Mass conversions of hundreds of Hindu untouchables have sent shock waves through religious and government circles and riveted national attention on a unique -- and outlawed -- Indian form of apartheid.
Charges of money changing hands and sinister foreign influences have been hurled, and editorials and columns dissecting the reasons for the conversions have become daily newspaper fare. The central government has promised an investigation.
But the converts renouncing their traditional faith to become Muslims offer a simple explanation: a desire to escape the inequities of the Hindu caste system, which regards them as personally and inherently "unclean" -- hence untouchable -- and relegates them to the bottom of the Hindu social order.
The mass conversions of untouchables started this spring in the sleepy village of Meenakshipuram and have snowballed throughout the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
"We were sick of being treated like dirt," explained one of them who recalled having to speak with his head bowed and his mouth covered with a leaf to avoid accidentally "polluting" a caste Hindu with his saliva.
Other untouchable villagers complained of being abused verbally and physically by caste Hindus for the insolence of wearing shirts or shoes. Although untouchables formed the majority in Meenakshipuram, they were denied access to most public wells and water taps, segregated in one section of town, and, they have charged, frequently harassed by police.
The villagers maintained that they became Muslims because Islam draws no caste distinctions and offers them social equality. Some politicians and Hindu leaders charge that the conversions were bought and paid for by Muslim meddlers -- and point to Arab petrodollars as a possible source of funds.
But the Meenakshipuram villagers' account has been corroborated by India's second-ranking official in the Home Ministry, federal Minister of State for Home Affairs Yogendra Makwana.
Himself one of India's 100 million untouchables, Mr. Makwana went to investigate. He has reported that the insults and physical abuse inflicted on the untouchables were the cause of their religious change of heart.
With Hindu-Muslim tensions constantly on the simmer, government officials are concerned that the wave of conversions could spark communal rioting. Indians, who frequently denounce racial discrimination against Indian emigrants overseas, have also been embarrassed by the conversion reports, which highlight continued discrimination against untouchables.
In the Hindu social order untouchables are technically outcastes -- so lowly in status that they fall outside the highly stratified caste system. Revered spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi crusaded against untouchability and renamed untouchables as harijans, or "children of God." The government officially calls them "scheduled castes" and reserves jobs, college admissions, and legislative seats for them. The practice of untouchability is prohibited by Indian law and the Constitution.
With the government's system of preference, many harijans have achieved affluence, good educations, and high positions in government, business, and the professions.
The practice of untouchability and the caste system itself is breaking down in the anonymity of India's sprawling cities.
But it persists in the tradition-bound rural areas where the majority of Indians live -- and know one another's caste and community antecedents well. The majority of harijans work in menial jobs or at tasks considered too unclean for caste Hindus to perform, such as leatherworking and the cleaning of homes, streets, and latrines. Hindus believe in a cycle of births and deaths, and untouchables can look forward to reincarnations at higher social level in their next lives.
Reacting to the mass conversions, many concerned Hindu leaders have called for religious reforms to eradicate the practice of untouchability and for stronger government efforts to help the harijans economically.
Others have demanded a cutoff of government benefits to harijans who change their religion and a government ban on conversions. The latter is unlikely, since India is a secular state and its Constitution guarantees citizens the right to practice and profess the religions of their choice. Hindus constitute about 80 percent of the Indian popul ation.