Book Review: Thol. Thirumavalavan's 'Mathamum Mathamaatramum' puts caste identity and conversion in the spotlight

Print edition : January 14, 2022

Members of minority communities observe a day-long fast against the Anti-Conversion Ordinance introduced by the Tamil Nadu government, in Chennai on October 25, 2002, Photo: the HINDU photo archives

The book portrays caste atrocities and police brutalities as reasons for religious conversion and rejects the argument that the lure of money was the motive.

IN recent days, there have been frequent attacks on the minority communities, accusing them of forced conversions or luring people to convert. Right-wing outfits enter places of worship of the minority communities, vandalise them and attack the faithful on the pretext of preventing conversions. Although laws exist to prevent forced religious conversions, minority communities are often targeted. Karnataka is planning to introduce an anti-conversion law, but the move is already facing a backlash in that State.

Tamil Nadu has its own history of anti-conversion laws. In the light of the recent events, it will be helpful to understand why and how conversions happen.

Mathamum Mathamaatramum (Religion and Conversion), a book in Tamil by Dr Thol. Thirumavalavan, president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), guides us through the issue.

“Religion is based on an ideology. It constructs an identity, guides, dominates and rules humanity,” he writes. The book is a by-product of his doctoral research titled “Mass Religious Conversion at Meenakshipuram: A Victimological Analysis” and a compilation of three research articles, interviews with three converts, and the Tamil Nadu Assembly discussions on the Meenakshipuram conversion. In a mass religious conversion, 180 families converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu on February 19, 1981. This had a huge all-India impact and drew the attention of high-profile political leaders.

Dalits living in Meenakshipuram have been facing caste discrimination and violence at the hands of dominant castes. The police force, in which most of the officers belong to dominant castes, instead of protecting the people from atrocities, has been perpetrating atrocities on them. Realising that their predicament was caused by the caste system inherent in their religion, the 180 Dalit families decided to join another religion, which they believed would offer them a life of dignity and peace.

Also read: An account of Dalits and their bond with land

The author analyses the history and background of religion and goes on to explain the impact it has on society as a whole and on an individual. He points out that religion is the foremost institution that preserves and develops the specific character of any group of people through art, literature and culture. He draws a parallel between the state and religion and explains how the state rules the people through laws and regulations, and religion rules them through holy books or commandments.

Pointing to the fact that among South Asian countries only the Indian state has no religious affiliation, the author explains that religious affiliation of a state would contribute to majoritarianism. Pointing out that religious oppression is carried out by theocratic states rather than the religion itself, he makes it clear that a state which is secular can stop oppression in the name of religion.

Although religion governs life in a majority of cases, the author states that discrimination in a religion will eventually push anyone to embrace another religion that offers a chance of better life and self-respect. He points out two fundamental reasons for religious conversions, faith and oppression faced in a religion.

The Meenakshipuram conversion falls in the second category. Many oppressed caste people there converted to Islam to escape the rampant casteism and the violence perpetrated in its name. G. Aloysius, in his book Nationalism Without a Nation in India, has said: “The need for brotherhood, human dignity and fellow feeling among the depressed castes was powerful and they yearned for liberty and freedom at any cost.” The statements Thirumavalavan makes in Mathamum Mathamaatramum attest to Aloysius’ observation.

Social conditions

The interviews of Jafarullah Khan, Umar Sheriff and Edward Rajan give a clear view on the social conditions that prevailed before their conversion at Meenakshipuram, the incidents that led to it, and the people who played a pivotal role in organising and helping the process of conversion. The hardships recalled by them prove the author’s point that the decision of the families to leave a religion and culture they had been following for generations shows how deep their pain would have been.

Also read: The social exclusion discourse

Apart from sharing instances of discrimination, the interviewees give details of police brutality, the use of political influence and attempts by many majoritarian religious outfits to threaten and lure the converts to their original religion. The book explains how the police used to target the whole community for a crime committed by one individual and harass even innocent people in the name of investigation. An account of an investigation into two murders that took at Melakkarai highlights police brutality. In addition to the accused, the police would take away anyone from the village and torture them. They would force innocent people to take the blame for the crimes.

The author points out that the en masse conversion at Meenakshipuram is the result of caste atrocities and police brutalities.

“Acceptance of equality, in direct opposition to the unequal treatment meted out to them within the traditional order was the touchstone for the decision regarding conversion,” says Aloysius, pointing out that conversions are about seeking self-respect and escaping oppression although it meant giving up certain benefits offered by the government. Jafarullah Khan’s statement that they gave up all the benefits that comes with being a Hindu proves this point. It is important to understand that if a Hindu Scheduled Caste (S.C.) converts to Islam or Christianity, he/she will come under the Backward Class category thereby losing the S.C. status.

The discussions in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1981 over the Meenakshipuram conversion, which have been included in the book gives a picture of the political situation at that time. The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its allies had then claimed that the people had converted for money.

The interviews and the Assembly discussions help us understand the current political and social situation unfolding in India. The actions of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, with its strong affiliation to the majoritarian religion, add strength to the author’s argument about religion and the state. The increase in the rate of atrocities against S.Cs and Scheduled Tribes in 2020, as per the National Crime Record Bureau report, is similar to the atrocities faced by the people of Meenakshipuram before their conversion.

Also read: A window to village India

The book shows how majoritarian groups tried to put down the Meenakshipuram conversion on the grounds that the converts were lured with money. To this day these conversions are referred to as “petro dollar conversions” on the basis of the notion that people converted for money from petroleum exporting countries. But such insults would not help majoritarian groups’ attempts to re-convert people. In connection with the conversion of Syed Waseem Rizvi, former chairman of Uttar Pradesh Shia Central Waqf Board, to Hinduism at Ghaziabad on December 6, the journalist Dilip Mandal said converting to Hinduism was not as simple as converting to other religions in view of the existence of caste, a problem well established and explained by Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

In the light of the Karnataka government’s recent anti-conversion Bill in addition to the already existing laws to prevent forced conversions, it is important to reflect on Jafarullah Khan’s answer when asked what he thought about the anti-conversion law passed in Tamil Nadu (by the AIADMK under J. Jayalalithaa) in 2002: “This law would encourage thousands of people to convert.” (Jayalalithaa repealed the law in 2004 following massive protests.)

D. Dallton is a PhD scholar, Department of Journalism and Science Communication, Madurai Kamaraj University.

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