In the summer of 2023, communal riots broke out in Nuh, a district of Haryana, on the outskirts of New Delhi, the capital of India. The targeted party were the Meo tribes of Mewat, an agrarian community of Muslims. They were being singled out by their Hindu neighbors, self-styled “cow vigilantes” wrongly blaming the Meos for cow slaughter.
In reality, members of the Meo community have been cattle-raisers for centuries. In a 1995 paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, scholar Yoginder Sikand describes the Meos as being descendants of the Hindu clans of “rajput, meena and gujjar [families who were] converts to Islam…scattered over a large area south of Delhi towards the Thar desert.”
Sikand highlights the impoverished and educationally backward nature of this large community as well as the “government neglect… [a]nd discrimination against them on religious grounds by local officials.” Sikand’s focus is on the deplorable plight of the community’s women, only one percent of whom were literate at the time he was writing.
Sociologist Abha Chauhan also delves into the history of this community in a 2003 paper published in Sociological Bulletin. She claims that as agriculture is the main occupation of the Meos, they enjoy a high and respectable social status. Some 60 percent of Meo families
own land and most of them belong to the category of “small and middle peasants.” The Meos enjoyed high social prestige as well as economic and political power in the past. Not only were they called the zamindars [landed elite], but were also jajmans [patrons] to the several Hindu and Muslim servicing castes of the region.
As such, though the Meos follow the Islamic faith, they also follow a number of Hindu cultural practices prevalent in that region. Chauhan shines a light on this through an in-depth analysis of the marriage practices of Meos.
“The pattern of marriage alliance among the Meos is based on kinship rules similar to many neighbouring Hindu castes, whereas several of their marriage practices exhibit Islamic features,” she writes.
The Islamic elements include the nikah ceremony [a religious wedding ritual] and paying a mehr [bride price], while the Hindu features include an engagement ritual, the festive preparation of the couple ahead of their nuptials, the importance of the role of the paternal aunt, a ceremonial presentation of gifts by the maternal uncle, and the gauna [when the bride moves to the groom’s home] ceremony that’s performed after marriage.
Despite their unique heritage, Meos were embroiled in communal agitations on the basis of their Islamic faith in the past, too. Brij Kishore Sharma gave a brief background of this problem in a summary of his 1994 paper published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress.
He described the Meos as “a self-contained semi-tribal community having formal affinity to Islams.” They occupied the former “princely States of Alwar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan and Gurgaon District of former Punjab province.” In the early 1930s, the Meo tribes of Alwar State were the first to rise in revolt against an increase in land revenue and other taxes.
“Initially it was an economic struggle,” Sharma writes, “but during the course of struggle various, cultural and religious issues came up. The Meo revolt of 1932–33 was so much strong and formidable that even the state troops failed in getting control over this.”
Certain concessions were eventually granted to the Meos, which led to them gaining “social and economic strength…[such that] the Meos could resist the communal attacks during 1947–48.”
In a paper published in the 2005 Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Usha Vyas analyzes the revolts at Alwar and Bharatpur at length. In particular, she attempts to discover whether they were “of agrarian nature or were they semi-political religious ones? Were the agitations started under the influence of outside elements? Why did Meos come under their influence?”
She notes that the Alwar disturbance was “justified under the guise of agrarian problems, whereas in Bharatpur the same kind of agitation was considered not only impertinent but also separatist.” She further wonders if this difference between the two was “due to the control of reins at the two places being in different hands?”
“Thus it was British authorities who were the deciding factor in determining the nature of Meo agitations,” she writes. “Another important thing about Meo problem is that it was part of the larger Muslim politics at that time within and outside the state.”
Now, it seems the same political game is being played again, albeit with tables turned as the Hindus target the Muslims for practicing their livelihood of centuries. One hopes that the interesting cultural practices and historic heritage of the Meos of Mewat remain undisturbed in times to come.