As a nationwide debate over religious conversions gets underway, provoked by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan's comments to the Bharatiya Janata Party executive earlier this month, rediff.com returned to Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu, where the mass conversions of Dalits to Islam in February 1981 laid the foundation for the resurgence of Hindutva in the decades since. When Dalits in Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district embraced Islam in February 1981, it set off a national debate on religious conversion that echoes till this day. Does the Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Religion include the freedom to convert?
More than any other incident or issue, the Meenakshipuram conversions, it is believed, spurred the Hindu Right, notably the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, into a shrill campaign to protect Hinduism.
The conversions happened in a belt where clashes between Scheduled Castes (the Dalits) and the landed Thevar community belonging to the Other Backward Classes were a common occurrence, and came on the heels of years of caste-based discrimination of the Dalits.
Subsequent independent inquiry committees discovered that it was the engrained social iniquities, and not monetary inducement, that led to the mass conversions.
Twentyfive years later, A Ganesh Nadar visits the village in southern Tamil Nadu to find out how life has changed -- for those who converted, and for the others. This is what he discovered:
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar
'As Muslims, we are now respected' - Slide 2
September 27, 2006
Umar Qayam is a retired teacher who was born and brought up in Meenakshipuram. He went to primary school in the village and completed his high school in Tenkasi, 20 km away. Along with his entire family, he converted to Islam in 1981, when he was 43 years old.
"We converted as we were not respected by other caste Hindus. My name then was Uma Devan. We did not convert to Christianity because there is caste distinction in that religion too."
Earlier, when they said they belonged to Meenakshipuram, he says people knew they belonged to the Scheduled Caste. Not anymore.
Qayam's eldest son Umar Farooq tends the family's three acres of land.
Qayam's two other sons, Zakir Hussain and Raja Shareef, work as labourers in Dubai while their wives live here.
Both older sons have studied till Class 12. While Zakir has been in Dubai for 10 years, Raja has been there for seven. They come home once in three years, but send money regularly to their families.
Umar Qayam has two married daughters. Rashia Begum lives with her family in the village while Mumtaz lives in Sankarakoil.
There are framed photographs of former Tamil Nadu chief ministers the late M G Ramachandran and J Jayalalithaa in Qayam's house, which is called 'MGR Manzil'.
He says he is a strong supporter of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
The village has 350 families, all related to each other. Thus, there is no communal tension.
Everybody attends a marriage in the village and everybody turns up when there is a death.
The Hindus do not enter the mosque and the Muslims do not enter the temple.
Says Umar Qayam, "Now, as Muslims, we are respected. We have marriages taking place between us and other Muslims from Kadayanallur, Vadakarrai, Tenkasi, Achanpudhur and other places."
The village's Muslims, he says, do not regret that they do not have reservations anymore in education and jobs. "Good students will get seats on merit while others will do farming or work as labourers."
Mohammad Ismail is one of those who converted in 1981. He is a farmer with an acre of land and has two children.
Ismail, who grows groundnut, udad and paddy, feels agriculture is not a reliable source of income as it is too dependent on the rains. There is no canal or lake nearby, so he cultivates his land only when there are rains. The well water is not sufficient for agriculture.
When he is not farming his land, he works on other fields in this and neighbouring villages. His wife Sabral Begum works along with him.
When the couple works for others he earns Rs 70 a day as wages and his wife gets Rs 35. He has never applied for a bank loan as he feels banks only lend money to big farmers.
Subramaniam Madan alias Sunderrajan had converted to Christianity. "I had gone to the Thirumalaikoil temple nearby but was not allowed inside, so I converted to Christianity." He is happy with his decision.
He has three sons and two daughters. Two of his sons, Raju and Alexander, refused to convert. Subramaniam says, "They did not want to convert and so they did not. I did not ask them why. It is their personal wish."
Many families have members belonging to different religions but it has not affected their relationships in any way.
'A lot of caste feelings in this district' - Slide 3
September 27, 2006
Sudalai Eswaran is a small farmer with three children. Eswaran has an acre of dry land, on which he grows groundnut. Apart from cultivating his land, he also works on others' fields on daily wages. He finds regular work in Mekkarai and Achankoil villages that are 5 km away.
Though he does not have enough money to buy more land, he will not take a loan. He says with a smile, "Only big landowners can take bank loans, which are later written off by the government."
His younger brother Puthiasamy, a science graduate, works in the highways department in Coimbatore. Clued in to the goings-on around him, Sudalai adds with pride, "My brother got his job on merit and not through reservation."
And no, he has never thought of converting.
Puveneksha Duraippa is a 28-year-old civil engineer. He attended primary school at the nearby Vishwanathapuram MM School, and then went to high school in neighbouring Panpoli village. For secondary education he had to go to Senkottai, about 5 km from his village.
He earned a diploma in civil engineering from a polytechnic institute and then joined the Government Engineering College, Tirunelveli, to complete his graduation.
"I got my engineering seat thanks to reservation," he says.
His elder brother Maneckshaw is also an electronics and communications engineer. Puveneksha says their father, a revenue supervisor with the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, was inspired by Field Marshal S H F J Maneckshaw, hero of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, and hence the name.
The 29-year-old Maneckshaw first got a job as a police constable. He quit that job after passing a railway exam for the post of gang-man. He left that job when he cleared another exam for the post of assistant railway master, for which he is now undergoing training
Maneckshaw got the job through reservation.
