Dalit villagers in Madurai to take to Islam

Our Correspondent in Madurai

Dalit residents in a village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu plan to convert to Islam, blaming it on untouchability and the state government's failure to meet their economic demands for long.

While it may set off a trend, like the Meenakshipuram conversions of the early eighties, it is being led by an elected representative of the people -- a panchayat president -- giving a definite face to the leadership at the local level that had mostly remained undetermined in other cases.

"All Dalits in the village intend converting to Islam," said the local panchayat president, Murthy, at S Keezhapatti. "The upper castes don't respect us and untouchability is a curse when it comes to eking out a living," he explained.

As he pointed out, "If a Dalit opens a tea stall, caste Hindus stay away. But if he converts to Islam and opens the same tea stall, they come to the same place, to the 'bhai's tea stall'. There is no untouchability then."

It is not the illiterate among the Dalits who feel that way. Even a post-graduate from the village says that conversion is the only way out to ''buy social respect''.

"That is also the only way I can eke out a living, get a respectable job, or whatever," said Tirupati Venkatachalapathy, an MA degree holder from S Keezhapatti.

Murthy said that over 25 Dalit families in the village intend to convert to Islam on Friday. Twentyfive persons have converted to Islam on December 5, taking off from where 2000-odd Dalits in the village left it five to six years back.

Thirty Dalits from 10 families became Muslims in 1994. "Their lot is better and this is what motivated us into considering conversion," said another Dalit elder. "Religious beliefs and godly considerations do not weigh with us."

Some are even unaware of basic differences between Hinduism and Islam, the latter barring idol worship and a pantheon of gods. "Many relatives who had converted even today follow some earlier rituals and religious practices even during namaaz. Some stick to Hindu practices," said another.

However, Murthy said that the conversion was in protest not only against social stigma, but also against the government's indifference to economic demands. He referred to the dilapidated Housing Board colony units allotted to Dalits in the village in 1974. "We have taken up the issue with everyone at the official and political levels, but nothing has been done," he said.

In rural Tamil Nadu, any reference to a 'colony' means a Dalit habitation. While it is derived from the government-sponsored housing for scheduled castes and tribes in the post-Independence era, today the term 'colony' has acquired a ghetto-like connotation.

Murthy also referred to the non-issuance of IRDP loans for local Dalits even though all formalities have been completed. Another 48 Dalit houses need to be constructed on land for which 'pattas' have been issued. Here again, no follow-up action has been taken even though he had taken it up with the local legislator, parliamentarian and district collector.

"Our grievances are numerous," said Murthy, "but everyone ignores them, only because we are Dalits, and our votes are taken for granted by caste Hindus. It would be different if we convert to Islam. Then, they would do everything for us, if only to keep the minority community in good humour.

"That will get us benefits we may not be entitled to under the law, but which we are not getting, though we now have the right to claim."

However, Murthy and his ilk may, after converting to Islam, lose the right to claim them for now as Dalits. Murthy may also be 'disqualified' as panchayat president, as the post is reserved for Dalits.

The law recognises only Hindu Dalits as 'untouchability' is practised only in that community. Likewise, residents may even have to give up claims to colony houses as they are reserved for Dalits.

"It does not really make a difference," said a frustrated youth in the village. "After all, we do not get all economic benefits we were entitled to. If anything, the situation has worsened over the years, what with militant intermediary castes ensuring that no benefits are given. In the decades immediately following Independence, politicians and bureaucrats would rush to colonies with benefits. Not any more. Today, we are not able to get loans that have been cleared, nor get the government to build houses. At least, we will acquire social status, which could give us some economic muscle."

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