Ek Kathat Ki Katha: A Maulvi's Unique Story
Yoginder Sikand, March 9, 2008
The almost million-strong Cheeta-Kathat community, which lives mainly in Rajasthan's Ajmer district, and in parts of neighbouring Rajsamand, Bhilwara and Pali, are a unique people. The Cheetas and the Kathats (also known as Merats or Mehrats) are two related clans. Most of them follow a mix of both Hindu and Muslim customs and many identify themselves as both Hindu and Muslim at the same time. Probably more of them identify themselves as Muslims than as Hindus. Yet, many of the former worship in temples, celebrate Diwali and Holi (in addition to Eid), keep 'Hindu' names and are not familiar with even the basic tenets of Islam. Likewise, almost all Cheeta-Kathats who call themselves 'Hindus' practice male circumcision, bury their dead, eat halal meat, slaughtered in the Muslim fashion, and engage maulvis to solemnize their nikahs in the Islamic way.
Today, both Hindu as well as Islamic groups are active among these people, seeking to bring them into their respective folds. Not surprisingly, this is producing new challenges for the ways in which the Cheeta-Kathats define themselves.
34 year-old Maulana Qasim Rasul Falahi is one of the only two fazils or senior madrasa graduates from the Cheeta-Merat community. He is also the community's only Ph.D. holder. He is presently the head of the Religious Education Committee of the Cheeta- Merat Kathat Mahasabha, a representative body of the Cheeta-Kathats. In telling his story (as narrated to Yoginder Sikand) he reflects on his little-known community and his own plans to engage with it.
I was born in Lalpura, a vilage near Beawar in Ajmer district, in 1974. As a child I did not go to school. Like many other Kathat boys of my age, I used to spend my time grazing goats. Then, in 1982, a large number of Dalits converted to Islam in a small village called Meenaskhipuram in Tamil Nadu. This single event galvanized the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) all over India. It began operating on a massive scale in the Cheeta and Kathat areas, seeking to convert our people to Hinduism and to get them to abandon the Muslim customs that they had been following for centuries.
One day, a group of VHP activists came to Lalpura. They asked us if Tablighi Jamaat volunteers visited our area to preach Islam. When we said that some Jamaats had indeed come, they insisted that we should henceforth not allow them to enter our village. They told us, 'Your ancestors were Hindus. They were Rajputs. So, you, too, should become Hindus'.
At that time, although Lalpura was an entirely populated by Kathats, and many Kathats called themselves Muslims, there were six small temples in the village, but not a single mosque. The only person who actually followed Islamic practices strictly was my elder brother, Ahmad Bhai. Listening to what the VHP activists had said, I wondered who actually our people were. Were they Hindu or Muslim or neither or a bit of both? We followed both the Muslim practice of nikah and the Hindu practice of phera in our weddings. We celebrate both Diwali and Eid. Who, then, are we, I thought? This question kept revolving in my mind
Many people in our village, as in several other Kathat and Cheeta villages, fell prey to the VHP's false propaganda. The VHP later claimed to have converted several thousands of our people to Hinduism, although these numbers were exaggerated. But still, even today, I would say that a fourth of the Kathats have become Hindu, a fourth are now somewhat Islamised, and the rest remain as they earlier were.
The VHP's claim that it had converted or 'purified' several thousand Muslim Kathats and Cheetas was widely reported in the press. This caused considerable consternation in Muslim religious circles. Till then, they had heard of Hindus converting to Islam but never of Muslims converting to Hinduism. So, some Muslim groups, such as the Jamaat-e Islami, the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind , the Tablighi Jamaat and the Kul Hind Majlis Tamir-e Millat, sent their people here to see what could be done. They started setting up schools and maktabs to impart basic Islamic knowledge to our people.
In a sense, then, the VHP has to be thanked for making our people increasingly turn towards Islam. If it had not started its so-called 'purification' or shuddhi drive among the Cheeta-Kathats, Muslim organizations would probably have not even heard of us or would have continued to neglect us.
One of the pioneers who played a key role in spreading Islamic awareness among our people in the wake of the VHP's massive entry into our region was Syed Azam Ali Saheb, who works with the Rajasthan Dini Talimi Trust in Beawar. He would travel from village to village on his bicycle, interacting with the villagers and, despite sometimes facing considerable opposition, carrying on his preaching work patiently. He set up centres in some villages where children would gather in the evenings to learn about Islam. I used to graze animals during the day and at night would attend these classes.
Sayyed Azam Sahib thought that I was a keen student, although till then I was completely illiterate. One day he asked me if I wanted to study. I was delighted. 'Yes', I said, 'but who will take care of the animals?'. He said he would send me to an institution in Uttar Pradesh. I did not know where that was. 'Very far from here', he explained.
In 1984, Sayyed Azam Saheb arranged for me to join the Jamiat ul-Falah, a well-known madrasa in Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh. There I began learning about Islam, as well as studying basic English and Hindi and some other 'modern' subjects. Eight years later, in 1992, I passed the alimiyat stage and two years after that I became a fazil. I am, as far as I know, one of the only two fazils and one of the only four alims from the Cheeta-Kathat community, which numbers almost a million.
