April 1999
Cover Story

Building barriers

The Tablighi Jamaat’s activities in the Konkan are aimed at eroding the composite culture of the region

Raising disputes over places of worship — Ayodhya, Mathura, Kashi, or shrines of saints long revered equally by Muslims and Hindus — is one strategy the Sangh Parivar frequently resorts to in order to generate tension and to accentuate the ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ feeling among Hindus. Though the strategies adopted by them are different, certain Muslim organisations have been equally active in creating an isolationist sentiment among Muslims. The Tablighi Jamaat is one such organisation.

Though the Tablighi Jamaat has its origins in the early thirties, until recent years, it had little impact on the psyche of the average Muslim. But feeding on the heightened insecurity of Muslims since the early ’90s, the Jamaat has become very active and been successful in attracting a large number of Muslims from different economic classes. A concerted attempt is now being made at the mass level to spread a very puritanical and insular version of Islam through tabligh (religious propagation). The Tablighi Jamaats are particularly active in parts of rural India. In Maharashtra, a systematic attempt is being made to establish the movement in small and semi-urban towns.

The serious long–term damage that the Tablighis can cause to inter–community relations is evident from the nature of their intervention among Konkani Muslims, a community which until now had retained strong socio–cultural links with its pre–Islamic past, even as it acquired a distinct religious identity. An overview of the origins and evolution of the Konkani Muslims would bring into sharper focus the nature and implications of the tablighi intervention.

It cannot be denied that there are instances in Indian history of forcible conversions of people from Hinduism to Islam. But that is not the whole truth. We find many more situations and circumstances in which conversion was voluntary. The case of Konkani Muslims from the western coast of Maharashtra is one among many such examples.

The Konkani Muslim community derives its name from the region to which it belongs. Its origin can be traced as far back as the seventh century when Arab sailors and traders, not invaders, first settled in Konkan. The trade of the West Asian countries was carried out through the ports of Dabhol in Ratnagiri district and Cheul in Raigad.

From a reference in Tarachand’s book, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, it appears that the Arabs came to India immediately after Islam had established itself in Arabistan. (However, according to another theory, the Arab connection with Konkan is believed to be older than the birth of Islam). For centuries, India has had trade connections with the West Asian countries. History tells us that the maritime Arabs came to India in great numbers as sailors and traders between the 7th and 10th century A.D. Early in the 8th century, a large group of Iraqi Muslims from the Euphrates Valley, persecuted by Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the monstrous governor of Iraq, also came to Konkan in search of shelter.

The Arab traders did not have any political ambition but were merely interested in the success of their commercial ventures, which necessarily implied cooperation and interaction with the local community. Those who settled down married locally. Though the progeny of such mixed marriages acquired a different religious identity, they retained most of their socio–cultural practices.

Interestingly, as different from many other parts of the country, the bulk of Hindus who converted to Islam in the Konkan region were Brahmins or from other upper castes. This is evident even today from the names of Konkani Muslims. While their first name is of Arab or Persian origin, their surnames — Tambe, Karambelkar, Dalvi, Divekar, Patankar — betray their caste origin.

On a different historical plane, during the reigns of the liberal Bahmani and Adilshahi Muslim rulers in the Deccan between the 14th and 17th centuries A.D., some conversion of the local population took place under the influence of Sufism. The Sufi tradition, quite different from that of the puritan and orthodox mullas and maulvis, encouraged the mutual intermingling of Sufi thought and the Hindu way of life. This, too, accelerated interaction between the two religions and contributed towards socio–cultural integration.

The historical contexts, circumstances and the nature of the conversions of Konkan’s Hindus account for the spontaneous evolution of liberal attitudes among Konkan Muslims and a composite culture in the region.

Until recently, it was difficult to distinguish Konkani Muslims from their Hindu counterpart in terms of many cultural indicators:

Ø A mangal sutra around the neck and green bangles on the hand are the traditional obligatory adornments for a Muslim woman after marriage as they are for her Hindu sister.

Ø But for the bindi a Hindu woman puts on her forehead, it would be difficult to distinguish a Muslim from a Hindu woman in terms of their everyday dress. In villages and in small towns until not so long ago, both Hindu and Muslim men wore the same style of dhoti, kurta and topi.

