Close to four decades since the '1981 Meenakshipuram conversion', around 3000 members of the Scheduled Caste in the state are planning to convert to Islam over government apathy in the recent caste wall collapse. Close to 3000 individuals, who belong or are linked to the Tamil Puligal Katchi, a Dalit political outfit, will be converting to Islam in multiple phases from January 5.
The decision was announced by the party at a state level meeting in Mettupalayam in Coimbatore district and comes after the collapse of a 'caste wall' in the region that led to the death of 17 Dalits. On December 2, a 20-feet high wall built by a caste Hindu, without adequate safety measures, collapsed on a row of houses where Dalits resided in Nadur village. Their deaths came despite multiple protests in the past against the wall, which was essentially seen as a way to keep them separated from the dwelling of the caste Hindus.
"This was the last straw," says General Secretary of Tamil Puligal Katchi M Ilavenil. "Our lives have no value in this religion and if they don't want Dalits, we don't need them," he adds.
To add to his anger, his party President Nagai Thiruvalluvan who was amongst those who protested against the discrimination, continues to be jailed.
"The man who built this wall with no support pillars - Sivasubramanian, is out on bail 20 days after the death of 17 Dalits," points out Ilavenil. "But our leader remains in jail and the rest of us who protested were lathi-charged and multiple cases have been filed against us," he adds.
And amongst those who were lathi charged and booked for protesting is 35-year-old Rangaraj, a driver by profession. A member of the political outfit, he will be amongst the 100 persons converting first on January 5.
"We have been oppressed and beaten by discrimination our whole lives," says the resident of Annur in Coimbatrore district. "Even when we are Hindus, we are not treated like it. In my village, we are not allowed into the temple and we are not given equal access to the government burial ground. And now, after the Nadur incident, I have been booked for unlawful assembly, assault and damage to public property. All this because I stood up against caste discrimination. This religion has done me no good. I don't see the point of being a part of it," he adds.
Rangaraj is yet to tell his parents, who are very religious, about his decision. But he shared the news with his wife, who has been supportive.
"My wife said my son and I can first convert and she and my daughter will do it later. My son is 10 and my daughter 14. I believe that by converting, I can give them a future that we didn't have - one where you are treated like an equal human being," he says.
According to Ilavenil, most people who are converting are party members and their families. Members from a total of five districts including - Coimbatore, Erode, Tirupur, Namakkal and Salem will be converting. The outfit has 120 members in every district, who will take part in the exercise with family.
Shiva, a resident of Mettupalayam will be converting in January with his wife and two daughters who are aged 23 and 21.
"Even my relatives are supportive of this move. We have seen enough - from Ilavarasan to Shankar and now the caste wall," he tells TNM, referring to caste killings that have shaken Tamil Nadu. "Yes, this is not the first time Dalits are converting, but nothing has changed and we feel we have no choice," he adds.
The last time a significant number of men and women from the Scheduled Caste converted to Islam, was in 1981. The village of Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district saw 200 families convert to Islam, due to continuous discrimination and caste violence in the village. Similarly, in Ramanathapuram district, 100 families converted to remove themselves from the caste stigma imposed by Hinduism.
And while right-wing groups alleged that Muslim countries were pumping in money to convert Hindus, those involved in the process stated that it was to escape the caste system.
"History will keep repeating itself if caste Hindus do not change how they treat the oppressed castes," says anti-caste activist Kathir. "They move to another religion because they do not benefit from being Hindus. Leave benefit, they are not even given equality or equal access to resources. Dr Ambedkar himself told Dalits to not remain within the clutches of Hinduism," he adds.
And why have they chosen Islam?
"Muslims don't believe in caste," says Ilavenil. "Over the years, they have supported us in our fights and struggles and treated us as equals. We have grown up around Islam and understand the culture. We do not have the same connection with Buddhism. So, we have chosen to become Muslims."