Nairs are one of the few castes in South India whose caste identity is synonymous with religion. It means for being a Nair one has to be a Hindu; once he converts, he loses Nair identity too. One could rarely find a Christian Nair or a Muslim Nair unlike Christian Nadars of Tamil Nadu and Brahmin Catholics of Goa.
(Non keralite readers please remember that Nairs use an array of surnames of which the most common are Nair, Menon, Pillai, Nambiar, Panicker and Kurup. All those with these surnames are Hindus)
Despite all the difficulties faced because of various social changes Nair community has steadfastly adhered to Hinduism. However a disturbing trend has surfaced of late where Islamic groups have succeeded in converting Nair youth. There are not many such converts but there are enough that warrants a study on this phenomenon. More shocking aspect of the conversion is many of such neo-converts have joined Terrorist groups like Lashkar E Toiba or modern versions of SIMI. Let us examine a few prominent cases.
The case of Javed Hassan Sheik, a LeT leader who was killed while allegedly on his way to kill Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is one of the most widely reported case involving Nair converts. Javed who was Pranesh Pillai before conversion hailed from a middle class Nair family from Alappuzha district of Central Travancore where social life used to be inseparably linked with annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala, festivals at the innumerable temples owned by Nair Community and a strong sense of brotherhood.
According to media reports, Javed (Pranesh) had a troubled childhood following family problems. His mother died early and father married another woman. Media reports say that he was involved in petty crimes during teenage and the family had financial difficulties. He even completed his school education with the help of an affluent relative according to reports. All these could have made him vulnerable to overtures by organized terrorist groups who seem to be targeting youth from middle Nair class families. Pranesh was sent to North India (here Pune) by his father for a job where he loved a girl from Muslim community and got converted. A report appeared in The Hindu has details of his life in Pune where he developed contacts with and slowly became a part of LeT.
The case of Al Umma leader and ISI agent Imam Ali formerly Hari Kumar, is also similar as per some media reports. Only difference is details of his antecedents are not that much known. According to some reports Hari Kumar hailed from Haripad also in Alappuzha district of central Travancore from where the family migrated to Chennai following financial troubles. While these are two widely reported cases, more cases are reported locally by media. Poor Nair youth who suddenly disappear from homes are reported in local media. Often they return silently and help families. The number of females converted by Islamic organizations run to hundreds. It is not unlikely that at least some of them are associating with extremist groups. Conversion of noted Indian English writer and poetess Madhavikkutty who hails from a top Nair family in North Kerala is the topmost example of Nair women falling into the trap of love and converting.
Role of Nair social organizations in preventing conversion
While there may be people who argue that there is no need to get panicked by some isolated incidents one cannot dismiss the fact that no male member from any other Hindu caste in Kerala had been reported to have converted and rose to key positions in Terrorist organizations. Conversion of Nairs and their entry to Terrorist groups is the result of social situation in Kerala and remedying it will reverse the trend. Nair organizations need to do serious introspection as to why a small section of younger generation of a community known for its nationalism, law abiding nature and unflinching loyalty to Hinduism fall into the trap of Terrorist organizations.
Let us look into Javed’s example again. When Javed alias Pranesh initially returned to his home, he was not welcomed. But when he offered financial help to the poor family slowly he gained acceptance. This could have possibly helped Javed to maintain a double identity and a safe haven. It is for intelligence agencies and the Police to analyze this aspect. But for social organizations the incident is an eye opener. Poverty is making Nairs vulnerable to all types of allurements. They need act quickly to help Nair youth who feel dejected.
Several Nair families in Kerala are economically backward though socially forward. After the implementation of land reforms Nairs who owned major section of land used for food grain cultivation lost a large part of their land. Kerala used to have little opportunities to do business and Nairs who were basically soldiers and farmers in the past did not find it easy to do business. Moreover while Muslims and Christians had access to capital from Gulf and European countries Nairs don’t have any such links. While reservations in jobs enjoyed by other Hindu castes in Kerala and all Muslims and a sections of Christians have given them positions of power in government in large numbers, getting a government job is a Herculean task for Nairs . Well off Nair businessmen based in Gulf or North India rarely comes forward to help the community. Many Nair youth are frustrated and no wonder poor Nair youth find it unable to deny offers of economic help from Extremist groups.
Nair Service Society (NSS) also has failed to do anything significant to uplift the Nairs economically. While it is true that G Sukumaran Nair, present general secretary of NSS sometimes takes a bold stand on issues regarding Nairs, some of the previous leaders of NSS had made the organization inert and shied away from forcefully demanding for the community. There had been allegations that they always wanted to gain goodwill of Christian and Muslims groups and were eager to project a secular image even at the cost of rights of their own community.
Absence of cultural and moral awareness
Another most important factor for conversion of Nairs is lack of religious and moral education. Earlier in Nair joint families children grew up listening to the morals of stories of Mahabharata and Ramayana told by grandmothers. With the break-up of joint families grandmothers are out and parents often don’t impart cultural education. While all family members used to light up lamps in the evening at home and prayed together now that is absent. Around 15-20 years ago while walking through country roads of Kerala one could hear singing of prayers by children during the twilight hours. Such a thing is rare now and Nair children have little knowledge of the culture of their forefathers. Though realizing this NSS has recently started religious education in all Karayogams (basic units) it seems to be seen how successful the initiative will be?