Amid Tamil Nadu’s caste rivalry and honour killings: A Time to Love and A Time to Diehttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/life-style/a-time-to-love-and-a-time-to-die/

Amid Tamil Nadu’s caste rivalry and honour killings: A Time to Love and A Time to Die

In Tamil Nadu’s caste wars, young Dalit-OBC couples find themselves up against old prejudice, new socio-economic realities and an indifferent state.

Kausalya mourns for her husband at his home in Kumaralingam village. (Photo: Arun Janardhanan)
Kausalya mourns for her husband at his home in Kumaralingam village. (Photo: Arun Janardhanan)

Many people came to meet Kausalya, a 19-year-old grieving the murder of her husband, at the Coimbatore General Hospital. Not all came in sympathy, even if this was a frail young woman who had watched her husband being hacked to death by sickle-slashing killers outside a shopping complex in Udumalpet in March. While in the ICU being treated for head injuries — the assailants had not spared her — a doctor attending her blamed her for everything. Why did she, a daughter from a Thevar family, have to go and marry a Dalit?

But there was one visitor who came in solidarity. M Abhirami had travelled to Coimbatore from Soorakottai in Thanjavur district. Six years ago, this 26-year-old woman belonging to the Kollar caste, had fallen in love with P Marimuthu, a bus cleaner and a Dalit, whom she met daily on her way to the Teachers’ Training College in the nearby town. They eloped and made a life in Chennai, away from social constraints. Two years later, in 2012, Marimuthu was dead, his body afloat in the Vadasseri river. Abhirami, the mother of a two-year-old girl, battled on for justice — the courts convicted her elder brother and father for the murder of her husband in October last year.

The two women are among the many casualties of caste hatred and rivalry in Tamil Nadu, in which powerful OBC groups like Thevar and Kollar are pitted against Dalits. It taps into an old righteous rage: how dare they marry our women?

It was that transgression which cost V Shankar’s life. Shankar, 22, and Kausalya met and fell in love while they were students at an engineering college in Pollachi two years ago. She was from Palani, a temple town 40 km from Udumalpet. He was a Dalit from Kumaralingam village.

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They married, despite Kausalya’s parents dogged opposition, and went to live in Shankar’s village. While Shankar graduated with a BTech, Kausalya dropped out after repeated threats from her parents and relatives. Eight months after their wedding, they had travelled to town to buy clothes for Shankar’s birthday when the killers struck.

The attack on the couple, captured on CCTV, went viral via social media. It might have been a grisly scene from a Tamil movie. As the killers fled, Shankar lay on the road in a pool of blood while Kausalya, also injured, struggled to reach him. They were taken to the nearest government hospital, where doctors and nurses allegedly stayed away from them as they thought both wouldn’t survive. By the time they reached Coimbatore General Hospital, 60 km away, Shankar was dead. His body was buried the next day amidst violent protests and a lathicharge in his village.

Weeks later, Kausalya is in Shankar’s single-room house, in a village largely populated by Dalit families. “I will never go back to my parents, who killed my Shankar. I’ll look after his family,” she says. She is a frail figure in a pink-and-green salwar kameez. The bandages that swathed her head are gone to reveal a head almost shorn of hair.

Till death do us part: Shankar and Kausalya on their wedding day.
Till death do us part: Shankar and Kausalya on their wedding day.

“He was about to join a company in Chennai, we were planning to live there,” she says. Now, she says, she cannot abandon his home. She wants to ensure that his brothers are educated, his grandmother and father-in-law, a daily wage labourer, are well looked after. “They must have killed him for two reasons — one for being a Dalit and another for being poor,” she says, sitting on the veranda of the house. Shankar’s grandmother sits nearby, disconsolate, often breaking into tears.

When the sun sets, the residents of the house spread mats on the floor and go to sleep. In the mornings, two women constables deployed for Kausalya’s security follows her to the nearby scrub jungle, as there is no toilet in the house.

Three days after the murder, the gangsters responsible for the mortal assault on Shankar were arrested. Kausalya’s father, who allegedly hired them, surrendered in a local court. Her mother was arrested, along with a few other relatives. Kausalya’s was a middle-class family. Her father ran a travel agency and a private finance firm. One of the killers was his driver. He admitted that he had decided to kill his daughter and son-in-law as they married against his wishes. All the six directly involved in the murder were daily-wagers — either drivers or construction labourers or painters.

In the middle of an election, Kausalya’s plight finds little political traction. State politicians, afraid of losing the powerful OBC-Thevar vote, remain indifferent to the murder. Those who turned up to lend a helping hand to Kausalya were the activists of the All India Democratic Women’s Federation (AIDWA) and the Untouchability Eradication Front-— both are subsidiaries of CPM — and VCK, Thol Thirumavalavan’s Dalit party, which donated Rs 1 lakh to Shankar’s family after his murder.

Various people in Udumalpet and its surroundings speak of the murder not with shock but as a warning for Dalit youths. Near her parents’ house in Palani, a close relative of Kausalya, angrily points out that no one in his village would tolerate such marriages. “When we go back to our village during a Tiruvizha (temple festival), it would be a great shame for us. People will look at us and they will make up stories about our family for sending our girl to a Dalit family. Don’t think that we could tolerate such things, our men are not impotent. So (we) settled the issue,” he says.

