Caste oppression is leading to Dalit families converting to Islam in this TN village

Members of some of the families have alleged they have been experiencing caste-based discrimination since birth in the village, and hoped religious conversion would help them escape.
Men offering namaaz in a room
Men offering namaaz in a room

Discussions on forced reigious conversions took centre stage in Tamil Nadu last month, after the suicide of Lavanya, a Trichy student who had alleged in a video recording that she was asked to convert to Christianity. The BJP and right wing groups in Tamil Nadu took up the issue immediately after her death.

However, despite Hindu groups in Tamil Nadu going hammer and tongs over the topic of religious conversions, in a small village in southern Tamil Nadu, eight Dalit families of 40 people voluntarily renounced Hinduism and converted to Islam. The mass conversion event happened in Dombucheri village in Bodinayakanur in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district, in December 2021. The family members insist that they converted for a reason, i.e., to break free from caste oppression that they have been experiencing in the village since their birth.

Men from Dombuchery offering Namaz in a room 

Veeralakshmi changed her name to Rahima after her conversion. The young mother pins her decision to convert on the dominant caste Thevars in Dombuchery, who violently attacked her husband, Mohammad Ismail, on November 4, 2021, the day of Deepavali.

Mohammad Ismail 

“My husband had taken our aunt to the neighbouring village to meet a doctor. On returning, he saw that a group of 30 men from the Thevar community were attacking his uncle Vairamuthu and four other cousins. When he intervened, he was hit on the head and had to be hospitalised for 10 days,” Rahima says. As per Rahima’s account, the Thevar men had asked her husband and his relatives how they could afford to buy cars and bikes, and then proceeded to vandalise the vehicles.

Bike vandalised on November 4

“They took two of our cars and four bikes. They also hit six of us, out of which two of us — me and my uncle Vairamuthu — were badly injured and had to be hospitalised in the Kanavilakku Government Hospital in Theni,” Mohammad Ismail tells TNM.

On November 4, four bikes and two cars belonging to the Arundhatiyar community

Periodic atrocities targeting Dalits

Ismail adds that the above mentioned incident was not an isolated act of violence from the Thevar community. According to him, Thevar men would periodically visit the street where he and other Dalit families lived and target them. These men would start ‘riots’ and damage the houses and vehicles of the Dalit families, he says. “These men are jealous that we are able to buy cars and bikes. They ask how we Dalits are dressed so well and able to afford the vehicles?” Ismail says.

The seeds of the November 4 violence were sown six months before it happened. According to Ismail, his uncle Palanichamy was attacked by a 22-year-old man, Alex, who belonged to the Thevar community. Alex, Ismail says, struck 38-year-old Palanichamy on the head with a knife. Badly injured, Palanichamy was immediately taken to a hospital in Theni, while Alex fled from the spot.

After a police complaint, Alex was arrested and remanded to 15-days of judicial custody following which he was released. However, the arrest triggered resentment and anger within the Thevar community. Although seemingly calm, communal tensions were simmering in Dombuchery.

Finally on November 4, Alex’s brother gathered 30 Thevar men and entered the Dalit habitation. Arguments led to a violent clash which led to Ismail and Vairamuthu being badly injured.

Ismail after being attacked on November 4

Caste-based discrimination

Tamil Puligal party’s North Theni secretary Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was earlier known as Vairamuthu, says that ever since he remembers, dominant caste members of Dombuchery practised caste-based discrimination.

“Dalit residents cannot get a hair cut inside the village,” he says. The barber would only attend to Thevar men and the Dalit residents would have to go to neighbourhood villages to get hair cuts, he says. Similarly, if Dalit men visited the village tea shop, they could only sit on the floor and would be served in different tumblers, he explains. Rahima adds that Dalit men and women would be heckled if they walked to the bus stand, which was located close to the Thevar habitation. They would not be allowed to walk on the street or earlier and weren’t allowed to wear slippers, she says.

Vairamuthu explains that the BJP, RSS and the Hindu Munnani party in the district were spinning a false propaganda of forced religious conversion and that the Dalit people were accepting money to convert. However, the reality, he says, is that there was no need to force or offer money. “People volunteered to opt out of Hinduism and embrace a religion that would accept them,” he says.

The eight families were the first batch, and more members from the 400-strong Dalit community in Dombuchery are expected to embrace Islam, according to him.

Men from Dombuchery offering Namaz in a room 

“These Hindu organisations did not come to our aid when we were attacked and our homes and belongings were vandalised. But after hearing that we converted, they met us and requested us to reconvert. Why should we?” Mohammad Ismail asks.

Ismail cites denial of community acceptance and self respect as the major reasons for the eight Dalit families to convert to Islam “When we were Hindus, the Thevar men addressed my grandfather and father by their names. They would not even respect my grandfather’s age,” he says. But Ismail insists that Islam has offered him and his community people equality, brotherhood, community acceptance, and most importantly self respect. The older Muslim members of the Theni mosque, which the eight families had visited in December, welcomed them with open arms, and offered them food and company, Ismail says.

With no mosque in Dombuchery, the eight families have been doing their namaaz or daily prayers in their houses. However, with more members converting to Islam, they hope to build a small mosque in the future.

However, the families are unsure whether their conversion would help lessen caste-based targeting and attacks from the Thevars. “It has only been one month since we embraced Islam. We have to wait and watch how this will affect our dynamics with the Thevars,” Ismail adds.

Local leaders stay neutral

Both the AIADMK and DMK have significant control over the wards in Dombucheri panchayat. However, the local bodies are mainly run by the intermediary castes such as the Thevars.

A majority of the elected members including the district panchayat secretary, the union panchayat secretary and the branch secretaries etc., are from the dominant Hindu communities including the Thevars, explains Mohammad Ali Jinnah

“And although these members do not support the dominant caste groups, they still do not interfere during caste-clashes between us and the Thevar men, as they don’t want to upset the latter,” says Jinnah.

Certain seats in the panchayat are reserved for the SC community, which includes the Arundhatiyar, Paraiyar and Pallar communities. However, these elected members are a minority and cannot take political stances or decisions in isolation. “Usually they have to listen to senior members of their party i.e.,. the local wings of the DMK or the AIADMK, which will consist of UC men,” Jinnah explains.

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