The die is caste

Ilangovan Rajasekaran looks at the ways caste operates in Tamil Nadu through accounts of inter-caste marriages that ended in “honour killings”.

Published : Jul 10, 2024 11:09 IST - 9 MINS READ

Divya and Ilavarasan, a file photo. Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth from Dharmapuri, was found dead on July 4, 2013, months after he married Divya from the Vanniyar community against the wishes of her family.

Divya and Ilavarasan, a file photo. Ilavarasan, a Dalit youth from Dharmapuri, was found dead on July 4, 2013, months after he married Divya from the Vanniyar community against the wishes of her family. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

“Honour killing is the crux of this book. But this is not a book on death; it is about life too. It does not stop with stating that an honour killing occurred. It raises questions about ‘why’ it happened, thereby exploring the many aspects of life surrounding it, from multiple perspectives. The book brings our attention to the contradiction of an individual with fellow citizens, the distance between our ideals and practical lives and the many masks we hide our real faces under. It is in Tamil Nadu, hailed as the land of social justice, that we find caste rising its monstrous head. It is not just alive, but it gobbles up lovers and bloats each day. I wish to emphatically communicate this enormous contradiction and the grave danger of caste monstrosity. None of us can shrug away this reality as happening someplace else, to someone else. Those killed might be strangers; but the murderer is caste—and we all know it.... Seeing parents who murdered their children because of this cantankerous disease of casteism left a deep scar in my mind. And that scar permeates this book.”

Saathiyin Peyaraal
Aaanava Kolaigalin Pathivu
By Ilangovan Rajasekaran
Translated from English by Marudhan and Niveditha Louis
Kizhakku Pathippakam, 2024
Pages: 224
Price: Rs.260

The above lines, from the journalist Ilangovan Rajasekaran’s book Saathiyin Peyaral (In the Name of Caste), are testimony to the fact that his journalism has also been a launch pad for his social activism. Saathiyin Peyaral, a compilation of accounts of seven inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu that ended in “honour killings”, helps us understand the many ways in which caste operates in Tamil Nadu.

For instance, Ilangovan explains the Kausalya-Sankar case, where Sankar was hacked to death in 2016 by killers hired by Kausalya’s family: “According to them [the dominant caste], it was not a murder. It was a punishment. When one is levied a death sentence, it is customary to explain why it is enforced. The same is followed here as well: ‘You are allotted a space; you and yours should live there; but you have crossed that border. You have entered the space that belongs to our caste. Hence our honour is lost; your love and marriage have made us impure. Therefore, you deserve to die.’”

Saathiyin Peyaral is not just a study of honour killings in Tamil Nadu; it is a document of the history of the State in the last 40 years. 

Saathiyin Peyaral is not just a study of honour killings in Tamil Nadu; it is a document of the history of the State in the last 40 years.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The unwritten rule has to do with the transgression of caste: How could a Dalit youth, educated as an engineer, marry a dominant-caste girl? It is a social crime and death is the price he has to pay.

Murder is inadmissible as a social ethic. No society ever accepts it. But the toxin of casteism normalises it. This casteist attitude is an expression of the dominant caste’s inability to accept the changes in the lives of the oppressed sections of society. Caste turns anti-human and works against the ethics of life. It acts as a fascist frenzy. We can sense that in each of these honour killings. One becomes a monster when one kills one’s own child. The honour killings in Tamil Nadu are testimony to this social psychology.

Ilangovan’s narrative unpacks the modes of functioning of this social psychology. He elaborates on how the media reports such cases; how powerful caste organisations formed in the last three decades help execute the honour killings; how political parties that vie with each other for vote banks, and the police, entrusted with maintaining law and order, deal with these incidents. In the process, he exposes the ugly faces of many social systems at work.

Also Read | In the name of honour

Ilangovan also explores in parallel how patriarchy feeds the social psychology of caste, how it affects the Dalit man and the Dalit woman differently, and how gender equality is lost in this casteist psychology. The book helps the reader understand the social and psychological pressures of the Dalit communities, while also making the point that an honour killing is a crime committed because of social institutions and the social psychology driving these institutions.

The past three decades have seen an explosion of mass media. In television and popular print media, honour killings pass off as consumer goods, laced with hyper-emotional drama. Even as news channels report the “breaking news” of these murders, they offer no meaningful analysis or counter-discussions around them, or support or initiate any social activism beyond the headlines.

Ilangovan, on the other hand, has used the platforms provided by The Hindu and Frontline to hold detailed conversations on honour killings. For him, the murders are not “hot” news; they are a culmination of various caste dimensions in society. He exposes them boldly through his field-based studies. In doing so, the crassness of political parties, the government, the police and caste-based organisations also stand exposed. Through Ilangovan’s analysis, we become aware of the gimmicks various groups play to safeguard their own caste interests.

