The other conversion story

 

by Jaya Menon

 

Seventy-year-old S Kalimuthu's daughter Khaleema Bheevi is a Muslim. Kalimuthu himself had organised her marriage with his brother's son, a neo-Muslim convert. The families meet often for weddings and functions, including the local Durga temple festival.

.. Umer Kaiyum, a 79-year-old retired Tamil pandit who converted to escape caste hatred, still maintains close ties with his father's brother, M Subramanian and his family.

These ties make Meenakshipuram a different conversion story. While some members of a family converted to Islam, many remained Hindus. But the village, which changed its name to Rehmat Nagar along with the mass conversions, remains a peaceful, communally integrated hamlet.

 

The harsh mid-day sun throws deep shadows on the lush mountain ranges of the Western Ghats. In narrow lanes, gaudily painted houses and dilapidated old homes alternate with tiny brick-andconcrete hovels. The overnight rain has left the pathways slushy. In the heart of the hamlet, once known as Meenakshipuram, there is chatter and laughter under the white dome of the masjid. At 1pm, silence falls for the 'thozhugai' (afternoon prayers).

Islam is serious religion in this hamlet in Tirunelveli district in south Tamil Nadu. It is barely three decades since the headline-grabbing mass conversions took place here. But, it was nothing like the Sangh Parivar's controversial Ghar Wapsi programme in Uttar Pradesh last month. On February 20, the day after the symbolic conversion, 300 dalit families — about 500 to 600 people — gathered in the village square and amid hushed silence and much trepidation, tonsured their heads and repeated the Shahada (Testimony of faith). They were formally initiated into Islam by the Ishadul Islam Sabha of South India, which had its offices in Tirunelveli.

"It was a yearning for dignity. We sought Islam to escape caste hatred and the atrocities inflicted on us by the Thevars (a most backward community, but higher in the caste hierarchy than dalits)," recalls Umer Kaiyum, who was once A Mookkan. A retired primary school teacher, he lives behind a small stone mound in the hamlet, with his three sons and their families. "I was a Tamil pundit. But, I was mocked for my name and forced to change it to Umadevan," says Kaiyum.

Horror stories of caste discrimination have been passed down over generations. "If any Thevar was murdered, the dalits were tied up and beaten black and blue," says Mohammed Saleem, 40. Only two buses plied in the village those days. One travelled to and from Kerala, ferrying workers. There was also a Tamil Nadu bus. "We may have been bathed and better dressed than them (Thevars), but we were never allowed to sit on the seats of the Tamil Nadu bus," says Saleem, recalling his childhood. The dalits had to sit on the bus floor or travel standing all the way.

There is a little known story of Mohammed Yusuf, the man who inspired the Meenakshipuram dalits to take the final step towards embracing Islam. In 1975, Yusuf, then T Thangaraj, fell in love with a Thevar woman, Sivanatha. It was a reckless and dangerous thing to do those days but he decided to elope with her. Six years before the rest of the village followed his lead, 31-year-old Thangaraj took his bride to Tirunelveli and converted to Islam. They took the names Yusuf and Sulehal Bheevi. Thangaraj's audacity shook the whole village.

"But, even today, we share a good rapport with my uncles (mother's brothers) Mariappan, Ayyappan and Sivapandui," says Mohammed Abu Haliba, 36, Yusuf's son, who lives in Mekkarai village, 5km from Rehmat Nagar. Many of Meenakshipuram's neo converts own agricultural land in Mekkarai, a picturesque hamlet on the ghat foothills. Here, the Muslim converts grow paddy and tapioca and also rear cattle and poultry.

The Meenakshipuram conversions occurred during the AIADMK regime headed by MG Ramachandran, and it became a landmark event for the sheer numbers involved. The reason why it attracted so many dalits was a Thevar's murder that led to widespread brutal police action against the community, say locals. It provoked even those who were undecided on converting.

The conversions triggered a virtual political stampede in the village. Many national leaders descended on it; BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and a host of Sangh Parivar leaders visited the village to investigate the reasons behind the conversion. The ruling Indira Gandhi government despatched its minister of state for home, Yogendra Makwana, to Meenakshipuram and MGR constituted the Justice Venugopal commission of inquiry.

The director of scheduled caste/scheduled tribe welfare of the Union government submitted a report of the findings that ruled out forceful conversions. The Arya Samaj built a school in the village. While the school continues to enroll students even today, the dilapidated building showcases a failed bid to get Muslims to return to Hinduism.

"An old dalit I met in Meenakshipuram told me how he once had to vacate his seat in a village bus for a 10-year-old Thevar boy, addressing him respectfully. But after he converted to Islam, he didn't have to do that and he is addressed respectfully as 'bhai'," says A Sivasubramanian, a Tamil teacher and writer of folklore based in Tuticorin. A chapter in his book 'Pillaiyar Arasiyal' (politicizing the deity Vinayaka) is devoted to the Meenakshipuram conversions. "They may not have seen great economic change in their lives because they lost the right to reservation in education and jobs but, they are happy with their new social status and cultural freedom," says Sivasubramanian.

As the sun sets over Mekkarai, Sardar Mohammed, 70, sits proud in his stone and concrete home. He built it about two decades ago. As a dalit, he was permitted only to build a thatched hut.

In Rehmat Nagar, the dusk brings calls for evening prayers at the 'pallivasal' (masjid), which was built soon after the mass conversion. Karuppiah Madasamy, 66, the local naataamai (village head) and leader of a local Hindu outfit, walks into the masjid and settles down on a bench to wait for his grandsons. They are all Muslims. Times of India

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