vermilion mark symbolizes the idea that the concerned village will be absolved of pap or sin.

Policy makers and economists on food security the world over are recommending that humans shift from being grain consumers to becoming meat eaters. There is the larger problem of a fast expanding population and shrinking culturable land given the growth rates of contemporary cities. In cities, beef has become the poor mans protein since goat mean costs at least ten times more.

I have written elsewhere about the pastoral-peasant agrarian economy of the Meos in the centuries prior to independence and their own worship of the cow that is so manifestly expressed in their oral tradition. This worship of the cow was analogous to he ritual practice of tribal, peasant, and pastoral groups throughout India. The Brahman cal tradition derived both the worship of goddesses and cows (may be even of the plants and animals that comprise nature) from these communities. Colonial ethnographers mention that Meo women rarely ate beef. But the worship of the cow and the Meos own Hindu Muslim liminal identity notwithstanding, the frenzied play of identity politics from the 1920s through the 1940s increasingly describes them as Muslim'.

1947: it takes less than three decades for identity politics to take its toll. The Meos is subject to none of the first exercise of ethnic cleansing. This is euphemistically 9and literally) called safaya (that is to clean). Thirty thousand Meos are killed in the princely state of Baratpur alone. And this an official figure. No figures are available for the number s killed and displace in Alwar. But the total Meo population in the two princely states is nearly two hundred thousand. Overnight the meos are slaughtered or evicted by multi caste mobs referred to as Dhars. Their villages are razed to the ground. Only those are allowed to stay who have been subject to shuddhi (so called purification, in fact, a euphemism for a conversion rite). The violence is hardly spontaneous. It is completely organized by the princely stated and orchestrated by the organisation of what are today referred to as the Hindu Right. Certain national level leaders belonging to the Congress are also among its supporters/participants. Hindu fanatical organisations had obtained a major foothold in the princely states adjacent to Delhi through the 1930s and 40s (since in British India they faced more stringent restrictions). These organisation were not only involved in recon version so called but also in regional mobilization particularly of young men and in arms production, circulation and distribution. Their network extended to the areas that later witnessed maximal violence in 1947. They're ideological impact was even more far reaching: through the pamphlet, press and speech they are able to affect to create a convincing psychology of victimhood (not to different from the pampered Muslim of our times!).

I have e written about the partition elsewhere in a series called Subaltern Studies (Its Hindi version is published as Nimnavargiya Prasang). I am sometimes asked questions about my moral responsibility in writing about partition and violence. Should be (even attempt to) describe an event that is fifty years old, and has receded from present consciousness? Should one stir up memories and therefore, , re4produce (relatively) ancient hatreds? Is it ethically correct to make people relive trauma? Over the last decade I have became painfully aware of my own positionality. But my only answer is a counter question. Is the politics of partition and genocide over and done with? Is it exclusively a matter of the past and not of the lived present? Is not the politics of genocide played out time and again? Each time tension is created in the Mewat area the tremor of terror among the Meos is palpable. I am not alone in having used the term genocide for the killing in the princely states of Alwar and Baratpur. A recent article by the historian, Ian Copland, in the journal called Past and present also documents this. But even the most cursory student of history would have no qualms in classifying in the safaya of the Meos as genocide 9defined as the annihilation, extermination or systematic killing of a racial or cultural group).

Mass death and displacement are not just a matter of history for their victims. As psychologists of violence point out terror is recreated in dreams, in responses to the most routine, quotidian situations. Allan Feldman and Robert lifton are some of the writers who have documented this in our times with respect to the Jewish genocide or the Irish struggle. Genocidal politics is no less than death in life, to use Litton's description of Hirishima victims. A published document in the National Archives of India that I found recently lists the names and addresses of the women abducted on both sides of the boarder. Meo women form a large component of the women abducted this side of the boarder.

The making of this violence is described in my book on the play of identity politics among the Meo community, Resisting Regimes: Myth memory and the shaping of a Muslim identity. The reception of my book tells its own story about disciplinary configurations and the print medias' own ethnic orientation in India today. Treated as an anthropological account of a Muslim community it has been sent to what the media considers are appropriate reviewers for books on Muslims, namely Muslim academics and writers. The other aspects of the book have ignored the phenomenological investigation of nationalism and violence; the inquiry into the princely, colonial and postcolonial state; or the mapping of movements of transnational religious and social reform, Hindu and Islamic. The larger question is why must Muslims (or for that matter Syrian Christians research on or review books on their respective communities.

The path breaking work of Ritu Menon, Urvashi Bhitiala and Kamla Bhasin reminds us of the ways in which both the nation states born out of the partitioning of the subcontinent and their respective well meaning social reformers continued to inflict trauma on the lives of the abducted women. They accomplished this by retrieving many of these most reluctant women for the nation, the religious community and the family. Patriarchal structures of state and kinship thus reproduce each other. Veena Das and Gyan Pandey have probed some of these women unconsciousness? Even the feminists, historians, social scientists, novelists and literacy critics who are responsible for the spate of new writing on partition have hardly begun to explore this. These women's silenced screams and pasts continue to remain part of the nation states suppressed (and even disowned) history and memory.

1920 and 30s:The area of Mewat becomes a theatre of contestation playing out social dramas of conversion and re-conversion. It is witness to the pulls and counter pulls of the politics of language and socio religious reform. The Arya Samaj and the Tablighi Jama at are the major players but there are also other, more or less overtly political (but proclaimed non political) organisations at work.

