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Published in the 16-31 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

TN Dalits embrace Islam

Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha had enacted anti-conversion law in order to please the RSS but when she withdrew the controversial law after the defeat of her party in the general elections, voluntary religious conversion has once again started. In village Malmandhai, 600 kilometres from Chennai, six Dalits embraced Islam on 23 May and even more Dalits are planning to convert to Islam and Christianity in the near future.

The anti-conversion law considered even voluntary religious conversion as forced conversion because of which those wishing to change their religion could not do so out of fear. Dalits feared that if they changed their religion, the government would target them and subject them to harassment using the law. But as soon as the law was withdrawn, Dalits started embracing other religions. Withdrawal of the law by Jayalalitha government has infuriated Sangh organisations and one them, Hindu Munani, has blamed Jayalalitha for the start religious conversions. 

There is an existing law against forced religious conversion. Nobody is permitted to change his or her religion under compulsion and if someone compels anyone to change his/her religion or offers him/her monetary or some such inducements the law can be used against him. 

Malmandhai is a cluster of 150 houses. Villagers said that local Hindus discriminate against Dalits whereas Muslims treat them well. About two dozen Muslims, including some ulama had come to the village from a neighbouring village. The Dalits embraced Islam in their presence. 

A 19 year-old son of a poor labourer was one of the converts. He said that Hindus treat them as untouchables. Tea vendors give them separate cups whereas Muslim tea vendors serve tea to anyone in the same cups. 

Dalits said that they were discriminated in many other ways also. They embraced Islam to get equal and respectable treatment. Dalits have always changed their religion for the sake of equality. But Sangh organisations give it a different colour and consider it an attack on Hinduism. 

The six Dalits contradicted that they were compelled or induced monetarily to change their religion and said that they converted voluntarily, simply for getting equal treatment. 

Most of the inhabitants of Malmandhai are Dalits and they are very poor and faced with the problem of earning a livelihood. Scanty rains during the past three years have added to their woes. They are not getting employment even on casual basis. Possibly they converted to Islam in the hope that Muslims would help them financially or give them employment.

The roots of religious conversion in Tamil Nadu go way back to 1925. Rama Swamy had asked Dalits to embrace Islam to get equal treatment. According to DMK leader K. Kaladi, many more Dalits will be changing their religion soon. Kaladi himself is a Hindu but he encourages Dalits to embrace Islam. Kaladi says that he propagates the message of Rama Swamy who had said that Dalits have no place in Hinduism.

In Tamil Nadu the reasons of religious conversions are social rather than religious. Dalits embrace Islam to get rid of social evils in the Hindu society and to get an honourable and equitable status. Sangh organisations may try to exploit the situation and create communal tension in the region.

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