“Vellangiri (50) is now Farooq, Poongodi (42), now Bhanu, and their children; Manonmini, now Jameela, Ashok Kumar, now Arif, and I am Kovey Marx, now Muhammad Aboobacker,” a resident of Vellimedu near Coimbatore and a lawyer in the court of Coimbatore was introducing his family to us.
They have many answers to the question of why they took up a new name and disowned the old one which they have been carrying for more than three decades.
Aboobacker and family belong to a prominent Dalit community in Tamil Nadu called Arunthathiyar. The 2001 Census of India reported that there were 771,659 Arunthathiyar in Tamil Nadu, being 6.5 percent of the Scheduled Caste population of the state.
Post the tragic incident in Mettupalayam, Coimbatore, where a caste-wall collapsed on December 2 last year and led to the death of 17 Dalits, 430 Dalits have embraced Islam on January 24 and around 1000 people announced that they were to convert to Islam in recent weeks.
On December 2, after heavy rains lashed Mettupalayam and the surrounding regions, the “wall of discrimination” collapsed on three houses and killed 17 Dalits.
Nagai Tiruvalluvan, president, Tamil Puligal Katchi (TPK), an organization which comprises mostly the Dalits and Bahujans of Tamil Nadu earlier told media that the wall that collapsed was not merely a compound wall, but one that the upper-caste Hindu house owner – a textile trader in Mettupalayam – had constructed to keep Dalits away.
The Tamil Nadu government’s failure to see the wall collapse through the caste discrimination prism and the continuous harassments from upper-caste Hindus and Hindutva organisations were the reasons for the conversion to Islam, TPK chief said.
As per the documents, 430 Dalits have already embraced Islam. 500 more will convert this week, whose paper works are almost done.
According to Muhammad Aboobacker, joint secretary of TPK, 430 residents, many of them members of Tamil Puligal, from Thondamuthur, Annur, Periyanaickenpalayam, Karumathampatti, and Mettupalayam embraced Islam at mosques near their homes.
“It is the Hindu Dharma they have been imposing on us, so far. But only after years we understood that the casteist sufferings we have been entitled to bear all along, are the very part of this Dharma. And, no matter how much we educate ourselves, how much we earn for ourselves there is no escape out of this labyrinth,” Aboobacker who embraced Islam soon after the December 2 event of caste-wall fall told Maktoob.
“I have read every work of Ambedkar. Periyar too. Now, I am reading Islamic ones.” In the small house of Aboobacker, we see a shelf packed with books. The 32 volumes of the entire collection of Ambedkar’s works in Tamil can also be seen.
On the wall inside the house is a picture of legendary Dalit leader Dr.B.R Ambedkar, an anti-caste campaigner and chief architect of the Indian constitution.
“Hinduism is based on this system of Varna, which is against the very notions of social justice and equality. When taking the counts of Hindus we may be included, but it is always the Upper castes who qualify to be a ‘complete Hindu’. And to serve them is the sole responsibility we are imposed upon,” he answered to the question ‘why he left Hinduism?’.
“It was only discriminations we faced in every sphere. In tea shops, we were given different cups. The shop owners showed reluctance even to keep the newspapers and teacups used by the Upper castes near us. When our children go to school, they are made to clean the toilets. These are not random rants, but many such incidents have happened in Tamil Nadu. ‘Is this all a big deal?’ was the response from the principal of the school. To make Dalit students do all this was considered a ‘normality’ by them and the majority of the society,” Aboobacker added.
Aboobacker, who is a practicing lawyer in Coimbatore court said that the public cemeteries are prohibited for the people in their community in many parts of Tamil Nadu. “There are discriminations faced in roads even, in the state,” he said.
“We didn’t get respect in any way. A 60-year old Dalit will be called ‘eda’ by a 15-year old Upper caste Hindu. No matter how much education we get for ourselves, this disregard towards us won’t end. There was an incident, where a Dalit boy who had even completed his post-graduation was asked to do the job of sweeping,” 27-year-old Aboobacker told Maktoob.
“We had this desire to escape from all this casteist discriminations from the very first itself. Like everyone else, we should also be treated like humans. Ambedkar saw social equality in Buddhism. Periyar said it is in Islam. We were studying both religions. We chose Islam. Islam opposes all these discriminations from its very basic scriptures. Everyone is seen as equal,” M. Ilavenil, general secretary of the TPK, who embraced Islam and changed his name to Ibrahim explains.
“After the incident of caste wall collapse, it’s the regional Muslim organizations and activists who came to us. They see it as their duty to be a part of these struggles for social justice. Not even the mainstream Dravida parties came to us,” 39-year old Sitrarasu who is running an event management firm in Coimbatore told Maktoob.
“I and my family will convert to Islam the next day. We have full blessings from our party TPK and our leader Nagai Thiruvalluvan. We will overcome all these caste discriminations,” Sitrarasu told us that he will convert to Islam in the coming day.
The TPK’s state president Nagai Thiruvalluvan, arrested on charges of ‘inciting violence’ in Mettupalayam, earlier told media that his cadres had planned for the conversion when he was imprisoned. The primary reason was what Thiruvalluvan described as “discrimination against Dalits”, both by the upper caste Hindus and government officials.
“All around us, it is just those who don’t see us as humans. We have only a history of discrimination to speak about. For us, the most important part is to be considered as humans. Islam treats us as equals and humans. Islam respects us. We will face the struggles together and fight against Islamophobia,” Ibrahim, the senior leader of TPK replied when asked about why he chose Islam particularly, especially in a time when the very citizenship status of Muslims in India is uncertain.
“Hindu nationalist and militant organizations like Hindu Munnani are all around us, which is the biggest form of Hindutva terrorism in Tamil Nadu. Both the BJP and RSS are with them. Their ideology too is the Varna system. For them, it’s just the Upper castes who qualify as ‘Hindu’s. So the Dalits in Tamil Nadu are the victims of Hindu Munnani’s terrorist activities too,” Ibrahim added.
In Nadur and many places in Tamil Nadu, Hindu organizations and police are camping after our announcement about conversion, Ibrahim further added.
Hindu Munnani was founded in the 1980’s by Ramagopalan in the backdrop of the Meenakshipuram conversions, a mass religious conversion that took place in Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshipuram, in which hundreds of Dalits embraced Islam.
We set out to Alanthurai, a 1 km far away village from Vellimedu. In that small village, more than fifty Dalits embraced Islam. Aboobacker on the way was saying that they too have been suffering discriminations from Upper caste Hindus for decades.
From Alanthurai, it is to the youth we spoke to. From there we were introduced to Moorthi (Muhammed Kabeer), a painting laborer, Sharath Kumar (Abdulla), a 22-year old worker in automobiles, Sanjay (Arif), an 18-year old student. They all were coming back from the Masjid after offering Isha prayer.
All three claimed that religious conversions were the fallout of the wall collapse.
“It’s a new life. From now on, I have to lead a life with dignity, without any discriminations,” 22-year old Arif told Maktoob.
Thanks to Sahid Faris, Lubaib Basheer and Irfan Hadi for the help in reporting.