While at the Jamiat ul-Falah, I joined the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO), the youth wing of the Jamaat-e Islami. In 1996, I was appointed as the Secretary of the SIO's Rajasthan wing. After this, from 1999 onwards, I served as the President of the SIO's Rajasthan unit for three terms. This gave me the chance to travel around Rajasthan, and to learn about the pathetic economic and educational conditions of Muslims in most parts of the state. Through the SIO, besides our regular Islamic awareness programmes, we also sought to help out by organizing career guidance camps and encouraging Muslim youth to do some sort of social service in their localities. However, the problems are so immense and there are so few people in Rajasthan doing this sort of work with the state's Muslims. So much more needs to be done!
After finishing my fazilat, I took admission in the Arabic Department at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, as a private candidate. I then did my MA, M.Phil. and, finally, late last year, my Ph.D. in Urdu from Jaipur University. I don't wish to brag, but I am the only Ph.D. from the entire Cheeta-Kathat community.
Our community is economically and educationally very deprived. Most of our people are marginal farmers or landless labourers. Many of them survive by breaking stones, cutting and selling firewood and labouring in the asbestos mines, which abound in our region. Then, from the Islamic point of view, the level of religious consciousness is very low. For instance, even now in many villages Kathats who call themselves Muslims ask maulvis to slaughter goats for them at the altar of local deities such as Bhairon Baba, or call Brahmins to solemnize their marriages or worship idols in village shrines.
Yet, Cheeta-Kathats, no matter what religion they claim to follow or what religious community they identify themselves with, Hindu or Muslim, generally enjoy good relations. In the same family one can find people who call themselves Hindus and others who say they are Muslims. Most people in my wife's natal family have Hindu names and follow Hindu customs. Yet, I have very good relations with them and they respect me a lot. In our community, owing to widespread illiteracy and poverty, child marriage is very common, although consummation of the marriage happens later. There are also cases of parents pledging to marry their yet-to-be born children to the children of another couple. I was engaged to a girl, who later became my wife, when I was seven and she was three. Later, when I became a maulvi, her parents were shocked. They thought I had become a fakir, because at that time there was a general misconception among our people that maulvis go from house to house asking for money and food like fakirs do. They probably did not like the fact that I had become an Islamic scholar, had grown a beard and so on. But, my would-be wife insisted she would marry me alone, because in our community the custom is that once it has been decided that a particular boy and girl should marry, this must generally happen. So, the marriage went ahead. As I said, many of my wife's relatives identify themselves as Hindus and know little or nothing at all about Islam, but we get along very well.
I recently returned to my community after staying many years outside. The Jamaat-e Islami wanted to appoint me as Secretary of their Rajasthan state unit, but I declined, because I want to devote my time to working particularly for the Cheeta-Kathats. However, I am still a member of the central committee (majlis-e shura) of the Rajasthan unit of the Jamaat-e Islami, the youngest member, in fact.
Now that I have a doctoral degree I don't want to apply for a government job or to work as a lecturer, although I possibly could. Meanwhile, I have recently been elected as the head of the Dini Talim or Religious Education Committee of the Cheeta-Merat Kathat Mahasabha, which is the representative body of our community. Through this Committee, we want to focus on promoting both religious as well as 'modern' education in our community. The functional literacy rate among the Cheeta-Kathats is probably less than 5 per cent, making our people one of the most educationally deprived communities in the entire country. Girls' education should be a top priority. I don't suppose more than 2 per cent of our girls can read and write. Our girls and women do domestic chores, besides which they labour in the fields and in the jungles to help their families survive. Life is really tough for them.
I have sent two young daughters of mine, Ayesha, aged twelve, and Bushra, aged ten, to a girls' boarding school in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where they learn both Islamic as well as 'modern' subjects. No other Cheeta-Kathat family has sent its girls to such schools. When they finish their studies I want my daughters to come back and work for promoting education among the girls of our community.
Through the Dini Talimi Committee we want to work with the few other organizations active in our area who are seeking to promote Islamic and 'modern' education among our people. We don't have the resources to launch large institutions of our own. And then, it is also the case that often efforts to set up such institutions are stiffly resisted by VHP activists. There have been so many cases in our area of innocent maulvis being harassed, construction of mosques or announcing of azan on loudspeakers being prevented and so on. Some years ago, a Muslim philanthropist from Bombay wanted to start a school in a Kathat village near Beawar. The land was purchased and registered for this purpose, but VHP leaders and activists lodged an FIR and managed to prevent this, claiming, absolutely falsely of course, that the proposed school would train 'extremists'. And so, three years have lapsed and the land is still lying like that. Likewise, when the Cheeta-Merat Kathat Mahasabha sought to construct a students' hostel in Beawar, VHP activists vehemently protested and made all sorts of wrong allegations about it.
Our community is extremely poor, and in terms of education, both Islamic and 'modern', we are really deprived. There is so much that needs to be done. Few people outside our area know even about our existence. That is one of the tragedies of this unique community of ours.