Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?

The following story reported by the BBC is an intriguing one and we wonder what readers will make of it.  

Islam and Hinduism’s blurred lines

By Jyotsna Singh, BBC News, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Story from BBC NEWS, Published: 2008/07/11 16:20:24 GMT

Forty-two-year-old Sohan Singh is delighted to call himself a “full-fledged” Hindu.

Recently he cremated his mother, defying a family tradition of burying their dead.

Mr Singh is a member of the Kathat community in Rajasthan and follows what his community believes is a pledge undertaken by their forefathers.

Legend has it that the Mehrat, Kathat and Cheeta communities – with a combined total of one million people in four districts of central Rajasthan – are the descendants of the Hindu ruler of the warrior caste, Prithviraj Chauhan.

The three communities also have strong Islamic connections, because many centuries ago, their forefathers undertook a pledge to follow three Muslim practices.

These include the circumcision for the newborn male children in the community, eating halal meat and burying their dead.

That is the tradition many have followed, keeping the word of their ancestors. But it has also led to them facing something of a faith-based identity crisis.

Mixed identity

At a bustling market in Masuda town, a large number of people from the Mehrat community gather every day.

A majority of them are poor and illiterate. They are people with a mixed Hindu-Muslim identity. And left alone, that is how they would like to be.

Deepa, 60, has a Hindu name but he thinks he is a Muslim because he follows Muslim practices.

“In my family, we celebrate Hindu festivals such as Holi and Diwali. But we also offer namaz (prayers) at (the Muslim festival of) Eid. We worship both local gods and Allah. This has been a tradition in my family. I do not know whether my ancestors were Hindus or Muslims.”

Another Mehrat member is Mahendra Singh who has a Hindu name.

“We don’t care about being Hindu or Muslim. It is sheer politics,” he says.

Barely, 15km (9 miles) from Byawar town, Rasool runs a tea shop. He says his great grandparents were Hindus. But somewhere along the line, they became Muslims.

“It wasn’t such a big deal to be Hindu or Muslim,” says Rasool. His son Shankar is named after a Hindu god but he says they consider themselves Muslims.

“We are clearly Muslims. Only one of my three sons has a wrong (Hindu) name. It’s too late to change that. But it won’t happen again in our family,” says Madeena, Shankar’s wife.

For 65-year-old Shanta – like many others in this area – religion has become an issue.

She has many relatives who are Muslims. But her son-in-law is associated with the Hindu hardline group, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and her decision to declare herself a Hindu has alienated her from many relatives.

“My son wonders, why are we born in this community where there is so much confusion? I have told my son to cremate me as Hindus would their dead. My relatives boycott us, but that’s alright. I think our ancestors were forced to convert to Islam. We have to correct that,” Shanta says.


Organisations such as the VHP say they are trying to end this confusion in the lives of the community by making them realise their true identity.

The group has organised several mass conversion events in the area in the past years under a programme called the “Homecoming” or “Ghar Wapsi”.

“We remind them about their history, that they are actually the descendants of the Hindu warrior king Prithviraj Chauhan who lived in the 12th century and, therefore, they are Hindus,” the VHP general Secretary in Byawar, Nitesh Goel says.

“Some ill practices have crept into their behaviour, but this can be purified and they can become Hindus again. These people are not Muslims, they only follow certain customs that are common to Muslims. They are Hindus at heart and, therefore, should return to the religion,” he says.

Mr Goel insists his organisation is not carrying out any campaign for conversion or reconversion. “People contact us voluntarily,” he says.

But the VHP’s campaign has alerted Muslim groups in the area.

The state president of Jamaat-e-Islami, Salim Engineer, says until 20 years ago (when the VHP first began its campaign) Muslim groups were not even aware that there was any confusion with regard to their community.

“Many centuries ago, Mehrats declared themselves as Muslims. But they did not know what Islam was and so remained with the old culture. They do not follow Islam in an organised manner. The VHP is spreading hatred,” Mr Engineer said.

He also justifies the campaign by Muslim groups like Tabliki Jamaat to “educate” Mehrats about Islam.

“We are doing what the government has failed to do. The Muslim community all over India is seeking modern education. Along with that, we are also educating them about their religion,” he said.


This need to join organised religion is putting a lot of stress on families that have co-existed with members following their own customs. And religion so far has played little part in their lives.

Mange Ram Kathat was a staunch Hindu and then decided to become a Muslim because he felt a majority of his community were Muslims. He says he does not discriminate between the two religions but his daughter-in-law Jamna, a school teacher who follows Hinduism, is clearly upset.

