In Tamil Nadu, the survivor of an honour killing fights caste violence

Kausalya Shankar’s life is a tale of fierce courage, perseverance, and ambition.

Published : Jun 13, 2024 19:46 IST - 6 MINS READ

Despite being the victim of an honour killing at the age of 19, Kausalya turned her life around and is an established entrepreneur today.

Despite being the victim of an honour killing at the age of 19, Kausalya turned her life around and is an established entrepreneur today. | Photo Credit: Periasamy M/The Hindu

Zha Family Salon’s second branch opened in Gandhimaa Nagar, one of Coimbatore’s premier commercial localities, on May 26. Less than a month after its opening, business has picked up. A pre-teen boy is getting a haircut when Kausalya Shankar, the salon’s 27-year-old owner and founder, walks in with a box of newly delivered hair products. Sporting a neat bob, Kausalya sits in front of a shampoo washbasin and places a hose inside.

A former government employee, she decided on a career shift two years ago after friends and acquaintances told her the salon business could be steady and profitable. Kausalya enrolled in a beautician’s course but could not find a job. “That was when I decided to stand on my own feet and start a business. I knew it would be hard because I had no financial support,” she said. But her friends pawned gold ornaments and lent her the money to start Zha’s first branch in Vellalore, a middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Coimbatore.

Eight years ago, Tamil Nadu became acquainted with Kausalya when her husband V. Shankar, a 22-year-old Dalit man from Komaralingam town in Tiruppur district, was brutally murdered in broad daylight in a case of honour killing. The crime was orchestrated by Kausalya’s parents, B. Chinnasamy and Annalakshmi. Kausalya comes from an Agamudaiyar family, who are classified as MBC or most backward caste. She met and fell in love with Shankar in college, and they decided to elope in July 2015 to escape her family’s wrath.

In March 2016, they had been married for eight months and were walking together on a main street in Udumalpet town in Tiruppur, when hired men attacked them with sickles in broad daylight. Shankar died on the spot while Kausalya was hospitalised with multiple injuries. The case garnered State-wide attention, becoming the first that year from Tamil Nadu to make it to the National Crime Records Bureau’s crime list as an “honour” killing. Closer to home, it devastated the then 19-year-old young woman.

Also Read | Kausalya Shankar: Standing tall

When Kausalya recovered, she began a determined quest for justice for her murdered husband. Thanks largely to her efforts, 11 people were arrested, including Kausalya’s parents and the hired assailants. In December 2017, a Tiruppur sessions Court sentenced the main accused, Chinnasamy, along with five others to death. Two others were given double-life terms and a five-year term, respectively. Three others, including Annalakshmi, were acquitted.

Legal setback

In June 2020, however, the Madras High Court overturned the verdict, acquitting Chinnasamy and two others and commuting the death sentence for the hired killers to 25 years in jail. Speaking about the setback Kausalya says, “The nature of our case is no secret to anybody. Yet, accused No. 1 (her father) has been released.” Despite this, she says, she has not lost hope. She still believes “the law is the only way”.

The way led her to the Supreme Court. “It’s been three years since I filed the case,” she says, adding that she will not stop fighting until she gets justice for Shankar. Madurai-based Dalit activist Vincent Kadir of the non-profit organisation Evidence, who has been an ally to her from the beginning, told Frontline that the defence lawyers in the Madras High Court used the phrase “mercy killing” while referring to the murder.

She opened Zha Family Salon’s second branch on May 26 after establishing the first branch on the outskirts of Coimbatore.

She opened Zha Family Salon’s second branch on May 26 after establishing the first branch on the outskirts of Coimbatore. | Photo Credit: Periasamy M/The Hindu

Prasanna S., an Advocate-on-Record of the Supreme Court and Kausalya’s lawyer spoke to Frontline about the complex nature of the case and attributed the Madras High Court’s acquittal to “insufficient evidence”. Speaking of the Principal District and Sessions Court in Tiruppur sentencing six of the 11 accused to death he said, “The gravity of the offence, in that it was driven by caste discrimination, coupled with widespread media attention made the Court to deliver a verdict that would send a message.”

Uplifting others

Besides fighting for justice, Kausalya has had to fight to remake her life. Her determination to become an entrepreneur was fuelled also by her desire to dedicate more time to social work, which includes providing training to people, mostly women, from backward castes to help them find work as beauticians and hairdressers and gain financial independence.

On the second anniversary of her husband’s death, Kausalya also launched Shankar Social Trust in Komaralingam town. The idea behind the Trust was to focus on uplifting the marginalised and fighting against caste oppression in any form. According to Gopinath Oam, a volunteer at the Trust, it provides free tuition for students aged 5 to 16. “Each batch has roughly 20 to 25 students and one teacher handles common subjects such as Science, Mathematics, English, etc,” he said. At the time of launching the trust, Kausalya had said it was akin to “the second birth” of her slain husband.

According to Vincent, Kausalya’s role as an anti-caste activist has steered the trajectory of her life. “I saw her transform from a victim to a survivor and now an activist. She is an ally to victims of caste violence.” S. Anandhi, a former professor of gender studies at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, has observed several victims of honour killings. She told Frontline: “If women do survive the crime they usually retreat into their homes, maintain a low profile; some even contemplate suicide. But Kausalya was different. She was determined to fight.” Indeed, Kausalya has come a long way from the woman she was eight years ago, who in her own words, was so timid and soft-spoken that people standing next to her could not hear her.

One of the three paintings hanging on the salon’s wall at Gandhipuram.

One of the three paintings hanging on the salon’s wall at Gandhipuram. | Photo Credit: Periasamy M/The Hindu

Framed black-and-white paintings hang on the walls of the Zha salons. They depict early 20th century scenes of men cutting the hair of other men using a long blade. Asked why she chose these paintings for display in her salons, Kausalya said: “Social evolution. Decades ago, being a barber was based on one’s caste. That has changed and I want Zha’s customers to notice that.”

Also Read | The brutal honour killing of a Dalit youth

Meanwhile, eight years after Shankar’s murder, inter-caste marriages continue across Tamil Nadu, but so does the fanatic protection of caste purity. As recently as January 2024, The Hindu reported a case of honour-killing in Thanjavur where a 19-year-old girl, Ishwarya, was murdered for marrying B. Naveen, a Scheduled Caste youth in Tiruppur. The Vattathikkottai police arrested Ishwarya’s parents in Thanjavur district in connection with the murder. According to Anandhi, “There is heightened sensitivity around inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu compared to other States. That is possibly also why there are more media reports of honour killings.” In a press release dated November 2019, Evidence stated that it had recorded 195 incidents of honour killings in the State over the preceding five years.

I look at Kausalya chatting with a customer who is getting a hair wash. What would she like from life? She looks forward to a brighter future, she says, but her big dream is for Zha. She wants to establish branches all over Tamil Nadu and is actively scouting for a franchise partner. Her time and commitment equally divided between social work, the business, and fighting Shankar’s case, hers is a tale of enormous resilience and courage. Reflecting on the incident, Kausalya says no one should have to go through what she did. “There shouldn’t be another Shankar.”

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