Forced conversions coupled with the anti-Muslim leanings of the rulers of both Alwar and Bharatpur are behind the community virtually disappearing from the area at the time of Partition.
The murders of Pehlu Khan and Umar Mohammed by gau rakshaks last year and repeated recent anti-Muslim propaganda will certainly have mobilised local forces of the Hindu Right in Alwar. That may come into play in the by-election to the Lok Sabha held on Monday, January 29.
At this point, it is worth recalling some history.
During Partition, the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur were the sites of a pogrom directed against the Muslim Meo community. The Meos are a distinctive Rajput Muslim community with a number of Hindu or Rajput practices. They also had a history of being assertive, and bearing arms.
Both Jai Singh of Alwar – who ruled from 1903 to 1933 – and Kishan Singh of Bharatpur (1899-1929) provided official patronage to the Arya Samaj and its Shuddhi movement of conversion to Hinduism. The Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) grew in importance with the patronage of their durbars. The Mahasabha’s V. D. Savarkar set in motion a policy of courting Hindu princes. Both states officially changed the official script from Nastaliq to Nagari, and banned the teaching of Urdu and Persian in state schools. The Shahi Jama Masjid in Alwar was one of several important buildings that were converted by order of the government. Discriminatory taxation led to a tax revolt by the Muslim Meo population, in the course of which the state army opened fire on a crowd with machine guns at Govindgarh on January 7-8, 1933, and killed more than 30 people.
The British government of India saw in this the evidence of sufficient misrule to remove Jai Singh from Alwar and take over the administration later that same year. Bharatpur had already been taken over following Maharaja Kishen Singh’s misgovernance in 1929. Despite the removal of these pro-Hindutva rulers, the Hindu Mahasabha gained in strength in both darbars even during the period of British administration right through the thirties and forties.
Eventually, Tej Singh, Jai Singh’s successor chosen by the Indian government, took over administrative control of Alwar in 1943, and Brijendra Singh took over Bharatpur in 1944. Both took measures to make their administrations more sympathetic to the Hindu Mahasabha, and anti-Muslim. Brijendra Singh shared most coercive powers with his brother, Girraj Saran Singh, military secretary, who was reputed to be something of a gangster. “The brother of the Bharatpur Ruler is a Minister and is definitely involved in dacoities and looting,” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel in 1947.
Despite Tej Singh’s increasingly anti-Muslim administration, the promise of greater autonomy than might be offered by the Congress led him, like Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur and others, to flirt with the idea of joining Pakistan. But his Hindutva-ising of his administration was to culminate in the appointment of Narayan Bhaskar Khare of the Hindu Mahasabha as prime minister of Alwar on April 18, 1947, as well as adviser to the state of Bharatpur.
Khare had earlier been the Congress prime minister of the Central Provinces and Berar from 1937 to 1939. Savarkar, head of the Hindu Mahasabha, and his colleague B.S. Moonje had been inspired by Khare’s provision of arms licences to campaign for the same for Hindu organisations and schools. It is not certain when Khare secretly turned to the Hindu Mahasabha, but it is clear that he had an anti-Muslim agenda long before formally joining the party. Khare soon persuaded Tej Singh to abandon the idea of Pakistan. In July 1947, Alwar hosted a Hindu Mahasabha conference for the princely states. Soon, a small arms factory was set up in Alwar by Khare and another one in Bharatpur.
Now, Khare’s greatest asset when he came to Alwar was that despite his former estrangement from the Congress party, he had mended his relations with Patel, member for home in the viceroy’s executive council and the interim government who would soon become home minister and minister for states in the new government of independent India. In correspondence, such as his letter of June 17, 1947, Patel, otherwise quite formal, addressed Khare as “Dear Friend.”
Khare persuaded Patel that a Muslim 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 Congress, was the ring leader of the revolt and working with the Muslim League, as mentioned by Khare in his book My Political Memoirs. In fact, as the distinguished subaltern studies historian Shail Mayaram shows, the Left programme was for Mewat self governing autonomy within independent India. Nevertheless, Patel was persuaded. Patel’s officials in the states ministry, such as the secretary V.P. Menon, also accepted Alwar state’s official account.
