By CSSS Team
“Mewat was called Bharat ki reed ki Haddi by Mahatma Gandhi. Today it is in news for the wrong reasons… for communal riots” quipped both the Hindu and Muslim residents of Nuh, Haryana after the communal riots it witnessed on 31st July, during the Braj Mandal Jal Abhishek Yatra organized by VHP and Bajrang Dal. While the epicenter of the violence was Nuh, it spread to other parts of Haryana including Palwal, Sohna and Gurugram claiming six lives. To understand the factors behind this incident of violence, a fact-finding team comprising of Vikash Narain Rai, former Director, National Police Academy, Hyderabad and former DGP (Law and Order) Haryana, Dr. Sandhya Mhatre, Executive Council member of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) and Neha Dabhade, Executive Director of CSSS visited Nuh, Sohna and Gurugram from 24th to 28th August, 2023.
About Mewat Landscape:
Mewat district was renamed Nuh in 2016, because Mewat is a cultural region which spans the state of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The district comprises Nuh, Taoru, Nagina, Ferozepur Jhirka, Indri, Punhana and Pinangwan blocks, 431 villages and 297 panchayats.
Nuh district is one of the 22 districts in the Indian state of Haryana. It has an area of 1,507 square kilometres (582sq mi) and 10.9 million population. It is bounded by Gurgaon district on the north, Rewari district on the west and Faridabad and Palwal districts on the east. It is predominantly populated by the Meos, who are agriculturalists, and Muslims.
Total population of Mewat district is 1,089,263 as per census 2011. Muslims constitutes 79.20% of Mewat population. Hindu are minority in Mewat district forming 20.37% of total population (Population Census 2011, n.d.). Nuh Town’s current population in 2023 is 22300 and 2636 houses. Hindu Population is 49 and Muslim population is 51% in the town.
How Nuh, formerly known as Mewat, went from the fabled ‘bharat ke reed ki haddi’ to being plagued by this communal riot is important to grasp to comprehend the communal riot that unfolded on 31st July in all its complexity. Mewat is the region which is spread out in some parts of Rajasthan, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Mewat region comprises of Nuh in Haryana, Bharatpur and Alwar districts in Rajasthan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Though there are state boundaries in the region which are political, socially, and culturally, there is fluidity in the region with people across state boundaries sharing similar traditions and culture. Factors such as its economic underdevelopment, illiteracy and fissures in social and political landscape can help trace the roots of this violence in Nuh. The communal riot that unfolded in Nuh can’t be understood in isolation but in an ecosystem that exists and the changes that have place over the years.
Complex History of Mewat:
The history of Meo Muslims in Mewat is a tapestry of religious diversity, cultural assimilation, and the challenges faced by a community at various points in time and the Meos have demonstrated resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity. The history of the Meo Muslims in the Mewat region is a fascinating tale of cultural and religious interactions that span centuries. From the unique beliefs of figures like Baba Laldas to the challenges faced during India’s partition in 1947, the Meo community’s journey is marked by a complex interplay of faiths, rulers, and societal changes.
One shining example of syncretic traditions of Mewat is Baba Laldas, originally named Lal Khan Meo, was born into a Muslim family in 1540. What makes him particularly remarkable is his belief in Nirguna Bhakti, a formless devotion to Lord Ram, while still adhering to Islam. Scholars have highlighted that Baba Laldas preached cow-worship, vegetarianism, and the chanting of Lord Ram’s name, showcasing a unique fusion of Islamic and Hindu elements in his spiritual practice. Interestingly, the Meo Muslims in Mewat didn’t identify themselves as completely Muslims. Over the centuries under the influence of Sufi saints, the Hindus converted into Islam but yet retained their Hindu identity in observance of festivals and social institutions like gotra etc. The contribution of Meos is also well documented in the revolt against the British in 1857 and subsequent freedom struggle and before that even against the Mughals. For instance, Hasan Khan Mewati, went to war with the Central Asian invader Babur. The Muslims the fact-finding team met lamented that though Mewat is called mini-Pakistan, the Meo Muslims are proud of their history which stands as a testimony to their fight against injustice- both against the Mughals and the British. Their bravery is legendry.
