Who are they?
The Dhunia are also known as Mansoori, Behna, Naddaf, and Pinjara. They are a Muslim community of cotton-carders, numbering around 3 million people.
They live mainly in the districts of Gonda, Bahraich, Deoria, Basti, Gorakhpur, Bara Banki, Bareilly, Sitapur, Azamgarh, Kheri, Bijnor and Siddarthnagar of Uttar Pradesh (1.8 million), Bihar (510,000), and West Bengal. They live in smaller numbers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh.
According to Russel and Hiralal, (The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, 1916), the name Dhunia is derived from the Hindi dhunna, meaning to card cotton. In Uttar Pradesh they trace their descent from a Muslim prophet called Sheikh Mansoor, who was presumably a cotton-carder. Consequently, they are also known as Sheikh Mansoori. Until recently they did not have surnames. They have begun using the surname Siddiqui.
Upendra Mishra (Caste and Politics in India, 1986) notes with irony that the Dunia have chosen to follow the caste-based hierarchy of Hindus despite having equal status under Islamic beliefs. They are listed as the same caste as the Julaha (weaver) belonging to the lowest caste among Indian Muslims. Though they profess Islam, the Dhunia observe many Hindu customs and ceremonies.
The Dhunia living in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar speak Urdu as their first language and use the Persian-Arabic script. They are also conversant with Magahi, an Indo-Aryan language, in Bihar. In both states they also speak and write in Hindi, using the Devanagari script. In West Bengal, they speak Urdu as their first language and Bengali as the regional language.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Their traditional primary occupation is cotton-carding. They cleaning and re- fluff the cotton with a vibrating bowstring. The bow is shaped like a harp, the wide end consisting of a broad piece of wood over which the string passes, which is secured to a straight wooden bar at the back. At the narrow end, the bar and string are fixed to an iron ring. The club or mallet is a wooden implement shaped like a dumbbell. The mallet is struck and drawn across the string, three or four times which scatters small fluffs of cotton, dispersing dirt at the same time. The process of carding cotton is very time consuming.
The carded cotton is made into spindle-shaped balls called puni, and is then ready for the spinning wheel. The Dunia still practice their trade by going from door to door to card cotton that is used in cotton quilts, mattresses and pillows.
Many have taken up other occupations, such as selling cloth, cotton, leather goods, baskets, stationary and paan (betel leaf) in shops. Some are engaged as daily-wage laborers, masons, are bullock-cart drivers or rickshaw-pullers. The educated among them work in government and private sectors.
The Dhunia enjoy meat like mutton, chicken, fish, beef and buffalo meat except pork which is not permitted to Muslims. Rice, wheat, and millet are staple cereals along with lentils, seasonal vegetables and fruit, milk and dairy products. They smoke and chew tobacco and drink alcohol occasionally. The Dhunia trust both modern as well as traditional medicines but do not practice family planning. They have benefited from the governments development programs to do with employment, subsidized loans and ‘fair-price shops.’ However many still remain dependent on money lenders who exploit them. The Dhunia have a good social and trading relationship with other Muslim and Hindu communities of their region. Like the Teli (oil pressers) the Dhunia are considered to be talkative and quarrelsome.
The Dhunia are monogamous even though Islam sanctions four wives. Marriages are arranged by family members. Marriage in which a man has more than one wife, but they are not related to one another, is sometimes permitted. Marriages with cousins (paternal and maternal) are preferred. Some inter community ‘love’ marriages do take place (with the Julaha) but are not socially acceptable. Dowry is given mainly as goods, while mehar (a mutually agreed divorce settlement) is paid to the wife by a husband in the case of divorce. The marriage ceremony is performed by a priest in the presence of witnesses, usually close relatives and family friends. Marriage with the deceased husband’s younger brother or marriage with the deceased wife’s younger sister is acceptable but not obligatory.
The sons all receive an equal share of parental property and the eldest son succeeds as head of the family. Daughters also are given a smaller share of the inheritance according to the Shariat (Islamic Law). Women are inferior in status to men but have specific roles in social, domestic and economic spheres and their opinions are sought in family matters. They are good at embroidery and sewing.
Formal education is of little value and despite some (especially boys) going on to higher education, the overall literacy rate is low and well below the national average. Boys usually study up to secondary school but girls are sent to a madrasa (religious school) to learn Arabic and Urdu.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Dhunia are Muslim by faith and follow the tenets of Islam. They belong to the Sunni sect and worship Allah as Almighty God. They revere Prophet Mohammed as his chosen messenger to whom the Holy Scriptures, the Koran, was revealed by the Archangel Gabriel. The Dhunia also worship at the tomb shrines of Muslim saints, believing that the saints act as intercessors and intermediaries for their prayers. A green sheet (sometimes richly embroidered) is spread over the tomb and garlands, flowers, incense and cash offerings are scattered over the tombs. The Dhunia have a strong belief in evil spirits and wear amulets and charms to ward off evil spirits and the evil eye or to bring them good luck and success.
The Dhunia celebrate all Muslim festivals like Id-ul-Zuha or Bakr-Id (feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice during which a goat is sacrificed), Id-ul-Fitr (Feast of Alms), Shab-I-Barat (fifteenth night of the eighth Muslim month, Shaban, on which sweets are offered to ancestors and when a person’s fortune is believed to be recorded in heaven. Those who can afford it, undertake a holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, at least once in their lifetimes.
After childbirth the Dhunia observe Aqiqa (tonsure ceremony), and perform a circumcision on boys at ages five or six. A member of the Nai (barber) community is paid to perform the circumcision. The dead are buried and the tenth day is a special day as is the fortieth day which marks the end of the mourning period.
What Are Their Needs?
The Dhunia require access to education, especially for girls. They should be encouraged to utilize government initiatives that benefit their society. Additionally, they need self-sustaining income generation projects for long-term growth.