Kept out of local temples, 250 Hindu Dalit families from two Tamil Nadu villages, Pazhangkallimedu and Nagapalli, say they are planning to convert to Islam.
At Pazhangkallimedu village in Nagapattinam district, 180 Dalit families say they want to be able to perform rituals on one day during the five-day annual temple festival. But with caste Hindus allegedly refusing them permission, six Dalit Hindus from the village have already embraced Islam.
Local residents said volunteers of the Tamil Nadu Towheed Jamaat (TNTJ) distributed copies of the Quran in the village, while a Christian missionary also approached them. Meanwhile, leaders of outfits such as the Hindu Munnani and the Hindu Makkal Katchi have been urging them not to take the step and have been mediating between Dalit families and caste Hindus.
The coastal village of Pazhangkallimedu has about 400 families, 180 of them Dalits. Caste Hindus here mostly belong to the Pillai community, traditionally comprising landlords.
Senthil Kumar, a leader of the Dalit party, VCK, who is leading the protests, said the village youth suggested converting to Islam after the administration and the police failed to ensure worship rights for them in Bhadra Kaliamman temple.
“We want to perform Mandagapadi, or lead the rituals, on one of the five days of the annual temple festival. But we are denied that right. My parents and grandparents were slaves. I wish my generation does not have to face untouchability and insults. Conversion may be the only option for us,” he said.
Kumar said police are looking into the issue, and several petitions filed before the district collector have yielded no response.
A senior police officer said talks are on to end the stalemate. “There was a suggestion to allow Dalits to conduct puja during the day but they want the full 24 hours. Negotiations are on,” he said.
B Abdul Rahiman of the TNTJ said, “After we got calls from some villagers, our volunteers visited them. They wanted to convert but that can’t be done so simply as Islam is a way of life and cannot be embraced out of anger. We suggested that they study about the religion and come back to us. We distributed copies of the Quran, like they requested. Six of them, who convinced us about their understanding of Islam, converted four days ago.”
But Arjun Sampath of the Hindu Makkal Katchi said there was no need for such outfits to intervene. “We spoke to both Dalits and non-Dalits. It is a government-run temple and the government has to take a decision. Most caste Hindu groups have no problem allowing Dalits to take part in the rituals. Some Muslim groups who recently built a mosque there have triggered this row and are trying to convert people,” he alleged.
Some 240 km away, in Nagapalli village in Karur, it’s a similar story for 70-odd Dalit families, who feel conversion is the only way to “end discrimination”.
P Vetrivel, president of the temple trust in the village, said his father built the structure seven years ago.
“There were many temples in our village, but we (the Dalits) had to build one separately. But for the last two years, after my father’s death, caste Hindu families who returned from Sri Lanka have been denying us entry and trying to occupy the temple. Neither the police nor the government have helped us. They started controlling the temple claiming we were not doing the rituals properly,” Vetrivel said.
Sri Mahasakthi Mariamman temple was built in 2009 by Dalits with a fund from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of the Tamil Nadu government. A trust with a Dalit majority runs the temple. “Now they want to conduct festivals without Dalits,” Vetrivel said.
Like Nagapattinam, Nagapalli does not have Muslim families. But they cite the example of Aravakurichi town, where “some 40,000 Muslim families live peacefully”, to explain why they want to convert. “No Muslim or Hindu groups have approached us so far. We will contact them and take a call,” Vetrivel said.
The office of the Karur district collector said they will hold a peace meeting in two days. “Some 70 Dalit families are seeking rights to worship and take part in the festival, while an equal number of Hindu families — majority of them caste Hindus — are opposing them.
Most caste Hindus have returned from Sri Lanka,” said a senior officer.
The last religious conversion on such a scale in Tamil Nadu was witnessed in the early 1980s, when 800 Dalits converted to Islam at Meenakshipuram village near Tirunelveli. Despite senior political leaders, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, visiting the villagers, they had refused to change their mind.