The region of Mewat is famous for its composite culture, communal harmony and the distinct identity of the Meo Muslims who inhabit the region. The Meo Muslims don’t identify themselves completely as Hindus or Muslims. There are many oral epics in this reason where Muslim jogis have popularized epics like Gopichand, Bhartrihari and Pandun ka kada, indicating their affinity with Hindu religious traditions. Ethnographers like Crooke, Sherring and Russell refer to the strong Hindu components of their tradition: their folklore which attributes their celebration of their origin to Arjuna, Krishna and Rama; Hindu festivals like Holi and Dussehra; their marriage customs which combine the nikah with Hindu ceremonies; their mixed names such as Fateh Singh, and so on (Mayaram, 1988).
In the latter half of the 14th century, a new ruling class emerged in Mewat known as the Khanzadas (1390-1527). Despite their Muslim identity, the Khanzadas traced their lineage back to the Jadon Rajputs. They played a pivotal role in shaping the Meo community by encouraging a shift from pastoral lifestyles to settled agriculture. Additionally, they actively worked on Islamizing the Meos, establishing mosques and appointing Qazis to administer Shariah law.
Close interaction with the Mughal administration resulted in the Meos adopting various Islamic practices, such as Nikah (marriage) and burial rites. Islamic festivals like Id-ul-fitr, Ramzan, Shab-e-barat, and the Urs of Sufi saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti gained popularity among the Meos. Moreover, Muslim names became more prevalent within the community.
As the Mughal empire weakened, the Hindu Jats began to exert their influence in Bharatpur, leading to conflicts with the Meos. In the early 1920s, the Meos faced a serious threat from the Arya Samaj’s Shuddhi movement, which aimed to reconvert them to Hinduism. In response, Meo leaders invited the Tablighi Jamaat to Mewat to strengthen their faith, leading to a ban on Hindu practices. However, full Islamization of the Meo community took several more decades.
During India’s partition in 1947, the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur saw a violent pogrom directed against the Meos. The rulers of these states supported the Arya Samaj and Shuddhi movement, which sought to convert Muslims to Hinduism. This support led to the rise of organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Discriminatory taxation policies triggered a Meo revolt, culminating in a tragic incident in Govindgarh, Alwar, in January 1933, where the state army opened fire on a crowd, resulting in over 30 deaths.
Narayan Bhaskar Khare from the Hindu Mahasabha became the prime minister of Alwar in April 1947 and an advisor to the state of Bharatpur. He convinced India’s Home Minister Sardar Patel that a Meo revolt was brewing and that Meo areas might attempt to join Pakistan. This suspicion led to a large-scale flight of Meos from Bharatpur to Alwar on June 18, 1947, resulting in a massive loss of life. Historian Shail Mayaram estimated that a significant number of Meos sought refuge in Pakistan due to these events (Balachandran, 2023).
The people of Mewat proudly remember that Gandhi visited Ghasera village after partition when the frenzy of communalism had taken over people and the King of Alwar was spreading rumours against the Meo Muslims who revolted against him for high taxations. It was Gandhi who had stopped the Meo Muslims from Mewat from migrating to Pakistan. The Meos stayed back in India out of love for their country and became an integral part of the region.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy of Nuh. The communities in the region given the land condition and other factors have been pastoral communities. The biggest challenge to agriculture in Nuh is that it is mostly rainfed and the irrigation facility is inadequate to supply water. Thus, 400 out of 435 villages in the district are facing a water crisis. Agriculture production measured in terms of crop yield per hectare in Mewat is comparatively low to the other districts of the state. In recent years, two canals are proposed in the region which are important for Nuh. However, this makes for a stark contrast between Nuh and other parts of Haryana and Nuh and the neighbouring Punjab – regions which are rich in agriculture having substantial irrigation facilities. This lack of the crucial irrigated water has starved the agriculture and in turn the economy of the district.
