CASTE prejudices are deep-rooted in Tamil Nadu, and people would even kill to preserve `family (or caste) honour', as they did at Puthukkooraippettai village in Cuddalore district recently by poisoning to death and burning a newly married couple who belonged to different castes. This incident, as also a simple flag-hoisting episode at nearby Siruthondamadevi village, reinforced the fact that the worst sufferers in such situations are women and Dalits.
S. Murugesan (25), a graduate in chemical engineering, and D. Kannagi (22), a commerce graduate with a diploma in cooperation, both residents of Puthukkooraippettai, near Vriddhachalam town, about 200 km from Chennai, fell in love with each other when they were students at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Their marriage was solemnised and registered on May 5, 2003 under the Hindu Marriage Registration Rules, 1967, by the Registrar of Hindu Marriages, Cuddalore. The couple concealed the fact from their parents, fearing their disapproval because they belonged to different castes. While Kannagi was a Vanniya, Murugesan was a Dalit. Vanniyas are placed above Dalits in the caste hierarchy.
The couple spent a few days in the house of Murugesan's relative, and then decided that Kannagi would stay with her parents until Murugesan took up a job. Within a month or so he got a job in a private firm at Tirupur, but in the meantime Kannagi's parents came to know of the marriage and showed their resentment in every possible way. The couple could not meet; they kept in touch with each other through letters.
On July 3, Murugesan came to the village and took Kannagi with him without the knowledge of their parents. Her `disappearance' caused tension in the village and Kannagi's father, C. Doraisami, who is the local panchayat president, and brother Marudupandian, apparently took it as an affront to their family and caste honour. They organised a search for the couple, and their men are said to have cornered Murugesan at his house on July 7. He had apparently come to take some documents. Even at this point Murugesan's parents claimed that they were not aware of the marriage.
Murugesan was apparently taken to a secluded place on the outskirts of the village and tortured all night for information about Kannagi's whereabouts. His captors allegedly suspended him upside down into a deep well and threatened to drop him in if he did not disclose where Kannagi was. Murugesan's resistance finally broke, and he told them that she was with some of his relatives. Marudupandian, accompanied by an uncle of Murugesan, brought her back to the village. Both were allegedly forced to drink some poisonous liquid in the presence of scores of people, who were mute witnesses to the agony of the dying couple. The bodies were burnt, leaving no evidence of the gruesome incident.
FIRST reports of the incident said it was a case of suicide. But when information began to spread through witnesses and the grapevine about what actually happened, political parties demanded an inquiry. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a call for a demonstration to demand action against the casteist forces responsible for the murder. The Viduthalai Siruthaigal (Dalit Panthers of India) also demanded an inquiry. Ten days after the incident, Doraisami, Marudupandian and four others surrendered to the Village Administrative Officer, who produced them before the police. A case of murder was registered and a few days later Murugesan's father Samikkannu, 49, was also arrested. All the accused were granted bail after about three weeks in custody.
Samikkannu alleged that he had been implicated in the case and said he was not present in the village that day. Father of six children and relatively wealthy (he owns a few acres of land), he had spent a lot of money educating his eldest son and saw him as the family's hope. He maintained that he was not aware of his son's wedding until early July. Chinnappillai (45), his wife and Murugesan's stepmother, alleged that the police beat her when she went to the police station to complain about the incident. Murugesan's bother Velmurugan, 17, a Class XI student, said he was beaten up by Doraisami's people because he did not know where his brother was. Samikannu's family has since moved to another village given the fact that the Dalits of Puthukkooraippettai are poor agricultural workers fully dependent on the land-owning Vanniyas for survival.
S. Dhanasekaran, CPI (M) District Committee secretary, speaking to Frontline, called for steps to wipe out the illicit-liquor trade, which, he said, was the biggest sustaining force for casteist elements. "Illicit liquor makes vast sections of the village communities insensitive to such cruel incidents," he said. Puthukkooraippettai is one of the villages where untouchability is practised in several forms. "When our party staged a demonstration against untouchability, the party of the local MLA (the Paattali Makkal Katchi) organised a counter demonstration," Dhanasekaran said, and added that "such actions will only help aggravate the situation".
