The Meenakshipuram conversions three decades ago came as a spontaneous response to upper-caste oppression in Tamil Nadu. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN
WHEN around 200 Dalit families of Meenakshipuram village near Tenkasi in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, unable to bear the practice of untouchability by caste Hindus, embraced Islam on February 19, 1981, the nation stood in disbelief that such an act could take place in a State known for its socially radical movements.
It was a collective but spontaneous decision by the Dalits, who were subjected to inhuman treatment by the landed class, the majority of them Maravas, a Most Backward Caste (MBC) group in Tamil Nadu. No one had coerced them or induced them to shift their religious loyalty. The Director of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Welfare of the Government of India in his report on the incident made it clear that it was not a case of “forceful conversion”.
The Dalit villagers said they had approached Muslim clerics in Tirunelveli town to get them converted. An organisation, Isha-ad-ul Islam Sabha of South India, helped them. A mosque came up in Meenakshipuram and a cleric was appointed. The village, which once had one or two Muslim families, has been renamed Rahmat Nagar. The issue, which came to light after a few days, created an uproar in Parliament. Leaders of Hindu fundamentalist forces, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, visited the village. The Central government despatched its Minister of State for Home Yogendra Makwana to Meenakshipuram.
A string of Hindu organisations, too, such as the Arya Samaj sent their representatives to the village. The Arya Samaj built a school in the village, which is in a dilapidated condition today and stands as a stark reminder of the failed attempt to woo the converts back to Hinduism. The fallout of the conversion was the birth of the Hindu Munnani (Hindu Front), a mutated version of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), in Tamil Nadu.
A year after the Meenakshipuram incident, clashes between Christians and Muslims over allegations of conversions in Mandaikkadu in Kanyakumari district rocked Tamil Nadu. M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) was the Chief Minister then, heading the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. He appointed the Justice Venugopal Commission of Inquiry to look into the incidents at Meenakshipuram and Mandaikkadu.
But nothing could reverse the converts’ decision. Hindu Munnani leader Ramagopalan, however, claimed that nearly 90 per cent of the converts, especially in Meenakshipuram, had returned to the Hindu fold.
Justice Venugopal took four years to complete his inquiry. His major recommendation was that a law should be enacted to ban forced conversions. He wanted the drill and parade of Hindutva outfits to be prohibited since they were creating fear among the minorities. MGR accepted his report, but nothing happened by way of state action.
After nearly 15 years, Jayalalithaa, as Chief Minister, enacted The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act in 2002, banning all religious conversions by force, deceit or allurement. The State Assembly passed it after a heated debate, with 140 members supporting it and 73 opposing it in a House of 234. Jayalalithaa maintained that the legislation was intended to prevent vulnerable sections of society from falling prey to force and allurements. “There is no provision under the Indian Penal Code to prevent conversions,” she told the Assembly at that time of its passing.
On June 3, 2003, Pope John Paul II criticised the anti-conversion laws of some of the Indian States by saying that they were “prohibiting the free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom”. He urged the Catholic Church in India to proclaim the gospel “courageously”. Reacting sharply to the pope’s words, Jayalalithaa said he had “no authority to speak on the law that was enacted by democratically elected governments”. Her critics, however, said that she was playing into the hands of the Sangh Parivar.
As expected, Hindu outfits and the BJP welcomed what later came to be known as the anti-conversion law of the Jayalalithaa government. A few other States also enacted similar pieces of legislation, with Gujarat being the first in line. But before that, Madhya Pradesh (the Madhya Pradesh Swatantrata Adhiniyam Act, 1966), Odisha (the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967), Arunachal Pradesh (the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978) and Tripura had enacted similar laws.
But the Tamil Nadu Act had only a short span of life. In the 2004 parliamentary elections, in which the law had become a hot campaign issue, Jayalalithaa’s party, the AIADMK, fared badly, with the minorities vehemently opposing it. On May 18, 2004, she repealed it through an ordinance.
The Meenakshipuram conversions opened an avenue for the oppressed elsewhere in Tamil Nadu to discard the fetters of untouchability and assert themselves by embracing a new faith that they believed would bring them dignity. Hardly a month after the Meenakshipuram incident, 150 Dalit families in Utharakosamangai village in Ramanathapuram embraced Islam.
The Hindu of January 19, 2001, carried a detailed report by this writer on the conversion of Dalit Hindus in the cluster of villages in and around Peraiyur in Madurai district. They did so to escape the persistent persecution at the hands of caste Hindus. A group of 30 Dalits of S. Keezhapatti near Peraiyur got converted to Islam in 1994, and another batch of 26 in 2000; three of them got reconverted.
Quoting an early convert, Raja Mohammed, once known as Lingaraj, the report stated that Dalit Hindus embraced Islam “willingly” as it ensured them “self-respect and dignity”, which had been denied to them for centuries. “We are now spared of the feeling of shame and rejection by a society which preaches untouchability,” said Raja Mohammed, who, however, claimed that a few of his family members, including his mother and sisters, still follow the Hindu faith.
For Abdul Razack, known as Ramaiyah, it was a bitter experience that made him convert. He used to buy sweetmeats from the nearby Srivilliputtur to sell in the surrounding villages. But his business folded up as his caste identity was revealed. Converting to Islam, he said, broke the chains of social alienation. A study claims that nearly 10,000 Dalits, predominantly Hindus, live in abysmal conditions in over 25 villages in the area.
Dalits of Kodiyankulam in Tuticorin district, against whom the police unleashed brutal violence in 1996, and of Koothirambakkam village near Kancheepuram, threatened to “recreate” Meenakshipuram. But sustained efforts by Dalit and Hindu outfits, besides the government machinery, stopped the conversions in these two villages and also in Ramanathapuram district. Pudiya Thamilagam’s Dr K. Krishnaswamy, who led the Kodiyankulam people against state oppression, convinced them that conversions would not help put an end to their miseries. “We have to fight the caste oppression remaining within the faith. We should not run away,” he told them.
Untouchability in the Hindu religion has been the main reason for the conversions. Activists point out that the state should have addressed the issue with social commitment. In July 2002, two Dalits in Thinniyam in Tiruchi district were forced to eat dried human faeces and in September the same year a Dalit in Dindigul district was forced to drink urine. Inhuman acts like these force Dalits to seek other faiths where they believe their dignity will be restored and safeguarded, activists said. The majority of the new converts preferred Islam since they feared caste-based discrimination in Indian Churches too.
Though the conversion issue is back in the national limelight, Tamil Nadu has not recorded any incident of mass conversions as in the past, thanks to the work of Dalit parties and social workers.
The Meenakshipuram converts have no regrets. The second generation, which has grown up in the new faith, feels emancipated from the clutches of caste oppression. Its members claim they are being respected today as Muslims.