India: Beyond borders - shared traditions in Gujarat challenge the communal divide

Islam Interfaith
Exactly four years ago, Gujarat witnessed a state-sponsored genocide that culminated in the deaths of some three thousand Muslims and led to a complete breakdown of inter-community relations, the scars of which have still not healed.
Yet, despite the relentless assault of Hindutva forces in Gujarat, all is not lost. As a recent study by the noted anthropologist J.J.Roy Burman, titled, “The Other Gujarat: Hindu-Muslim Syncretism and Humanistic Forays” shows, there are still numerous spaces and religious traditions in Gujarat that defy the Hindutva onslaught and its hate-filled agenda.
Talk of a complete communal polarisation in Gujarat, Burman writes, is somewhat exaggerated. In fact, it can be dangerous if it leads to despair and capitulation before the Hindutva juggernaut. Even at the peak of the genocidal attacks, as Burman documents, numerous Hindus and Dalits saved Muslim lives. Burman provides interesting details of some of these brave heroes, based on personal interactions with them. He also highlights cases of Muslim traders supporting poor Hindus in violence-effected areas, and, drawing on personal observations in small towns and villages across Gujarat, mentions examples of close cultural, religious as well as personal relations and bonding between Dalits, Hindus and Muslims, particularly among the poor.

An intriguing aspect of Gujarati society that Burman highlights are the significant number of religious traditions and sacred spaces across Gujarat which bring Hindus, Dalits and Muslims in common worship and ritual participation. Thus, Burman writes of some Muslim groups in Kutch who regularly pray at local temples, of the Gupti Momins of Bhavnagar who appear outwardly as Hindus but are actually Muslims, keeping their faith ‘gupt’ or secret (and hence their name) and of Hindu Khatri weavers participating in Muharram mourning rituals for Imam Husain. Other similar groups are the Maul-e Salaam Girasiyas, the Jams and Jaths of Kutch and the Mirs of Sabarkantha, who, while nominally ‘Muslim’, still practice many ‘Hindu’ customs.

Some of these shared religious traditions and their adherents cannot, Burman says, be classified as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ but as somewhat in-between, giving rise to liminal community identities that defy the logic of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ being two homogenous, monolithic and completely separate community that is so integral to Hindutva as well as Islamist discourse. Burman mentions the Pranamis, to which sect Gandhi’s mother belonged, who claim to follow ‘true’ Sanatan Dharma and ‘true’ Islam, seeing both as synonymous. Another such intriguing community in Gujarat he mentions are the Nizari Ismaili Shias, who believe that Islam is the fulfilment of Hinduism, and whose leading missionaries had both Hindu and Muslim names and dual identities. Among the pioneers of the Nizari faith in Gujarat were Pir Shams, also known as Shamas Rishi, Hasan Kabiruddin or Anant Jo Dhano, and Rama Pir, a disciple of Pir Shams who still commands a following of several million Dalits in Rajasthan and Gujarat, who is also known as Ram Dev. In addition to the Qur’an, the Gujarati Ismailis, also known as Satpanthis or ‘followers of the True Path’, have a holy book, the Das Avatar, in which the nine incarnations of Vishnu are praised and Imam Ali is presented as the final or Nikalanki avatar of Vishnu. The book also describes Adam as Shiva and Fatima, wife of Imam Ali, as Shakti.

The ecumenical potential of these shared religious traditions should not be exaggerated, however, Burman warns. Today, many of them, under pressure from ‘orthodox’ Hindu and Muslim forces, are undergoing major transformations. In these cases traditions that once brought together people of different caste and religious backgrounds are now hotly contested by groups that insist that they must choose to be either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ and no longer neither or a little bit of both. Thus, most Pranamis now claim to be full-blooded Hindus and conceal the Islamic aspects of their identity and history. The Pirana Satpanthis, followers of Imam Shah, son of the Ismaili Shia preacher Hasan Kabiruddin, are now almost completely divided into rival ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ factions. Some Satpanthis, egged on by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have captured the shrine of Imam Shah and have declared it to be a Hindu temple, Prerana Peeth instead of Pirana, the house of the (Muslim) Pir or Sufi saint.

At the same time as some shared religious traditions in Gujarat are now coming under severe attack, there are, Burman points out, numerous other such traditions and spaces where people of different communities come together in ritual worship. Most of these are associated with Muslim Sufi saints, whose dargahs or shrines, which number several hundreds all over Gujarat, attract large numbers of Hindu and Dalit devotees as well. One such dargah is that of Khwaja Didar in Surat, a city that has witnessed numerous communal riots in the recent past. Pilgrims to the dargah first pay their respects to the grave of a local Hindu Raja, Tan Singh, who is said to have converted to Islam at the saint’s hands and spent the remainder of his life serving him. Another Sufi shrine in Surat, that of Bala Pir, is tended to by a ‘low’ caste Hindu. The shrine of Haji Pir in Kutch has many Hindu followers. ‘Low’ caste Kolis offer free service and keep the shrine clean, and a rich Jain industrialist has paid for constructing its boundary walls. The dargah of Pir Murad, also in Kutch, is located in a village which has only one Muslim family, and is regarded as the patron saint of the pastoralist Bharwad community, who visit his shrine in the hope of curing their animals. The shrine of Faird Pir in Nakhtarana has a Rabari custodian, although the village has a Muslim majority. The dargah of Meeran Datar in Mehsana is, Burman says, hugely popular among local Hindus, who visit it for cures for mental illnesses. The saint is said to have been martyred by a local Raja for opposing the practice of human sacrifice.

Some shared religious traditions in Gujarat, Burman tells us, are also centred on charismatic saints who preached an ethical monotheism transcending communal differences, striving to bring Hindus and Muslims closer together in recognition of their common humanity. Thus, for instance, the mandir-dargah complex of Mekandada in Kutch has shrines of Mekandada Shanker and Fakir Pir. It looks fully ‘Hindu’ but has Hindu and Islamic religious messages painted on its walls. A similar shrine in Junagadh contains the graves of Sant Devidas and of Dana Pir. On the island of Bet Dwarka, 30 kilometres from the Hindu pilgrimage centre of Dwarka, and inhabited mainly by Muslims, is the dargah of Syed Haji Ali Daud Shah Kirmani, which attracts many Hindu pilgrims, including the pujaris of the local Krishna temple, Interestingly, Muslim singers have for generations performed devotional music at the temple.

Burman admits that these religious traditions and continuing bonds binding Hindus, Muslims and Dalits in parts of Gujarat are vulnerable and, in many places, have proved unable to withstand the relentless challenge posed by Hindutva forces. Yet, he insists that they need to be recovered and highlighted as a powerful resource to combat the politics of fascism parading in the guise of Hinduism and a warped notion of Indian nationalism.

by Yoginder Sikand