I am Hindu,” quips nine-year-old Sikander Kathat, swinging between the chairs on which his parents are sitting at their dhaba in Beawar, 50 kilometres from Ajmer. “Ask him if he can read the namaaz,” says his father Mithu Kathat, a tad flustered. The child, a student of standard two, nods a ‘yes’. His mother Shanti Devi smiles and adds, “Only recently, we got him circumcised. He is Muslim. Aren’t you?” Sikander just tilts his head in a half nod.
Sikander is one among the 10-lakh strong community of Cheetah-Kathat-Mehrat — spread over the four districts of Ajmer, Bhilwara, Pali and Rajsamand in Rajasthan — who are in a unique predicament over their religious identity. Descendants of the Chauhan rulers, the community took to Islam about 700 years ago, and adopted only the three practices of dafan, khatna and zabiha (burial, circumcision and eating halal) from the religion. The rest of their lifestyle — names, marriage rituals, dressing styles — continued to be the same as Hindus.
So even though Shanti and Mithu call themselves Muslim they retain their Hindu names, and at their wedding a decade ago, took the pheras (circling the fire). Shanti still likes to wear the ghaghra-choli, and her son Sikander’s ‘school name’ is Hitesh.
Explains Maulana Qasim Rasul Falahi, 34, a member of the Cheetah Kathat Mahasabha, a pressure group for the community, “The Cheetah-Kathats used to stay in the jungles, which meant that until two decades ago, despite being Muslims, we didn’t even know how to offer namaaz or celebrate Eid.”
Religious leaders attribute the rise of ‘consciousness’ to the religiously charged atmosphere of the 80s, when the VHP, and Muslim outfits like the Rajasthan Deeni Talimi Trust and Tablighi Jamaat started intensifying their activity among these ‘in-betweeners’. “With funds from the Gulf, they were trying to convert the Kathats. It became a question of protecting the Hindu samaj (society), so we started teaching them about their past,” says Umashankar Sharma, 59, a VHP leader who has conducted several sammelans (mass meetings) to “make them Hindus”.
Sharma claims that about 80 per cent of the community converted back to Hinduism, a statistics that is reversed at the office of the Cheetah-Kathat Mahasabha. “Just 5 per cent,” says Mastaan Kathat, 32, a Mahasabha member, “became Hindus and among them too, many came back to Islam. Today we are the majority community here.” There were other reasons for the ‘conversions’. The Kathats, mostly armymen, found themselves in an “embarrassing position since they didn’t know how to offer namaaz, or recite the Quran” says Falahi, the “only PhD” in a community where literacy levels are still low.
Those who have been ‘exposed’, like Sikander’s father Mithu, have started offering namaaz and practising Islamic rituals. “We have also started sending Sikander to the madrasa,” says Mithu. “Today no one in the village takes the pheras; all my younger brothers and sisters had the nikaah,” his wife pipes in.
Only, this ‘change’ has brought along its share of problems. The once peaceful existence of the community is now disrupted by sporadic accusations of ‘forcible’ religious conversions and some violence as well. In a recent case, retired navyman Mangi Lal Kathat of Shivnagri village in Beawar was arrested after his daughter-in-law accused him of unlawful and forcible conversion because he’d got his grandsons circumcised. “We have always been practising circumcision; what’s new with that? ” says Hanja, Mangi Lal’s mother.
On the other hand, many who are now ‘pucca Muslims’ claim they are being harassed by the VHP. “A couple of years back, when we wanted land for a hostel, they made a huge fuss claiming that a stone placed there was a temple,” says Abdul Shakoor, 66, a retired armyman. Becoming Muslims has also limited employment opportunities for the Kathats. “Earlier, we had reservation under the Kamakhani quota. Now we have to be accommodated under the Muslim quota, where the criteria for entry are much more strict,” he says. “This is just a political game. We vote for the Congress; they want us to vote for the BJP,” says Shakoor, who started growing his beard as a ‘mark of his identity’ as a Muslim.
The ‘in-betweenness’ might bother others, but not Sikander. “I like to play Holi.” And what about Eid? “Yes, I like Eid too. But Holi is much more fun, it’s the festival of colours.”