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The Meenakshipuram Conversions, 25 Years On

September 27, 2006
As a nationwide debate over religious conversions gets underway, provoked by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan's comments to the Bharatiya Janata Party executive earlier this month, returned to Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu, where the mass conversions of Dalits to Islam in February 1981 laid the foundation for the resurgence of Hindutva in the decades since.

When Dalits in Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district embraced Islam in February 1981, it set off a national debate on religious conversion that echoes till this day. Does the Constitutional guarantee of Freedom of Religion include the freedom to convert?

More than any other incident or issue, the Meenakshipuram conversions, it is believed, spurred the Hindu Right, notably the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, into a shrill campaign to protect Hinduism.

The conversions happened in a belt where clashes between Scheduled Castes (the Dalits) and the landed Thevar community belonging to the Other Backward Classes were a common occurrence, and came on the heels of years of caste-based discrimination of the Dalits.

Subsequent independent inquiry committees discovered that it was the engrained social iniquities, and not monetary inducement, that led to the mass conversions.

Twentyfive years later, A Ganesh Nadar visits the village in southern Tamil Nadu to find out how life has changed -- for those who converted, and for the others. This is what he discovered:

Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

Also see: Woe Brahmin Raj

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