Rajasthan’s Cheeta-Merat And The Battle For Their Souls by Radihika Saraf

Introduction:

The Cheeta-Merat (also known as the Kathat) defy all conventional conceptions of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, and practice a unique syncretic religion that combines elements of Islam and Hindusim. This little-known community, with an estimated population to be about 400,000, is spread across over 100 villages in the vicinity of Ajmer and Beawar towns in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district.

The Cheeta and the Merat are two separate clans who intermarry with each other. Most of them are small peasants and landless labourers. They call themselves Chauhan Rajputs, and identify their religion variously as ‘Hindu-Muslim’, or either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ or simply ‘Cheeta-Merat’. In terms of dress, language and food habits there is little to distinguish the Cheeta-Merat from the other castes whom they live with. Their distinguishing feature, however, is their unique syncretic religious identity.

Their community has been targeted by Hindu fundamentalist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Muslim organizations like Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Hyderabad-based Tamir-e Millat. Numerous temples and madrassas have been constructed to help in the process of ‘purifying’ the people here. But traditional practices are difficult to erase – child marriages, alcohol consumption, temple visits, Koran readings, prayers at ancestral shrines, and celebration of both Hindu and Muslim festivals remains prevalent.

The ever determined Yoginder Sikand has written about them in a piece called Neither Hindu Nor Muslim. They were also featured in a piece by journalist Namita Kohli for The Hindustan Times called Muslim, and Hindu As Well. They are also the subject of an excellent book called Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and The Shaping Of A Muslim Identity by Shail Mayaram.

Radhika Saraf is a young photographer from Bombay/Mumbai who spent time with this community. She is the first contributing photographer to The Idea of India project and hopefully sets the stage for many more such contributions.  Radhika is a Junior at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts in the USA and currently taking a term at the School of Oriental and African (SOAS) in London, UK, also write a blog called Cranial Crashes.

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Rajasthan’s Cheeta-Merat And The Battle For Their Souls

by Radihika Saraf

I placed my knife across his windpipe and slowly, very slowly, I slaughtered him.”
“Why did you kill him the halal way?”
“Because I enjoy doing it that way.”
“You idiot, you should have chopped his neck off with one single blow. Like this.”
And the halal killer was dispatched in accordance with the correct ritual.

Saadat Hasan Manto

It strikes right through the heart. A proud Indian, I bow in shame to see that the very playfulness of ritualistic difference and religious syncretism, which the Cheeta-Meerat-Kathat community symbolizes, is the cause of grave concern for radical Hindu and Muslim groups. These sectarian organizations do not offer the guiding light or solutions to a confrontational history. Instead, they are responsible for the gradual, ruthless elimination of love.

“La Illah Il Illah
Mohammed Dar ul Rasool Allah

Jay Jay Mahadev”

13 year old Javed reads the namaz (Muslim prayers) in his tender voice. His younger sisters, Heena and Khushboo jump excitedly and join their hands in prayer when we pass a temple. Javed gives Prasad (offering) to the Hindu priest while both girls wear their nakabs. Heena tells me how the maulvi at the mosque teaches the children to be good, while Khushboo dances to Maiyya Yashodha Ye Tera Kanhaiya (song in praise of Lord Krishna).
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I am in Jalia, a village around Beavar, 70 km from Ajmer. Sapna Didi, Habib, Heena, Khushboo, Jalal and Javed, have in their house Hindu Goddess Saraswati and the Quran, lying side by side. The women wear red bangles, mangalsutras, and the nakaab. They pray to Allah, and go to Hindu temples. They celebrate Eid and Diwali. As we come back from plucking cucumbers in the fields, they tell me behind a community temple that although they are Muslims, they are not ‘perfect’ Muslims.

The King of Ajmer, which was once ruled by Prithvi Raj Chauhan in the 12th century, lost the battle against Aurangzeb about 300 years ago, and his descendants came to be called Kathat. In order to win forgiveness, they accepted three rules of Islam; burial after death (dafna), circumcision (khatna), and eating halaal (zabiha). Their culture and traditions became a beautiful synergy of both Hindu and Muslim practices, while they remained happily oblivious to the narrow questions of religion.

“Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isayi (Hindus, Muslims Sikhs, Christians)
Sab hi to Bhai Bhai” (All are brothers)

The words I sang in my school assemblies as a 10 year old kid dance in my ears as I sit in an Ekal Vidyalaya (Hindu schools that provide education to the poor) in Beavar. But the songs these 10 year olds sing reverberate harshly in the small room, overshadowing the ones from my sweet memory.

Maa mujhko bandook dilado (Mother, Get me a gun)
Main bhi ladne jaaonga (I shall also go to fight)
Mar jaaonga, kat jaaonga (I shall die, I will be cut to pieces)
Seene pe goli khaoonga (I will take a bullet in my chest)
Desh ko aage badhaoonga  (I will bring my country forward)

These are new songs of national pride. The lyrics are different. The voices no longer resonate with respect and pride. What remains is the veil of radical thought. Patriotism is now about religious faith, Hinduism and India being synonymous. The hints are subtle, the façade strong. In between innovative sessions of teaching the alphabet, colors and numbers, are sung songs of a different patriotism, which protects, fights and hates rather that celebrates and loves. A new generation of Indians is being brought up with little knowledge of India’s diversity and its rich, secular history.

