Bengaluru: Nearly 3,000 Dalits from five Tamil Nadu districts have decided to convert to Islam next month, alleging continued caste discrimination and torture. The decision comes weeks after a wall collapsed at Mettupalayam taluk in Coimbatore, killing 17 Dalits.
The 20-ft wall — known as the ‘caste wall’ — was built five years ago to keep the Dalits separated from their upper caste neighbours. It collapsed on 5 December due to incessant rains.
“We have been discriminated against for decades and six months ago, we had decided that we have had enough and will convert. The wall collapse gave us an opportunity to prove our point and explain to those who are ready as to why converting would give us peace of mind,” general secretary of Dalit rights outfit Tamil Puligal Katchi (TPK) M. Ilavenil told ThePrint.
All these 3,000 Dalits are members of the TPK and spread over five districts — Erode, Coimbatore, Tirupur, Namakkal and Salem.
“If a religion does not value our lives, why should we sacrifice?” Ilavenil asked.
Dalits of Nadur village, where the wall collapsed, allege that it was built without any pillars to support it, with the sole intention to keep them away from the Mudaliars, who belong to the Other Backward Class (OBC), living nearby.
The residents of the village have been staging protests for the last five years, demanding that the wall be brought down. But the government paid no heed, they claim.
S. Sivasubramaniam, an OBC, the man who built the wall, further increased the height of the wall to 20 feet from 10 feet, said one of the residents.
‘Conversion to take place in phases’
Three Dalit families — two men, six women and nine children — living in row of houses beside the wall were buried alive when it collapsed. The family members of those killed are also among the 3,000 who have decided to convert.
Following the incident, Dalits in the area staged protests, demanding the immediate arrest of Sivasubramaniam, but the police arrested him four days later and now he is out on bail, say villagers of Nadur.
Sivasubramaniam has been booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and under Tamil Nadu Property (prevention of damage and loss) Act.
Ranjith, a resident of Salem and a TPK member, said they would convert in phases, starting from 5 January. “On 5 January, 200 members will convert. Later, the process will continue. All members of our organisation have pledged to convert and a total of around 3,000 will convert to Islam in a few months,” he added.
‘Hope atrocities will reduce once ‘Dalit tag’ goes’
Explaining the situation, Ilavenil said that in Mettupalayam, where the population is close to 3 lakh, Dalits form just 3 per cent of the population, while Mudaliars, comprise 10 per cent.
“The atrocities on us are such that they (Mudaliars) do not allow us to draw drinking water from the wells, we are not allowed near the temples, they attack us on the streets and put false cases on us. They even say that we should not be seen talking on mobile phones on the streets. What kind of inhuman treatment is this,” Ilavenil asks.
Suresh Kumar, one of the TPK members, said they hope the atrocities will reduce once the ‘Dalit tag’ is removed. He said he will convert first and then his family will follow suit.
“At least people will see us and treat us like human beings. Right now, we are treated in a manner that even words can’t describe what we go through,” Kumar told ThePrint.
Dalit researcher Stalin Rajangam described this move as an effort by the community to highlight their plight. He said Dalits living in western Tamil Nadu are highly oppressed and there’s no one to raise their issues on social or political platforms.
“These conversions may or may not happen. But it is their way of bringing to the government’s attention the circumstances that have led them to decide on converting to Islam,” he said.
Rajangam added these Dalits are seeking an identity in society and they are hoping to get it by converting to Islam.
“Also, there may be a possibility that the government may intervene and convince them not to convert while making a few promises. This may be another way of handling it. We need to wait and see what happens in January,” he told ThePrint.
Not the first time
This is not the first time that Dalits have decided to convert to Islam due to continuous discrimination and caste violence in Tamil Nadu.
In 1981, when Tamil Nadu was ruled by Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, the news of 800 Dalits converting to Islam shook the state.
Tired of being subjected to constant discrimination and caste violence, nearly 300 families belonging to a tiny hamlet in Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district took the decision to convert.
The issue created such an uproar in the state and outside that then BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had travelled to the village to find out the reasons behind so many Dalits converting to Islam.