Animal Husbandry, particularly dairy is the secondary source of income for people of Mewat and those who live closer to the hilly ranges of Aravali also keep a few sheep and goats. The Meo Muslims in Nuh are traditionally pastoral and the community is heavily dependent on cattle for dairy business. Cattle becomes the centre of their livelihood. This also explains the rise of cow vigilantism in the region which will be dealt with later. It is noteworthy that given the high dependency of their livelihood on the cows and cattle in culmination with cultural factors, the Meo Muslims of Mewat don’t consume beef and venerate the cows.
Till a few years back, mining was an avenue for livelihood for the youth in Nuh. But after the ban on mining brought by the Supreme Court order, mining as a source of livelihood has closed. The Niti Aayog of India has ranked Nuh the lowest on development indicators like health and education in 2018. Ironically, Nuh borders Gurugram which is an IT hub but does not have university or college other than the Shaheed Hasan Mewati Medical College which came up in 2012. Students aspiring to study in universities must go out of the district. The region in general has poor educational infrastructure leading to low literacy rates especially female literacy rate.
These restricted livelihood options along with low literacy rate have pushed the youth to take to cybercrime, giving it the notorious sobriquet of the new “jamtara” of India. The youth of Nuh have taken to sextortion and cyber frauds on different platforms like OLX. It was reported by a section of media that the attack on the cyber police station in Nuh on 31st July can be attributed to the motive of the criminals in the cases related to cyber-crimes and sextortion to destroy evidence in the cases. It is alleged that the tensions on 31st July were used as a smokescreen to tamper and destroy evidence in the cyber police station. While Nuh has been under the media limelight for the wrong reasons calling Nuh “ground zero for cybercrimes” etc. and has been at the receiving end of the police crackdown on cybercrimes, little attention or light has been shed on the deplorable economy and lack of livelihood options in the district pushing the youth to resort to such crimes. Some section of residents of Nuh believe that the police crackdown is also attributed to the Muslim majority population of the district and the action is targeted towards Muslims.
Political history of Mewat:
Before the delimitation exercise for Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha constituencies in Haryana in 2007 and 2008, all Meo-dominated assembly constituencies formed part of the Faridabad parliamentary seat. The three assembly seats under the Nuh district are Nuh, Punhana and Ferozepur Jhirka. Currently, all the three seats are held by Congress MLAs, and all of them are Meo Muslims — Aftab Ahmed from Nuh, Mohammad Ilyas from Punhana, and Moman Khan from Ferozepur Jhirka assembly constituency. About 80% of Nuh population is made up of Muslims. In the 2019 state elections, both Hathin and Sohna in Gurugram went to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with Praveen Dagar and Sanjay Singh representing the two constituencies respectively.
The political landscape of Nuh has always been dominated by a few political families. The families of Khurshid Ahmed and Tayyab Hussain have been prominent families elected multiple times. Khurshid Ahmed became a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) five times between 1962 and 1982 from Congress. He represented Nuh in 1962, 1968, and 1991 and Tauru in 1977 and 1987. His father, Kabir Ahmed, became an MLA in a by poll in 1975 and 1982, while his son Aftab Ahmed, the present MLA from Nuh, was elected to the assembly in 2009 and 2019.
Tayyab Hussain was MP 1971-1976 (Gurugram seat) and 1980-1986 (Faridabad seat) and MLA from Janata Party from the region. Zakir Hussain, his son, is a three-time MLA, and the administrator of the Haryana Waqf Board. He won the 1991 election as an Independent from Tauru (a part of Mewat before delimitation), in 2000, he won the seat on a Congress ticket while in 2014, he became MLA from Nuh as an Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) candidate.
Despite of the popularity and steady support enjoyed by the political representatives, there is little development in terms of education or livelihood in the region. Lack of education in the Mewati youth has hindered leadership in them to emerge as a force to reckon with in the future. Additionally, delimitation exercise has rendered prospects of Meo Muslims getting elected from other neighbouring districts difficult. Ironically, according to Subhash Bansal, a BJP supporter, and a businessman from Sohna, in Sohna, the elected representatives have been from out of Sohna. The political parties haven’t given opportunities to the natives from Sohna in electoral politics. These factors have marginalized new Meo Muslims from the political landscape of the broader region.