Puveneksha admits: "Without reservation we would have become engineers, there are so many engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, but we would not have got jobs easily."
He has also been trying for a job for himself. "I have applied for the post of police sub-inspector," he says.
He believes that reservations in the private sector will be the answer to his woes. "There are a lot of graduates like me sitting at home. This will change only if there is reservation in the private sector."
K Gopalakrishnan is a science graduate from the batch of 2002.
"I am going to study law next. I got my seat through merit and not reservation," he says with pride. He is working hard to build a home for his sisters in the village, and has no qualms about taking up a blue-collar job. He is a farmer with one acre of wetland and two acres of dry land, on which he grows paddy and groundnuts.
Gopalakrishnan has four siblings. His elder brother Sudalai, after completing his 10th standard, trained as a fitter and works in a private company. Another brother Lavan, who entered an Industrial Training Institute soon after school and finished a certified electrician's course, is still unemployed.
His elder sister Karpagavalli is married to a farmer in the village, while the other sister Paneerselvam is an arts graduate. She is also a trained computer tutor, and has found temporary employment as a clerk in a nearby college.
Says Goplakrishnan, "There is a lot of caste feelings in this district. Even in the private sector we do not get jobs easily. Only if reservation is based on the population ratio will it help."
Though they all complain that they are at a disadvantage because of belonging to the Scheduled Caste, none of them speaks about converting to another religion.
Whatever religion we practice we still have to work for a living' - Slide 4
September 27, 2006
The teashop is small with a few people sitting on benches and gossiping. A cup of tea costs Rs 1.50 and a small bun costs 50 paise. There are a few small shops. There is a Public Distribution Shop that opens twice a week. Very few houses have a television set but those that do, have a cable connection. There are very few phones too. There is a shop with a public phone from which you can make local calls. There is no STD booth in the village.
Drinking water is supplied from a panchayat bore-well. Although there are water taps on almost every street, only a few houses have drinking water taps inside.
Rajaih Vairavan runs a small provision store, and has been doing so for 13 years now. Earlier, he worked in Chennai in an aluminium factory.
Except rice, he sells everything else a family would need -- groceries, vegetables, etc. He buys his goods from Panpoli village nearby and from Chengottai town, which is 5 km away.
He offers credit to the villagers and says everyone pays up in a week or 10 days.
While many villagers changed their religion 25 years ago, "I did not do so because I did not feel like it. Whatever religion we practice we still have to work for a living," he says.
There is one panchayat-run primary school in the village that offers Classes 1 to 5. Some 51 students study there.
K Seetharaman has been the school headmaster for six years. He said many students go to the English medium school at the other end of the village. Only very poor students come to his school.
While there are usually an equal number of Hindu and Muslim students, this year has seen a spurt in the number of Muslims students.
"This is a poor area. The land is dry, there is no lake or canal here. You should have a river or lake to have rich fertile land," he points out.
The government provides everything free in the school, including meals, books and uniforms. There are two government teachers and two temporary teachers arranged by the Parent Teachers Association.
Seetharaman said some students, unable either to cope with the English medium school's standard or to afford its high fees, returned to the government-run school.
St Joseph's School is on the outskirts of Meenakshipuram, and has been around for three years. Run till Class 7, the English school plans to take the current batch till the higher secondary level. About 400 students from nearby villages attend this school, some 50 from Meenakshipuram itself.
The school principal, Sister Sahaya Flower, said while students from Meenakshipuram struggle in the first year, they pick up subsequently.
With even primary education being a big deal, most villagers feel they can progress only if some industry comes to the area. As farmers, they say, their future is bleak.
'Human beings should live like human beings -- that's why I converted' - Slide 5
September 27, 2006
The local Jamaat leader Ahamed Akbar meets me at his coconut grove. He has held the post for 20 years. He was also the panchayat president until 10 years ago when his son-in-law Jaffer Ali took over the post. Ahamed Akbar was one of those who converted in 1981. "Human beings should live like human beings -- that's why I converted," he says.
He says converting to Islam has not changed their economic status much.
"We were farmers before, we still remain farmers," he says.
But, he adds, the attitude of upper caste Hindus towards them has changed.
"Then, they did not talk to us with respect. Now, they respect us as much as we respect them."
Earlier they lived in mud houses and huts. This has now changed and they live in concrete houses like others in the village.
During elections, members of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam come to the village from Tirunelveli to seek votes. But they do not get any support in the village.
The villagers back either the AIADMK or the DMK, with a few Congress supporters.
"There are a lot of educated boys in the village. Only if we get jobs will our village improve. If some industry starts here, the economy of our village will improve," he says.
"Hindus and Muslims live here in harmony because we are one family. The entire village is related to each other," he points out.
There is a Kali temple in the village that is freshly painted. Shunmugavel Kutty is the priest, and for generations members of his family have been heading the temple.
Kutty says after 1981 there have been no further conversions. In fact, he says, a few Hindus who had converted then returned to the faith and nobody holds a grudge against them.
The priest's two sons work as labourers in the village fields. "My elder son Kumar will be the next priest," he adds.
Life goes on in Meenakshipuram, as in any other small village in Tamil Nadu. The conversions of 1981 are now a memory, and in the village itself is not of any great consequence.
September 27, 2006