Home ] Up ] PART 1 ] PART 2 ] PART 3 ] Images ] Why I am Not a Hindu ] Pseudo Hindus ] Manusmriti ] Belief ] Bride Burning and Dowry Deaths ] Women ] Hindu Tolerance: Myths ] Ram Myth ] Beaf Eating ] Devadasi ] [ Meenakshipuram ] Matts of Crime ] SaiBaba ]




One people, many identities
Date: 31 Jan. 1999

When hundreds of dalits in Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district converted to Islam in 1981, it
surprised the nation. So did the fallout in clashes between people of different communities and
religions. Why did they do so? What drove them to it? A furious, often irrational
debate on conversions shook the country. Yet, through that chaotic period, and in
subsequent years, the people of Meenakshipuram - against tremendous odds - put
their lives back together, with dignity, in a manner that holds many lessons for all
Indians. Eighteen years later, P. SAINATH visited the once infamous hamlet.
Continuing the series of exclusive reports on the condition of dalits, especially in the
rural areas.

Meenakshipuram & Panpozhi, Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu):

``ALL I did was install this handpump in our house,'' says Jayalakshmi. ``Next thing,
people asked me: `are you converting?' You see, Muslim women didn't go much to
fetch water from public taps. They used handpumps at home. So when our
handpump came, I was asked if we were converting to Islam.''

Jayalakshmi's is one of those dalit families here that did not change their faith in
1981. That was when Meenakshipuram hit the headlines, with several dalits turning
to Islam. It was the conversion story of the Eighties. And threw up perhaps the most
heated debate on conversions India has ever seen.

The story, broken in April 1981 by the Indian Express, was graphic. It reported that
``180 Hindu harijan families have changed their faith. Nearly 1,000 persons have
shifted their loyalty to Islam.'' Relatively better off dalits, it said, had sought equal
social status with higher caste Thevars of the area. Instead, they were ill-treated.
The story quoted dalits who alleged that they had been socially boycotted and

The story pointed out that things erupted with the murder of two Thevars in nearby
Mekkarai village. The police, suspecting the involvement of dalits, came down very
heavily on the whole community. ``...it is alleged,'' said the report, that ``some harijans
(were) illegally detained for more than a month. Agitated over the attitude of the
police and to gain status, the harijans turned to Islam.''

The report quoted one dalit as saying he had been `forcibly converted'. It indicated
the likely conversion of 50 more families by the month end. And reported the efforts
of groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to hold a ``re-conversion
ceremony'' for 50 of the new converts.

The issue exploded in both the Tamil Nadu Assembly and in Parliament. Ministers in
the State and from the Centre trooped in to Meenakshipuram, bringing of course,
countless journalists in their wake. Top leaders of most major political parties in the
country paid a visit. So did a number of social workers and fact- finding committees.
Some, with clearcut political links, produced `independent' inquiry reports widely
publicised by the press of the day. Many religious leaders also showed up.

Ahmed Akbar was one of the dalits who converted. ``Barring Indira Gandhi, MGR
and Karunanidhi,'' he told us, ``anybody who was important came here. Vajpayee,
Makwana, R. M. Veerappan, Subramaniam Swamy...''

The fallout of the caste and communal polarisation was more fierce outside
Meenakshipuram. Clashes in Tirunelveli found echoes within and beyond Tamil
Nadu. Sometimes between Thevars and Muslims. Often between Thevars and dalits.
In some places in tensions between mainly upper caste Hindus and Muslims. The
debate on conversions that followed often ran more on rhetoric than reality; was
more given to fury than to fact; and was one where rage mostly overwhelmed

Nearly two decades later, relations within and between different communities in the
village tell us much more. Relatively speaking, Meenakshipuram is an island of
tranquility in turbulent Tirunelveli. In a district notorious for caste violence, it remains
mostly serene. (Meenakshipuram is mainly a dalit hamlet in the village of Thenpottai.
It is just next to Panpozhi village and is a few kilometres from Tenkasi.)

A typical 1981 headline on Meenakshipuram ran: ``A whole village goes Islamic.''
Actually, the dalits were evenly divided. Both Muslims and non-converted dalits
confirm this.

Subramanian is the priest at the Kaliamman temple patronised by dalits. (They were
never allowed to enter the Padaivituamman temple in Shencottah.) He's been in
charge there for over 15 years. ``We used to have 300 families coming here,'' he told
me at the temple. ``Now the number is 150 because half became Muslims.'' The
estimate of the Jamaat chief of Meenakshipuram, Zafrulla Khan (himself a dalit
convert) matches that of Subramanian. ``It would be broadly correct to say about 50
per cent converted,'' he told us.

