In April this year, young Dalits of Choodaganapalli village in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, marked Ambedkar Jayanti with a ceremony — the first such instance of assertion. A puja was held and blue T-shirts, printed with the village’s name, B R Ambedkar’s image, and the slogan ‘Jai Bhim’, were handed out and worn with pride. The Vanniyars, who are ‘higher’ in the caste hierarchy and the dominant land-owning caste in the village, were displeased.
“When we wore those T-shirts, they asked my parents, ‘Are your sons dons? Do they think they are gangsters? Do they think they are heroes?’,” says N Shankar, 20.
On November 13, one of those T-shirts turned up several hundred kilometres away on a mutilated body washed up in the waters of the Cauvery in Mandya district in neighbouring Karnataka. It was the corpse of Shankar’s brother, S Nandesh, a 25-year-old from the Parayar (Scheduled Caste) community who had in August eloped and married a 20-year-old Vanniyar (Most Backward Caste) woman. His wife Swathi’s body was fished out on November 15. Seven people, including Swathi’s father Srinivas and his brothers, Venkatesh and Aswath, have been arrested for the murders, which the Mandya police believe were motivated by caste animosity.
A hundred metres separate Nandesh’s one-room house from Swathi’s residence. But the distance between the two communities is near-unbridgeable in Choodaganapalli, which has 70-odd Vannyar families, compared to the 15-odd homes of the Scheduled Caste community.
“No person from my caste owns land here,” says Shankar, who is wearing the Jai Bhim T-shirt distributed in April. A calendar with Jayalalithaa’s photo hangs on the wall; but among the thin stream of visitors to the grieving household, representatives of major political parties have been conspicuously absent.
“We all have to work on the fields of the Vanniyar if we want to survive,” Shankar says. Even the house they live in is on peromboke land (belongs to the village commons). While Shankar’s father Narayanappa is a daily wage earner in Hosur town (Rs 200 a day), mother Thimakka works on the fields nearby for Rs 100 a day.
There are hardly any social relations between the Vanniyars and Parayars; the latter are not allowed inside the houses of the ‘higher castes’, nor are they allowed to enter the village temple. “Till the police are here, we feel safe. But after they leave, we will be scared. We have no money, no land. They have more people,” says Shankar.
Nandesh and Swathi’s love blossomed four years ago — on the road that took them out of the divided village. They met on the bus to Hosur town — about 20 km away — from where Swathi would go on to her college in Krishnagiri. Nandesh worked at a hardware shop near the bus stand. “He had been working for five years. He was sincere and hardworking . But he kept to himself,” says Sanjay Patel, owner of Shiva Hardwares.
According to Shankar, Swathi’s family beat up Nandesh once in 2014 in front of their house and asked him to stay away from Swathi; and that in 2016, her relatives dragged his parents out of the house and beat them up. Swathi’s house is locked, so is that of a neighbour.
“We told him to end the relationship, that it was unsafe. That no one would come to our help if anything goes wrong. He agreed, but she kept calling him. She said, ‘I can’t live without you’,” says Shankar. “She didn’t care about wealth or land. She just saw what was in his heart,” he adds.
While Nandesh had dropped out of school after Class 8 “because of financial difficulties”, Swathi was a BCom graduate.
In August this year, the couple eloped and married in a temple in nearby Soolagiri; they also registered their marriage. They began to live in a room in Hosur rented out to them by a relative of Nandesh’s employer, Patel.
Late on the night of November 10, Patel says, he received a message from Nandesh: “Anna… kidnap.. Kanakapura”. When he saw the message the next morning, he called up Shankar. “I had no idea that theirs was an inter-caste marriage. When I heard that he had married a Vanniyar, I was terrified — we saw what had happened in Dharmapuri a few years ago,” he says, referring to the riots that followed the marriage of Ilavarasan, a Dalit, to a Vanniyar woman, Divya, in 2013.
Shankar and Patel registered a missing complaint with the Hosur Town police station on November 11. Three days later, a decomposed body was found near the Sivasamudra falls in Karnataka’s Mandya district. “We saw the name of the village on the T-shirt and contacted Hosur police,” says Circle Inspector Srikanth of Mandya police.
According to police, Srinivas’s elder brother Ashwath, who is the prime accused in the case, planned the abduction and murder. He had allegedly asked his acquaintances to look for the two. Police said that on November 10, when Nandesh and Swathi had stepped out to attend a Kamal Hasan rally, they were spotted by one Krishnappa.
“Krishnappa convinced the couple to go to his house in Poonagonadoddi, a few kilometres away, on his bike and then informed Ashwath. Swathi’s father and uncles arrived there and convinced the couple to come with them to a temple, where they would be married,” says Inspector Srikanth.
The inspector says Swathi’s relatives had allegedly done a recce of the murder spot near the Sivasamudra falls. “They tied the hands and legs of the couple and threw them into the river,” says Mandya Superintendent of Police Shiva Prakash Devaraju.
Nandesh was apparently the first to be thrown into the water. “Swathi then asked them to kill her too,” says Inspector Srikanth.
The seven accused have been charged under Sections 302 and 301 of the IPC (murder and culpable homicide) as well as the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
According to Evidence, an organisation that tracks caste atrocities in Tamil Nadu, there have been 140 caste-related honour killings in the state in the last five years.
Nandesh’s family members say they want the accused to hang so that such violence does not take place again. “We want them to be afraid before touching one of us again. But unless caste is ended, nothing will happen,” says Shankar.
All these years, the Dalits of the village have not gathered courage to install an Ambedkar statue. “Now we will, as soon as we can. We will also keep Swathi-Nandesh’s photo near the statue. That’s something we all have decided,” he says.