Print edition : April 15, 2016

The scene of the crime in Udumalpet where V. Shankar, the Dalit youth, and his wife, Kausalya (left), were attacked on March 13. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Kausalya at the Coimbatore Government Medical College Hospital. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The killers fleeing on a motorcycle. The image was captured on a CCTV camera. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Kausalya's father Chinnasamy. He surrendered in the magistrate's court at Nilakottai in Dindigul district. Photo: G. Karthikeyan

C. Chandraprabha (right), State officer-in-charge for the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, with C. Velusamy, Shankar's father, at Komaralingam village. Photo: R. VIMAL KUMAR

The brutal killing of a Dalit youth, who had married a caste Hindu girl, in Udumalpet highlights the issue of increasing “honour killings” in Tamil Nadu.

“THERE is nothing honourable in honour killings, and they are nothing but barbaric and brutal murders by bigoted persons with feudal minds. It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices, which are a slur on our nation.” The Supreme Court’s two-member bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra pronounced this verdict on the subhuman practice of honour killings in May 2011. The court did not stop at this. It directed all the trial courts and High Courts to treat such killings as the “rarest of rare” cases and award the death sentence to its perpetrators. The court felt this would act as a “deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilised behaviour”. Those who are “planning to perpetuate honour killings should know that the gallows await them”, it said.

This hard-hitting judgment does not seem to have had any effect on those perpetrating caste crimes, be it in Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, where khap panchayats continue to act as extrajudicial and extra-constitutional authorities. What is even more appalling is the prevalence of the sinister practice in Tamil Nadu, a State known for its social progressiveness rooted in the ideology that "Periyar" E.V. Ramasamy espoused about a century ago.

Families aggrieved by inter-caste marriages, especially those involving Dalits, seem to have taken over the task of dispensing “justice” in the most brutal manner possible for the sake of caste or family “honour”. This is not confined to one region of the State.

The most recent incident of “honour killing” happened on March 13 at Udumalpet, a textile town in Tiruppur district in the western region of the State. V. Shankar, a Dalit youth belonging to the Pallar caste, was attacked with machetes in broad daylight at a crowded junction near the town bus stand. The sin of the 21-year-old youth, a first-generation mechanical engineering graduate from Komaralingam village near Udumalpet, was that he fell in love and married Kausalya, a 19-year-old college girl belonging to the Maniyakkarar caste, which is identified as a subsect of the Most Backward Classes (MBC) Agamudaiyar community.

On July 11, 2015, they got married at a temple in Palani, a town in the neighbouring Dindigul district from where the girl hails. Immediately after the marriage, they drove to the police station at Madathukulam, some 20 kilometres from Palani, and sought protection in writing. Subsequently, Kausalya moved into her husband’s one-room tiled house at Komaralingam and continued to live there despite constant threats and intimidation from her family. She discontinued her studies so that Shankar could complete his engineering degree. He was studying in a private engineering college in Pollachi town, some 28 km away. He had completed a polytechnic course before he joined the engineering course in 2013.

Shankar had got a job through campus recruitment and the couple had planned to move to Chennai in April. His father Veluchamy, a labourer and head-load worker, said: “I never thought they [the girl’s family] would go to this extreme. When Shankar got a job in Chennai, we thought they would be safe there and everything would become normal. My son wanted Kausalya to continue her studies in Chennai.”

With dreams of starting a happy life in Chennai, the couple was in Udumalpet on March 13 to do some shopping when five people, one of whom was later identified as the girl’s relative, chased and hacked Shankar and assaulted Kausalya when she tried to save her husband. After committing the crime, they left on motorbikes without facing any resistance from anyone in the busy area.

The entire incident was recorded on a CCTV camera fixed in a shop nearby and went viral on social media, shocking the entire civil society. Shankar died while being taken to the Coimbatore Government Medical College Hospital. Kausalya, who suffered a head injury that required 18 stitches, is undergoing treatment. Her father, Chinnasamy, a financier and a real estate broker, surrendered before a magistrate’s court. The police have arrested five persons.

Veluchamy told Frontline that inter-caste marriages were not unusual in his village, which has 1,500 Pallar families. His son became an unfortunate victim of caste pride. “My son was hounded and killed in cold blood. How was this possible in the presence of hundreds of people in a busy area? Not a single policeman was seen there,” a distraught Veluchamy said.

Inter-caste marriages among Pallars, Arunthathiyars and Vanniyars, and even inter-religious marriages between Pallars and Muslims, have taken place in Komaralingam. And families of people marrying across castes are living happily in the village. “Nearly 40 families have witnessed one or two inter-caste marriages among them. But this is the first time that a girl from the Kallar caste married a Dalit,” a Dalit activist in Udumalpet said.

Shankar’s brother Vigneshwaran, a B.Sc Computer Science student in Udumalpet, said his father had taken loans amounting to Rs.4 lakh for Shankar’s studies, of which only Rs.1 lakh was from a bank and the rest was from private money-lenders. “When he graduated as a mechanical engineer, the entire village celebrated it because he was the first person from the village to complete a professional course,” he said.

