CASTE NOT CASH, LED TO CONVERSIONS
Following the conversion of hundreds of dalits to Islam in
Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district in 1981, fury and rage often
clouded serious debate. 'Independent' inquiry reports, often produced
by some with clear-cut political links, presented exaggerated, even
fantastic accounts of events there. Was it, as some of these claimed,
that people had changed their religion for money? Or had the
dehumanizing pain of caste become simply too much to bear? Nearly two
decades later, P. Sainath poses those questions to the people of the
hamlet themselves: converts, non-converts, re-converts, dalits and
CASTE NOT CASH, LED TO CONVERSIONS
Meenakshipuram & Panpozhi, Tirunelveli (Tamil Nadu): "The modus
operandi of the counterfeiting operations is that the printing is done
by the Christians. The distribution outlets are the trade channels of
the Muslims. The Harijans are employed to carry the counterfeit
This was one of the "facts" behind the conversions at
Meenakshipuram in 1981. Uncovered, uniquely, by a "study team"
reporting to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) -- Southern Zone. No
official inquiry gave this any credence. But it and other such "facts"
were given wide publicity that year.
The conspiracy theory went further. A later report by (we must
assume) another study team went ballistic. It too, made the
counterfeiting charge. But added to it. It spoke of "reported
attempts by the Muslims to influence the police with money to harass
Simply: the Muslims bribed the police. The police harassed the
dalits. Angry with the police, the dalits became Muslims.
The 'study teams' of 1981, in diverse avatars, wrote and re-wrote
reports. Each embellished earlier efforts. Sometimes, they moved away
from basic "facts" of the earlier ones. Some even bore no name or
printers' address. But they all make fascinating reading. Especially
two influenced by the VHP-RSS.
But there is much that remains common across those 'inquiry' reports
-- and other pamphlets and stories of the time. Main among these:
the dalits were, at best, simpletons. Easily misled, unable to learn
from personal experience. At worst, they were for sale.
In this worldview, the "basic reasons for conversion" included: the
'role of big money, including foreign money'. A 'lumpsum payment of
Rs. 500 was given to each convert on the day of conversion.' There
were also gifts in kind. 'Harijan Hindus' found the 'allurement' of
'good jobs' in Gulf countries irresistible. Gulf money played a huge
role in all this. A global Muslim conspiracy backed it. A local
criminal nexus was involved.
The reports expressed a few worries about the ills of Hindu society.
The dalits had reason "to be angry with their Hindu brethren."
However, the notion that conversions were due to "ill-treatment of
harijan Hindus" was "contrary to facts." But this fiction had
foisted through "sustained efforts and propaganda" . Thanks to Muslim
leaders and "purchaseable elements amongst the Hindu harijans."
A fact-finding committee of the Arya Samaj placed this unusual fact
before the media: "In Meenakshipuram, good relationship prevailed
between caste Hindus and harijans. And they could see them mingle
freely in a spirit of camaraderie."
The danger of conversion, though, was not just in Meenakshipuram. In
the VHP's view, nearly 100,000 people in about 500 villages across
three districts were in danger of conversion. In nearby Thanjavur, the
conspirators were different. Thanjavur "is a breeding ground for
Communists". They exploited the dalits. The latter might seek
conversion to escape the Communist hold.
That, in reality, none of this ever happened is a different matter.
What did the people of Meenakshipuram and Thenpottai themselves
think? We put that question to converts, non-converts and re-converts
among the dalits. Also to non-dalits.
Nothing infuriates people here more than the suggestion that those who
changed their faith, did so for money. Those who did not convert are
no less outraged.
S. Shanmugavel, a retired BDO, is a dalit who did not convert. Yet, he
almost loses his temper at the charge of money being an inducement.
"Nonsense! Money played no role. I did not convert, so I can say so
easily. Two sisters of mine converted. What money? I would know. Even
my grandparents had once thought of conversion. Oppression alone was
Jayalakshmi in Panpozhi, who did not convert, agrees. "There is no
startling improvement in economic terms for any group," she says.
"There are many unemployed on all sides. Things have improved greatly,
though: there is much less oppression. The maravars (Thevars) behave a
lot better today." Her husband, Subramanian, was among those dalits
who led the anti-conversion charge.
Bharathan, an NGO activist in Tirunelveli, explained this to us.