While the rest of the country raged over the ``mass'' conversions, Meenakshipuram's
dalits swiftly put their lives back in order. ``There is inter-marriage between people in
the different religions,'' says Jayalakshmi. Others, too, confirm this. ``It came up in
curious ways,'' she says. In some families, father and son converted but not mother
and daughter. ``So you have boys who are Muslims with sisters who are Hindus.''

``There has been no change in our cultural interaction, though. After all we remain
brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and nieces and nephews. How does that
change if some of us change our religion?''

Jayalakshmi and her husband Subramanian who is the Block Health Supervisor, did
not embrace Islam. Some of their close relatives did. ``I am neither happy nor
unhappy about their conversion or about our non-conversion,'' she says. ``I think we
made the correct decision for ourselves. Perhaps they made the right decision for
themselves. They come for our weddings. We go for theirs.''

And there are also the complex inter-marriages. One reality is that their social status
has vastly improved. Another is that, though greatly eroded, the disabilities of
dalithood do not just vanish. Caste, to some degree, permeates every religion. Nor do
clan and kinship structures melt with a change in faith. Even as these institutions
change or adapt, people still have to seek spouses within their old caste groups.
That's another reason for marriages across lines of faith.

Jayalakshmi's husband - who was away the day we arrived - led those dalits who
opposed the conversions. Yet, it was in their house that I met Ahmed Akbar,
Thenpottai panchayat president. He was one of the converts, and was later a jamaat
chief. It seemed odd we should interview him in the house of one of those who led
the anti-conversion drive in the village. To Jayalakshmi and her son Ganesh Kumar, it
seemed perfectly normal. We now understood better what she had said of people
remaining uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters. Ahmed Akbar
is Jayalakshmi's brother.

``On the whole, I believe our decision to convert was correct,'' says Akbar Ahmed.
``I pass no judgment on others. Some of my relatives did not convert. They have their
freedom, I have mine. Each had their options. All compulsion is wrong. People had a
right to decide for themselves.''

So why did those who convert, do so?

``Terror and untouchability were the hallmark of our lives,'' says Ahmed Akbar. ``The
two-glass system was in full force here in tea shops. In most shops they would not
serve us at all. We were harassed in every way.''

One 1981 report spoke of some dalits here as ``by and large, sufficiently rich.'' There
were educated dalits here. But in reality, most residents of the hamlet were either
landless labourers or marginal farmers. Ahmed Akbar, for instance, owned less than
half an acre. They did make ends meet, though, by tilling lands leased from the
Thiruvaduthurai Adinam Math in the adjacent village of Mekkarai. But they had to
pass through Panpozhi to reach those fields.

That was tough. Very often, dalits were roughed up merely for being who they were.
Sometimes, their offence was simply the wearing of a shirt.

``The maravars (Thevars) heaped humiliation, even torture, on the scheduled castes,''
says Jayalakshmi. ``The dalits of Meenakshipuram had it worse than those of us
within Panpozhi.'' At least one inquiring government official of the time (reported in
TheHindu) found this true. He recorded that dalits were not allowed to wear
chappals while walking through non-dalit areas.

Zafrullah Khan, a convert and now jamaat chief, sums it up. ``We had no respect at
all. Even those with government jobs were ill- treated. When they got such jobs in the
towns, no one would give them houses on rent. We started to think: What are the
reasons for this? Why does government behave the way it does? Why two glasses at
the shops? Why that same treatment in hotels? Why were our children mistreated at
school? Why were there even separate burial grounds or burning ghats? At the
temples, the same treatment. These were our reasons.''

``In 1969, I was a panchayat member at Thenpottai. We had this meeting in
Courtallam. I was not served water. I did not dare take water from the pot there.
Outside, the shop owners refused me tea. What could I do? Also, anything that took
place in this area, the police regularly picked up and thrashed our boys. We saw the
state of dalits in Tamil Nadu and then decided to convert. It was our last resort.
Oppression and oppression alone was the reason. I do not want to single out Thevars
as those who behaved badly with us. All non-SC people, Brahmins onwards, behaved
the same way.''

``Our older generation had often discussed conversion. But they were not united on
it,'' says Ahmed Akbar. ``A few did convert some years ago. I had no desire to do
so. I was simply stuck in my life as a cultivator working to survive. Then came the
murder of the two Thevars. The police simply picked up everyone here. I too, though
we had nothing at all to do with it. I was sick that day. I was just bundled up and
thrown into the van like an animal. That's how we were treated. Like animals. Some
of my relatives had to pay a bribe of Rs. 1,000 to get me released. As I lay sick in
that station, that was my breaking point. I knew I had had enough. I was going to

Thirumalai Kumar, then a teenager, was reported in some accounts to have
converted - and later `re-converted'. He now says: ``We wished to change, certainly.
Sons and fathers were divided on this issue. I thought, yes. My father felt no. Finally,
I respected his decision.''

