Hindu, Muslim and homeless: Gujarat’s nomadic tribe Mirs stuck in no man’s land
The Mirs are a nomadic tribe in Gujarat who are both Hindu and Muslim. Caught between pressures of religious hardliners, they make a case for a third religion, like a third gender.
Vagabhai Lalabhai Mir writes his name with his fingertip in the soft brown sand on the outskirts of Deesa, Gujarat. The patriarch of the Mir tribe is a turbaned, beedi-smoking septuagenarian with a sense of humour. Despite never having been to school, he can read and write Hindi, Gujarati, Arabic and Kathiawadi, a Devnagiri script in which he maintains records. The Mirs are illiterate on record, and sign all government documents with a thumb imprint. Ask him how he reads if he was never taught and Vagabhai taps his head. He trained his mind to. Where did he learn to write? He points to the ground, finger in the sand. Vagabhai asks his son to bring the book.
The Book of the Mirs is a carefully wrapped, leather-bound sheaf of pages that has been updated for centuries by the tribe. Passed down from father to son, it maintains hand-written records of the tribe’s births and deaths, and important incidents in their lives. The book is wrapped in plastic, to protect it from the rain, and again in embroidered cloth, to protect it from the dust. It records what the government fails to: that the Mirs belong to the nomadic de-notified tribes, or vicharti jati as they are known in Gujarat, with a rich 700-year-old tradition of being both Hindu and Muslim. The Renke Commission of 2008 updated the Gujarat state list of nomadic tribes with the Faqirs as only the Muslim tribe.
The Mirs are classified instead as an economically and socially backward class, and tagged as Muslims, along with the Mirasis and Dholis. This does not only fail to record their true religious and social identity, leaving them open to pressure groups, it also takes from them the benefits of the nomadic status. Since they don’t have a permanent address, this would enable them to claim rations, reservations and loans.
A Rabari shepherd dressed in white shows up at the bramble-encircled Mir settlement. He will not sit down with these, his closest cousins, because he is above them clan-wise, since they embraced another religion. The Mirs exist like a third gender, neither here nor there, says Mittal Patel, of Vicharta Samuday Samartan Manch, an organisation that has worked to get the Gujarat election commission to include those without address proofs on the electoral rolls.
Gujarat was the first state to implement this process of inclusion for homeless people and nomads in 2005, making way for national policy changes to election lists. All the subsequent identity, ration and Aadhaar cards for these tribes were made possible because of this.
The lack of a nomadic tribe certificate leaves the Mirs unable to settle. They must prove their address to gain even the basics, such as the registration of births and deaths, and state aid during natural disasters. They can be evicted from the plot of land they live on near Deesa, as they often are from other places to make room for rapidly expanding cities. Their settlements, on once-vacant plots, are increasingly seen as encroachments. Their last spot was taken up by a builder who rented out the open-air space for weddings and parties.
The Mirs are also susceptible to pressures from religious ideologues —both Hindu and Muslim. Most Mirs have two names, a Hindu one and a Muslim one. The Book of the Mirs, on which each page begins with the word ‘Kaaba’ written in Devnagiri script, traces their history back several hundreds of years. It dates back to a time when their births were registered under the Rabari tribe during the rule of the Solanki or Chalukya king Jayasimha Siddharaj. By historical estimation, that would date the records back to the 11th century. The book gets a physical upgrade with every generation as the pages fall apart.
According to SR Khan and Radhey Shyam in the Encycopaediac Ethnography of the Indian Muslim, the tribe’s conversion dates back 700 years. Nomadic tribes do not have a concept of dates and years and function by noting the passage of Uttarayan and Dakshinayan, the winter and summer solstices.
Other versions claim the Mirs are descendants of Kashmir’s Butt tribe, which migrated into Gujarat. The Vishwa Hindu Parisad (VHP) has in the past claimed that they were originally Gandharvas, or Hindu temple musicians. “They are noted for playing the shehenai, a practice that continues in the Vaishnavite Bet Dwaraka temple where Mirs are crucial to the morning and evening aratis, according to anthropologist Professor JJ Roy Burman, at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “The confluence of multiple influences makes theirs a ‘liminal religion’ representing the unique syncretic cusp of both Hinduism and Islam.” In other regions, they were known as the breeders of Kathi horses. And with mastery over Arabic, Urdu, Gujarati and Hindi, they became major influencers of poetry in the region.
The Rabaris, who clashed with filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali over his alleged misportrayal in the film Ram Leela, are a nomadic clan predominant in the Kutch region of Gujarat. Legend has it that they were appointed guardians of the goddess Parvati’s camels, and remain a fiercely orthodox tribe.
The Gulf of Khambat was one of the first regions to receive Islamic influence via trade. Mir legend has it that a Muslim leader or tradesman wanted to marry a beautiful Rabari women. Raja Siddhiraj refused to allow it. By some confusion or trickery, as Vagabhai’s group tells it, some members of the clan ate the food and drank the water at a feast thrown by the Muslim suitor. In those days of forbidden intermingling, this was taken to mean that the part of the tribe that participated in the feast had been converted. The Rabari tribe refused to accept them back into the fold and Raja Siddhiraj banished them from the temples. The Mirs then began wandering, and became scribes and bards in the courts of the kings and sultans.
They became the keepers of Rabari genealogy, writing in books with wooden styluses dipped in ink. The Mirs survived on the patronage of their clients, and as kingdoms broke up, the Mirs became attached to various Hindu or Muslim families and clans.
A battle over the Mirs has been underway in Gujarat for two decades now. In the 1990s, the VHP convinced several thousand in the Kutch region to “come back to the fold” and embrace Hinduism. Sometimes, local mullahs who stop by to read the Quran with the Mirs try to convince them to discard their overtly Hindu ways and embrace the Islamic pyjama-kurta and other modes of life. But for many humble Mirs like Vagabhai’s family, they are comfortable being both.
The Mirs bury their dead, are circumcised and marry by nikaah the Islamic way, but they do not practise polygamy. Some eat meat and beef, but not of the cow. Most men and women both smoke profusely. They celebrate Moharram and Bakr-Eid, but “we do not sacrifice the goat, we milk it” they say. They read the Namaz every Friday but also perform godhbharai ceremonies and celebrate Janmashtami and Navratri the Hindu way. Holi is a major festival for them. “When we die, we are all the same, so why can’t they let us be both?” Vagabhai asks, as he gestures to show that if you cut his hand the blood would be the same.
Others seem more concerned about what religion they belong to. Some upper-caste Hindu communities don’t like them to settle on open grounds near them. Some Muslim communities are overeager that they join the fold. The incessant wandering means the Mirs are left vulnerable to whosoever’s kindness they may need at the time. They take up manual labour where they can find it.
An endless cycle of being thrown out from one clan to another over a choice of religion has shadowed the Mirs through the centuries. As long as they must choose, they remain in No Man’s Land. Perhaps ‘third religion’ needs to be a valid policy option for them.
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