Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Dignity through change of creed

R. Ramachandran

The following account of an event that occurred about 18 years ago in a Tamil Nadu village shows how certain circumstances often lead to mass conversions. It is evening. Meenakshipuram alias Rahmat Nagar sparkles clean. The villagers have stopped rearing pigs - most are now Muslims. The congregation is collecting at the mosque, built four years ago, for gruel to break the day's fast. The youngsters, most of them born after February 19, 1981 (when around 300 Dalit families of the Pallan sub-caste converted to Islam), are reticent. But Mohammed Mustafa (Muniyandi till he was 60), the mosque's odd job man, blurts out before retreating for namaz; "Conversion was the only way to gain respect and equality."

Meenakshipuram did not decide to convert in a day or even a year. It has never been desperately poor, and has always had its own primary school. The villagers are mainly landless sharecroppers. Reservation in education and jobs brought about awareness - and resentment at the way the landlords (mostly Thevars, and 'other backward caste') treated them. Kandaswamy was a meek 24 in 1970 when he got a job in a high school in a Thevar-dominated area. The next few years he pretended to be a Thevar. "Otherwise," he says, "I would not have got a house or water to drink. The students and my colleagues, all Thevars, would have humiliated me." He decided to convert in 1981, the day he saw a 60-year old Dalit being publicly beaten by a Thevar body, hardly 10; Kandaswamy became Khwaja Moiddeen.

"Acceptance, equal status and self-respect were the reasons for the conversion of 20 families in Paruthiyar Kuruchi', says ISM Hussein, a Muslim leader who helped Meenakshipuram villagers convert. In the village, they cite a newspaper report that the Tirunelveli district collector, while inspecting tea shops in the district, found 13 instances of the two-tumbler system: one set for Dalits, another for the rest.

What precipitated the 1981 events was love: Thankaraj, a Pallan, eloped with a Thevar girl. His helpless community could not go to his aid to fight the pursuing Thevars. He quickly became Yousuf and felt protected by his new faith and its followers. Soon, two Thevars were murdered and Meenakshipuram was blamed. The police inspector in Shengottai was a Thevar and Meenakshipuram began living in terror with men being arrested and women molested. "Our elders had thought about converting in the fifties, but couldn't muster enough courage," reminisces Muhammad Raja Sharif. "But when atrocities continued for a year in 1980, we decided to go ahead. Japa Mani, the headman, and a few of us took the villagers' consent and approached the South India Ishat-ul Islam Sabha. Thus we got converted." Born Hindus, Japa Mani (now Jamaat chief Zafarullah Khan) and Raja Sharief first converted to Christianity, only to find the caste system had followed them -- they were Harijan Christians. "When a Harijan Christian priest died, Thevar and Nadar converts kept away. We have to bury him in a Harijan burial ground," says Sharief.

They believe they have found their dignity in Islam. Sharief married into a prominent Muslim family of the neighbourhood. Many point to their marriages into "old" Muslim families as proof of the respect they have gained. Their Hindu relatives agree. Headman Udayar, Hindu, leads the way to the Kaliamman temple, and the Muslims troop in as well. "The incessant police raids led to the conversion," he concurs. Why didn't he convert? Udayar was a bonded labourer, a "slave", and could not survive without Thevar patronage. He laments that he commands no respect. Any Thevar child can call him by name, but the day his son dons the cap and walks out of Meenakashipuram with a new name, he is called Bhai.

Many others remained Hindu because they were sharecroppers in land owned by the Thirumala temple, the biggest in the neighbourhood, and Kaliamman. Upper caste Hindus threatened to keep converts out of the temple fields. This led to some friction because, when some Kaliamman trustees themselves got converted, they claimed the property. Anantha Rama Seshan, who spearheaded the Hindu organisations' re-conversion movement and got 185 neo-Muslims to re-covert a week later, claimed he helped a villager Shivanu to reclaim the Kaliamman property.

For non-converts, Hinduism was never a cause in itself; it was just that, if not dignity, it afforded other benefits. Says Lavan, a matriculate; "If we converted, we wouldn't get scholarships or reservations. Many elders felt we should get all the benefits, achieve a status and then fight the system." Raja Sharief's brother Pandaram, who works in the telecom department, remained a Hindu because he feared he would lose his job. Village development office Thurairaju got the job in reserved quota, and was suspended when he converted. The suspension was revoked only after he re-converted. Then, why did others who enjoyed the benefits of reservation convert? "I didn't fall for the propaganda that we'll lose our jobs", says Khawaja Moiddeen. "I had some land too. Now my elder son has a diploma in engineering and is in Saudi Arabia. The younger one is running a poultry shop. If he were still a Harijan, no upper caste would have touched his chicken." Local Muslims helped by getting some of the leaders, including Raja Sharief,
jobs abroad.

Outside the mosque, the villagers are curious but taciturn. A few years ago, a national daily had written about the role money had played in converting the Pallans. Was this true? Supraich, a cattleman, responds: "I had six daughters to marry off and Muslims ask for a huge dowry. But conversion was necessary." But Seshan says it was all for money: Outsiders came here and got a few converted with money and promises." However the "promises" are not very apparent. Just a handful of people, including Hindus, founds jobs in the Gulf. "If promises lured us, then we should have re-converted by now because there were none," says Hussein, who sells lottery tickets in Kerala.

Also, the Hindu organisations' attempts to woo the converts had failed. Seshan admits the school he opened in Meenakshipuram attracts no students. The RSS shakha, opened in the wake of the conversions, too has closed. "Before 1981, there were just five or six shakhas inThenkasi taluka," explains Rajendran, a Thevar and former local RSS chief. "After conversions, we had 22, but to no avail. The Harijans somehow feel the RSS is of the upper caste." "Now it is they who harass us," says Kuttralingam Thevar. The complaints against the Dalits includes murder, rape and looting. "Earlier they were meek, but now they feel they can lord over us," adds Rajendran. The socio-economic changes have affected local politics. Very much part of the Dravidian movement, the Thevars are now drifting away from the DMK towards the BJP. The recent AIADMK victory in Tirunelveli parliamentary constituency is attributed to the BJP's alliance with Jayalalitha: "I voted for BJP, not for Jayalalitha," asserts Kuttralingam Thevar, a traditional DMK worker. With every Muslim having a Dalit relative and vice versa, the Dalits and Muslims of Meenakshipuram live in perfect harmony. They appear the same, dress the same and live together - often there are Hindu and Muslim houses in the same compound. Khwaja Moiddeen's wife, Rabia Banu, sports a bindi, saree, nose-ring and does not cover her head. "I feel much cleaner and no one can now ask me to vacate a bus seat," she says.

Though Seshan thunders that conversion is a grave threat to the country's peace, the people of Meenakshipuram have been living for 18 years in harmony. And, if there is a call from their new leaders, Dr Krishnaswamy of the New Tamizhaga Party, they warn that those who haven't yet will also convert. They know that the threat of Meenakshipuram completely merging into Rahmat Nagar is
a potent weapon.

Source: Daily Excelsior, March 16, 1999