“There is a lot of confusion in our household. There is tension between me and my husband because of my father-in-law,” says Jamna.

She says that she also does not like her father-in law’s Muslim outfit or his Islamic greetings.

“He should have remained a Hindu. Why did he do this?”

Though Mehrats are listed in the Other Backward Communities list and are as such entitled to benefits under the government’s affirmative action policy, the community has little access to basic facilities such as schools or employment opportunities.

Barely 25 years ago, the community members had a lot more flexibility to switch between the religions.

But the harmonious mix of Hinduism and Islam which existed in the community for many centuries is now visibly under threat.

End of Story

The aspects that struck us as interesting were the following: 

1. It is quite incredible, possibly beyond the imagination of most members of the young generation, that more than sixty years after the partition of the subcontinent, such mixed communities still exist. This suggests that such syncretic living must have been much more common earlier, a point made in a book that we have referred to in earlier posts – In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2006.

2. The members of the syncretic community are quite comfortable with their mixed identity: “They are people with a mixed Hindu-Muslim identity. And left alone, that is how they would like to be.

3. The community members’ perception of the relation between religion and politics is worth noting: “We don’t care about being Hindu or Muslim. It is sheer politics.

4. It is the outsiders who are not comfortable with this state of affairs: “Organisations such as the VHP say they are trying to end this confusion in the lives of the community by making them realise their true identity.” Isn’t this almost always the case?

5. The resulting compulsion to be on one side or the other is generating a lot of tension in the community: “This need to join organised religion is putting a lot of stress on families that have co-existed with members following their own customs. And religion so far has played little part in their lives.”

6. The freedom of choice has actually decreased: “Barely 25 years ago, the community members had a lot more flexibility to switch between the religions.”

7. The potential for conflict has greatly increased: “But the harmonious mix of Hinduism and Islam which existed in the community for many centuries is now visibly under threat.”

We would be curious to know what readers think of this story and how they react to it. The following questions can be considered:

1. Is the community living in a state of error?

2. How important is it for the community members to realize their “true” identity?

3. Do outsiders have a right to define what is “right” for the members of the community?

4. What is the basis for the outsiders’ conviction that they know what is right for someone else?

5. Is there no price that is too high to achieve the “purification” of identities?

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17 Responses to “Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu?”

  1. Amit Basole Says:

    Very interesting story. You have raised important questions about it. As you suggest such syncretism as exists today may only hint at much more prevalent real practices in the past. I would not consider the community to be living in error. Rather it is the people who want rigidly defined, “pure” identities who are in error. Of course error implies some innocence on their part, which doesn’t really exist, they know fully well what it is they are doing. The “true identity” seems to be a construction of the Hindutva brigade and the rhetoric of “true identity” to me is a ploy used by the VHP to swell the number of Hindus it apparently speaks in the name of. The threatening of such composite South Asian cultures by Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism needs to be fought tooth and nail in Pakistan and in India. Therein lies my greatest hope for peace on the sub-continent.

  2. radhikarajen Says:

    For centuries hindus and muslims lived and existed harmoniously, few more centuries before the advent of moghul rule,hindus were the occupants of the land mass, tolerent as they are, accepted different ways of life, as individual life style, accepted even non-believers in the social folds, lived with happiness and joys and sorrows shared in life. During the independence struggle, muslims and hindus fought for freedom shoulder to shoulder, together they struggled against slavery of the british rule.
    In 1947, but for the grand design to partition the nation for muslims to have their holy land, Pakistan, later two third of muslims opting to stay back, in “Hindustan” and the foolish decision of Nehru who wept like a child for kasmir , his toy, and struggled to be PM, sidelining the real leaders of the freedom movement, likes of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, the sycophancy taking over the good rule of laws in democratic life, leaders appeasing a commune of caste or faith selectively, made mockery of good governance, thus, muslims had to aassert their presence when they felt ignored, each caste vied with each other to garner benefits of democratic life, language and region became the divisive tools instead of unifying gum.
    Even now, if all citizens realise that in good governance religion has no role, equity and just rule of laws to all citizens is the good governance, then this topic would become history.

  3. Hussain Bux Mallah Says:

    It is a glaring fact that creation of a Muslim Nation State even compelled marginalised communities to change their religious identity for security. But it is surprising that in presence of religious-cum-political parties like VHP and Tableegis the people of Mehrat, Kathat and Cheeta communities are somehow pretend not be pawns of religious politics.

