Neither ‘Hindu’ Nor ‘Muslim’ But a Bit of Both: Rajasthan’s Cheeta-Merats

By Yoginder Sikand,

65 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 solemnized by a Muslim maulvi. Naseeb Singh’s elder son Roshan had a Muslim-style nikah, and his younger son Iqbal got married in the Hindu fashion.

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Salim Khan keeps pictures of Hindu deities and local Rajasthani folk heroes in an altar in his hut, and regularly visits a neighbouring dargah of a Muslim saint. He says he is a Muslim, but, like many people in his village, he does not know the kalima shahada, the Muslim creed of the faith. 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. Some 400,000 strong, the community inhabits some 160 villages in the vicinity of Ajmer and Beawar towns in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. The Cheeta and the Merat (also kown as Kathat) 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.

Different stories are told about the origins of the Cheeta-Merat. Most of these stories are based on the claim of the community being supposedly descended from 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, for centuries, roamed the Aravalli mountains, 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 being 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. Although the Sultans of Delhi, who controlled the Ajmer region, made efforts to promote Islamisation among them (as through building mosques in their villages, the ruins of many of which still remain, and by settling faqirs of the Madari caste, also known as Sain or Shah, in the villages to instruct the Cheeta-Merats in the basics of Islam and to slaughter animals in the Islamic fashion), these attempts did not make much dent.

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 as neither ‘Hindu’ nor ‘Muslim’, but perhaps a bit of both, came under increasing challenge 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 Aryas, 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 organizations entered the Cheeta-Merat belt in order to win the community to their respective folds.

‘We say Ram-Ram to Hindus and salam 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 competing with each other. ‘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 this is reducing’, he laments. ‘However’, he stresses,’whether Hindu or Muslim, we all think of ourselves as brothers, descended from the same ancestors’.

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In some parts of Ajmer, 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. Some 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 asserting a claim to upward social mobility and a quest to be more accepted by the surrounding Hindu community.

Yet, it is said, 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 not only would this mean going against the ‘promise’ of their ancestor Pir Har Raj but also because even if they were to become Hindus, the other Hindus would still refuse to establish conjugal ties with them, seeing their Muslim association as having somehow ‘tainted’ or ‘polluted’ them. Stories are told of how some Cheetas refused to have their sons circumcised, hoping to provide them with a more clear ‘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 as ‘Hindus’, their marriages were solemnised through nikah 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 this 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 and the fact that Muslim groups have done little for the social and economic betterment of the community.

Islamisation operates as alternate vehicle of upward social mobility for many Cheeta-Merats. 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 azan through loudspeakers have been sought to be resisted, including by some Cheeta-Merats themselves.

‘We are a unique community’, says Rohan Singh, ‘I don’t think there is any other community like us in the whole of India’. His mother’s brother, Buland Khan, nods in agreement. ‘Our philosophy of life is to live and let live. People must be free to worship God in whatever way they like’, he tells me. ‘Some Cheeta-Merats’, he confesses, ‘feel ashamed about their identity’. ‘Others mock them and say that they are confused and muddled-up and are trying to ride two boats of the same time’. ‘But’, he stresses, ‘I think we are right. Some of us are Muslims and others are Hindus, like me and my nephew here. But still we live together in harmony. We interdine and we intermarry. Religion is a personal issue and does not affect our relations’.

Rohan Singh, Buland Khan and their fellow Cheeta-Merats: May your tribe increase!