Now the entire family has to bear the debt burden. “It is too big a sum. We pinned our hopes on Shankar. Now I have no other alternative but to earn a living,” Vigneshwaran said. When asked whether the family would accept Kausalya when she comes out of the hospital after treatment, he said the entire family was waiting for her return. (Kausalya has expressed her willingness to live with Shankar’s family.) “We went to the Coimbatore hospital twice, but we were not allowed to meet her,” said Veluchamy.

There have been at least two similar cases of caste killings in the State in recent years. V. Gokul Raj, an engineering student from Omalur near Salem who reportedly fell in love with a girl from the Vellala Gounder community, an intermediate caste group, was found dead with his head severed on a railway track near Erode on June 24, 2015. Yuvaraj, who was the leader of the Tamil Nadu Kongu Ilaignar Peravai’s youth wing at Sankagiri, and who openly propagated his caste “purity”, was arrested in connection with Gokul Raj’s murder. In a subsequent development, Deputy Superintendent of Police R. Vishnupriya, a Dalit officer who was investigating the case, was found hanging in her office-cum-residence at Tiruchengode under mysterious circumstances. Both these cases are being investigated by the State Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department’s police wing ( Frontline, October 16, 2015).

The issues surrounding inter-caste marriages, especially those between Dalits and caste Hindus, came to the fore in 2012 when Elango Elavarasan, a Dalit youth of Natham colony in Dharmapuri district, married a Vanniyar girl, N. Divya. Elavarasan was found dead on a railway track near Dharmapuri town on July 4, 2013 ( Frontline, July 26, 2013). The police investigation maintained that the youth had committed suicide as Divya had disowned him under pressure from her caste group and family. Dalit outfits continue to maintain that Elavarasan was murdered. In fact, soon after the news of Elavarasan and Divya’s marriage spread, the girl’s father committed suicide “in shame”. This prompted Vanniyar mobs to resort to widespread arson and looting in Natham Colony, a Dalit settlement, on the night of November 7, 2012. Dalit households lost property worth crores of rupees. Vanniyars, belonging to the Most Backward Classes, are a powerful caste group in northern Tamil Nadu.

In order to understand the opposition to inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu, one must get a “feel” of the feudal mindset of the landholding Other Backward Classes (OBCs). “The mindset has been structured and constructed on the traditional caste hierarchy. With this comes a rigid sense of morality and caste purity, both ingrained in the Vedic-age system of varnashrama dharma. But the tragedy is that the burden of caste purity has been forced on women. They have become reluctant victims of this malice within the patriarchal system of OBC groups,” the Tamil scholar V. Arasu said.

Madurai-based Dalit activist A. Kadir of Evidence, a social organisation, told Frontline that the killing of young couples in the name of caste “purity” and family pride had increased in Tamil Nadu since the Dharmapuri incident.

“As many as 81 suspected murders and suspicious deaths of young girls and boys who married outside their caste have been reported since 2013. Although India has strong social laws, there is no political will to enforce them. Hence, a separate law is needed to stop this barbaric act,” Kadir said.

He said: “Of the 81 deaths, nearly 80 per cent of caste-Hindu girls who married Dalits were murdered by their family members. In an incident that defies the basic tenets of humanism, a caste-Hindu youth, Palaniappan, and Amirthavalli, a Dalit woman he had married, were murdered, along with their 40-day-old child, by his brothers in Keelmaruthur village in Tiruvarur district in 2014. We have been reporting these incidents to the State and Central governments and regularly urging the State to enact a special law against this gruesome practice,” said Kadir.

The social activist A. Marx endorsed Kadir’s reasoning that only a special law like the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act could render some justice to the victims of honour killings. He said the practice had been prevalent for a long time in Tamil Nadu.

“Active Dalit groups and the media are quick to expose them today. That is why we have a perceived notion that the killings have witnessed a spurt in recent times,” he said. Kadir said many of these deaths were booked under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure as suspicious deaths.

“Hence, we demand that suspicious deaths, especially of women in the age group of 18 to 30, in inter-caste marriages should be investigated thoroughly. For that we need a special social law on the lines of the Prevention of Atrocities Act,” he said. A draft law prepared by the National Law Commission, titled “Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with Freedom of Matrimonial Alliance) 2011”, was pending before the government, Kadir said.

He also said that his field study had revealed some strange phenomena.

The majority of Dalit girls who had married caste Hindu youths were either driven out of their husbands’ houses or abandoned.

“The girls who were killed by caste Hindus for family and caste honour those days were converted to family deities and are being worshipped today,” he said.

“Barring a few stray incidents such as the one in Tiruvarur district and another in Cuddalore district, that too involving caste Hindus, no Dalit family has resorted to the killing of their girls for marrying outside their caste,” he said.

In some cases, caste Hindu parents committed suicide after their girls’ elopement unable to stomach the sneers from relatives and other caste members. “That is what happened in Divya’s father’s case, too,” he said.

Dr K. Krishnaswamy, founder president of the Puthiya Thamizhagam, a Dalit political party in the State, told Frontline that there was no honour involved in these killings.

“The girl’s father in the Udumalpet incident, I am told, is facing some 40 criminal cases for various illegal activities. What honour does he have? It was the girl who fell in love first and insisted that the boy marry her. How can they punish the boy?” he asked.