    Community culture of Sindh now province of Pakistan was also mix hindu muslim identity and indigenous muslim communities still follow hindu ritual.

    A hindu untouchable low caste community called Shikari homeless community in Badin Sindh who were known to use Haram food like reptiles even within high caste hindus. The Shikari were also known as “Shah Ja Shikari” and as “Aasoori Faqirs” they used to awake muslims for “Roza” fastening earlier morning. they also believe themselves as “Sufis”.

    While in Pakistan Tableegi Jamiat paid no attention to preach in untouchable hindu and convert muslim like Mussali (Muslim Shaikhs) in Punjab province of Pakistan. Poor communities who were made marginalised by British colonial Or forcibly converted are still away from politics of religion but they are voters of liberal parties like Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Zulifqar Ali Bhutto.

    HB Mallah

  4. Sharad Mistry Says:

    I read both – the first piece by Aakar Patel and the responses to it – with interest, more so because of the subject in general, and my personal experience in particular.

    Peace in the Indian sub-continent in general and India in particular has been disturbed over the past decade, and heightened in 2008. For various reasons, Pakistan – India’s neighbor – is now known as the center of global terrorism. So, with fears of rising terrorist activitiy in the region is keeping the peoples of India, Pakistan and other countries in South Asian region in the state of constant fears – such that it negatively impacts also the overall economic progress of the two nations.

    Armed with expansive political ideology, the Islamic politicos in the Arab countries and Pakistan have been busy destabilising this peace in the region which the Indians in general and the Hindus in particular are forced to oppose – directly or indirectly, actively or silently.

    As against Islamic expansive politics, Hindus and India both have since centuries proved to be peaceloving without any expansive political ideology. This fundamental, basic ideological difference between the two communities is at the core of their existence and the reason for disturbance in the region and the world. Islamic politicos and their Muslim brethern both want to wrest from their English-speaking Christian brethern a larger share of the global economic pie in general. In India, they want more land to live – the land that they had looted and forcibly acquired over centuries of their rule in India – and a larger say in Indian politics despite they having separate laws for them that go against the democratic Indian laws…

    Cutting long story short, I narrate here my personal experience. In September 2007, I attended various seminars at the 1st Islamic Global Peace Conference held in Mumbai. After the speakers finished their speech guiding the participants there as to how a Muslim should live, I asked a simple question: Is it possible that the Muslim community can and would live peacefully and in cooperative manner with other communities in India and the world. The answer was even simpler – “NO”, said one of the speakers. And when one of the US-based Islamic scholar gave a 55-minute speech on how and why Muslims across the world need to change their image of terrorising community, there was not a single appreciative clap from some 1000-plus Muslim Ulema listners, nor a word of appreciation by the organisers of the Peace Conference.

    Respect much as we all the Islam as a religion. But you too would agree, there is something very different at the basis of Islamic political ideology. The above aspects explain the reasons, also as to why the affiliation of Indian Muslim brethern is more with Islamic nations and Pakistan than with India.

    For our mutual peaceful progress in the 21st century, I constantly search and pray for a strong, sustainable, connecting, peaceful bridge – for India, Indians, Hindus, and the world at large…

  5. Aakar Patel Says:

    Dear Mr Mistry
    Can Muslims live in peace with other communities in India?
    If your answer to that is: No, then it needs to be demonstrated, because in asking the question you are assuming that they are currently not doing so.
    What does living in peace mean? Perhaps we need to clarify that.
    You say that “the affiliation of Indian Muslim brethren is more with Islamic nations and Pakistan than with India”.
    But they pay their taxes in India. If there is another affiliation, we should examine it specifically.
    Perhaps the question we should ask is: To what extent does religion shape the behaviour of a citizen with the state? And vice versa?
    The Global Peace Conferences are, and I could be wrong here, organised by Dr Zakir Naik.
    His organisation is funded by Saudi Arabia to spread a particular kind of doctrine.
    It needs to be funded because it’s not particularly attractive to South Asian Muslims.

  6. SouthAsian Says:

    Sharad, There are a number of issues in your comment that need to be addressed carefully and discussed further:

    1. You are right that Pakistan has become a center of terrorism and Pakistani leadership has tried to destabilize the region which is affecting the economic development of the neighborhood.

    2. I wonder if we should make a distinction between “Islamic expansive politics” and the expansive politics of those who are using the rhetoric of Islam to further their aims. The age of empires is over – at one point the Arab empire expanded much like the earlier Roman Empire and the later British and Soviet ones. But since then, Islamic countries have not shown any marked expansionist tendencies. The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism is relatively recent which suggests it is driven more by politics than by Islam. If expansionism or terrorism had been intrinsic to Islam we should have seen them throughout Islamic history.