Extortion, Lynching and Impunity post 2014:
With the rise of BJP in 2014 at the centre, cow vigilantism has become a strong trend in the region. While the BJP hasn’t been able to make a dent in the electoral contest in Nuh, the narrative of Muslims from the region being cow smugglers and slaughtering cows has gained currency overall. While the term ‘cow vigilante’ is commonly used to refer to these anti-social elements, the term is misleading and accords some legitimacy to them. Cow protection is used merely as a pretext to extort money from those buying and selling and those who can pay are allowed to transport cattle by these extortion networks. The extortion network in the region has blatantly abducted Muslims under the pretext of cow slaughter. They are beaten or worse lynched to death. Extortion and threats have become common place. If the Muslims transporting cattle can pay they are allowed to pass but those who can’t pay are beaten up. While the façade the gau rakshaks have adopted is that of “protecting” the cow as holy to Hindus, however, there are increasing reports of how this is used a pretext to extort money from the Muslims wanting to buy or sell cattle. It has become a business for extortionists. So treacherous is transporting cattle in this region and the fear writ large that either the Muslims request their Hindu neighbours to transport the cattle for them or give up their livelihood completely in an economy heavily dependent on dairy industry. Like the two hundred cattle traders of Rojka Meo, a village in Mewat, Haryana, who are on the verge of giving up their traditional livelihood of sale and purchase of buffaloes.
The communal riots in Nuh that took place on 31st July 2023 is intricately linked with the systematic and blatant targeting of the Muslims in the region with no prospects of justice from the state. The residents have been aghast and resentful about how easily Muslim youth are kidnapped or abducted and murdered with the state doing little to ensure that the culprits are brought to justice. Worse, the state in some way is giving patronage to the extortion network who take it as a cue to blatantly to target the Muslims.
In 2015, the Haryana government implemented the Cow Promotion and Protection Act. To strengthen this law, a Cow Protection Taskforce was formed in 2021, which includes non-government persons. This Gau Raksha Dal tracks incidents of “cow smuggling” and “cow slaughter” in the area and informs the police. The so called gau rakshaks take the liberty to confiscate any cattle or even enter private property to take away cattle belonging to Muslims.
For instance, Haji Jamat Ali had kept his cattle for two and a half months in a farmer’s field in Bai Kheda village in Gurugram district, three to four kilometers away from his village, Khori Jamalpur. His children were present there to look after the cattle. Suddenly on June 30, some youths wearing saffron scarves around their necks came there shouting communal slogans and took away all the cattle tied in the field with them. They took away 56 cows belonging to Haji’s family whose primary source of livelihood is selling of milk (Jha, 2023). , Bittu Bajrangi, has been booked by police in this case for attacking and snatching milch cattle. This is not an isolated case. The question that resonates then in the region is “can’t a Muslim rear cow in Mewat?” In the face of such grave provocation, the Meo Muslims have demonstrated restraint and no communal incident has taken place in the past.
Cases of cow vigilantism:
Pehlu Khan (55) was transporting cattle from Jaipur in a weekly fair to Nuh, his village. Khan, dairy farmer, was waylaid by a mob of extortion network in Alwar on April 1, 2017 and beaten up mercilessly. Khan died in the hospital. The extortion network accused him and his companions including his sons of being cattle smugglers. The then Rajasthan home minister Gulab Chand Kataria belonging to the BJP ‘justified’ the attack and said both parties were to be blamed for Pehlu Khan’s death. The police after pressure from the family of Khan and civil society arrested the accused. However, all six accused were acquitted in Alwar court. Additionally, Khan’s sons were also framed under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995.
