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Who are they?
The Meo are a community of livestock farmers. There are more than 300,000 people scattered through approximately 1,200 villages across the Mewat region of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana. They form a quarter of the population of the Mewat region which, in Uttar Pradesh includes the districts of Mathura, Bulandshahr, Aligarh and Saharanpur.
The Meo are both a Rajput caste and a Muslim community and represent a blending of Hinduism and Islam. The Meo profess the beliefs of Islam, but the roots of their ethnic structure are in Hindu caste society. No historical records are available to explain exactly when their conversion happened or why, but it is generally believed that they embraced Islam in the seventeenth century during the reign of Mogul emperor Aurangzeb. The Tablighi Movement (an Islamic reform movement) ensured a rapid conversion to Islam among the Meo from around the beginning of the twentieth century. In spite of an apparent contradiction between Islam’s ideology and the hierarchical Hindu caste system, the Meo caste and Islam are compatible with each other.
What Are Their Lives Like?
For generations, the Meo people have been livestock farmers and breed cattle are famous all over the country. Some Meo own trucking businesses. They are also in government service, including the military and police. Others work as skilled and unskilled daily wage labourers. A small number are plumbers and electricians.
The Meo of Haryana are good at basketry. The Meo in cities have set up businesses that are a threat to the Bania (traders) as their Muslim clients prefer to deal with the Meo traders. Some Meo are money lenders.
They have begun to see the value of formal education though previously they sent their children to madrasas. (Islamic religious school) Girls complete primary school only and are taught at the madrasas while boys go on to at least grade 10.
The Meo utilise the services of both medical doctors as well as traditional doctors called hakims. They are gradually accepting of family planning measures.
The Meo food comprises wheat, rice, maize, jowar, vegetables and fruits. Potatoes, milk and milk products are very popular with them. They are highly sensitive to food considered pure or impure (contaminated by untouchables) and accept cooked food from only high castes or those assimilated to high castes, like the barbers. On ceremonial occasions, they use disposable clay pots as vessels for their guests. Only the Bhangi (sweeper) can dispose of the pots away but he, like the Dhobi (washer man), cannot enter Meo houses because of their ‘impurity’.
The extended family is common. They are patriarchal and the eldest male member of the family rules the household. Women avoid father-in-law, elder brother-in-law and other males in the family. Mothers-in-law also observe purdah (veil) from their sons-in-law. Property is inherited by sons only which is shared equally among them and the eldest son becomes the head of the household after the death of his father. Daughters have no right to parental property.
The Meo are an endogamous caste, i.e. they do not marry outside their own community, neither accepting nor giving women from or to other Rajput groups or even any other Muslim communities.
They are divided into a number of patrilineal clans. The clan system is based on the Brahmin belief that the founding ancestor of each clan is the descendant of a mythical Hindu divinity or hero. Usually, only a Brahmin genealogist knows the names or history of their ancestors and they are content with that. This is a unique characteristic of Meo ancestry and genealogy.
Thirteen of these clans are attached and give their names to territorial sections of Mewat which are called pal. Each clan is divided into sub-clans, which are also sub-territorial units called thamba. Generally, these units are the original village established by the common ancestor.
The Meo have a marriage system which is more like North Indian Hindus rather than Muslim communities. Marriage prohibitions are very extensive: there is strict exogamy at the clan and village levels. They are prohibited from marrying parallel cousins, patrilateral or matrilateral cousins (though these are acceptable and popular among Muslim communities.) The Meo are not permitted to take a bride from the mother’s village. However, marriage with the elder brother’s widow or with a deceased wife’s younger sister is permitted.
The Meo are mainly monogamous, but polygamy is practised under circumstances like maladjustment, barrenness, or not having a male heir. Dowry is paid in the form of a gift and the increasing size of the dowry has replaced the extravagant feasting during the marriage celebrations. Marriages are arranged by parents and the engagement takes place at an early age. The marriage is solemnised at the bride’s home by a Muslim priest. Divorce is permitted and both male and female divorcees can remarry.
The Meo have traditional clan assemblies or panchayats who settle disputes and enforce decisions in the community. Punishment is administered for violations such as elopement or insults in the form of fines or excommunication.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Muslims by faith, the Meo follow the traditional Islamic practices and customs. They go on pilgrimage to several Muslim shrines and observe the various Muslim festivals like Id-ul-Fitr and Muharram. A major part of the Muslim festive year is Urs. This is a time when they visit and pay homage to the tomb-shrines of dead saints. They pray for their wishes to be granted by the saints’ intercession. The Urs or death anniversary of these saints is meticulously observed and is celebrated by Muslims. The Meo also worship local deities and believe in demons.
However, under the leadership of the Tablighi Movement, whose aim is to make the Meo “better Muslims”, they have abandoned their annual pilgrimages to the mausoleums which are located in the Mewat region and participating in Hindu festivals. As a result of these restrictions, the Meo are become increasingly devout Muslims, who pray and fast diligently. The movement has caused the Meo to become strengthened in their Islamic identity.
Circumcision is performed as a lavish ceremony. The Meo bury their dead in their own cemeteries which they share only with the Sayyids. .
Following India’s independence in 1947, the Jat of Bharatpur and Rajput of Alwar, under the influence of two militant Hindu movements, the Arya Samaj and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (National volunteer Union) or the RSS, had made an attempt to reconvert the Meo to Hinduism. Their refusal led to a massacre. Many of the Meo fled to Pakistan but some of them returned and resettled without any renewed major conflict.