    3. In light of the above, we should perhaps reconsider projecting these recent developments to a “fundamental, basic ideological difference between the two communities” as the root of our problems. I doubt if the majority of Muslims would be in support of expansionism or terrorism of any kind.

    4. “Islamic politicos and their Muslim brethren both want to wrest from their English-speaking Christian brethren a larger share of the global economic pie in general.” We have today a global capitalist world order that is intensely competitive. Each country is trying to gain market share at the expense of the other – China and India have been doing so quite successfully. Today no country can achieve this objective with the use of force. There is also little evidence to support the assertion that the Islamic world is acting as a united front in this process. In fact, Islamic countries are quite divided amongst themselves.

    5. “In India, they want more land to live – the land that they had looted and forcibly acquired over centuries of their rule in India – and a larger say in Indian politics.” I am not sure what the basis is for stating that Islamic countries or Muslims want more land to live in India. You may wish to elaborate on that. However, the second part of your statement needs more discussion. There is a great danger in evaluating the past by the norms and values of the present – we have discussed this point in the series on Hinduism on the blog. Just as there was a past age of empires, there was a period when there were no international borders or notions of sovereignty. It was the norm for tribes to migrate, wage wars and settle in new lands. Before Muslim tribes came into India, Aryan tribes had similarly migrated from the areas of the Caucasian Mountains and settled in India driving the indigenous populations further south. We can interpret these events as looting and forcible acquisitions but that would be contextually inaccurate. India was a very attractive land and many outsiders came and settled there and for many centuries the various communities co-existed with each other. Of course, there were disputes and battles but these were as much within communities as across them (even the mythology celebrates the Battle of Kurukshetra). I doubt if there is any country or land in the world where disputes have not occurred. As for Muslims wanting a larger share in Indian politics, this is a normal part of the democratic process – all communities and castes are striving to do the same. This is particularly so in India because it has organized its electoral politics around caste and community-based distinctions as discussed in the series on Democracy in India on this blog.

    6. I do not have enough information about the first Islamic global peace conference but Aakar Patel has addressed that point.

    7. “Respect much as we all Islam as a religion. But you too would agree, there is something very different at the basis of Islamic political ideology. The above aspects explain the reasons, also as to why the affiliation of Indian Muslim brethren is more with Islamic nations and Pakistan than with India.” I am not really sure what is at the basis of Islamic political ideology that affects the everyday behavior of Muslims or the affiliation of Indian Muslims. I suppose the affiliation of Indian Muslims to Islam should not be problematic just as the affiliation of Indian Sikhs to Sikhism or Indian Hindus to Hinduism should not be problematic. The real issue is whether the affiliation of Indian Muslims is with Pakistan? There are a number of issues here: first, Indian Muslims exercised a choice of not moving to Pakistan when they could have; second, Pakistan is a failed state which should not seem particularly attractive any more to outsiders; third why should the affiliation be to Pakistan in particular and not to Bangladesh or Malaysia or Saudi Arabia? My own sense is that Pakistan has become a millstone around the neck of Indian Muslims and they are perpetually required to prove their loyalty – something that is not really possible. If you could suggest a practical test of loyalty, it would move the discussion forward.

    8. A “strong, sustainable, connecting, peaceful bridge” is the objective of most of the residents of South Asia. For this we have to reach out to each other with faith in the fundamental goodness and decency of human beings. There will always be those in all communities who would want to benefit by inciting the citizens of our region to turn against each other. It should be our task to unite to defeat such attempts.

    Thanks for your comment and your earlier appreciation of this modest attempt to promote understanding in our region. Let us keep discussing these issues and hope that we can resolve our remaining differences and misunderstandings in a peaceful manner.

  7. kabir Says:

    This article presents a beautiful and hopeful development. Personally, I am greatly inspired by our South Asian composite culture and identity as a “bhakti/sufi”. Thus in some ways I suppose I am also a Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu.

    Readers might be interested in the following link which is to a paper that describes subcontinental communities that follow a dual religious configuration.

    Click to access BEJS%203.2%20Das.pdf

  8. Mayur Says:

    Well, the existence of such communities should not be such a surprise to the younger generation of South Asia, primarily because of the continued visible presence of these communities. I am from South India, and I personally know of Muslim friends, the communities of which they belong to, believe steadfastly in both Muslim and Hindu religions. Similar to the story above, there are siblings in the same family who have Hindu as well as Muslim names. They visit temples and mosques with equal fervor, not because they are secular or anything, but because this is what their forefathers have always done.