What explains Patel’s sympathies? They were of a piece with those of a certain group of Congressmen. The Congress party itself represented a coalition of personalities of various beliefs, from communists such as Ashraf to progressive liberals such as Nehru to creatures of the Hindu Right such as Patel, Rajendra Prasad who was to become president, or Purshottam Das Tandon who was elected to be president of the Congress party as Patel’s candidate, despite’s Nehru’s efforts. We have misread the past when we have thought Nehru as all-powerful. Rajeshwar Dayal, then home secretary, united provinces, recorded his experience of his prime minister, Govind Ballabh Pant in 1947:
“the Deputy Inspector-General of Police of the Western Range, .. BBL Jaitley, arrived at my house in great secrecy. .. .. (he) brought … incontrovertible evidence of a.. conspiracy to create a communal holocaust throughout the western districts of the province. .. …. Timely raids conducted on the premises of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh) had brought the massive conspiracy to light. … Both Jaitley and I pressed for the immediate arrest of the prime accused, Shri Golwalkar, who was still in the area. Pantji … instead of agreeing to the immediate arrest of the ring leader….. asked for the matter to be placed for consideration by the Cabinet at its next meeting. ….. What ultimately emerged was that a letter should be issued to Golwalkar pointing out the contents and nature of the evidence which had been gathered. ..”
“By this means, “Golwalkar ..(was) tipped off and he was nowhere to be found…” (A Life of our Times, Orient Longman).
On June 18, 1947, there was a large-scale flight of Meos from Bharatpur to Alwar, and within Alwar to other tehsils. Mayaram has quoted a captain in the Alwar state army on the safaya as the killings were euphemistically termed, and shuddhi, conversions:
“I was ADC to HH Tej Singh. We were with the RSS. It had been ordered to clear the state of Muslims. I was sent on special duty to Tijara. ……. I went ahead and posted the force on a hill ..” In the valley below were 10,000 Meos. “We killed every man, all of them.”
Thereafter, in village after village, the army, accompanied by a shuddh squad, compelled Meos, if they wished to live, to eat a piece of pork and convert from Islam. The last battle was at Naugaonwa, “a large Meo stronghold. We butchered them.” As the Meos fled, they were killed at every place: “It took us more than two months, July, August, to clear the whole bloody area.”
A Bharatpur Jat interviewed by Mayaram says:
“Meonis were made shuddh … Any man who did not have a woman took her and kept her…any woman was taken, even while she was walking or cutting grass she was lifted, carried over the shoulder. She would not say anything for fear.”
Khare rejoiced, as mentioned in his book: “As a result, today there is not a single Muslim in the whole of the Alwar State… In this way, the Meo problem in the State which was troubling the State for several centuries has been solved at least for the time being.”
Years later, he was to exult in his achievement when interviewed for the oral histories of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library:
“But Moonje was damn pleased with what I did to the Muslims of Alwar…. He called me to Nasik and embraced me….More than anything else, what I did in Alwar and the way I broke the back of Muslims there pleased Dr Moonje immensely. I was in Delhi as a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1947. Moonje was also in Delhi in December. So he gave me a good party, a huge party, an At Home. When I went there, Moonje caught hold of me and embraced me saying, Doctor, All of us are very pleased with what you have done in Alwar, whatever we have done to each other let us forget…”
Curiously, after the killings of Meo Muslims and after most survivors had been driven out of Alwar and Bharatpur, Patel wrote to Khare:
“a lakh of Meos who had left Alwar and Bharatpur… wish to return to the States under such conditions as you might lay down. They are now in a penitent mood.. if continued in this present position (as refugees in Gurgaon) they might get more desperate instead of being cowed down, as they are at present.”
This signified that the Meos were wrong, that Khare was justified in imposing any conditions and that it was a good thing that soon to be citizens of free India were cowed down.
Prime Minister Nehru wrote most carefully to Patel on November 4, 1947:
“As you know the Rulers of some States, for instance, Alwar, Bharatpur, … are misbehaving in their States. … I suggest that your States Ministry might point out to them that what they are doing is objectionable and harmful. Further that we might stop all export of arms and petrol to these States”.
But Patel brushed him off:
“The present atmosphere and condition in the country makes it necessary to handle the State questions with a degree of caution and tact.”
Mayaram has estimated that a large population fled, many to Pakistan at the time of Partition. Of those who stayed, 82,000 were killed and many converted forcibly (Khare’s own estimate of conversions was 40,000-45,000).
Ashraf was able to persuade Gandhi to take up the issue, and undertake a tour of Mewat. Such efforts enabled perhaps 100,000 Meos to return to Alwar and Bharatpur. Nevertheless, Ian Copland, examining census records, 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.
As for Khare, he was suspected of involvement in Gandhi’s assassination, for some evidence suggested Alwar and Gwalior were both a part of the conspiracy. He was thereafter to become president of the Hindu Mahasabha.
Kannan Srinivasan is a journalist and writer based in New York.