Demons and gods

Print edition : August 28, 2009
in Chennai

The temple of Pothyamman at Ettayapuram in Tuticorin district. Her story is a classic example of how women were pushed into suicide when their families felt they could not protect them.-PHOTOGRAPHS: N. RAJESH

How can one keep company with you. As long as killing people and deifying them Remains your policy?

From the song Jnanpith Award winner D.Jayakanthan wrote for the Tamil movie Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Some People Some Times) based on his novel of the same name.

THERE is a belief that the kind of honour killing that rocked Parliament on July 28 is a recent phenomenon and is confined to some northern States such as Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. But interactions with Tamil scholars, folklorists, educationists and activists of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) reveal that murders committed on the pretext of protecting family honour still occur, though sporadically, in the rural and semi-urban areas of Tamil Nadu. The obnoxious practice, it seems, existed in pre-modern Tamil society also and assumed its worst form under feudalism.

Among the recent cases that shook the conscience of civil society was the poisoning and burning of a newly married couple who belonged to two different castes at Puthukooraipatti village in Cuddalore district in July 2003. Both the victims were graduates. The young man was a Dalit while his wife was from the backward Vanniya community.

A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO, said that though tortures and murders committed in the name of protecting caste or family pride still took place in the State, they were not viewed or recorded as honour killings. The organisation recorded four cases of torture or murder in five districts between February and December in 2008.

In one of the cases, A. Sivaji, a Dalit youth of Haridwaramangalam village in Tiruvarur district, was brutally murdered by some relatives of his caste-Hindu wife, Lakshmi, in September 2008. She had married him against the wishes of her family. The victim was murdered after being kidnapped from his home by an armed gang in a van on September 7, 2008, Kathir said.

Lakshmi, who decided to continue living with her in-laws after her husbands death, took her case to the National Human Rights Commission and sought a court direction to the prosecution to invoke the penal provisions under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, in its order on November 20, 2008, asked the police to take steps to alter the first information report (FIR) in the case so that along with Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the relevant provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act were invoked against the accused.

In many cases, however, families of the victims prefer not to file police complaints because they fear reprisals. Kathir felt that cases should be registered suo motu on court directions. The State government and the State Womens Commission, he said, should conduct a thorough review of the problem since 95 per cent of the victims of honour killings were women.

Women tie bangles, cradles and mangal sutras on the branches of the tree behind which Muthu is believed to have hidden before her brothers beat her to death. The story of this deity is one of many similar legends of women who were deified after they were murdered, usually by their families.-

S. Madasamy, a former coordinator of the Arivoli Iyakkam (literacy movement), who had conducted an extensive study on the history of little-known female deities, said honour killings still continued in the State and were usually committed by intolerant relatives of women who had taken control of their own lives or had chosen partners on their own. To escape police action and stall legal measures, the perpetrators of such crimes glorified the victims by installing a putam, a mound of earth or a small structure made of bricks, in the villages and deified them, he said. Another reason for deifying the victims was the guilty conscience of the perpetrators, he added.

Both Madasamy and the veteran folklorist A. Sivasubramanian, who conducted field studies on folk deities in several villages of Tamil Nadu, said the State has a long history of honour killings. Little-known female deities worshipped in rural areas were invariably victims of honour killings committed in the last 300-400 years.

According to Madasamy, over 300 such deities were identified in surveys conducted by him and his colleagues in the Arivoli Iyakkam and the Madurai unit of the Bharat Gnan Vigyan Samithi in the 1990s. The devotees and priests of these temples assert that the deified women had disappeared owing to supernatural powers and were not murdered.

These folk deities are not popular in urban and semi-urban areas and are worshipped only by the local people and their relatives who may live in other places. Their legends, once stripped of their mythical elements, reveal a history of attacks on the weaker sections and the dispossessed, Sivasubramanian said.

He said the history of honour killings could be ascertained through oral narrations, which showed that the victims were beaten to death or pushed into a corn bin. In some cases, the woman was asked to get into a narrow tunnel which would be covered with a slab so that she would die of suffocation. Women who were perceived to sully family honour were either murdered or forced to commit suicide. In some cases, underprivileged and dispossessed families living in a feudal society murdered girls the moment they felt they would not be able to protect them from the evil intentions of an all-powerful local zamindar (landlord) or a chieftain.

The story of Pothyamman, a deity worshipped in Ettayapuram in Tuticorin district, provides a classic example of how women were forced to commit suicide. The hereditary priest of the temple, which is administered by a private trust, said that a zamindar returning from a hunting trip in the forest spotted Pothyammal, a goldsmiths daughter, playing with her friends, Poornam, Porkodi and Pushpakala, and wanted to marry her. As the girl realised the evil design of the zamindar, without losing a moment, she ended her life on the spot, the priest said. Local people cannot say when it happened.

Sivasubramanian said there was another version of the story, according to which the girl was asked to light a lamp kept in a pit. Just as she was reaching the bottom of the pit to carry out the task, the pit was covered with sand.

The idols of Pothyamman and her three friends were installed at a temple standing next to the zamindars palace. A large congregation gathered here every year in the Tamil month of Masi during the Sivarathri festival. Most of the devotees were goldsmiths belonging to a particular sect but settled in different places such as Chennai, Madurai, Tiruchi, Ramanathapuram and Tuticorin.

A. Sivasubramanian, folklorist, says oral narrations expose the inhuman face of feudalism.-

The story of Muthu, a resident of Pudupatti in Srivaikundam taluk of Tuticorin district, is slightly different. Fearing that she might be spotted by the local zamindar, her seven brothers warned her against venturing out. But the girl left home with her sisters-in-law who sold buttermilk in the neighbouring village. The zamindar, who belonged to the Anuppa Gounder caste, caught sight of her and sent his men to locate her residence. Terribly annoyed by their sisters behaviour, the seven brothers decided to kill her. She ran away when she came to know of their plan and sought refuge in a colony of potters. But her brothers sought her out and took her to a secluded place where they beat her to death.

A small thorny bush still stands where Muthu is believed to have been killed. Bangles, small cradles and mangal sutras offered by expectant mothers, childless women and unmarried girls are tied to a small tree behind which Muthu is said to have hidden before her brothers attacked her.

The Mutharamman temple raised in her memory is unique in many ways. For instance, it has no idol. An unbaked clay idol is made and worshipped at the time of the annual congregation held in the last week of the month of Panguni. Members of the Anuppa Gounder caste, incidentally, leave the village during the festival. At the end of it, the idol is hit with a stick and broken to pieces by the village talayari.

In another grim reminder of the way in which Muthu died, people who offer goats as a sacrifice at the shrine beat the animals to death with sticks instead of slitting their throats.

There were several other instances in which victims of feudal repression migrated to far-off places seeking safety and security, Sivasubramanian said, adding that this should be seen as a social protest. He said the oral narrations exposed the inhuman face of feudalism.

Madasamy sees honour killings in pre-modern Tamil society as an extreme form of domestic violence cutting across caste barriers. Families, particularly the victims brothers, played a crucial role.

A book based on the legend of Kambankuzhi Amman of Dindigul district was brought out in the early 1990s as part of the literacy campaign and it created a storm in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu, Madasamy recalled. It told the story of a woman who was pushed into a pit filled with millet because she was loved by a prince of that area. In the stories of Seeniammal of Pilavakkal and Sarkaraiammal of Srivilliputhur in Virudhunagar district and Arumugathai of Tirunelveli district also, the brothers of the victims were the villains, he said.

Madasamy said that what the survey and studies of the oral narrations revealed was only the tip of the iceberg and stressed the need for a more detailed study of the history of crimes perpetrated against women in Tamil society.

Madasamy and Sivasubramanian said that the government should take urgent measures to create awareness through education on the need to end such social crimes against women and initiate comprehensive measures to curb honour killings.

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