Print edition : August 07, 2015

In front o f a garlanded photograph of Gokul Raj, his mother, V. Chithra, and brother V. Kalaiselvan. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

Thol. Thirumavalavan, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader, accompanies the body of Gokul Raj on its last journey. Photo: E. LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

The uneasy calm in the western region of Tamil Nadu that followed the protests against Perumal Murugan’s controversial novel is broken by the caste-driven murder of a Dalit youth over an alleged love affair.

“WE ARE told that late evening meetings are organised in villages, in which photocopied extracts of the book are distributed, especially to women. They are being indoctrinated,” a teacher from Namakkal told Frontline in February 2015 when the controversy surrounding the Tamil novel Mathorubagan (One Part Woman) and its writer, Perumal Murugan, was at its height. Those meetings were part of a hate campaign against the writer, who was charged with bringing into disrepute the women of the Gounder community which is predominant in the western region of Tamil Nadu and officially goes by the name of Kongu Vellalar.

A consequence of this controversy was the dominant caste-centric group imposing its will in the region and a rise in social tensions. On June 24, the hostilities claimed the life of a Dalit youth, V. Gokul Raj, allegedly because he fell in love with a girl from the Gounder community. They were classmates in a private engineering college in Tiruchengode town in Namakkal district, where Perumal Murugan’s novel is set. Twenty-one-year-old Gokul, who belonged to the Parayar caste and hailed from Omalur town in Salem district, was found dead on the rail track, with the head severed from the torso, near Erode town on June 24, and it was initially suspected to be a case of suicide.

According to his mother, V. Chitra, 40, to whom Frontline spoke, Gokul told her on the morning of June 23 that he was going to college to collect his mark sheets of the last semester and other certificates.

Gokul was last seen with the girl on that day at the Arthanareeshwarar temple at Tiruchengode; both had just completed their undergraduate course in Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECE). Gokul’s elder brother, V. Kalaiselvan, a postgraduate in engineering, said the girl told him over phone that when she and Gokul were talking at the temple, a few people accosted them and took him away forcibly.

She said they came in a white-coloured SUV which bore the name of Dheeran Chinnamalai Peravai and asked Gokul to go with them to meet a person by name Yuvaraj. They told her to go home and took away her mobile phone. She put the time of the incident at between 10 a.m. and noon and added that she and Gokul were just friends and that she had come to the temple to give him some money that he had wanted.

The entire incident had been recorded in the closed-circuit television cameras installed at the temple. Cameras 1, 2, 3 and 4 near the sanctum sanctorum showed the couple entering the temple at 10-52 a.m. and exiting at 11-50 a.m., with a few unidentified men accompanying the girl and four men surrounding Gokul. On the basis of the CCTV footage, the three-member team of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, led by P. Ramasami, its Assistant Director for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, declared it to be a case of kidnap-cum-murder. This put pressure on the State government to expedite the investigation.

When Gokul had not returned home late in the evening on June 23, his anxious mother and brother lodged a complaint at the Tiruchengode police station. The police registered a “man missing” case under Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Salem district secretary, R. Parthiban, a lawyer-activist and friend of Gokul, urged the police to question the girl, who hails from Paramathi Velur, also in Namakkal district. At the police station, the girl repeated what she had told Kalaiselvan.

The case turned bizarre the next day when Gokul’s body was found on the track at Kilakku Thottipalayam village near Erode town. The police registered a case of suspected suicide under Section 174 (3) (IV) of the Code of Criminal Procedure and sent the body to Erode Government Hospital. The police claimed to have recovered a suicide note from the site. After Chitra identified the body, Dalit outfits, including the BSP and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), laid siege to the hospital and demanded that the police register it as a case of murder.

On the family’s demand, the Erode district administration shifted the body to the Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital in Salem. Meanwhile, the Madras High Court, hearing a petition filed by Parthiban, ordered an independent post-mortem examination of the body. The judge, S. Tamilselvan, while pointing to the gravity of the situation, said: “However, prime facie the photographs available would show that there is a possibility of the death being a homicidal one…. We find it just and reasonable to direct the respondents to conduct the post-mortem by a team of government doctors.” Accordingly, the Dean of the Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital, Dr K. Mohan, formed a special team headed by Dr P. Sampathkumar, Vice-Principal and Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Sri Ramachandra Medical College Hospital, Chennai, and including Dr K. Gokularamanan and Dr R. Sangeetha, both from the Salem Medical College Hospital Department of Forensic Medicine.

On June 27 the team conducted the post-mortem and the next day it inspected the site where the body was found before submitting its report to the High Court. The court forwarded the report to R. Vishnu Priya, Tiruchengode Sub-Divisional Deputy Superintendent of Police, the special investigation officer in the case. The post-mortem report (a copy is available with Frontline) states that “the deceased would appear to have died due to deep cut injuries to neck; injuries to the skull were due to crushing force of a blunt object, the deceased would appear to have died within 3-4 days prior to autopsy”. It concludes that the “neck injuries are ante-mortem in nature” and “the injuries are not possible because of run over due to Railway accident, the neck injuries are possible due to sharp edged weapon”.

