Monday, October 21, 2002

Meenakshipuram Redux

Inhuman, exclusionary treatment goads Dalits to embrace Islam

Seventy-five km from Chennai, 58 Dalit families of Koothirambakkam village, near Kanchipuram, are openly challenging the government's anti-conversion ordinance. "Let Jayalalitha use it against us. We'll convert to Islam en masse and get arrested," the Dalits led by V. Madurai told Outlook. The Dalits of Koothirambakkam have been threatening to "recreate Meenakshipuram". The conversion of Meenakshipuram Dalits to Islam in 1981 sparked nationwide interest.

In Koothirambakkam, trouble began in 1979 when the Dalits were abused for fetching water from the village pond. Since 1995, the Dalits have been demanding spiritual rights as well from their 250-family-strong Vanniyar (MBC) tormentors. "They collect Rs 100 from each Dalit family for the Mariamman temple festival but refuse to let the procession into our street. Hinduism only excludes us," laments Karunanidhi, a local resident. According to him, Dalits stopped making the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala in 1997. When the Dalits were contemplating conversion, they were advised by the Hindu Munnani to visit Jayendra Saraswati. But they got no relief.

Last month, when it was Mariamman festival time, tension gripped the village as Dalits stuck to their demandthe procession must pass their streets or they would embrace Islam. Handloom minister V. Somasundaram, the collector and the tehsildar tried to convince the Dalit villagers to back off. "The minister offered us a separate Mariamman temple and asked us not to convert," recalls Madurai. Clearly, the coercion here has been against conversion, from a cabinet minister at that. "Each time we try to convert, government officials descend on us and promise amenities. Some amenities have come, but respect within Hinduism eludes us," says Madurai.

Says Ghulam Mohammad, editor, Vidiyal Veli, a Tamil Islamic publication: "If conversions were to be forced, the Koothirambakkam Dalits would not have waited for six years. Untouchability is the root cause. And the government hasn't addressed this." Says Punitha Pandian, editor of : "In July, two Dalits in Thinniyam, Tiruchi district, were forced to eat dried human faeces by Thevars. Last month, a Dalit in Dindigul was forced to drink urine by Gounders. These are the real issues that drive the Dalits away from the Hindu fold...."

Source: Outlook, October 21, 2002


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