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 CURRENT ISSUE JULY 15, 2002  

LIVING: CASTE BONDING

Mixed Strains

Muslim Thakurs of eastern Uttar Pradesh are keen to retain their Rajput legacy even at the cost of their Islamic identity

By Subhash Mishra in Fatehpur

Sajjan Khan prays at a temple at his house every day, likes to be called Sajjan Thakur and yet is a staunch Muslim. The forefathers of the wealthy 40-year-old farmer from Ajitganj village in Uttar Pradesh's Fatehpur district were Bais Rajputs who had converted to Islam. But Sajjan puts more store by his lineage than his ancestors' acquired faith. The idol-worshipping Khan couldn't care less about being branded a kafir (unbeliever) by the village maulvi. "I don't care about our community leaders. We are Thakurs by blood. Besides, we are treated as inferiors among the Muslims, so why shouldn't we remain loyal to our roots?" he argues defiantly.

Hasan Thakur, a village pradhan, has considerable clout among both the Gautam Muslims and the Gautam Thakurs. Proud of Thakur traditions, he is determined to assimilate the two groups even at the risk of religious ostracism by the maulvis.

Khan is not a chance deviant. Hundreds of Muslim families whose Rajput ancestors had converted to Islam six centuries ago prefer to be called Thakur Sahibs in villages of central Uttar Pradesh. And it is not just about titles. The "Muslim Thakurs" live, dress and even worship as Rajputs do-in stark contrast to the "original Muslims". It was in the 14th and 15th centuries that three Rajput sects-the Gautam, Bais and Dikhit-converted to Islam and settled in Fatehpur, Banda and Unnao districts. These people, particularly the Gautam Muslims, still cling to their Hindu origins.

Rather proudly too. Declares Hasan Thakur, the pradhan of Missi village in Bindki, the erstwhile headquarters of the Gautam Thakurs of Fatehpur: "Our community members do not keep long beards and refuse to obey fatwas, the men don't wear lungi, the women avoid the burqa (veil)." Sajjan's father Mijjan Thakur affirms the cultural anomaly: "We have worn the dhoti and kurtas for ages. Why should we change?" The women too opted for the Hindu sari rather than the more community-specific salwar-kameez and burqa.

Sajjan Khan, of Ajitganj village, prays daily at a temple built by his father Mijjan Khan and frequently goes on pilgrimages to Hindu holy places. Like many converted Rajputs in the area, he follows a Hindu way of life and seeks to emphasise the Thakur identity.

This fusion of culture goes much beyond clothes. Rajput traditions have eclipsed the religious divide and forged a common identity for the Hindu Gautam Thakurs and the Gautam Muslims. Says Hasan: "The Gautam Thakurs are like one big family." Hindu Gautam Thakurs participate in Muslim Gautam functions and vice versa. "When we meet, we touch the feet of the elders among the Gautam Thakurs just as younger people from their side would touch my feet," says septuagenarian Gautam Nasruddin Khan, the head of Sabada village in nearby Banda district.

These intercommunity functions include religious ones as well. The Gautam Muslims help organise Holi milans, Ram Lilas and kirtans. The wedding ceremonies of the former Rajputs retain many Hindu rituals: the bridegroom sports a safa (headgear) like the Hindus do and a raucous band is a must in a wedding procession as are firecrackers.

In this cultural melee, it is not unusual to find multireligious practices. Sajjan, who is yet to visit Mecca, recently went on a pilgrimage to Chitrakoot. Hasan Thakur too frequently goes to Vaishno Devi with his wife and children.

Haji Abdul Warsi, of Ajitganj village, proudly displays a shijre (family tree) tracing his Gautam Thakur lineage

The Gautams' relations with their fellow Muslims have faded into irrelevance as community bonds take precedence even in times of communal riots. If Gautams face a threat to their lives and property, the Gautam Muslims rush to protect them, and if Gautam Muslims are outnumbered in any particular place the Gautam Thakurs swell their ranks. "For more than 50 years in Independent India, none of our brothers has been killed in communal riots," says Hasan.

Politically too, the Gautam Thakurs-from both sides of the communal divide-form a cohesive and substantial vote bank. The Gautam Muslims number more than a lakh though that is a fraction of the Gautam Thakur population. Hasan Thakur's considerable influence among both the Thakurs and the Gautam Muslims brought former prime ministers Chandra Shekhar and V.P. Singh to his house to solicit votes. Hasan's politics are dictated entirely by community concerns. "If there is a contest between a Muslim and a Gautam Thakur, our first choice will be a Gautam Thakur," he explains. The Thakur clan's views on political issues-generally pronounced by Hasan-are uniform, and more importantly for the political parties, they vote as a community.

Historical links are sometimes highlighted to forge a common identity. The Muslim group wants to build a memorial for Raja Bahrawat Singh, the Argal king who converted to Islam. Another concerns the martyrdom of 52 Gautam Thakur clansmen of Fatehpur who were hanged by the British for involvement in the 1857 war of independence. The Government has built a park around the tree on which the soldiers were hanged, but the Gautam Muslims want to develop it into a grand memorial.

Instead of weakening with passage of time, the ties among the Gautam Thakurs are showing all signs of strengthening. The Muslim families are keen to bring "the family" closer through marriages. "I am making a lot of effort to unite the family once again, but society does not allow us to do so," says the patriarchal Nasruddin Khan.

Such clanish tendencies do not go down well with the more orthodox among the Muslims. "Their Hindu origins and customs are a major hurdle to roti-beti ties (economic and marital)," says Mohit Siddiqui, an "original" Muslim of Bindki.

The segregation leaves the Thakur Muslims unmoved. They generally marry among their own group or at most with other converted groups. "The original Muslims look down upon us because we are converted and taunt us for behaving like Hindus. But we don't mind," remarked Mushtaq, a Gautam Muslim working at the Central Ordnance Depot in Kanpur.

While the Gautam Muslims are unabashedly seeking to reunite with the Thakurs, the Bais and Dikhit groups are doing so more unobtrusively. But whatever the degree of caste affiliations, all three of these unique communities stick to their traditional Hindu way of life and are desperately seeking to claim a Thakur identity. It is, in many ways, a reconversion not of faith but of culture.

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