Accordingly, the police converted the case into one of homicide under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and arrested nine of 10 suspects, including a woman, in connection with it. A search is on for the prime suspect, Yuvaraj, president of the Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Peravai. (The police said there were many cases of cheating and other criminal activities pending against Yuvaraj in Salem and Erode districts.)

Gokul’s mother received his body amid protests by Dalit groups. Later, the body was taken in a procession to Omalur, some 20 kilometres from Salem town, on July 2 with a strong police presence. The VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan addressed a condolence meeting at Omalur.

One-upmanship

The death of Gokul brought to the fore the conflicts between Dalit groups. When the body was kept in the Salem hospital mortuary, Dalit outfits wrangled over who should take the initiative to get justice for the victim’s family. The BSP, through its district secretary Parthiban, had filed a petition in the Madras High Court for an independent post-mortem. Gokul’s mother issued a statement in which she said, referring to the BSP’s role, that “a friend of Gokul had gone to court on his own and without her knowledge” and that she did not approve of it. The VCK’s entry into the picture virtually eased the BSP out. Parthiban, in fact, charged the VCK with trying to “appropriate” any Dalit issue that came up in Tamil Nadu for its “own gains”.

“It is a burning issue. We were with the family of the deceased from the beginning since Gokul was my friend. What is wrong in seeking judicial intervention when the district administration and the police tried to hush up the issue? Based on the High Court’s direction the post-mortem was conducted, which established that it was a murder. They [VCK] blame us for no reason and the family of Gokul has been brainwashed,” Parthiban said.

A. Vasanth, Salem district secretary of the VCK’s student wing, who has been advising Gokul’s family through the investigation, dismissed the charges. “We are a mass Dalit organisation, strong politically and socially, in Tamil Nadu. We interfere wherever a Dalit is wronged. Ours is a movement. It is not necessary for us to take up an issue such as this to enhance our stakes. It is an issue which needs a strong intervention and a strong VCK alone can do that,” he emphasised.

Poomozhi, president of the Salem-based Tamil Nadu People Rights Movement, said many rights organisations kept away from the Gokul issue because of the rivalry among Dalit outfits. “While they fight over appropriation, the poor and innocent suffer,” he said. The VCK general secretary D. Ravikumar said the VCK had taken up such issues for more than a quarter century now. “The VCK has the moral authority to interfere effectively in such cases to get justice for the oppressed. People have confidence in us. We will never betray them for any reason.”

“He loved poetry. He penned many poems on the problems of the oppressed. He loved the philosophy of Maraimalai Adigal, a Tamil scholar,” said Kalaiselvan about his brother. In fact, the police, for reasons unknown, took away his notebook which contained his poems. Kalaiselvan said that when his father, Venkatachalam, a driver in the Tamil Nadu State Road Transport Corporation, died in harness some two decades back, it was his mother who brought them up and educated them amid struggles. “They [the accused] could have just roughed him up and let him to go after a warning. We would not have dared to raise our voice against anyone,” he said.

Nilavan, a member of the Erode-based People’s Movement for Caste Rejection, said the organisation had performed many inter-caste marriages involving caste Hindus and Dalits in the districts of the western region without serious law and order problems. He said the parents of both the boy and the girl who agreed to get married were asked to come to the police station where a solution was found before a group of mediators. “Only after the death of E. Elavarasan in Dharmapuri and the formation of the Dr S. Ramadoss-led Anaithu Samoothaya Padukappu Peravai [All Communities Protection Committee], inter-caste love marriages have become dangerous and ended in gruesome murders,” he said.

In 2013, Elavarasan, a Dalit youth of Natham village near Dharmapuri town, eloped with a girl belonging to the Vanniyar caste. It led to the suicide of the girl’s father, and the incident sparked widespread arson and looting in the entire village. The boy was later found dead on the railway track near Dharmapuri after the girl disowned him.

A. Kadir, Executive Director of Evidence, a Madurai-based non-governmental organisation, said it was unfortunate that such heinous hate crimes were taking place in the land of social reforms. He added that since 2008 his organisation had recorded details of about 40-odd crimes, which he claimed were “honour killings”, across the State involving all OBC caste groups. “In many of these crimes, either Dalit girls or Dalit boys who married caste Hindus were killed,” he said.

In some cases, the victims happened to be caste Hindus too. “They were killed for their caste pride and families’ honour,” he said. He recalled an incident in which a girl from the Gounder community was murdered by her own family members for marrying a Vanniyar boy, in Coimbatore in January 2013. “The Gounders jealously guard their caste pride, and any marriage, especially of girls, outside their caste, leave alone Dalits, would bring disrepute to the family and the caste. Such is the vicious hold of caste identity,” he said.

The chilling similarity in the deaths of Gokul and Elavarasan shows the emergence of a vicious pattern among OBC groups of doing away with those who attempt to “sully their caste pride”.

It is sad that political parties such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in the northern districts and the Kongu Vellalar caste in the western region, besides the Maravars and other OBCs in the southern and central districts, have kept caste-based malice intact in a State that once stood for social reform and caste annihilation.

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