IT is a situation where a woman is not meant to have any views of her own, not even about the man who would be her husband, all in the name of `family honour'. Women's rights experts believe that this is based on the anachronistic but still-prevalent belief among many communities, cutting across race, religion or caste, that women are the property of the men in the family and, as such, do not have any right of their own to decide their future.
Dalit women, in addition to the gender bias, bear the burdens of caste and class. Studies have revealed that Dalit girls have been forced to become concubines of caste-Hindu patrons and village priests at several places. Dalit women are routinely subjected to sexual abuse and related offences by caste-Hindu landlords and their family members, these studies show. In fact, at Siruthondamadevi, for the last 10 years Dalit families have been sending their grown-up daughters to welfare centres in Chennai and Pondicherry, to save them from such sexual harassment. "Life for women here is like coexisting with fire," said Palaniammal, 34, of the village, which has 100 Dalit families and 1,500 Vanniya families. Barring a few, all the Dalit families are Christians and most of them work as labourers in the Vanniyas' farms.
Dalit-Vanniya tensions in the village came to a head on April 14, B.R. Ambedkar's birth anniversary. Caste Hindus objected to the celebrations organised by Dalits and to the hoisting of a party flag on the grounds that no political party can hoist its flag in the village under a "(informal) panchayat" decision. Dalit youth said that using this as a pretext, Vanniyas entered the Dalit "colony" and went on the rampage. They assaulted men and women, ransacked homes and damaged their belongings. Ten persons, including women, were injured in the attack. One woman, Samans Mary, suffered a fracture in her right forearm. Cases were registered against 16 Vanniyas, who were arrested and then released on bail. Dalits of the village said that they were subjected to several forms of "untouchability". They said that they were not allowed to use footwear while crossing places where caste-Hindu people lived and that they were not allowed to ride two-wheelers when caste-Hindus were around. They could not drive their bullock carts through "upper caste" streets, and whenever they saw a caste-Hindu person they had to get down and push the cart. Their children did not have access to the only primary school in the village, run by the panchayat union. Some elders in the village said no Dalit children had been admitted in the school for more than two decades now. They went to schools in the neighbouring village.
Dalit women said they were asked to wait for long hours at the Public Distribution System outlet located in the caste-Hindu area, and often they did not get their supplies. They and their men were forced to work long hours in the Vanniya landholders' fields and households for meagre payments. Anthony Ammal, 40, said she had taken a loan of Rs.1,000 from a landholder and in return she and her husband had been working on his land for half the regular wage. They were beaten if they failed to turn up when they were asked to. Agricultural workers, she said, had to pay a fine if they absented themselves from work. Not even the relatively well-off Dalits were spared. Palaniammal said that three years ago their landholder-master seized their new two-wheeler even as they were driving into the village in it. They were still to get it back.
Worse is the sexual abuse that Dalit women are subjected to by the masters and their family members. They said that the men entered their huts at night, often drunk, and harassed them.
A woman said "they forget about `untouchability' and `pollution' during their nocturnal ventures." The women, however, stressed that not all Vanniya people behaved badly.
Any resistance was met with a boycott of Dalits, as it happened after the April 14 incidents, they said. Dalits said that they were almost jobless for a few weeks after the incident. Lourdusami, 59, said he was driven out of his three-acre land, on which he had raised cashew. The loss for him, he said, would run to about Rs.20,000. "We have been living in fear for the past six months or so," he added. Although Vanniya landholders were now prepared to give them work, Dalits said they were afraid of going to their fields. After the State government's intervention, Dalits were provided jobs under the Food for Work Programme. This, they said, could be only an interim arrangement.
A fact-finding team of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), which visited the village, demanded the government's intervention to initiate inquiries into the charges made by Dalit women and to take prompt action for providing relief to the affected Dalits. AIDWA's district secretary, S. Valentina, said that unless the government had the political will to eradicate "untouchability" and took serious efforts in that direction, discrimination against and harassment of these marginalised people could not be stopped.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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