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Situating Themselves in History and Reconstructing Identity: A Preliminary Note on the Meenas of Jaipur–VII

Admin July 15, 2021

The Meena elite  kept giving themselves a respectable history  to render a prestigious present    in different points of time between the early 19th and mid-20th Century. —  Prof. Nandini Sinha Kapur


We began our enquiry by observing that ‘history’ has remained popular amongst the tribals in order to attain social mobility and construct a new identity. Our assumption is proved by the fact that the biggest conference of the Meenas, Matsya Sammelan of April 1944 (held in Jaipur, attended by the Meenas from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) openly condemned the Criminal Tribe Act. It resulted in the meeting of the Meenas of Jhar (Jaipur district) in 1961, which passed the resolution that a serious project be undertaken to compile the ancient and contemporary history of the Meenas. However, the tribal perception does not originate from the so-called ‘exploitation of the marginal groups. Evidently, the Meenas played a significant role in the early period of Kachwaha state formation. Gradually, as the Rajput state came to control the Jaipur-Ramgarh locality, and Jaipur-Delhi routes were secured, Meenas were no longer politically important. Meanwhile, a section amongst the Meenas (possibly the chiefs and a few more)had emerged as an integral part of the local rural elite in the Kachwaha state by the seventeenth-eighteenth century At the same time, the image of the invincible Rajput declined as the state of Jaipur faced a politico-military and economic crisis in the latter half of the eighteenth century Claims by the Meenas of Jaipur to a respectable “history of their own were made precisely at this juncture. It is this newly emerging leadership that gets the story of treachery and a ‘glorious past’ told to a larger audience to enhance its image. But it is equally important to note that the Meenas of Jaipur in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century or the Meenas of Bundi in the seventeenth century, both adopted and invented a ‘history’ and a ‘new identity’ of their own with reference to the regional history, states and their systems.

Finally, social historians should perhaps see the active role of the Meenas to ‘invent’ a history instead of a passive accept acne of the powerful ideological onslaughts of the Brahmanical system. What is important to note is that the attempt at re constructing identity by the Meenas of Jaipur is different from that of the Meos, for the latter’s conception of the self and the world has been influenced by the idea of their being a ‘criminal tribe’. We shall briefly discuss the narrative of changing self images and identities projected by the leadership of the Meenas in the 1930s and 1960s in the next chapter.

Some aspects of self-identity of the Meenas in the twentieth century as described in Meena Purana Bhumika composed by Muni Magan Sagar (a Meena who converted into Jainism and was well-versed in Sanskrit literature) along with a brief reference to Meena Itihasa of Ravat Saraswat, published from Jaipur in 1967 Muniji ‘brahmanized” the folk traditions and constructed the antiquities of the Meenas by quoting the scriptures, ranging from the Vedas to the Srimad Bhagavad Gita The term “Meena’ is said to be derived from the Vedic word ‘menih’’ The Vedic term denotes vajra or vajra-like indicating the valorous characteristics of the community of the Meenas. The ancient Meena kings are said to have wielded vajras in their hands, adorned crowns and their flags used to depict the symbol of fish, the matsyaavatar (the fish incarnation) of Vishnu. Muniji strengthened the Meena contestation for power. by ‘Rajputizing the Meena chieftaincies of the pre-Kachwaha period. Hence, the transition took place from a ‘Meena-tribal” origin to ‘Ksatriya-Rajput’ origin. This transition can be situated in the socio-cultural reform movement in the erstwhile Jaipur state in the 1920s and 1930s under the leadership of prominent Meenas like ChhoturamJharwal, Mahadevaram Pabri and Jawaharram Manotal. These leaders constituted the ‘Meena Jati Sudhar Committee’ in 1924, and Meena Kshatriya Mahasabha, Jaipur. The blanket coverage of Meenas under the Criminal Tribe Act of 1871 in 1920s was also an important context. 

