Muslims in disguise

Contrary to popular perception, there are still thousands of  Muslims living in Punjab with a disguised identity

On a sunny afternoon in  Kapurthalla town of east  Punjab, in the famous ‘Moroccan’ mosque, a man  looking every inch a Sikh – with turban, beard, and kada – looks over his shoulder, then with a quick movement of hands does what appeared to be wuzu, and joins me for Zuhr prayers. Being a stranger, I was immediately recognised by the rest of the four namaazis. Then followed an animated conversation about the state of the Muslims in the area. Of the namaazis, two were Bihari labourers, the other two were Kashmiri merchants. As I conversed with them, the absence of Punjabi Muslims struck me. Where are they? Instead of an answer, a meaningful silence stopped the conversation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Sikh’ joined us. Making sure that no non-Muslim was around, he told me, “Janab I am a Muslim, my real name is Allah Ditta, son of Piran Ditta, Arun Singh is my fake name. I belong to a village in Amritsar district. When the partition disturbances took place, we were too poor to travel to Pakistan. Our family of potters was so well integrated in the village that we did not think of migrating hoping that the dark nights of killings would end. Soon, surrounding villages were emptied as a large number of Muslims did cross the border. When the massacres stopped in late 1947, the social pressure of our Hindu and Sikh neighbours and the arrival of the refugees compelled us to hide our faith. Men and women adopted Sikh and Hindu appearances: turbans, beards, bindis, names, and the like.”  The story of Allah Ditta/Arun Singh and thousands of others like him forms a tragic chapter in the history of modern India.

One of the recurring themes in the context of the partition of India is the “virtual exchange of population” between east and west Punjab, meaning that all the Hindus and the Sikhs left the west seeking refuge in the east, as all the Muslims supposedly did so in the opposite direction. Leaving aside the question of Sikhs and Hindus in Pakistan, let us consider the case of Muslims in post-1947 East Punjab.

Did in fact all Muslims migrate to Pakistan, regardless of class and location? A closer examination of the contemporary east Punjab’s religious demography casts serious doubts about the accuracy of “virtual exchange of population.” Conversations with the mosque imams, Punjab Waqf Board (PWB) staff and policemen reveal that there are thousands of “Muslims in disguise” throughout Punjab. 

In the summer of 1947, thousands of Muslims were persuaded by their Hindu/Sikh neighbours not to migrate to Pakistan as they hoped that the disturbances would be over before too long. In any case, these villagers provided protection to the Muslims as the Muslims had a role in the village economy as potters, brick layers, iron smiths, mirasis, singers and dancers. Thus, many thousand Muslims decided to stay back. But soon village after village was emptied leaving Muslims as a vulnerable minority. Though the violence stopped, societal pressure set in, leading most Muslims to adopt  Hindu, Sikh ways. However, some remained Muslim inwardly, praying and  fasting secretly.

Exactly how many such “Muslims in disguise” might there be all over east Punjab? A thorough village by village survey may reveal the actual number but it is nearly impossible given the possible adverse consequences: re-opening of the wounds of partition in a state with a tense international border and barely recovering from the Sikh insurgency of the 1980s and early 1990s.

What is the Shariah status of these men and women, now in their late sixties or seventies? Are they murtid, apostates? Are they in perpetual taqiya, dissimulation? I posed this question to many ulema in India, none had a clear answer. Like many other sensitive issues, Muslim leadership is silent on this question. Unlike the rest of Punjab, a Muslim enclave survived the horrors of 1947 in Malerkotla, Sangrur. In early 18th century, Nawab Sher Muhammad Khan – the founder of the Malerkotla princely state — had disagreed with the decision to kill the sons of the 10th Sikh guru. The nawab’s disagreement with his Mughal overlords pleased the Sikhs so much that since then Malerkotla has remained immune from inter-religious violence — even during the partition.

Thus at the dawn of the 21st century, Malerkotla is the only Muslim island in the land of five rivers! Of its nearly one lakh population, the majority are Muslim. The minarets of the town’s many mosques dominate the skyline. There are several madrassas, Urdu is widely read and signs in the language are everywhere. Apart from Malerkotla, Muslims are present in almost all parts of the state though in smaller numbers. Ludhiana, Jullundhar, Patiala, Amritsar and Kapurthalla are significant centres of their population. But most Muslims in all these towns have come from outside Punjab: itinerant Afghan traders plying between Amritsar and Kabul, Kashmiri merchants, and Bihari agricultural labourers.

Like Malerkotla, the Mewat region spanning the districts of Gurgaon and Faridabad in Haryana, a state carved out of east Punjab, and the districts of Alwar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan, is also predominantly Muslim. The Mewatis are an Islamicised section of the Meo tribe, a Hindu warrior group. Inhabiting the dry Aravalli hill region, the Meos are mainly landless cultivators. The Meos were severely affected by the partition, as most were massacred in Alwar and Bharatpur or were driven away. Some, however, did return in 1948.

The 1991 census shows that the Muslims are 4.6 per cent of the total Haryana population. Now in 2000, there are probably a million Muslims, as many as there are Sikhs in Haryana! Like Malerkotla, there are mosques and madrassas everywhere in Gurgaon and Urdu is widely taught in schools. Since the 1930s, the Tablighi Jamaat has worked in the Mewat region as part of a reform and return to Islam movement. In fact Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (died 1944) began his movement from this area. The Tablighi success or failure in achieving their goal is a matter of debate — whether and to what degrees the Meos are Islamised. In addition to the Muslims in Malerkotla and Mewat, there are some Muslims in Himachal Pradesh, once part of the old Punjab. Less than one lakh (89, 134), they constituted 1.7 per cent of the state  population in 1991. Most of the Himachal Muslims are Gujjars, a scheduled tribe. They are akin to the Gujjars of Kashmir. They lead a pastoral life, moving with their cattle from the higher altitudes in the summer and return to the lower hills and plains in winter in anticipation of the snow. The Gujjars basically lead a subsistence existence, there is little economic development in the areas they live. Nor is education widespread, though there are signs that some children are going to schools and some even learning Urdu. There are mosques in Shimla, Solan, and other towns of Himachal Pradesh.

East Punjab has a large number of forts (Bhatinda and Fardikot for example), tombs (Ustad and Shagird, Nakodar), caravan serais (Serai Amanat Khan, Amritsar), mosques (Moorish mosque, Kapurthalla), eidgahs, dargahs (Sarhind Sharif) and cemeteries. These structures are the most tangible signs of the departed Muslims. It took the government more than a decade to establish a waqf board in 1960 to look after the Muslim public property — as distinct from the private property which was taken over by the state for distribution among the refugees from the West Punjab.

The Muslims of the east Punjab are now slowly recovering from the shocks of partition. Hence the subsequent societal pressure to reclaim their places. The events of 1947 are now a receding memory, replaced by the tragic events of the 1980s, in which the Muslims played no part. This has helped the insignificant Muslim minority regain some confidence as a neutral third party. But living as they are in a state bordering Pakistan, they remain vulnerable due to the continuing India-Pakistan stand-off on Kashmir. A resolution of that conflict will have a positive impact on the Muslim situation all over India, including of course, East Punjab. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, March 2001 Year 8  No. 67, History



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