His memories of the time: ``The RSS came and put the sacred thread on many of us
`You are not low caste' they now said. We will treat you as equals. Don't leave
Hinduism.' Nobody worried about us when we were miserable within their Hinduism.
No one protested when we suffered untouchability. But once the conversions took
place, they were all worried about us. The RSS and others came running then.''

His father, S. Shanmugavel, retired as Block Development Officer in 1992. He did
not convert. But, he says, ``the police were terrible. Their oppression was a major
cause for conversions.''

He also sees that it gave the dalits a new bargaining power. ``I was manager in the
Tenkasi BDO's office at the time,'' he says. ``The then Brahmin BDO called me. He
said: `whatever facilities your village needs, Shanmugavel, tell me. I'll get it done
straightaway'. Till that day,'' he laughs, ``we had no overhead tank. No approach
road. No tap facilities. There was nothing in this village. Suddenly, everything was
being offered to us.''

Why did the dalits who converted go to Islam? Why not Christianity? Or Buddhism?

``Why Islam?'' asks Zafrullah. ``We knew other religions indirectly. But Hinduism we
knew directly. Buddhism we knew nothing about except that Ambedkar had
converted to it. Here in Tamil Nadu, we knew something of Christianity. We knew it
was riddled with caste. My father-in-law was a Christian.'' A few dalits had once
sought a way out through Christianity. Some of these, too, converted to Islam in

``We discussed the pros and cons of each faith after talking to the elders of those
groups. We took the initiative for conversion. We went to the South India Isha-Athul
Sabai (SIIS) in Palayamkottai. We sought conversion. They asked endless questions.
Why did we really want to convert? We had only one aim: equality.''

A myth of the time was the eagerness of local Muslims to score over the Thevars via
conversions. It wasn't so simple at all. Class interests, too, made themselves felt.
``Some Muslims in Panpozhi were against our being converted,'' says Ahmed Akbar.
``They feared they would lose a good source of cheap labour if they had to treat us
as equals.'' Some of them were landowners. The dalits, mainly landless.

``The Muslims were unwilling to convert them,'' says Palai N. Shanmugham. Now
retired, he was for years a leading advocate of Tirunelveli. ``They were afraid to
antagonise the Thevars.''

``There was a time,'' says Ahmed Akbar, ``when some Muslims of Panpozhi also
practised untouchability. They too, called us caste names. The separate glasses
system existed in their shops, too. But the Muslim elders in Tenkasi behaved
differently. They changed things - after we went to those in the Islam Sabai. Such
attitudes have long ago died out in Panpozhi, too.''

Muthupandian Thevar led his community's drive against the conversions in 1981. His
most cherished memory of the time, he told us at his house in Meenakshipuram, was:
``when Vajpayee came here. He stayed for three days in the area. There were 3,000
people in the Arya Samaj procession when he came. He said: `what's happened has
happened. But from today on, there should not be a single new conversion'.''

``The dalits thought they were suppressed and discriminated against,'' says
Muthupandian Thevar. ``I think there was some truth in that. Maybe in the next
generation there will be real equality. Yes, there was social oppression. But it is not
there now.''

Where you speak to converts, non-converts or re-converts, dalits, Thevars or
Muslims, on one point, there is broad agreement: social relations have improved and
everyone has benefited. To the extent it has had a sobering effect on the upper
castes, the Meenakshipuram incident seems to have hit untouchability itself. At least
in the vicinity.

``Untouchability has gone down even in some nearby villages. Though, of course, it
exists elsewhere in the district,'' says Ahmed Akbar. ``Today, here at least, there are
no separate glasses for different castes. Those who with contempt called me caste
names, now show me respect. Those who shouted, `dey, pallan', now call me bhai. I
go to the Thevars homes and eat there. They come to our homes and eat there.
There are no caste tensions today.''

Meenakshipuram's residents now get on with their lives. Families can exist with
members being Hindus, Muslims, even possibly Christians. Their multiple identities do
not come in the way of family and community ties. With all its problems - and they
are many and complex - the village has come through its ordeal. Here, human
relationships have survived caste and religious hatreds. Human ties have endured, a
challenge to rage and unreason.

(To be concluded)

Home ] Introduction ] Myths ] Organizations ] Cultural Fascism ] Riots and attacks ] Role of Govt. & Police ] Hindu ] Dalit ] Muslims ] India ] World Fascism ] Images ] Posters ] Cartoon ] Audio & Video ] Discussion ] Search ] News &  Events ] What's New ]
Discuss The Topic Further On Our Public Bulletin Board  Search  Indian Fascism
1 Add this page to Favorites   * Share it with a Friend   : Make it your Homepage!

FAIR USE NOTICE: Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the contributors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publishers. This Web contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are  making these available in our efforts to advance understanding of  human rights,  democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a `fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use these copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond `fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Your suggestions  will keep us abreast of what do u like to see in these pages.
Last updated: February 26, 2000.