Muniji quotes Dharmashastras to mention that his community was known as Mena, Meena, Meena-ketu, and Meena-dhwajadi in ancient times. Yajurveda is supposed to refer to the Meenasas Viamebhyo Mainalam,’ meaning that those Kshatriyas who save the mankind from injustice and oppression are known as ‘Mainal’. Muniji further quotes elaborate verses from the Yajurveda Mahidhara Bhasyam to highlight the antiquity and prowess of the Meenas.

Muniji explains the etymological origin of the term ‘Meenah’ in the context of the above sloka. The term ‘Meenah’ is formed by the conjunction of two words: ‘Mee’ and ‘näh’,” meaning Vishnu or Lakshminarayana.” If “Mee’ and ‘näh’ mean Vishnu, it signifies a divine and a purely Brahmanical origin of the Meenas. Thus, Muniji for the first time developed a direct linkage between the Brahmanical god Vishnu and the community of Meenas. He ‘Sanskritized’ the Meena folk traditions of the early nineteenth century which was characterized by the search for political power and history in the pre-Rajput period in eastern Rajasthan and by an absence of a respectable caste-origin in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, as is evident from Tod’s Annals. But by the fourth decade of the twentieth century when the ‘criminalization of the tribe was occurring the time became ripe to lay claim to a respectable caste-origin within the Rajput society. Muniji declared that the descendants of those who saved their subjects from oppression and preserved the Vedas came to be known as Rajput Meenas. Hence, the Meena elite was raised to the status of Rajput-caste and declared guardians of the most sacred Brahmanical tradition, the Vedas.” Muniji seems to have been inspired by the writings of the nationalist historians like Gauri Shankar Hira Chand Ojha on Rajasthan (volumes like Early History of Rajputana and Udaipur RajyakaItihasa published in the 1930s) in which the Rajputs were declared to be of Vedic-Kshatriya origin who protected ‘Vedas’ and the ‘Hindu’ traditions from ‘onslaughts’ of ‘external intruders’.” If the Meenas were to be Kshatriya Rajputs, they had to claim the history of Rajputs for themselves. The impact of the nationalist thesis on the origin of the Rajputs is profound, as Muniji quotes a reference from an unnamed.

Sanskrit source about the conquest of Mlechchhas and the protection of the Vedas by the Meenas. And this function was performed by Dasavatar Meena (Vishnu) on behalf of the Meenas! The following are the interesting conclusions that Muniji draws from the above references. Meenas were a community of the ancient Kshatriyas or Aryas who were chivalrous and supportive of their ‘subjects’ in the Vedic times. Thus, Muniji claims for the Meenas proprietorship over land and royal status in the past.

Perhaps the most important source which sanctified the Meena claim to their Matsyaavatär origin from Vishnu is the tracing of their ancestry from the MatsyaPurana ‘Manunirano Minah Purana Purusottamah’ (the supreme man Manu). Svayambhu (self-emerging) Manu was responsible for the creation of the Meena community.” A prophecy from the twelfth Skandha (chapter) of Srimad Bhagvad states that the Rajputs of the Meena community would rule over India.” A large number of gotras (sub-castes) of the Meenas-Sunak, Prodyot, Palak, Sisunâga, Maurya, Sunga, Vrsala, Meda, Abhina, Gardabha, Kukura to Bhilla, Turuska, Pulinda, Hûna, Kºatrapa, Mina and Matsya are listed in Meena Purana Bhumika. It is significant that in this list prestigious dynastic names like Sisunäga and Maurya, tribal groups like Pulinda, Abhira, Bhilla, and untouchable castes like Gardabha and Kukura and contemporary castes like Meena and Matsya figure. This is indicative of the Meenas seeking legitimation from antiquity by appropriating ancient dynastic names and placing those along with the tribals. Muniji quotes Agni Purana which mentions Mina and Maina as two daughters of Usa who were married to Kashyap. Descendants of Meena and Maina are Rajputs. 

Author is a Ph D Programme Coordinator, SOITS, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi

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