Every December 19 since 2000, Meo Muslims in Haryana have been commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Ghasera village in Mewat district as Mewat Diwas.
On this day, the Meos, who have long been the target of a campaign of communal violence unleashed by Hindutva groups, gather at Ghasera village to recall how Gandhi had called the Meos “Iss desh ke reed ke haddi” or the backbone of India.
The Meos are a large community found in the Mewat region, which is spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. They profess Islam but also follow several Hindu customs.
During his visit, Gandhi had assured the community that they would not be forced to leave India. He also asked those who wanted to leave to stay on in the land of their forefathers. A month later, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi
Gandhi’s assassination came as a blow to the Meos. “The Meos who had been convinced to stay once again started feeling they would have to leave,” said local historian Siddique Ahmad, who belongs to the Meo community and has written extensively about Mewat’s connection to Gandhi. “The women of Mewat used to sing a song – ‘Bharosa utth gaya Mevan ka, goli lagee hai Gandhiji kay chathee beech.’” The Meos have lost their trust, now that a bullet has pierced Gandhiji’s chest.
At the village, now sometimes referred to as Gandhigram Ghasera, Deen Mohammed, a key organiser of Mewat Diwas explains how the commemmoration began. “We felt the need to commemorate this occasion every year because our children must know our past,” he said. “There are people who call Mewat mini-Pakistan and us Pakistanis, but try as they may, the truth is that this is our land, we have shed blood for it and Gandhiji was with us in this fight. The world should be reminded of that.”
“The Meos believe that one of the reasons for Gandhi’s assassination was that he managed to ensure that a large population of Muslims residing near Delhi was stopped from leaving,” said Ahmad, sitting in his study in Banarsi village in Mewat district. “This angered men like [Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram] Godse.”
Ahmad conceded that there were others reasons for Gandhi’s assassination such as his insistence that Pakistan be paid the arrears promised to it under the terms of the division of assets and liabilities between India and Pakistan, but insisted that his visit to Mewat was also a reason.
To buttress his argument, he cited an oft-repeated but never confirmed story that the pistol involved in the assassination was supplied by the Alwar royal family, which had once ruled over parts of Mewat region.
As Ahmad related the story of how the Meos were affected by Partition, the reasons for their respect for Gandhi and their distrust of the princely families of Alwar and Bharatpur became clear. (Both Alwar and Bharatpur lie in present-day Rajasthan.) In 1933, after the royal family of Alwar imposed heavy taxes, the Meos launched a successful agitation that led to the British deposing the Alwar king and taking over the administration of the state.
“The king of Alwar was already angry with the Meo farmers for an agitation they had led against him and one that got him dethroned so he already had great animosity against the Meo,” said Ahmad. “The Raja of Bharatpur wanted to create a Jatistan that would stretch from Nuh in Haryana to Bharatpur.”
Ahmad’s accounts of the violence during Partition are backed by historians like Shail Mayaram who have worked extensively on the history of the region. Mayaram noted in a 2000 article:
“[In 1947] the Meos are subject to one of the first exercises of ethnic cleansing. This is euphemistically (and literally) called safaya (to clean). Thirty thousand Meos are killed in the princely state of Bharatpur alone. And this is an official figure. No figures are available for the numbers killed and displaced in Alwar. But the total Meo population in the two princely states is nearly 200,000. Overnight, the Meos are slaughtered or evicted by multi-caste mobs referred to as dhars. Their villages are razed to the ground. Only those allowed to stay have been subject to shuddhi (so-called purification, in fact, a euphemism for a conversion rite). The violence is hardly spontaneous. It is completely organised by the princely states and orchestrated by the organisations of what are today referred to as the ‘Hindu Right’. Certain national level leaders belonging to the Congress are also among its supporters/participants.”
Those who survived the violence fled to camps that were mushrooming across Nuh, Rewari and Sohna, which were then in Punjab. These were “waiting camps” where people would live till the time they were made to cross over to Pakistan. “Everyone wanted the Meos to go to Pakistan,” said Ahmad. “The rulers of Alwar and Bharatpur, of course, the Hindu Mahasabha, every right-wing Hindu organisation, but even the Congress.”
The land of their forefathers
That the Meos resisted the pressures to leave in the midst of such madness speaks of their love for their land. Ahmad pointed to a record of a famous panchayat held at the time, where community leaders declared that the Meos would not leave their homeland.
According to him the idea to ask Gandhi to intervene initially came when Abdul Hai, the secretary of the All India Mev Panchayat, spoke to the Communist leader PC Joshi. Joshi is believed to have said that only Gandhi could bring peace. Led by the most respected and cherished leader of the Meos, Chaudhary Yasin Khan, a delegation met Gandhi on September 20, 1947, at Birla House in Delhi. “The Meos told Gandhiji that we would prefer to die than go to Pakistan,” said Ahmad.
In the ballads sung by the Meo mirasins (folk singers), Gandhi is said to have ended that meeting with a statement that “he too would prefer to die with those who never want to die in their motherland and were unwilling to leave her”.
Gandhi may well have been killed for expressing sentiments such as this. But the Meos refused to leave. It is a battle they still fight against the intellectual descendants of those who unleashed the violence against the community during Partition. One of the ways they resist is by annually invoking the memory of Gandhi and the promise he made to them.
The author was supported by Karwan-e-Mohabbat fellowship for this article.