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Taken from Islam Voice Issue April 1999

Reactions to Mass-conversions of Meenakshipuram

By Prof. Dr. Mumtaz Ali Khan

The recent attacks on the Christian missionaries in India on the ground that they are resorting to mass conversions through force and money have created the second round of controversy in India.

Similar social situation had prevailed during the mass conversions of Meenakshipuram about 17 years ago. The main allegation was that petrol dollar was used to tempt the poor to get converted to Islam. There were several top leaders, both religious and political, who expressed their conflicting views. Not all Hindus resisted conversions. Similarly, there was no unanimity among Muslim leaders too. It is interesting to present a brief survey of these varying views of Indian leaders. This is based on my book “mass conversions of Meenakshipuram. A sociological enquiry” published in 1983. This is based on a scientific methodology adopted by personally investigating into the conversion scenario.

Islam does not permit conversions out of compulsions, and coercion. Religion is a matter of faith which cannot be forced into the mind and heart of any individual or groups of individuals. The history of spread of Islam in India holds a clean mirror to prove this point. It is untrue to say that sword forced conversions. If the Muslim rulers had decided to use military force to force conversions, India’s population composition would have been absolutely different.

Conversions in India were due to the very inherent weaknesses of the Hindu social system where caste played havoc and because the decisive factor in one’s own life style. The conflict between purity and pollution is again based on the caste to which one belongs. The scheduled caste people called by different names from time to time represent India’s most unfortunate people subjected to the practice of untouchability, an unparalled social stigma in human history anywhere in the world. Totally denied of human rights, but totally exploited and humiliated worse than dogs people challenged the Hindu society of which they were a part. As awareness was spread due to several socio-cultural factors, they picked up courage to come out of the Hindu garb containing them. The leaders of conversion were bent upon self-respect taught to them by E.V.Ramaswamy Naikar, popularly called “Periyar”. Even Brahmins did not oppose the conversion movement because the conflict was between the scheduled castes and the Thevars. The latter were the enemies of Brahmins too.

The views expressed by several top Indian leaders generally set aside the theory of involvement of petrol dollar or force. Social organization and political parties expressed their concern in their own way. The congress (I) leaders of Tamil Nadu did not initially support the movement as Smt. Indira Gandhi had expressed her views against it. But when once she changed her mind after ascertaining the fact that it was due to most cruel treatment that was meted out to the scheduled castes, the other leaders too expressed so. But A.R. Antulay, a Muslim leader heading the Maharashtra Government, lashed out at the mass conversions of Harijans to Islam which were detrimental to the interest of the Nation, democracy and secularism. Yogendra Makwana, Union State Minister for Home and a scheduled caste leader, made a spot study and said that the grievances of the scheduled castes should be redressed at the earliest. A thirteen member parliamentary committee was appointed to look into the causes for mass conversions. The committee too said that conversions were due to harassment of the scheduled castes. Devaraj Urs, the then Congress (U) leader, held the government and Hindu religious leaders responsible for conversions.

Jagjivan Ram, the scheduled caste leader, strongly resented the tone of speeches made at the Hindu Sammelan at Delhi which suggested that Harijans converted to Islam were a danger to the security of the country. He said “can Hindus alone keep the security of the country”. C.M.Armugam, a legislator and a scheduled caste leader, said that conversions were due to age- old oppression and ill-treatment by caste Hindus and police atrocities.

The Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as Nanji Deshmukh, Attal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were of the view that petrol dollar led to mass conversions. The Janata Party and MP Dr. Subramanya Swamy said that conversions were as dangerous to Hindus as they were to Muslims since it was paving the way to militants in both the religions to come to the front. He further said that the Harijans embraced Islam due to social oppression and talks about foreign money only helped deflect our mind from the main issue. Shahbuddin, a Janata leader from the North in his article, “conversions. A quest for equality or a challenge to Hindu India” said that educated and well placed persons changed the religion voluntarily, as a free act of conscience. He asserted that the Harijans quest today is for social equality and Meenakshipuram is a symbol of this, not a Muslim challenge to Hindu India. The former Chief Minister of Karnataka S. Nijalingappa made his observations in a different way. He held the religious leaders among Hindus responsible for conversions of fools and illiterate people.

Late M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened that he would bring out a legislation to ban conversions through threat, coercion or inducement which did not suit secular India. But the leader, Karunanidhi, the then former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, took an opposite stand to of that AIDMK of M.G.Ramachandran. He said that conversions were due to harassment and not due to petrol dollar. Swami Agnivesh, the Arya Samaj leader and an activist, held fanatic Muslim organizations in India planned mass conversions with the help of Arab money. He suspected Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to be behind the move. He also held the caste Hindu and government responsible for conversions.

The views of some journalists and literary figures are significant. Mr. C.T.Kurien of the Madras Institute of Development Studies said, “millions of Harajans are starving everyday, many die in caste conflicts, but nothing has been done to alleviate their sufferings. “When a 100 Harijans convert to Islam, you make such a hue and cry. Conversion is an attempt to find social acceptance.”

Ramaswamy ‘Cho’ a journalist warned about possible communal disharmony. Ramaswamy, an RSS worker, observed that Harijans craved for social equality. S.Guhan, former Finance Secretary made a similar observation. He said, “Harijans are taking a perfectly reasonable and logical decision”. Abdul Latiff, a Muslim league member observed, “Hindus should be thankful to Islam since only after conversion threat have Hindu reformers become active”.

Views of some Hindu religious leaders are equally interesting. Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Kanchi said that politics, money and problems connected with boot legging played a significant role in the conversions of Meenakshipuram. Vandematharam Ramachandra, senior vice president of Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, holds petrol dollar responsible. He wanted an independent commission to unravel this issue. The Swamiji of Pejawar Mutt suspected foreign hand in the recent conversions of Harijans. But he also held responsible the deeply rooted religious dogmas among the cast - Hindus.

Thus, it is observed that by and large opinion was not in favour of petrol dollar but against the caste Hindus, who suppressed the Harijans. Islam does not encourage conversions out of force, fraud or money. Faith in social equality and treatment of the converts in Muslim society play a vital role.