I see the small, innocent faces of the 9 year olds whose otherwise gentle, playful and shy voices suddenly rise to screams when singing their versions of patriotic songs. I am shocked, scared, and hurt. Is national pride now about hate, and not love? Will these children ever be able to think? Will they ever know?

It’s a creepy feeling. After going through a maze of small forbidden rooms, I enter a large quiet one. The leader, Rameshwar Baba is sitting on a chair, with two youngsters on either side of him. The bearded, kurta-laden man has devoted the last 15 years of his life completely to the VHP’s (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) social activities in Ajmer, the most important being the Ekal Vidyalayas and the Bajrang Dal.

Babaji speaks with pride of the VHP’s role in the Kathat community.

“They do not know of their history and proud Hindu heritage. It is the duty of the VHP to help our Hindu brothers and save them from impurity and sin.”

This is why the VHP set up schools in and around the community, and hold purification ceremonies.

As I leave, I read a sticker, which says

Rashtrabhakti ka bhav jagaye (Evoke feelings of national pride)
Dharm, sanskriti aur desh bachaye. (Save the religion, culture and country)

What India is this man taking about? I feel trapped and want to run. He talks about protection of the Hindu faith. He speaks with pride, ease and intent, knowing I am Hindu, attempting to engulf me within his widening reach. I am disgusted. I am Hindu, but not such a Hindu, I keep repeating in my head, as if reassuring myself. Leaders like Babaji are manipulative masters who crave for power. Hanuman, whom the violent Bajrang Dal is named after, was the loyal companion of Lord Rama. When he tore open his heart, there was a picture of Lord Rama and Goddess Sita, so strong and selfless was his love. Where is that love gone?

The similarities are striking. The same quiet eerie room. A different man, the same beard. The same blood shot eyes full of intent. The same conviction. The same belief that he is right. Only, a different religion. The leader of the Jamaat-e-Hind in Beavar gives me the same creepy feeling that I got in the VHP office; as if I were prey.

“Quran antimvani hain. Chahe Hindu ho ya Muslim, sab hi ko Quran raasta dikhata hain. Insaan Islam na apnake, galat raaste par chalta hain. Marne par, rab use poochega, Rab kaun hain? Tumhara mazhap kaunsa hain? Tum kis raaste par chalke aaye ho?”

(Quran is the ultimate truth. Whether Hindu, or Muslim, the Quran shows the path to everyone. By not accepting Islam, man treads on the wrong path. On dying, God will ask, Who is God? What is your religion? On what path have you walked and come here?)

As I sat there listening to him, my mind blurred between him and the VHP leader. I asked him why the main program of the Jamaat was education in madrassas for Kathat children. His answer was the same; the community’s ignorance of their heritage and past. It seemed as if the kathat community were elastic, being stretched on both sides until it would finally break. This community is on the edge, under attack and soft target to accomplish what Hindu and Muslim sectarian groups seek – power and mass.

When the Jamaat leader spoke to me about Islam, he conjured beautiful mystical images of heaven opening up, lightning striking, the sky radiating golden rays, the stars blinding the universe with their light, and the moon dancing, smiling heartily with joy, in due reverence of God. The songs of Sufi saints under the twilight sky wrapped me in a dream. And then he disclosed his thoughts that my wavering self had come to seek direction and love at the doorstep of Islam, and that I must pay heed to his words. I repressed disbelief, and controlled my growing anxiety. I understood that deep rooted under this fantastic imagery is the dirty smell of power and of misinterpretation. Where has the love gone?

Since the 1980s, sectarian ideological groups from radical Hindu and Muslim thought have tried to teach the kathat community about their ‘real’ identities. Both hope to protect their respective religions and satisfy their political ideologies.

“Ram Mother India up the you-know-what of both Muslims and Hindus.”

Saadat Hasan Manto

Both also use religion to relieve themselves of their insecurities. The Hindus, bound by centuries first under Moghul rule and then under British colonialism find a need to defend their identity. The Muslims attempt to find their place in a country, which continually views them as outsiders.

The shame and wounds of partition have not left us, but sectarian groups are adamant on yet further divisions along religious lines. The Kathat community resists the extremes that are tearing this country apart. Fear from society has forced them to define who they are, but they still lead mixed lives behind their masks. They are Hindu, and Muslim. In finding my way through the labyrinth of forced hatred, in the tunnel of depressing ideological influence, the kathat offers hope, and a place to find the lost love.

Ujre nahin apna chaman (I hope my earth does not get uprooted)
Toote nahin apna vatan (I hope my country does not break)
Mandir yahan, masjid yahan (Temple here, mosque here)
Hindu yahan, Muslim yahan (Hindu here, Muslim here)
Jaago.. (Awake..)

Hindustani naam hamara hain (We call ourselves Indian)
Sabse pyara desh hamara hain (Our most beloved is our country)

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Oct 28, 2009 | History, Syncretic Religion, Works By Contributing Photographers

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