Ø The circumcision of young

Muslim boys, a sort of initiation into Islam, has traditionally been performed by the village barber who in many parts of Konkan is a Hindu. The practice still continues.

Ø Though there are many Hindus who engage in the meat selling trade, the slaughtering of an animal — unlike in north India where the Sikhs kill animals for food with a swift stunning blow (jhatka), in the Konkan the prevalent Islamic practice (halaal), is that of slitting the animals’ throat — has traditionally been, and continues to be, an exclusive Muslim responsibility.

Ø The Konkan countryside is dotted with dargahs of sufi saints where the annual urs was jointly celebrated by Muslims and Hindus.

Ø Muharram again was jointly observed, with the tazia–bearers and the musicians in most cases being Hindus.

Ø On their part, Muslims actively participated in the celebration of Holi and Diwali. Thanks to their Hindu neighbours, Konkan’s Muslims are familiar with the taste of special sweets made during Diwali or Ganeshutsav.

Ø Even today, whether in a Muslim or a Hindu home, or in any communication between the two communities, the Konkani dialect remains the common medium of communication. After the Muslim League adopted the Pakistan resolution in 1940, it became critical for that party to identify, even create if necessary, separate identity markers for Muslims in all spheres of life. That is how Urdu came to be defined as the language of India’s Muslims. Until then, while Konkani was the spoken language for both Hindus and Muslims of Konkan, Marathi was the common medium of instruction.

The above are only some of the markers of the composite culture that Konkan society could boast of until now. However, since the last few years, communal and fundamentalist groups from both the communities are trying to reverse the course that the spontaneous historical evolution of Konkani society has taken. To this end, while the Sangh Parivar is active among Hindus, the Tablighi Jamaat is active among Muslims.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s activities in recent years, aimed at creating among Muslims a different outlook towards religious, social, educational, cultural and economic issues, acquires a special significance in the Konkan region on account of some unrelated developments in the region in recent decades. A large number of Muslims from Konkan have gone to the oil–rich Gulf countries for employment and money from them flows into India. Slowly but steadily this has lead to a qualitative improvement in the economic and educational life of Muslim families from the area. This has become a cause for concern to the Hindu communalists. The Jamaat’s spread in the remote parts of Konkan is to be understood in this background.

The Tablighi Jamaat advocates that going to the dargahs of any pir or saint, seeking a solution to their problems from the departed souls, observing urs, are all un–Islamic and should therefore be given up. Similarly, they also advocate an end to Muharram processions. The first Urdu–medium schools in the Konkan region had come up after the Pakistan resolution was passed in 1940. But in recent years, emphasising the need for Muslims to go to Urdu–medium schools has become part of the Tablighi agenda in the region. Besides all this, the Tablighi Jamaat encourages Muslims to lay less emphasis to this–worldly pursuits and concentrate instead on the after life.

The implications of the tablighi teachings can well be imagined. The extent to which they succeed in getting their message across is the extent to which they also succeed in cutting down on social intercourse and creating a socio–cultural distance between Muslims and Hindus. And this is exactly what has begun to happen in parts of the Konkan. Under the influence of their teachings, a section of the Muslims have stopped visiting dargahs, celebrating urs, or taking out Muharram processions.

At one level, this has resulted in friction between Muslims who are influenced by them and those who insist on their more relaxed and communally more accommodative mode of life. In a number of cases, local villagers have prevented tablighi teams from even entering their village. The visitors who arrive in a bus, are told politely but firmly at the bus stop itself that they are not welcome in the village and therefore it’s best that they take the next bus out.

But as mentioned above, they have managed to gain a following among a section of Konkan Muslims and this is leading to a growing socio–cultural insularity that does not augur well for a region which has been largely free of communal hostilities even during the recent years of intense communal mobilisation. In the changed climate, the Shiv Sena and the BJP may have made major political inroads in the area. But that in itself has not come in the way of even the local Sena or BJP leaders’ relation with Muslims in the area. However, the Sangh Parivar’s activities among Hindus and the Tablighi Jamaat’s among Muslims threaten to alter the harmonious social ambience of Konkan’s countryside in the coming years.


(The writer contributes articles regularly to several Marathi newspapers)

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