EVER since Dr. B.R. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with about five lakh Dalits in 1956, mass conversion has become a form of collective protest for Dalits across the country, a willing abandonment of what they consider an oppressive hierarchical social system. The rejection of a system as a form of protest gets reinforced by necessarily choosing one of the available alternative systems. In a society where religious sentiments are deep-rooted, leaving one's religion can be a hard choice. Conversions, therefore, take place at a slow pace. It is for this reason that a legal ban on conversions is often considered unwarranted.
In Tamil Nadu, the conversion of about 200 Dalit families to Islam at Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district in the early 1980s drew nationwide attention. Although all sorts of ulterior motives were attributed to their conversion, the converts remain loyal Muslims and claim that they now live with "greater social respect" than before, which they were yearning for. Yet no mass conversion has taken place since then.
Hindutva forces, however, have often raised the bogey of attempts by Muslims and Christians to convert Hindus on a large scale through pressure, force or allurement and demanded a ban on conversions. Although these forces could not use their influence with the State governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, they mounted pressure on the Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu to enact a law banning conversions. This was when a section of Dalits in Coimbatore district, frustrated that their decades-old efforts to get access to the village temples were of no avail, unfolded their plan to convert to Christianity. The State government responded with adding a new law to the statute book, the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Forcible Conversion Act, 2002. It met with all-round protest, but the government did not yield. However, after the election verdict went against the ruling party, Jayalalithaa announced that the Act would be repealed.
Understandably, the announcement drew protests from Hindu Munnani and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders.
In their eagerness to convince the Chief Minister of the need to keep the law intact, these organisations have blown out of proportion attempts by a group of young Dalits at Melamaanthai village in Tuticorin district to convert to Islam "of their own free will". Denying that there was any "force" or "allurement" from anybody, the Dalits say that though they have had a predominant presence in the village and their panchayat has had a Dalit head for many years, they are not treated by caste-Hindus as equals in any respect. They feel they do not enjoy social respect and this has been an affront to their self-respect. After listening to lectures by Dalit converts in the local mosque, where they go of their own accord, the youth are convinced that they can get in Islam what they cannot in Hinduism, and they have taken strong exception to the Hindutva organisations' charge that there has been a "play of money power" behind the conversion.
Although many Dalits in the village, including family members of those who have already opted to convert, have reservations about leaving the Hindu fold, they confirm that the caste-Hindus, even small boys, disrespectfully call Dalit elders by their names. "More than anything else, the verbal abuse hurts us," says Muniyandi (65). He does not rule out joining Islam, but says: "I have lived my life bearing all these insults. I will be happy if at least my children and grandchildren can live in peace with respect that is our due." Muniyandi, who has attended meetings addressed by Dalit converts, says that those who desire to join Islam do not expect any favours. "All they require is respect, respect that is due to them," he says.
Youth in the village say that the drought has badly affected the people and that many of them are not employed. In the large number of salt pans close to this coastal village, Dalits are denied jobs, they complain. "They prefer to bring workers from other districts rather than give jobs to us," one of them says. Some of them do not hide their hopes that by shedding the Dalit tag, which is possible only when they leave Hinduism, they can ensure employment.
P. Kaalaadi, a functionary of the Dravidar Kazhagam in Tuticorin district, who owns a small provision shop adjacent to the village mosque, says that though he is a non-believer, he has been acting as a facilitator for those who intend to join Islam, because he has many Muslim friends. "After all, these boys are only eager to win back their self-respect. As a true follower of Periyar, it is my duty to help them," he says.
Even after the police, with whom the Sangh Parivar reportedly took up the issue, ruled out the use of force or money, Hindutva organisations have continued with their anti-conversion campaign through handbills and wall-posters. As a consequence, there have been regular patrolling by policemen and visits by intelligence officers in the village, the residents say.
Dalit and human rights activist M. Bharathan, based in Tirunelveli, says that conversions by Dalits do take place every now and then in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts, but not on a large scale. He does not think that all Dalits who opt for conversion do so just for money. In fact, they convert knowing full well that they will lose the benefits of reservation and concessions they at present enjoy. In his view, Dalits who convert are on the whole not economically dependent on caste-Hindus for survival; they have been victims of social oppression of one form or the other. Dalits who shun a confrontationist course for various reasons also go in for conversion.