    I guess this is a defining characteristic of humans anywhere. We see this a lot in the pagan rituals exhibited in Africa, South America, even Europe. Cultural baggage is a tough thing to leave behind, even if the new religion preaches the complete opposite (Not talking specifically about Islam).

    Secondly, many religions in South Asia have huge populations, that keep mixing and churning with each other. We are uniquely positioned in a way that, when new religions came in, the entire population did not convert. Some did, some did not, and everybody was okay with that. South Asia did not provide the critical mass of populus to any religion so as to make it numero uno, thus drastically reducing the influence of another existing religion on its practices.

    It is impossible, given the close interactions between the peoples of different religions, that a person of one religion is not influenced by the Gods of another. I would assume that a person does not follow a religion as much as their own innate beliefs. Thus you see the case of Hindus going to Sufi dargahs, gurudwaras, churches etc, and Muslims being the highest bidders of Modaks during Ganeshotsav. Religions may have rigid boundaries, but a man will worship that which gives him inner peace, no matter what mix of religions he chooses it to be.

    Should the people of such mixed communities be forced to choose one identity or another? I am unsure, but maybe we could take a couple of lessons from our history. Hinduism, for example has many Gods, and many communities worship one God, but not another. If we have historically been lenient enough (or we probably just dont care) to let people worship whoever they want, why stop now?

    I guess the reason we are seeing this conflict in the community mentioned in the story is due to the modern definitions of religion that we currently believe in. All religions are now being strictly defined by certain practices, and we are being forced to choose the religion we belong to. And in a world which is being sharply divided by religion, choosing the one you are from looks to have more importance. Maybe, one day, when South Asia decides that commonality of culture is a better bind than religion, such communities will not be forced to choose. As long as they choose to be desi, that would be the only choice they would need to make.

    End of incoherent rant :)

  9. kabir Says:

    Mayur, I totally agree with you (your “rant” was not at incoherent btw).

    The reason for this conflict is because “religion” is increasingly being reinterpreted by narrow-minded extremists on both sides. In the case of India, the Hindutva brigade , and in the case of Pakistan the Islamic fundmentalists. Otherwise, as you’ve rightly pointed out, South Asia has an extremely rich composite culture and a tradition of religious syncretism.

    We need to work on strengthening these traditions and fighting against extremism wherever it occurs and in whatever form it takes.

  10. ABC Says:

    When can a spiritualist dream of being Christian/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/Jain/Jews/Sikh/Bahaist/Shinto/Taoist at the time.

    Religion and church/mosque/temple should seperate worldwide. Religion should be decided after the age of 18 ..how is that..Lets resolve whambam of supremacist religion .

  11. SouthAsian Says:

    An article on the manufacturing of communal tension in the Mewat region of Haryana:


    Tension lene ka nahin, tension dene ka waqt aa gaya hai” (It’s not time to be tensed, it is time to spread tension)

    • Vikram Says:

      The translation is flawed, it should read, “It’s time for us to stop taking tension from them, and give them tension instead.” The objective is not necessarily general unrest, but a game of oneupmanship over the ‘other’.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vikram: Two points remain to be explained:

        1. Why, after so much time, has the need arisen in this area to assert oneupmanship over the ‘other’?
        2. Why choose such a nasty way of asserting oneupmanship?

        The end result is that tension does spread all around and one has to figure out who thinks they would gain from it. What is worrying is that there are groups who are not averse to spreading tension to secure political gains. It is considered smart politics and not sufficiently condemned.

        • Vikram Says:

          1. Why, after so much time, has the need arisen in this area to assert oneupmanship over the ‘other’ ?

          This almost surely has economic reasons. The existing economic structures based on a feudal, agricultural pattern have been changing, and as a new economy is set up new spaces and opportunities arise.

          2. Why choose such a nasty way of asserting oneupmanship?

          The locals involved in the economic competition are embedded in a broader polity, and generally have to align with one of the major players to be relevant. Right now, the ascendant party is the Hindu nationalist one, and the nastiness is there to show your loyalty to the broader cause.

  12. SouthAsian Says:

    Does this deserve a discussion:

  13. Arif Says:

    The essay is proof of formation of hybrid religious identities in various pockets of the country which would have grown in to a cultural group if left alone. But economic and political reasons are behind various groups claiming various opinions as facts. Not much can be done, it is but a process of change, hope it remains peaceful.

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