"Those making these charges never stopped to think. They do not
realise that many who did not convert, did consider doing so. Thus,
non-converted dalits know the real reasons why people changed their
faith. After all, they had felt the same pain, torture and
humiliation. They had experienced the same reasons every day of their
lives. When someone suggests the converts took money -- they might
be accusing the brothers and sisters of those who did not go to
"Did we take money to convert?" asks Ahmed Akbar, Thenpottai
panchayat chief. He was one of the 1981 converts. "We could have. And
we could have made a lot more money by reconverting because the other
side came down here trying to entice us. I used to say if money was
the motivation, go ahead and offer people Rs. 1 lakh. After all, you
say they changed for Rs. 500. Then you'll know if they converted for
money. Of course, nothing like that happened. As the Armugam inquiry
showed, money was not the reason."
K. Armugam, Director, Scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes had
probed the events. In a statement carried by many, including The Hindu
in May 1981, he had said a few things. Among these: "the possibility
of humiliation due to untouchability could not be ruled out as the
main factor for the conversions." That the charges of monetary gain
were unproven. Also that the dalits had told him they had been
contemplating the action for years. That during a panchayat meeting, a
dalit member was prevented from drinking water. That when Armugam
asked the caste Hindus about this, their reply was simple. These were
But it was the sensational 'independent' inquiry reports that got
In the hamlet itself visiting political leaders asked the dalits: did
they convert for money? That further infuriated the dalits. "I asked
them," says Zafrullah, "even Ambedkar left this religion in
frustration. Did he take money? No. Oppression was the cause."
Zafrullah was a convert in 1981 and is now jamaat chief.
To those exhorting them to return to Hinduism, the dalits posed two
devastating questions: "how do we 'return' to where in the first place
we were outcastes and outsiders?" And more importantly: "sure, we'll
return. And in which category will you place us? Brahmins? Chettiars?
Thevars? Which caste?" The question was usually a showstopper.
Even Muthupandian Thevar, one of those who led the anti-conversion
drive in Meenakshipuram, avoids the change-for-money charge. He
believes there "was some truth" in the complaint of oppression.
"They spoke to higher ups in the Islamic Sabai," he told us at his
house. " They built a makeshift shed as a mosque. They converted. I
don't think money was their motive. We all live peacefully now."
"After Vajpayee's visit, we distributed dhotis, sarees and so on.
People abroad also made donations. Soon, the Muslims also gave dhotis.
Both sides gave them to all dalits, converts and non- converts. We
also spent money repairing the houses and roofs of some 30 SC
families. After Vajpayee's visit, some reconverted."
"Sure, outside money came in -- brought in by both camps," says a
government officer familiar with the district. "The question is: did
people change religions because of that? The answer is: absolutely
In Panpozhi, though, there are still believers in the conversion- for-
gain theory. K. S. Anantharamaseshan (or 'Seshu Iyer' as he is
referred to here) is one. He believes converts were "lured by the
Islamic Sabai." That the Muslims believed the conversions were their
duty. That it was all pre-planned ("My own Muslim friends tell me
this.") That "definitely money was a factor." He also feels
was no provocation at all for the conversions." The issue of dalits
being denied access to the Padaivituamman temple was both untrue and
irrelevant. "The SCs do not care for this temple. This deity is not
theirs. So there was never a question of any tensions."
In 1981 Anantharamaseshan was a leader of the Anaithu Samudhyaya Hindu
Marumalarchi Sangham. This was the All Community Hindu Renaissance
Society. It sought to combat the conversions. A few families did
In Madurai, M.S. Ramamurthy of the Arya Samaj had this to tell us:
"Muslims misled them into the step of converting You know they were
poor harijans. They gave them biryani and some things and told these
people that Islam has no caste. These fellows believed that, sir, and
changed their religion. We went there to tell them this was not true.
Not all who reconverted did so on the efforts of the Samaj or others.
Sivanaiammal (elder sister of Zafarullah) is a reconvert. Her family
now has both Hindus and Muslims. "My sons converted. That sort of
forced me. Many of us found the rules of Islam too difficult to
follow, anyway. I was drawn back by tradition. All my life I had been
helping in the temple festival here. When the festival time came, I
Jayalakshmi feels: "quite a few women who converted felt they had lost
some of their freedom. Earlier, social mixing was there. They could at
least go about freely in their own locality. As Muslims, they were
more and more confined to their homes. Some are happy with the change,
some not. I think the older generation feel the loss more keenly. The
younger generation of girls have never gone to the fields to work you
see. So they don't know the free movement their mothers had."