42-year-old Umar Mohammad from Ghatmika of Bharatpur district, Rajasthan was a dairy farmer. He was shot dead in November 2017 while transporting cows in a pickup with his two companions and his body was found on railway tracks near Govindgarh in Alwar. Four days after the assault, police said two ‘gau rakshaks’, Ramveer Gujjar and Bhagwan Singh, both in their thirties, arrested in connection with the case, had confessed to the assault as well as mutilating Umar’s body and dumping it on the railway track, about 15 km away, to make it look like an accident. The accused have been booked under IPC Sections 302, 307, 147 and 201.
But police have called both sides criminals. They claim that Umar and his two companions, Tahir and Javed, were habitual cattle smugglers and were using a stolen pickup to transport cows.
Akbar Khan alias Rakbar, a resident of Kolgaon village on Rajasthan-Haryana border, was lynched to death by extortion network in Alwar in Mewat when he was transporting cows for milking in July 2018. He was accused of cow smuggling. Khan’s post-mortem report revealed that he died of shock and injuries from a blunt weapon or object and he succumbed to multiple injuries following the brutal attack. Akbar had 12 injury marks on his body and he died of excessive internal bleeding. Khan’s friend and companion, Aslam, in a written statement to police, said around five men beat Akbar with sticks. According to the charge sheet, the three accused attacked Khan at Lalawandi village in Alwar district when he was transporting his two cows and their calves, eventually leading to his death (Tabeenah, 2018).
On 16th May, 2021, Asif Khan, a resident of Khera Khalilpur village in Nuh district of Haryana was murdered by some residents from his own village. Asif was kidnaped when he went to Sohna to buy medicines to treat his typhoid. His family allege that he was beaten mercilessly. He was stabbed in his eyes and his bones broken. They stabbed him in the chest with an iron rod and shot him in the arm and leg. While the police attribute this to “old enmity”, the family insists that he was targeted because he was a Muslim and the perpetrators didn’t want Muslim families to live in the Hindu majority village. The arrested in the case were associated with the BJP (Saxena, 2021).
Waris, a 22-year-old from Nuh, died on 28 January, 2023 when the extortion network attacked him while returning from Bhiwadi. Allegedly, Monu Manesar, infamous ‘cow vigilante’ belonging to Bajrang Dal and VHP had uploaded a video on his facebook which showed him and his associates attacking Waris. However, the police claim that Waris Khan died when his vehicle met with an accident. Khan’s family has alleged that he was either strangulated or his internal organs were injured since there are no marks of injury or wound on his body (The Scroll, 2023).
Nasir and Junaid who belonged to Ghatmeeka village in Rajasthan, were abducted from Bharatpur and killed by cow vigilantes after abducting them. Their charred bodies found near Loharu in Bhiwani on 16th February, 2023. They were burnt alive in the car. Before the dead bodies of Nasir and Junaid were discovered, a video was posted by Monu Manesar, boasting of having the support of the Haryana police while posing with rifles and arms.
The common thread that runs in all these cases is the impunity with which the extortion networks have attacked Muslims in the Mewat region. The Muslims are mercilessly and blatantly beaten up and killed. These cold-blooded murders are boasted about by cow vigilante like Monu Manesar as badge of honor. This fearlessness of the extortion network and the patronage given to them by the police and the ruling political party has created resentment in ordinary Muslims. This outrage at the lack of justice in the face of naked show of power and claiming innocent lives, leaving behind destitute and devastated families, has not been heeded by the state. Recently, a memorandum was given to the President of India titled ‘Demand for a ban on Special Cow Protection Task Force and justice for families of Junaid and Nasir’ by the civil society. The helplessness and outrage of the Muslim community in the face of these murders can be attributed to the reaction of the Muslims to the video posted by Monu Manesar and Bittu Bajrangi and the subsequent attack by a section of the Muslim youth.