Simultaneously, Mewat also sees the growth of more radical politics spearheaded by some of its own leaders who are also members of the Congress particularly its leftwing, a section of which later breaks to form the communist party of India. The institutional form of the peasant front in Mewat is the Kisan Sabha (literally Peasant Assembly). This incorporates m embers from among the Jat Ahir, Gujar, and Meo Communities. These groups comprise the body of peasant patoralists in northern and western India. Irrespective of their religious affiliation they share aspects of myth, belief and practice. They have also had their own modes of self-governance, comprising decentered political institutions.

1932: The peasant movement led by a Meo leader, yasin Khan, has mobilized nearly one hundred thousand Meo peasants in the princely states of Alwar and baradpur. The other major peasant castes of Jats and other landowning castes also join the protest. They are protesting the 30% rise in revenue rates that has crippled in the peasantry in the context of their worldwide Economic Depression. The ruling elite of the princely states castigates the movement as fundam,entslist and inspired by mullahs! The Meos is categorically dubbed Muslim in the statist and media discourse of the period.

1940s: The peqasant movement is led by acclaimed histirian activist Congress (and later Communist Part0 leader, Kunvar Mohammad Ashraf. In the 1930s as the General Secretary for the Congress (with Nehru as president) he spearheads the party's Muslim Mass Contact Campaign. The Muslim League designs the campaign as an alternative to the mobilization of Muslims. Asharaf is Malkana Rajput, a community subject to the similar pressures of identity politics as the Meos. He calls for a revival of Meo modes of self-governance. Ashraf sees the Meo polity governed by the Pal Panchayat that involves all the regional castes (of whatever sectarian denomination) as a bulwark against ethnic devisions and communal conflict. In the vitiated pre partition context it is deliberately distorted as a call for a Meoistan. This is described as another Pakistan. One does not have to guess the parties that were involved in this (mis) representation that extended to state and media reporting. They had the most to lose from truly decentered Indian Federation.

After 1947: Partition becomes an opportunity for land grab. The dhar or mob's own internalization of the representation of the Meo as Mulim legitmates genocide. Few Meos are interested in Pakistan, in Urdu, or in the Muslim Legue. But their choices are few: to die or convert or cross the border. Hence, the exodus to Pakistan of over half the Meo population. This would have been even greater had it not been for the personal intervention of Gandhi and Yasin Khan, the Meo leader. They pleaded the secular character of the Indian State and the equality and dignity Meos would have therein. Many Meos returned as late as the 1950s and the 1960s, as soon as the border was reopened, to their bhumi, the land of their ancestors. For some Meos, Pakistan is the land of their exile. It is the mythic reenactment of the Pandava heroes' own exile from their kingdom for 14 years. The Meos, we need to remember, consider their clans as having descended from Krishna and Arjuna, the heroes of the Mahabharata. For them the epic is no mere great story symbolizing a glorious Hindu past: it is a matter of their flesh and blood. Their own version of the Mahabarata, poetrically narrated, metaphors Meo claims to land and status through descriptions of lineage and descent.

Genocide produces a major shift in Meo identity. The Tablighi Jama at has launched in the 19210s its design of religious re- socialization. Maulana ilys first experiments are among the Meos. His letters are testimony to his sense of dismay at the intractable Meos. They refuse to sport the beard or take to the namaz. For him they embody jahilliyat or primitivity in their most un Islamic polytheistic worship! Ilyas son continues his work and security and anchorage. They now embody expressly and consciously Islamic reference of identity. As one Meo told me, we saw the futility of riding on two horses! Meos is now the mainstay of the Jama at. The Mewati experiment has been globalized. The Tablighis are in operation in most countries.

2001: Lessons are hardly ever learnt from history. Ideologies of victim hood and otherness are reproduced and diffused through the state, the academy, the media, the pamphlet, and the speech and written documents.

I hold no brief for Congress politicians and Ministers anywhere. There is evidence of the involvement of some Congress leaders, national and regional, in the mass killing of 1947. Meo political leaders are as implicated in corruption and the reproduction and intensification of patriarchal structures as the leaders of most social groups/ castes in India. There is certainly a need for all groups and their respective leaders to introspect on the need for changes in personal/customary law that might accommodate women's perspectives. But treason is another matters altogether. Tayyab is the son of Yasin Khan. If nothing else the family has represented an alternative to the exclusive claims to leadership over the Meos made by clerics; as also the community's right to cultural self-defenition and expression. From 1930 to 2000 this family of the major Daimrot Meo clan has stood for peasant radicalism rather than the Islamized alternative; affirmed Indian nationalism rather than versions of the two national theories; and supported the resolution of Meo problems within the framework of the Indian State and federal structure. As recently as the summer of 2000 witnesses to Tayyab Hussain's famine relief related tour in rajas tan told me of his extortion to a Muslim madrasa to secularize their curricula. This is the only way to end the Ghettoization of Muslims. There is also a small section of younger leaders among the meos who have been attempting to erode the former MP and MLAs credibility.

So far a complete silence has greeted the high-pitched accusations in the print media. If anything, the regional press ahs distorted the Meo leadership's on reaction. Few responses to this issue have come from informed opinion. This is with the exception of the Meo Panchayat. We are open to any investigation of links with the ISI, to accusations of cow slaughter, the representatives of the Meo community have asserted in a statement. Tayyab himself has insisted on an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Intelligence. But the episode and the play of genocidal politics that the lat two decades has unfolded hold up a mirror to our face. Why must Indian Muslims (or Christians, for that matter) constantly have to prove their Nationalism? Is this Indian democracy, its much proclaimed secularism and equal citizenship? Are we not constantly pushing them up against a wall, labeling them Muslim/Christian and making them internalize our own images of them?

Strange how the ghosts of partition still continue to hover and haunt its victims, how the context for mob frenzy continues to be created fifty years later. And then we continue to investigate sterile questions like who is responsible for partition. Historical causation apart, we need to recognize the politics of genocide being played out before our very eyes and in our times.

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