Social change is unavoidable. Today, technology has strengthened human relationships and rendered the feudal aspects of communication between man and woman obsolete. Hence the remnants of feudalism like caste have also lost their everyday hold. Practically, a man and a woman can interact with each other, transgressing their respective castes. Caste has no role to play in this communication. It becomes natural for young people in public spaces to express their feelings. But caste—a remnant of the feudal system—does not approve of this. There is no understanding of social development within casteist communities. That is why they resort to killing the young couple. Caste groups, government institutions, and other public systems too function within this context. Ilangovan’s work helps us understand this phenomenon with evidence.

The electoral social space in Tamil Nadu, like elsewhere, is based on vote banks. It has remained so from the 1950s to the 1990s in a covert way. The Dravidian parties that grew out of the tradition of self-respect based on social justice did not moot overt references to caste. With the advent of Ambedkar’s centenary, the Dalit movement, especially the one led by Thol. Thirumavalavan, has risen to newer heights. To counter that, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) shaped itself as the party of the Vanniyar caste group, which translates into a vote bank and restructures the mobilisation of caste-based communities. It has been proven that casteist associations were behind the murder in the Divya-Ilavarasan case of Dharmapuri.

Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu has been the bastion of the Maoist movement since the 1970s. Ilavarasan and Divya hailed from different castes but the communities themselves were not averse to inter-caste marriages. Divya’s father supported the Maoist ideology. But the newly emerging Vanniyar caste group converted the wedding of Divya and Ilavarasan into fodder for the vote bank. Disheartened, Divya’s father was driven to suicide. Cashing in on his death, Vanniyar caste groups set fire to three Dalit villages. Soon after, Ilavarasan was found dead. The two deaths were announced as suicides; the inquiry commissions formed by the government and the police took the word of the Vanniyar caste organisation as the “truth”.

If the Vanniyar caste organisation was the culprit in the Ilavarasan case, the Kongu Vellala Gounder organisation is responsible for the murder in the Gokulraj case. The case was handled by Vishnupriya, Deputy Superintendent of Police, a Dalit by birth. The caste group killed both Gokulraj and Vishnupriya, and projected their deaths as suicides. Thanks to the lawyer P.P. Mohan and his comrades, the Gounder caste group leader Yuvaraj was found to be guilty and is serving life imprisonment now.

By documenting in detail how these caste-based organisations are responsible for the honour killings, Ilangovan establishes how the feudal remnants of caste have transformed themselves into caste organisations and political parties that depend on them as vote banks. Honour killings, therefore, are not an issue of inter-caste marriages alone; they are the contemporary manifestations of caste organisations with political clout. The entire administrative system supports these activities. The commissions formed by the government, local khap panchayats and the police in particular, cover up these realities and make them seem like casual occurrences.

This book also lays bare the modes by which caste hierarchy and patriarchy intersect in honour killings. Of the seven cases discussed in the book, the majority of those murdered are women. In India, the murders of women in the name of caste purity strengthen the stranglehold of male chauvinism and patriarchy. Ilangovan painstakingly documents the facts to prove how the oppression of women plays its part in honour killings as well.

It is Dalits who are murdered in honour killings. Like in other caste atrocities, the lowest in the hierarchy gets affected the most. The book also registers how even within the marginalised castes, honour killings occur based on the hegemony of caste and class.

Also Read | A caste variant of love jehad vitiates social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

Recounting Ilangovan’s mental state in his own words would not be out of place here:

“When the news of Ilavarasan’s body being found near the railway tracks reached me, it was like a huge rock that fell upon me. I had to reconfirm over and over if the news was actually true. My heart hoped against hope that it should not be true. I had met Ilavarasan just the day before, and spoken to him. His face filled my thoughts. His smile grew larger and larger and shook me.

I suffered sleeplessness for many days. I felt lost; there was a void in me. My usual self was gone; it was like something was grabbed away from me and I didn’t know what it was. It took me a long time to calm my mind and come out of that tragedy.”

This quote reminds us that a journalist should also be a humanist invested in the social good. Saathiyin Peyaral is not just a work on honour killings in Tamil Nadu; it is a document of the history of Tamil Nadu in the last 40 years. It reveals how the democratic process of elections depends on caste groups as vote banks. The caste organisations take society backwards. This work is a resource book for students of social history. It is a rare document of gender oppression and caste hierarchy in our social rubric. It is a must-read for all social activists. We owe our thanks and appreciation to Ilangovan Rajasekaran for writing this book.

There book also includes in the appendix the translation of an English article by Sowjanya Tamalapakula on inter-caste weddings among Dalits. It helps us understand the workings of caste, and its gender dimensions, among Dalits. Thanks to the lucid translation by Maruthan and Niveditha Louis, Saathiyin Peyaraal reads with the flow of an original Tamil work.

V. Arasu retired as Professor and Head of the Department of Tamil, University of Madras. He is currently the General Editor of Ambedkar’s Writings, to be published in 75 volumes by New Century Book House for the Government of Tamil Nadu.

The writer thanks A. Mangai for translating this review.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment