In the name of honour

Print edition : March 13, 2020

Elavarasan and Divya, a file photo. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Grieving relatives of Elavarasan of Natham Colony, who was found dead near the railway track behind the Dharmapuri Government Arts College on July 4, 2013. Photo: N. Bashkaran

Nandish and Swathi, a file photo. Photo: By special arrangement

Kausalya Shankar with Amruthavarshini, another victim, in Nalgonda in Telangana on September 21, 2018. Photo: Singam Venkataramana

V. Shankar and Kausalya, a file photo. Photo: By Special Arrangement

At the scene of the murder of V. Shankar in Udumalpet on March 13, 2016. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Murugesan and Kannagi, who were poisoned to death in 2003. Photo: By special arrangement

Solairaj and Pechiammal getting married at a temple in Thoothukudi. Photo: By special arrangement

VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan (left) with Samuel Raj, convener of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, at a padayatra seeking a law against honour killings in Salem on June 9, 2017. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

The spurt in the number of “honour killings” in Tamil Nadu in recent years is a stark indicator of the growing clout of patriarchal caste groups.

It is a loss so cruel. For 25-year-old N. Nandish, a Dalit man, and 23-year-old S. Swathi, who belonged to the Vanniyar community (a Most Backward Caste, or MBC), life was slowly returning to normal after they got married at a temple on August 15, 2018, and registered the marriage a month later. The couple braved extreme hostility from Swathi’s family, which believed that with the marriage the family honour had been compromised and caste sanctity violated. The couple decided to settle down in Tamil Nadu’s Hosur town, which borders Karnataka and is about 50 kilometres from Soolakondapalli village in Krishnagiri district, where their families lived.

The couple, who had also sought protection from the police, went missing on November 10. Nandish’s brother N. Shankar lodged a complaint at the Hosur police station, which registered a case of “missing persons” and faxed photographs of the couple to police stations in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Three days later, the Hosur police station received a message from the Mandya police station in Karnataka that Nandish’s body had been recovered from the Shivana Samudra river. Two days later, Swathi’s body, in a highly decomposed state, was also found.

Preliminary investigations revealed that Swathi’s family had lured the couple to their village with the promise that their marriage would be solemnised with traditional customs. They then took the couple to Karnataka, where they strangled them and threw the bodies into the river. The girl’s body bore multiple hack wounds. Her head was shaven, apparently in an attempt to shame her, and her womb, with a three-month-old foetus in it, had been ripped open. Both the bodies bore signs of abuse.

Swathi’s father, Srinivasan, and his relatives were arrested for the crime. Shankar told Frontline that Srinivasan’s relatives and other members of his caste had goaded him to kill his daughter and her husband. “We took all precautions but failed to save them,” he said.

The incident is just one example of “honour killing”, a euphemism for casteist murders wherein people who consider themselves protectors of caste and culture zealously safeguard caste endogamy by killing young men and women who marry out of caste. A spike in such killings, numbering about 200 in Tamil Nadu since 2013, is testimony to the existence of a society that frowns upon and suppresses an adult’s right to choose their spouse.

One such murder that hit the headlines was that of Veluchamy Shankar, who belonged to the Pallar Scheduled Caste community , in 2016. He was hacked to death in full public view at Udumalpet town in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district for having married Kausalya, who hails from the intermediate Agamudaiyar caste.

These murders are indicators of caste-based hatred and the prevalence of medieval practices that seek to tear asunder the very fabric of what was once considered a progressive society. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the official agency providing annual statistics on all crimes across the country, has not released any specific data on such killings since 2017, so non-governmental organisations such as Madurai-based Evidence are the only source of data on such crimes in Tamil Nadu.

These organisations mine information from multiple sources such as police documents and replies to right to information (RTI) queries. State government data that have been submitted in courts on several occasions, giving a count largely on the lower side, are invariably at variance with the statistics that organisations such as Evidence provide.

The perpetrators’ claims of preserving caste purity and family honour are red herrings. The real motive is to safeguard family property. Besides the obvious factors of caste, a host of other causes linked to social and economic status are also at play behind these hideous killings.

The Supreme Court had, in one of its judgments, identified several reasons for the murders; they included loss of virginity outside marriage, unapproved relationships, refusal to accept an arranged marriage, girls’ divorce, custody of children, and rape. Almost all these issues are related to women.

A recent phenomenon in the long history of such crimes is the prevalence of the practice among Dalit sub-castes too. The occurrence of such murders is not entirely new, but the scale at which they occur today is shocking. The recent murder of a young Dalit couple belonging to different S.C. sub-sects in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu shocked sociologists, who saw it as the ruthless manifestation of supremacist propensities among these groups.

Consider, for example, the love that bloomed in a salt pan near Kolathur in Thoothukudi district between daily wage workers T. Solairaj (24), who belonged to the Parayar community, and A. Pechiammal alias Jothi (24), who was a Pallar. Both belonged to Dalit sub-castes. Solairaj’s nephew Anandaraj told Frontline that his uncle married Pechiammal on April 15, 2019, at a temple and the couple lived with Solairaj’s parents in Kolathur. The girl’s family was against the marriage because they considered Parayars inferior to Pallars. On July 3, 2019, the couple slept outside their house on account of a power outage. The next morning, both were found dead. The woman’s head had been smashed and her left hand chopped off.

The couple had earlier sought protection by lodging a written complaint with the Kolathur police station.

In a brazen admission to the police, the woman’s father, Alagar, confessed to the murders. He was unwilling to “forgive” his daughter, who was pregnant at the time of her death, for having brought “dishonour” to him and his family. “He told the police that it was a shame for his daughter to marry a Parayar youth,” said Anandaraj. “Honour killings” in Tamil Nadu are not confined to inter-caste and interfaith marriages.

In a recent incident, 21-year old Nambirajan of Marukalkurichi village near Nanguneri in Tirunelveli was killed and his head chopped off for having married a girl from the same village on November 25, 2019. Both the boy and the girl belonged to the intermediate Maravar caste. But the girl’s family was better off than the boy’s family. A fact-finding report by Evidence on the murder revealed that the girl’s brothers were unhappy over the union since the boy was poor.

On November 18, 2019, a caste Hindu mother set her daughter on fire for deciding to marry a Dalit youth at a village in Nagapattinam district. The couple postponed their marriage since the girl was to turn 18 in a week. However, she died in hospital.

These killings prove the claim of Honour-Based Violence Awareness Network (HBVAN), an international digital resource centre working on honour-based violence (HBV), that “honour killings” are committed within families of social groups “to control the behaviour of individuals, mainly women, to protect honour”.

Caste-patriarchy interplay

At the root of these crimes are rigid patriarchal and feudal values that zealously preserve endogamy and continue to treat women as objects of servility.

Social and cultural controls over women’s bodies and minds condition them to meekly fall in line with misogynistic and medieval practices based on notions of honour and purity. Punishing young women who dare to break free of these controls is always a collective decision of the community and families.

A similar type of conditioning is taking place among Dalits too. To decipher this complex phenomenon, one has to understand Tamil society’s feudal, patriarchal and casteist psyche and how it operates collectively in multiple ways. It has been structured in such a way that the social hierarchy, constructed predominantly by birth-based descent, is also compliant with patriarchal control of female sexuality and Hindu undivided family assets. This system hence forbids marrying outside the caste.

Evidence’s executive director, A. Kadir, explains this system by pointing to the brutal killings that frequently take place among caste-Hindu groups—within backward castes (B.Cs) and MBCs and between the two groups. “Economic factors play a vital role in the killings and the idea is that property should not go out of families. All behave clannishly,” he said.

Nandish’s brother Shankar also mentioned the economic angle. He said that common properties such as land and houses of the family of his brother’s wife remained undivided. “Hence, her uncles did not like to give a share to Swathi, who married my brother, a Dalit,” he said.

According to statistics collected by Evidence, several murders have taken place in caste Hindu families because of inter-caste marriages. In 2014, Sathyabama, an MBC girl, was killed for marrying a youth from the Kongu Vellallar community, another intermediate caste group, at Sithode village near Coimbatore; in the same year, Poopathi, a B.C. girl belonging to the Udayar community, was murdered for marrying another B.C. youth in Bodinayakanur in Theni district. In 2015, a Nadar youth was killed for marrying a Kallar girl at Tirunelveli. Many such cases go unreported too. Kadir said that even a Brahmin youth was killed by a Dalit youth for marrying his sister in July this year in Tiruchi. “A case has been registered in this connection,” he said.

The Supreme Court has noted in various rulings that honour killings were reported mostly from Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, besides “some incidents” in Delhi and Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu government had even filed an affidavit before the Madras High Court on July 29, 2019, in which it claimed that 23 killings had taken place since 2003. Activists working in this area see this as a case of gross under-reporting.

Brutal killings

In 2012, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader Dr S. Ramadoss accused Dalit youths of luring non-Dalit girls by “wearing goggles, T-shirts and jeans”. The number of honour killings reported in the State has risen exponentially ever since. In perhaps the first such reported case, in 2003, a couple was force-fed poison. This incident, involving a Dalit youth named S. Murugesan and a Vanniyar girl named D. Kannagi, was first reported in a Tamil weekly.

The couple was traced and brought back to their village near Vriddhachalam town. When the girl refused to open her mouth the poison was reportedly poured down her ears and nose. Both died. The girl’s relatives allegedly committed the heinous crime in the village while a few of the boy’s relatives watched helplessly from a distance. The case is still at the trial stage in a court in Cuddalore town.

In yet another shocking instance, Bhavani, a 25-year-old MBC mother of two from Kuyavankudi village in Ramanathapuram district, was murdered by her brother for marrying a Dalit, Sathish Kumar, of Cuddalore in 2014. The two met at a garment unit in Tiruppur town and got married at a temple in Ramanathapuram. They lived in Tiruppur and later in Cuddalore and had two children. After Sathish Kumar got a job in Malaysia, Bhavani moved to Ramanathapuram with her children and lived with her grandparents when she was murdered. The murder took place four years after her marriage.

In the same year, in neighbouring Muthukulathur, a caste Hindu named Allirajan was arrested for killing his 16-year-old daughter, Divya, who reportedly eloped with a Dalit youth. Allirajan tried to cover up the murder by making it appear as a suicide. He later confessed to the police to having smothered his daughter with a pillow while she was asleep.

The ghastly murder of Veluchamy Shankar took place at Udumalpet on March 13, 2016. A gang armed with lethal weapons hacked him in broad daylight right opposite the town bus terminus. His wife Kausalya was also seriously injured. Later, it was revealed that her father, M. Chinnasamy, a financier and realtor, was the mastermind of the murder. The killing was recorded by a CCTV camera of a nearby shop, which went viral on social media. The video evidence and Kausalya’s bold deposition made it easy for the court to punish the killers. “This chain of violence can be broken if only survivors like me are empowered, emboldened and encouraged,” Kausalya said.

A Dalit youth named V. Gokulraj, an engineering student from Omalur near Salem town, fell in love with a girl from the Vellala Gounder community. His headless body was found on a railway track near Erode town on June 24, 2015. Deputy Superintendent of Police R. Vishnupriya, also a Dalit, was appointed to investigate the death; later, she was found dead, hanging at her camp office in Tiruchengode. Both these cases have now been entrusted to the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID) of the State police (“Losing battle”, Frontline, October 16, 2015).

A physically challenged Dalit girl named Amirthavalli, from Keezhamaruthur in Tiruvarur district, her husband Palaniappan, who belonged to a B.C. community, and their 40-day-old infant were killed in 2014. The lower court found a few members of the youth’s family guilty and sentenced them to 37 years in prison on various counts.

Murders are reported in inter-caste marriages involving caste Hindus today. Isakki Shankar, a bank employee belonging to the B.C. Yadava community, was murdered in Tirunelveli on November 20, 2018. His lover, Sathya Bama, who hailed from an MBC community, was found dead the next day in mysterious circumstances.

Siva and Sowmiya, who both belonged to B.C. groups, were murdered at Vadasery in Nagercoil in May 2013.

In 2014, the police found that a 17-year-old B.C. girl in a village in Madurai district, who was said to have committed suicide, had actually been murdered by her father. The girl had eloped with a boy, who also belonged to a B.C. community. She was reportedly smothered with a pillow when she was asleep.

“These girls in love and wedlock find no place to go. They are hunted like rabbits and butchered. Many girls are traced and brought back to their parental homes on false promises. They are emotionally blackmailed and killed if they do not heed to the family’s demands,” said a senior woman lawyer of the Madras High Court.

Also, many Dalit girls who married caste Hindu youths were either driven out of their husbands’ houses or abandoned, Kadir said. In some cases, the parents of such girls would commit suicide.

In a milieu where vigilantes aim to preserve purity and honour, there is no room for love. “As young couples yearn to begin their new life, caste and family interfere, stifle, fray and destroy their world of love, enforcing a lethal code of purity and honour. A fortunate few like me survive to narrate our tales of magical love and despair,” Kausalya, Shankar’s wife, told Frontline. Speaking at length on her struggle, she said that after Shankar’s death she had to face social ostracism even as she tried to recover from the trauma of her husband’s murder.

However, she added, Shankar’s murder “reinforced my will to live and fight for his dream—annihilating the system of caste and the concept of pride and purity. Honour killing shattered our pristine dreams for a life of love. It becomes a nightmare when the very people whom we love and trust turn killers,” she said.

She deposed against her father and got him the death penalty. “I support a strong and separate law on honour killing. Had I died and Shankar survived [in the attack], he would have got nothing, because I am a non-Dalit. Similarly, no law has supported me,” she said (“Standing tall”, Frontline, April 27, 2018.)

Echoing her statement, Kadir said that if the victim of an inter-caste marriage happened to be a Dalit, the state and Dalit organisations would extend all assistance. “But if the victim happens to be a non-Dalit, a simple case of murder would be registered. And if a victim happens to be a non-Dalit and the surviving spouse is a Dalit, either he or she would not receive any benefits. That’s why we have been demanding separate legislation on honour killing,” he said.

The need for such a law assumes greater significance now because in many cases the perpetrators, mostly parents and relatives, burn the victims’ bodies and claim they committed suicide, he added.

Shankar’s family received assistance from the State government. His father was given a government job. Kausalya insists that honour killing victims, irrespective of caste and creed, should be treated as “special victims” under the law. She wants the state to step in and help the victims rebuild their lives through adequate compensation and rehabilitation packages. “I was left to fend for myself after Shankar’s murder,” she said. She has remarried and is now employed in a government office, which she claimed was through her own efforts.

Kausalya is now leading a campaign against honour killing. “The life that looked gloomy, depressed and irretrievable has changed for the better. Of course, no person’s grief is greater than another’s. I have lost a major part of my present. Many parents have lost the future of their lives after the loss of their children. They have to live with memories, as Shankar’s father and brothers do today,” she said.

Yet, many parents and relatives remain shockingly indifferent to the killings of their dear and near ones for the sake of pride and honour. “They have just normalised the violence against youngsters like us,” said Kausalya. Her father, she said, used to dote on her.

Alagar, too, was very fond of his daughter Pechiammal. “She was fair and fairly educated. Alagar had been telling her not to marry Solairaj. But Pechiammal did not listen to him. He could not digest the fact that his daughter acted against his wish. He raged and turned aggressive,” said Anandaraj. Even at the police station, he pleaded with her to come home. “She not only refused but removed the gold jewellery she was wearing and handed it to him,” he said. After the marriage, Alagar, Ananadaraj claimed, was seen with some people who used to gloat about caste supremacy. “Only a detailed investigation will reveal it all,” he said.

Shankar, Nandish’s brother, said that such brutal killings should not be allowed in society. “We are poor and landless agricultural labourers. My brother took care of our family. My parents have not been able to overcome the loss of my brother to this day. The case is going on in a court in Mandya. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), a wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is supporting us legally and morally. My only wish is that those who killed my brother and his wife should be hanged by law. Then only their souls will rest in peace,” he said.

It is a sordid tale of suffering for Sargunam of Tirunelveli, too, who said he and his four-year-old son have been left to fend for themselves after his wife Kalpana, a Dalit, was killed. Sargunam said: “She was killed for no fault of hers. It was her brother who eloped with a girl. The girl’s parents were brutal. Despite my wife’s insistence that she did not know about the whereabouts of the couple, they killed her. The Madras High Court acquitted the killers. With support from Evidence, we have appealed to the Supreme Court,” he said. The couple are reportedly living in hiding.

Sathish Kumar told Frontline that life was a struggle for him and his two sons today. “My wife trusted her parents. She strongly believed that they would accept us since we had children. But caste pride and family honour are so deeply ingrained in the family that it thought nothing of sacrificing her. I was told that my wife was murdered because her community refused to give girls in marriage to her brother because she married me, a Dalit. Her brother, I was told, killed Bhavani in rage. After the murder I was told that many girls from the caste came forward to marry him. He was out on bail and happily got married,” he said.

Sathish Kumar alleged that he was not even informed about his wife’s death. He also said that there was no police inquiry. The post-mortem was not videographed and the cremation was done in a hurry. The police registered a case of murder (Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)) against her brother although the entire family was involved in the gruesome act, Sathish Kumar said. “My children are eyewitnesses to the killing of their mother,” he said. Evidence is supporting him legally.

Most of the victims are Dalit men. Then come women from both Dalit and caste-Hindu groups. Many couples of inter-caste, intra-caste, inter-sub caste and inter-religious marriages, unable to find a way out of the pressure building up from their families and communities, reportedly commit suicide. Elavarasan, a Dalit youth in Natham Colony of Dharmapuri, was found dead on the railway track near Dharmapuri on July 4, 2013 (“Tragic end”, Frontline, July 26, 2013). He had married Divya, a Vanniyar girl, against the wishes of the girl’s family. The police and the Justice Venugopal Commission set up to probe his death maintained that he had committed suicide while activists claimed that it was an honour killing (“A closed chapter?”, Frontline, June 21, 2019).

Caste, politics and killings

Many observers believe that social attitudes towards caste are also conditioned by political factors, mainly the need of political parties to strengthen their caste base. In a case involving an honour killing, the Madras High Court observed that political parties that were elected to power gave importance to caste and communal politics. “To integrate inter-caste couples into the mainstream, a strong intervention from the political class is essential,” it noted.

It is unfortunate that a State that pioneered a piece of legislation on civil marriages in the late 1960s, which led to many successful inter-caste marriages, is now a witness to caste conflagration after such marriages.

A case in point is the inter-caste marriage of Elavarasan and Divya in 2012. Although there are several Dalit-Vanniyar couples who are happily married and face no hostility (“Caste fury”, Frontline, December 14, 2012), the Elavarasan-Divya marriage led to riots and arson. This must be seen in the context of the emergence and rise of caste-based outfits in the State. Dharmapuri, for instance, was once a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist). When the radical movement was active, an amiable social environment existed, a former activist said. Once the movement was decimated, he and other radical activists found refuge in caste-based movements and organisations. These gave way to the caste-based outfits of today. Their rise was aided by the failure of other progressive political movements to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the radical movement.

G. Palanithurai, former professor at the Gandhigram Rural Institute and an expert on Panchayati Raj, said: “The Left’s political isolation started when it began concentrating on electoral rather than social politics. Unlike in the past, the [leftist] parties today are not visible in the people’s movements, small or big, which are taking place across the State on various issues.”

The rise of caste-based outfits and the attempts by a few Dalit groups to lean on right-wing ideology have made life worse for couples who marry out of caste.

Consider the case of a small-time caste leader like Yuvaraj. Accused in the murder of Gokulraj of Omalur in Salem for falling in love with a girl from the Vellala Gounder backward caste, he received a rousing welcome in Namakkal town when he came to surrender in a magistrate court in 2011. “Since 2007, around 30 honour crimes have taken place in the western region of Tamil Nadu alone,” Kadir of Evidence said.

On Gokulraj’s murder, Samuel Raj of the TNUEF said: “Neither the girl’s parents nor her relatives were said to be involved in the crime. It was an obscure small-time caste outfit that usurped the issue and allegedly murdered Gokulraj for the sake of caste honour. It is a very dangerous trend that strikes a parallel with the extrajudicial executions sanctioned by khap panchayats in the northern States.”

The murder prompted the TNUEF to take out a padayatra across Tamil Nadu to spread awareness among the people against such crimes.

Samuel Raj said that the communities the victims belong to played a dangerous role in deciding their fate. For instance, in the murders of Nandish and Swathi, Swathi’s father had told the police that his family was subjected to ridicule in the village because his daughter had married a Dalit. “Nandish was reluctant to marry Swathi. But on the insistence of the girl, the youth’s father, Narayanappa, approached Srinivasan to seek his permission for the marriage. But he was turned away. Swathi left her house and stayed at Nandish’s house. Although the family wished to keep away from the couple, society chose not to,” Samuel Raj said.

The State government has set up a high-powered vigilance committee to look into issues relating to Dalits and tribal people, but the clout that caste groups enjoy has ensured that the committee is virtually irrelevant.

There is also a separate social justice wing of the Tamil Nadu Police headed by an officer in the rank of Additional Director General of Police that monitors acts of atrocities and discrimination against Dalits and tribal people. But Dalit activists are not happy with its performance either.

Activists also accused the State government of placing procedural hurdles before inter-caste couples who apply for the Central government assistance of Rs.2.5 lakh under the Dr Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

The eligible couples, one of them who has to be from a Scheduled Caste, have to apply for the assistance within a year of their marriage with appropriate documents. “So far, none from Tamil Nadu has received the assistance,” said Kappikulam J. Prabhakar, a Tamil journalist and social worker.

It is not surprising that political response to this issue is half-hearted. The political environment is dominated by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and both parties depend on the numerically stronger B.Cs for electoral support. This is the main reason for the Tamil Nadu Assembly not taking up the issue for a serious discussion.

When it was once brought to the notice of the House in February 2015, Deputy Chief Minister O. Paneerselvam, who belongs to the intermediate Marava caste, went on record denying any such killing in the State. He dismissed the demand for separate legislation saying it was unnecessary. This attitude has only accentuated the intensity of such crimes.

However, neither the courts nor activists are willing to buy the government’s claims. Kadir said that around 190 deaths, including suspected murders and suspicious deaths of young women and men involved in inter-caste marriages and love affairs, which he strongly believed were honour killings, had taken place in Tamil Nadu between 2013 and 2019. He said that 80 per cent of the victims were women and teenaged girls. “They were murdered for marrying a Dalit or being married to a caste Hindu. Sometimes, as in the case of Nandish and Swathi, both were killed,” he said.

A. Marx, a social activist and writer based in Chennai, said that the rise of identity politics was the reason for social degradation. “Dravidian politics is the problem here. As their vote base lies among the B.Cs, the major Dravidian parties are reluctant to take forward the Gandhian-Periyarist ideologies,” he said.

He added: “Here, families and castes decide the fate of young couples. The state machinery, such as the police, often colludes with the murderers.” Marx insisted that parents of inter-caste couples should be held responsible for any harm done to them.In July 2019, a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) submitted an affidavit on behalf of the Director General of Police (DGP) of Tamil Nadu in the Madras High Court, in response to a petition being heard in the court. It said that 23 killings perceived to be for the sake of honour had taken place in Tamil Nadu, the first one being recorded in 2003.

The affidavit pointed out that four cases ended in acquittal and three, including one in 2003 and another in 2013, were under investigation. The rest were pending trial. While two cases ended in conviction, one is yet to be taken on file. The Gokulraj murder case was entrusted to the CB-CID and the case is before the Namakkal court.

Samuel Raj said: “The attitude of the state, especially the police, is brazenly partisan. The death of Vimala Devi of Madurai district is one such example. Despite knowing that she was facing threats, the police separated her from her husband, Dilip Kumar, a Dalit, and sent her with her parents. Later, the girl, who belonged to an MBC group, was found dead. The police panicked and tried to cover it up by saying that she had committed suicide. It was at the intervention of the Madras High Court, on a petition from Dilip Kumar, that the case was resurrected.” The TNUEF is assisting Dilip Kumar in the legal battle.

Palanithurai blamed the prevalence of these crimes on the failure of political parties to democratise society. “Instead of bringing people out of the caste system, political parties have forced them to remain in it. Politics has corporatised caste too today. More than 50 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population is in rural areas, of which the majority is in agriculture, which, in itself, is a feudal system,” he said.

According to the writer and Dalit ideologue D. Ravikumar, who is also the Member of Parliament from Villupuram and a senior functionary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Tamil Nadu government was “treating the honour killings with disdain”. Political parties must unite to force the State government to act against such crimes, he said. “Until then, honour killings will continue,” he added.

His party has been demanding a special law on honour killing for a long time. Dr K. Krishnasamy, the founder leader of Puthiya Tamilagam (P.T.), a political outfit that counts Pallars among its support base, held the Dravidian political parties responsible for these horrendous crimes. “Political empowerment of Dalits will remain elusive until Dalits carry the baggage of untouchability, socially and culturally,” he said.

The Supreme Court had observed that “inter-caste marriages are in fact in the national interest as they will result in destroying the caste system”. Prof. Y.S. Alone of the Visual Studies School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “Although it is one of the ways to counter caste prejudices and create a harmony in society, it does not break caste as such. The Scheduled Caste population has been vocal on the issue of inter-caste marriages and has largely accepted it. However, wherever there is no Ambedkarite consciousness, such marriages have always been forbidden by the respective communities. Marriage within has been instrumental in maintaining caste.”

Ambedkar perspective

Saying that Mahatma Jyotirao Phule also advocated inter-caste marriages, Prof. Alone said that caste was not a homogeneous category; it “is always fragmented and hierarchical”. He added: “Marriage outside caste becomes a bone of contention because caste will never have egalitarian values. The world outlook of the majority of human beings in India is shaped by their respective caste values and not by constitutional ethos. Caste blocks all abilities to create any enabling process. When society does not adopt rational thinking, prejudices impact all decisions in life and result in hate, anger and violence,” said Prof. Alone, who is also involved in research collaboration with the Buddhist Research Academy of Haungzhou, China.

Dr Ambedkar’s perspective on inter-caste marriage is deep and different. In his Annihilation of Caste, he writes that “caste will cease to be an operative force only when inter-dining and inter-marriage have become matters of common course”. He adds that the source of the disease has been located, but asks whether “the prescription was right prescription for the disease”.

He argues that caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire that prevents Hindus from co-mingling and which has to be pulled down. “Caste is a notion, it is a state of mind. The destruction of caste does not, therefore, mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.” Caste is the natural outcome of certain religious beliefs, which have the sanction of the shastras, he adds.

To agitate for and to organise inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriages, he says, “is like forced feeding brought about by artificial means”.

Dr Ambedkar wanted to free every man and woman from the thrall of the shastras. “Criticising and ridiculing people for not inter-dining and celebrating inter-caste marriages is a futile method of achieving the desired end. The real remedy is to destroy the belief in the sanctity of the shastras.” The destruction of belief in the sanctity of the shastras alone can eradicate caste, according to him.

The Supreme Court once said that the practice of honour killing devastated and destroyed the right of choice of an individual. “Ours is an obstinate society, backward and barbaric. The collective behaves like a patriarchal monarch, which treat the wives, sisters and daughters [as] subordinates, servile and self-sacrificing persons, moving in physical frame [and] having no individual autonomy, desire and identity.”

The court wondered how, despite constant social advancement, honour killing was persisting “in the same way as history had seen in 1750 B.C. under the code of Hammurabi”.

Tamil Nadu has become a classic example of this contradiction. A State that takes pride in Periyar’s legacies of self-respect, rationality and women’s liberation and which has achieved robust all-round advancement in the spheres of education, economy and social indices is also witness to a spurt in murders in the name of caste honour.

Apart from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have also been recording such crimes. In September 2018, a 24-year-old Dalit youth named Perumalla Pranay Kumar was hacked to death in broad daylight by unidentified persons at Miryalaguda town in Nalgonda district of Telangana for having married 19-year-old Amruthavarshini, the daughter of Maruthi Rao, a realtor, some eight months ago. Maruthi Rao was against the marriage. Pranay was murdered when he was taking Amruthavarshini, who was pregnant, to a hospital for a check-up. He died on the spot.

Maruthi Rao, who masterminded the murder, told the police that he “loved his daughter very much” but he was more concerned about his status in society, which he feared would ridicule him if his daughter married a Dalit. He paid hired killers Rs.10 lakh for the deed. Amruthavarshini and her child now live with her in-laws.

A civilised society should not allow a single tyrannical group or an individual to destroy the liberty of individuals to live and marry as they please. As the poet Edwin Arnold wrote, there is no caste in blood, ... nor caste in tears. Similarly, there is neither purity nor honour in these heinous killings.

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