“If the CCTV footage had not been leaked, nobody would have noticed this murder and it would have added to over 80 such murders that have gone unremarked. The state doesn’t have any system to rehabilitate victims like Kausalya. Organisations like ours can only take small steps to convince her that she is not alone,” said P Suganthi, state leader of AIDWA. The organisation is also helping her fight the case.

The wedding of a woman from a “higher” caste to a man from a “lower” caste is defined by the Manu Smriti as a pratiloma marriage — one which is discouraged because of the danger it poses to the social separation of various castes of Hindu society. But in Tamil Nadu, specific socio-economic characteristics combine to make this animosity between Dalits and backward castes intense.

The Dharmapuri riots of 2012 were sparked by an intercaste marriage.
The Dharmapuri riots of 2012 were sparked by an intercaste marriage.

The OBC-Vanniyars, for instance, are a politically powerful group, notorious for clashing with Dalits in Dharmapuri and Villupuram districts. In 2012, a marriage between a Vanniyar girl, Divya, and a Dalit man, E Ilavarasan had sparked riots in Dharmapuri. At the peak of caste tension in the state, S Ramadoss, leader of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a community-based organisation representing Vanniyars, drew up an image of the Dalit outsider thus: “They (Dalits) wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities.”

The anger was targeted against the Dalit who, having been educated, was asserting himself economically and socially — by snapping his ties with the village and claiming a more equal life in cities. The OBCs, meanwhile, dominant in a rural and agricultural economy, were falling behind. “In villages, an average OBC family would be living the life of a Dalit, except for the fact that he still retains his caste pride. The benefits of reservation, Dalit uprisings and the strong urge to improve their lives are significantly elevating the social status of Dalits while a section of OBCs in villages remain illiterate land-holders,” says former judge of the Madras High Court, Justice K Chandru, who has delivered several landmark judgements on Dalit atrocities.

In Tamil Nadu, OBCs and Dalits live in nearby villages. Even if they have a similar social and economic background, the backward castes are politically more powerful. Men and women meet on neutral ground such as colleges in the nearby town, or when one is employed by the girl’s father as a driver. For the Dalit, the village is a place one must escape. After completing his school education, Shankar, for instance, joined the private engineering college in Pollachi with the help of the Tamil Nadu government post-matric scholarship for SC/ST students. It is a scheme that has helped revive many engineering colleges on the verge of closure — and it is many young Dalits’ way to access an engineering degree.

“When Dalits focus on studies or finding a job or go to cities to do hard labour, caste pride prevents OBCs from such ventures. There comes a time when OBC women find Dalits more promising. Whenever they have an affair with an enterprising Dalit man, it has led to violence,” says Justice Chandru.

Three senior police officers from Dharmapuri, Villupuram and Tirunelveli speak of a clear pattern in the anti-Dalit violence in the state. “Such riots will begin with burning autorickshaws or motorbikes or cycles. Then the (rioters) would kill small animals such as goats, as the domestic animals bring a small revenue. Then they would attack Dalit women, burn their dresses, uproot trees and plants in the neighbourhood. Or they would pour kerosene on the houses to burn them fully. They target the most educated among Dalits — in many cases the one who wrote a complaint in English or the one educated youth who took them to a collector or the superintendent of police with a complaint,” says a senior officer. While politicians remain indifferent to caste atrocities, the state machinery also plays a role — police stations, village offices and collectorates are full of officers from Thevar or other powerful OBC communities.

“It was that woman police officer who helped her parents kill her. It was the police that killed my wife,” says B Dilip Kumar, a 26-year-old Scheduled Caste young man from Polipatti village in Usilampatti.

Two years ago, Dilip worked as a driver at the house of Chinnaswamy, a member of the Most Backward Piranmalai Kallar community. There, he met Vimaladevi, his employer’s daughter. “I worked as a driver at her home. They were Thevars, so they opposed our affair. We eloped and married at Virudhachalam in July 2014. Then we went to Kerala where we appeared before the Pattambi police as her father had filed a missing complaint. She was already 20 years old and we told the Kerala police that we’ve decided to live together. But the Usilampatti police took us back to the village, promising Kerala officers that we would be sent back after an inquiry,” Kumar said.

What awaited him in Polipatti was a public trial at the office of Usilampatti’s deputy superintendent of police. Around 200 Thevars and the local MLA had gathered to take Vimala back to the parents. “By then I sought the help of CPM’s untouchability eradication front. Before the DSP, Vimala clarified that she wanted to live with me. Still he decided to separate us and sent her to Sholavandan police station, where they forcibly removed her thali. Her relatives abused her the whole night. Eventually, they forced her to marry a relative,” Kumar says.

Vimaladevi managed to maintain contact with him. “One day, she told me that she would come to Vathalagundu along with her proposed bridegroom. Our plan to get away failed as he attacked me. We were taken to the police station, where a sub-inspector filed a case against me,” he says. Eventually, Vimaladevi was sent to a government home at Oomachikulam in Madurai, where an inspector, Vasanthi, allowed her parents to visit her. They took her back, the police claiming that she had agreed to go home.

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Ten days later, Vimaladevi was dead. Her parents said she immolated herself and they cremated her. “On that October night, it was the CPM leaders who called me to their office in Madurai urgently. They revealed the story of her death. Her parents had poured petrol on the body and set her on fire. Police inspector Vasanthi still insists it was a suicide. It was the police that facilitated her murder,” he said. The Madras High Court has now ordered a CBI probe into Vimaladevi’s alleged murder. The trial is yet to begin.