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Page last updated at 06:35 GMT, Monday, 14 July 2008 07:35 UK

Islam and Hinduism's blurred lines

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC News, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Mehrats and Kathats gather at a local market in Rajasthan
Hindus and Muslims have co-existed within the same family for centuries

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."

Mange Ram
Mange Ram was a staunch Hindu, but he is a Muslim now

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.

'Homecoming'

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.

Jamna, Mange Ram's daughter-in-law
Jamna is unhappy that her father-in-law has converted to Islam

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.

Stress

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.

Shanta praying
Shanta's decision to become a Hindu has alienated many of her relatives

"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.




SEE ALSO
Mass Dalit conversions in Mumbai
27 May 07 |  South Asia
Conversions harder in India state
26 Jul 06 |  South Asia
Religious row over tsunami relief
24 May 05 |  South Asia
State to bar religious conversion
23 Feb 05 |  South Asia
Hindus protest at evangelist show
21 Jan 05 |  South Asia
BJP to act against conversions
30 Mar 04 |  South Asia
Fears for India's secularism
06 Jun 03 |  South Asia

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