The video footage of an “honour” killing in Tamil Nadu has jolted the nation, and drawn attention once again to the brutal routines of caste violence. The couple attacked on Sunday in Udumalpet, a town in Tirupur district, were engineering students who had met in college. The husband, a 22-year-old Dalit, was killed; the wife, a 19-year-old from the Thevar caste, a backward community, has survived with grave injuries. Her father, whom she named as the mastermind, has since surrendered to the police. The men who allegedly carried out the murder have been arrested. The state government must now ensure that justice is done, and is seen to be done. The message must go out that caste violence will be dealt with firmly and severely and political patronage will not be extended to its perpetrators.
Both the AIADMK, the party in office, and the DMK, the main opposition, are offshoots of the Dravidian movement that held up the vision of an egalitarian social order; both parties swear by Periyar’s radical political views. Both have also colluded, however, in the hollowing out of Periyar’s ideal of social justice. The anti-caste legacy of the Dravidian movement has been forsaken to facilitate a new caste hierarchy, which sanctions the oppression of Dalits by other backward classes (OBCs). It is true that political power has flowed from Brahmins to non-Brahmins in the state, but caste continues to shape everyday social relations. Politicians across parties patronise caste networks and refuse to question their anti-democratic impulse. In such a landscape, inter-caste marriage is seen as a challenge to the established hierarchy and is deeply resented by the rural caste elites. Even as social and economic changes driven by better prospects of education and employment are encouraging young people to step outside the caste paradigms, the social churn is leading to the hardening of caste lines. By all accounts, however, the state government is in denial of the growing dissonance in society. Reportedly, there have been at least 80 incidents in the past three years, yet the state government has refused to respond to the Supreme Court’s directive to states to report back to it on “honour” killings.
Periyar and Ram Manohar Lohia saw the other backward castes as rightful claimants to a power that had long been monopolised by upper-caste elites.
The transfer of power to the OBCs was expected to be a continuous process that would ultimately lead to the political emancipation of Dalits. But the politics of the legatees of Periyar and Lohia has unfortunately turned out to be self-limiting.