Immediate Context of Violence:
A couple of days before the procession on 31st July, 2023 on a video Monu Manesar, a fugitive who was wanted in the murder of Junaid and Nasir, had urged his followers to be present in the Braj Mandal Jal Abhishek procession as he will be attending it. This inflamed tempers of a section of Muslims in the region. Similarly, on the morning of 31st July, in a video Bittu Bajrangi challenged the Muslim community to welcome him with flowers and gave out his location. He said, “Apke jijaji aa rahe hai. Phoolonse Swagat ke liye khade rahe na”. This was seen as a challenge by the Muslim youth, which provoked a section of the youth. The Muslim youth prepared to attack Monu Manesar who continuously targeted the Muslim community members and running an extortion racket in the name of cow vigilantism. The Braj Mandal Jal Abhishek yatra was organized by the VHP and Bajrang Dal since 2021. So far barring vandalizing of a mazaar near the Nalhar Shiva temple last year, there was no history of violence during the yatra. The procession or yatra started from civil lines in Gurugram on the morning of 31st July. The Yatra was to reach Ferozepur Jhirka via Nuh. After performing the Jal Abhishek at the Nalhar Shiv temple, the participants of the procession returned to Nuh city at around 2.30pm. Some participants were carrying arms- swords, lathis and guns when the procession entered Nuh. They raised anti- Muslim slogan – “Mulle Kate Jayenge, Ram Ram chillayenge” rented the air.
Thus, on 31st July, around 2.00 pm near the Mewli road, when a white car in the procession was passing, a section of the Muslim youth suspected that the car was carrying Monu Manesar. According to activists in Nuh, the car reversed at high-speed knocking down a Muslim boy. That gave rise to the suspicion that the car had Monu Manesar. The Muslim youth chased the car and stopped it. They pulled out the man in the car who turned out to be Bittu Bajrangi and beat him up. But he escaped. This triggered communal riots in Nuh.
In response to the attack by the Muslim youth on the car, at around 2.30pm, stones were pelted on Hotel Rizq by Bajrang Dal members as seen in one of the videos. The members of the procession who were on the road started vandalizing and torched vehicles. Several vehicles were torched. In the pursuant violence, at some places, Muslim youth clashed with the members of the procession. Gun shots were heard near the Shiv temple in Nalhar. In the violence, six lives were lost- two of the home guards and four of civilians including the death of deputy Imam from a mosque in Gurugram.
Reaction of violence in Sohna and Gurugram:
After the violence in Nuh, the members in the procession went to Sohna and targeted Muslim owned properties in Nut colony. Three mosques including the Shahi Juma Masjid in Sohna were attacked. The Shahi Juma Masjid was attacked on 1st August at 1.30pm. The violence spread to Gurugram too, where the mob attacked the Anjuman Jama Masjid in Sector 57, set it on fire and killed the deputy imam on the night of 31st July, 2023. VHP threatened the Muslim migrant workers in sector 70 on 1st August. Subsequently, over 120 Muslim families left for West Bengal and Bihar. In response to the violence, the Haryana administration has demolished over 1200 properties in Nuh alone – all owned by Muslims. The team visited some sites of demolitions and interacted with the affected persons.
Muslims as criminals and Extortionists nationalists? Selective response of the state:
The police in the past couple of years have cracked down on the cyber-crimes in the region. The Muslim youth pushed towards crime due to various factors seen above has been arrested. While there is no debate that criminals committing crime must be brought to justice, the question which cant be ignored then is that if the police are acting against criminals based on their religion? If the Muslims committing cyber-crimes are should be punished, then why shouldn’t the Hindu right wing group activists and extortionists using the pretext of cow protection not be punished? Isn’t extortion and beating up and murdering innocent citizens not a crime? The selective action of the state and the police have raised questions about equality before law and justice. The police have been aware about the cases of lynching and extortion. The families of those murdered have been implicated in cases and justice denied to the families and the deceased in the cruelest way. There is little hope of justice. In this atmosphere of hopelessness and resentment, when Bittu Bajrangi and Monu Manesar challenged the Muslims, there was a potential of tension and violence. The implications were written large and clear. The police still didn’t do much to pre-empt violence. They ignored the instigations by the Bajrangi and Manesar who are accused of violence in different cases. The response of the state is a big contributing factor to the violence that took place on 31st July, 2023.
To be continued…
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism