The communal rioting that rocked the Mewat region this month, especially in Nuh district of Haryana, has both historical and contemporary roots. At present, entrenched communal feelings are being exacerbated by electoral considerations that will have far-reaching consequences.

Unless controlled resolutely, such intolerance and violence in places so near New Delhi and Gurugram, will seriously affect the Indian economy and hinder foreign investment besides tearing India’s social fabric.

The Meos were mentioned for the first time in the 13th Century in Persian records. Their origin is shrouded in mystery. Some say that they are converts from the tribal Meenas. But most probably they are a mix of Meenas, Jadon Rajputs, Afghans and Mughals.

Though under Islamic influence from the 13th Century onwards, the Meos took time to absorb Islamic beliefs, practices and culture. When a census was taken in India in 1872, the Meos had difficulty in identifying themselves clearly as either Muslims or Hindus.

In the 19th Century, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham noted that the Meos observed many Hindu rituals. Till as recently as the mid-1970s, it was not uncommon for Meos to sport Hindu names.

In his paper on the Meos entitled: ‘The Making of a Region in Medieval India: Mewat from 13th to 18th Centuries’, Suraj Bhan Bhardwaj, Associate Professor in the Department of History, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi, recalls that Narsingh Meo, a 16th Century Mewati balladeer, opposed the decision of the then ruler of Mewat, Hasan Khan Mewati, to go to war with the Central Asian invader Babur. In his ballad ‘Hasan Khan Ki Katha’ he dubbed Hasan Khan Mewati as a “Ravana fighting a self-destructive war.”

Baba Laldas, born into a Muslim family in 1540 as Lal Khan Meo, believed in Nirguna Bhakti (formless devotion) to Lord Ram even as he followed Islam. A research paper by Mukesh Kumar, a doctoral scholar at the University of Technology, Sydney, states that Baba Laldas preached cow-worship, vegetarianism and urged the chanting the name of Ram.

Meos worshipped the cow as they were essentially a pastoral people, despite taking to agriculture. They continue to rear and deal in cattle to this day. But this has made them easy targets of Hindutva cow vigilante groups. Several Meos were lynched for alleged cow smuggling.

Since the Mewat region comprised the Aravali hills, it was ideal for plundering passing traders’ caravans. The Sultan of Delhi Ghiyas-ud-din Balban,(1266 to 1287) led a successful military campaign against the Meos, cleared the forests and set up 2000 police posts or Thanas manned by Afghans. These Afghans eventually intermarried with the Meos.

Then came the Jadon Rajputs and a Meo-Rajput alliance sprung up since both were at odds with the Turkish Sultans of Delhi such as Allauddin Khilji. The then chief of Mewat, Rana Ran Pal, enjoyed a good reputation among the Meos.

In the second half of the 14th Century, a new ruling class known as the Khanzadas (1390-1527), appeared in Mewat. The Khanzadas were Muslims, but were descendants of the Jadon Rajputs. The Khanzadas encouraged the pastoral Meos to take to settled agriculture. They also married into the Meos and Islamised them, setting up mosques and appointing Qazis to administer the Shariah.

The Meos clashed with the Mughal rulers on land revenue issues, especially after Aurangazeb’s death in 1707. However, Akbar found the Meos to be good cultivators and soldiers. He absorbed Mewat into his empire as it was strategically located on the trade route to Gujarat. Meo boys were employed by Akbar as ‘Dak Meoras’ (post carriers) and ‘Khidmatiyyas’ (spies and palace guards).

Close interaction with the Mughul administration resulted in the Meos adopting some Islamic practices like Nikah and burying the dead. Islamic festivals such as Id-ul-fitr, Ramzan, Shab-e-barat, and the Urs of Sufi saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti became popular. Muslim names caught on.

With the weakening of the Mughal empire, the Hindu Jats became a force in Bharatpur and a conflict ensued between them and the Meos.

In the early 1920s, Meos were facing a serious threat from the Arya Samaj's Shuddhi movement (reconversion to Hinduism). Meo leaders invited the Tablighi Jamaat to come to Mewat and teach Islam to the Meos whose faith was weak.

The Tablighi Jamaat banned all Hindu practices. But it took two more decades for the Meos to become properly Islamised.

According to journalist/historian Kannan Srinivasan, during India’s partition in 1947, the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur saw a pogrom directed against the Meos. The Rajas Alwar and Bharatpur provided official patronage to the Arya Samaj and Shuddhi movement to convert Muslims to Hinduism.

The Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) grew in importance with the patronage of these Princes.

Discriminatory taxation led to a revolt by the Meos, in the course of which the state army opened fire on a crowd with machine guns at Govindgarh in Alwar district on January 7-8, 1933, killing more than 30 people, according to Srinivasan.

Narayan Bhaskar Khare of the Hindu Mahasabha became prime minister of Alwar in April 1947, as well as adviser to the state of Bharatpur. Khare convinced Indian Home Minister Sardar Patel that a Meo revolt was brewing and that the Meo areas of Alwar and Bharatpur would attempt to join Pakistan.

He claimed that K.M. Ashraf, a communist sympathiser in the Congress, was the ringleader of the revolt and is working for the Muslim League.

On June 18, 1947, there was a large-scale flight of Meos from Bharatpur to Alwar, and within Alwar to other tehsils. More than 30,000 were killed in a massacre. Historian Shail Mayaram estimated that a large number of Meos fled to Pakistan as a result.

Of those who stayed, 82,000 were killed and many converted forcibly (Khare’s own estimate of conversions was 40,000-45,000), Srinivasan says in his article in The Wire in 2018.

However, Ashraf persuaded Gandhiji to take up the issue. Gandhi toured Mewat and prevented further migration to Pakistan. Eventually, 100,000 Meos returned to Alwar and Bharatpur from various places.

Nevertheless, Ian Copland, shows how the Muslim population which had been 26.2% of Alwar in 1941 and 19.2% of Bharatpur, dropped after the pogroms, conversions and flight, to 6% in both states. About two-thirds of their land was taken away in their absence.

The Indian Right Wing is now using the increase in the population of the Meos to raise the red flag of a renewed threat from them. The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) in its paper entitled: ‘MEWAT: A region that is turning almost exclusively Muslim at the core’, says that in Mewat (comprising the newly created Nuh district of Haryana, the adjoining Hathin tehsil of Palwal and several contiguous tehsils of Alwar and Bharatpur districts of Rajasthan) the Meos form nearly 50% of the population.

In the five tehsils of the region that fall in Haryana, which together accommodated more than a million Muslims in 2011, the share of Meos in the population had risen from 62% in 1971 to 75 % now. In Pahari tehsil of Bharatpur, their proportion had grown even more, rising from 63% in 1991 to 73% in 2011.

In Mewat (Nuh) district of Haryana, the percentage of children in the population is as high as 24.6 in the case of Muslims compared to 15.9 in the case of Hindus. The female literacy rate among the Muslims is as low as 29.3% compared to 61.8% in the case of the Hindus. (Please note these are not state wide figures but just of one district where Muslims have a presence).