‘Had no choice but to embrace Islam to escape cruel caste system’ say Dalits who converted to Islam

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Members of Dalit community, who converted to Islam gather to offer prayers. (Image courtesy: News18)

By Special Correspondent

New Delhi: Years of fighting caste prejudices, assault, and false accusations levelled against educated youths have compelled a group of 40 Dalits in Dombuchery hamlet, Bodinayakanur town, in southern Tamil Nadu, to convert to Islam.

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In December 2021, a group of 40 Dalits from ten households in Dombuchery, a village in Theni district, around 520 kilometres from Chennai, converted to Islam. Bodinayakanur is the seat of O Panneerselvam, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and a key leader of the AIADMK.

After a 17-year-old girl studying in a minority institution committed suicide last month, the Tamil Nadu BJP unit and radical Hinudtva outfits have been alleging “forced” religious conversions in the state and clamouring for an anti-conversion law.

According to The Federal, the converted persons rebutted the BJP allegation of forced conversion. They told The Federal that the caste-Hindus in Dombuchery have repeatedly targeted the dalits in the village, forcing them to take this step. In particular, the Piramalai Kallars, a Most Backward Community (MBC), a Kallar sub-caste and part of the Mukkulathor caste, have allegedly been the major perpetrators.

The villagers who had recently accepted Islam in December narrated their stories with The Federal during a visit to Dombuchery village last week.

Dalits were heckled by caste-Hindus in the hamlet, according to Yaser Arafath, a villager whose previous name was Veeramani.  He said dalits were heckled by caste-Hindus even whether they strolled along the streets or their children were riding bicycles.

Dombuchery comprises roughly 800 OBC families, 200 MBC families, and around 400 Dalit families, according to the villagers.

Arafath stated that after every altercation, they would be assaulted by the police, who would allegedly file cases against the dalits. “I’ve lost track of the number of cases brought against me; I believe there are four.” “I just got back from the police station where I signed the conditional bail,” he said.

Six cases have been filed against Manoj, who is the sole Dalit lawyer in the area, said Ismail. On the other hand, a case was filed against a woman working in an Anganwadi centre on Diwali, and she is Dombuchery’s only government employee from the dalit community, per the Ismail.

Arafath went on to say that the police cases were affecting their livelihood because they would have to visit the police station every 15 days before 10.30 a.m. to register their presence. After that, it’s impossible to find job anywhere.

The caste-Hindus, according to the Muslim converts, did not like that some of the Dalit youths in the area were educated and able to find work. To retaliate against the dalits, Mohammed Ismail, formerly known as Kalaikannan, said the caste-Hindus would designate educated members of the communities whenever they filed police complaints against the dalits in the village.

Vairamuthu, whose name is now Mohammed Ali Jinnah is a functionary in a Tamil Puligal organisation who claims that prejudice against SCs persists in villages despite various laws and guidelines.

“They won’t trim our hair if we go to the barbershops in the village.” We need to get a haircut in a nearby village. “Until recently, even the two tumbler method was in use,” he claimed.

He further claimed that their village has two bus stops, and that caste slurs were yelled at them at both of them. “As a result of such instances, a number of girl youngsters have stopped going to school.” “We believe that if we switch our religion, this will no longer happen,” Jinnah stated. He sincerely believed that by embracing Islam, they would be able to live in the hamlet in a more harmonious and peaceful manner.

Abdul Razak, the first Dalit to accept Islam and practise the faith for over 30 years in Dombuchery, indicated that facing assault was the key reason for his conversion.

“I had land, a house, and everything else that a caste-Hindu has.” Nonetheless, I was constantly harassed and discriminated against. In school, I was not permitted to sit on benches. I couldn’t take it anymore as I grew older, and when I started speaking up, the violence began,” Razak explained.

“I battled in every way I could. I filed grievances and staged demonstrations. I questioned why the authorities had taken no action in response to the concerns. Nothing, however, worked. It wasn’t until I left my village and went to work in a Muslim’s home that I realised how well he treated me. That’s when I realised what Islam was all about and decided to follow it. “I converted in 1990, and these folks are doing it in 2022,” he added, adding that after all these years, nothing has changed.

Villagers in Dombuchery village’s Nadu Theru (Central Street), where many caste-Hindus live, complained they were unable to regulate the young people in their community.

Nagarajan, a peasant from Nadu Theru, said they were raised to feel they were “superior” to others in the hamlet. “However, we are not in favour of violence.” It’s not that the villagers are all casteists. “On a good side, people are slowly becoming educated, and change will occur,” he remarked.

As a result, the converts claimed that they had little choice but to embrace Islam in order to escape the discrimination and violence. They claimed they could no longer face the humiliation of their Scheduled Caste status.

“The only reason for discrimination and clashes is caste. It is only because I am in this religion; they say I belong to this caste. So, I left Hinduism and embraced Islam,” Ismail underlined.

Meanwhile, the 40 Dalits who converted to Islam say there seemed to be no other way out of the life-long abuse and ridicule except to reject Hinduism at this time.

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