Sivanaiammal's son Subburaj, spoke to us separately. "I was a Muslim
for one year. When the police treated this village like cattle, no one
cared. Who knows our humiliation? In Islam it was different. Who comes
first to the mosque, he sits in the first row. In Hinduism it is
according to status. Someone important can come at any time, but his
garland goes first on the idol. I reconverted only because of my
parents. When they are no more, I might well reconvert."
The VHP-RSS charge that people converted for money put out a
humiliating picture of scheduled caste citizens: as people willing to
switch faith for cash. That still angers dalits of all religions. It
reinforced the very upper caste stereotypes of dalits that they so
One VHP-RSS charge of 1981 was of "converted persons living a life
much beyond their known sources of income." Also "the easy money_has
made them lazy and they are not likely to accept their traditional
means of livelihood." Apart from being landless labour, 'traditional
livelihood' included other things. Such as scavenging, disposing of
the dead, tanning -- and other 'polluted' professions that in the
first place fixed their caste status.
What does the man who actually presided over the conversions say?
Shahul Hamid was an MLA from Tenkasi in 1981. When I spoke to him in
Palayamkottai last June he was still head of the South India Isha-
Athul Islam Sabai (SIIS). This body (it now has a new chief) organised
the conversions .
"It was the dalits who wanted to convert. They had come even in my
father's time. But he found the Muslims of Panpozhi opposed to the
idea. Purely from fear of the Thevars. They said 'We'll get attacked.
Our properties will be destroyed. My father stopped there. I believe
even before his time, they had made some attempts to convert."
"Even in 1981, when they approached us -- my brother then headed
SIIS -- we were hesitant. Some members feared the possible
consequences. In the end however, we concluded that we should not let
down those who sought our help. It was our duty. Sure enough, the
properties of some Muslims were damaged. And yes, fellow Muslims did
help reconstruct things. But if you think people changed religions for
money -- why not talk to people in Meenakshipuram yourself? I can
tell you scores of politicians have made this inquiry before you have.
All went away knowing the truth. Ask them."
The Gulf "conspiracy" did not see more people from here getting jobs
in Gulf countries than from anywhere else. Indeed, some Hindus in this
region have done okay out of it. More educated than the Muslims, they
were able to get slightly higher categories of jobs. The latter went
mainly as labourers.
Even Anantharamaseshan believes "there have been no major social or
economic changes here in 15 years that did not occur elsewhere.
Development has been the same as anywhere else." The conversions, he
feels, had no impact on the socio-economic development of any
particular group. And like many others in this area, he too says:
"People want relationships to be maintained, old links to be retained.
They want things to be peaceful."
There was some unforeseen fallout, though. Retired BDO Shanmugavel
says, "I must tell you of the effects. Suddenly those colleges which
had ill-treated SC students and never filled quotas, started calling
our boys and girls and asking them to take seats in these colleges!
Earlier, never once did they do this! Only after conversion. Four
colleges I know directly did this. An approach road came up. Some
government bus service now functions. All at once, everything was
being offered to us."
The lesson was not lost on others in Tirunelveli. From time to time,
dalit hamlets in the district have threatened to convert to Islam. In
Vadanathampatti village, people told me of how they had issued an
ultimatum to the government. They were considering converting. They
finally did not. But, they say, "the option is not closed." Similar
warnings were issued elsewhere. But it is a bargaining for dignity and
a community's rights, not for individual gain.
As one dalit elder put it: "Let's say we take a delegation to see a
senior officer in town. That too, armed with facts and figures about
our most pressing problems. We could wait for days before seeing
anyone. But if a village says they are planning to convert, the
Collector himself, no less, will be there within hours." Clearly,
some are learning how to negotiate with the state. In a way very
different from the traditional role of begging supplicant.
Back in Meenakshipuram, Zafrullah tells me how the present differs
from 1981. "People here are more educated now. Dalits have a far
better social status. There is no practice of untouchability. There is
respect given and received all around. And there is peace." The social
protest that the conversions represented has also had a sobering
effect on the upper castes. They have learned not to push too hard.
The hamlet has its share of problems. Not very different from other
hamlets and villages. But it has coped with some of the most serious
of these. Nearly two decades after the conversions, Meenakshipuram is
at peace with itself. (Concluded)