THE brutal murder at 2:12 p.m. on March 13, 2016, of a 22-year-old Dalit engineering student, Veluchamy Shankar, in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, for marrying a caste Hindu girl, Kausalya, numbed the collective conscience of Tamil society and also, perhaps for the first time, unified progressive groups in their efforts to get speedy justice for victims of what was described as an “honour killing”. It was the united action of these groups that forced an apathetic State government to act.
A few such cases in the past have taught the government a bitter lesson. The case of the chilling double murder of S. Murugesan, a Dalit youth, and D. Kannagi, a Vanniyar girl, both from Virudhachalam town, in 2003 for inter-caste marriage has just reached the trial stage. But the anger Shankar’s murder generated in society prompted the state also to seek the support of activist groups in order to take the case forward.
On December 12, the sessions court in Tirupur convicted eight of the 11 accused and sentenced six of them, including Kausalya’s father, B. Chinnasamy, to death. This was made possible by the coordinated efforts of activists, lawyers, prosecutors and investigative agencies to help make an airtight case against the accused.
Accused No. 1, Chinnasamy, a financier and realtor, was the mastermind of the crime. He engaged five killers who hacked the young man in full public view at Udumalpet town in Tirupur district and inflicted serious wounds on Kausalya when she tried to save her husband.
Besides the death penalty to six of the accused, Stephen Dhanraj (23), a family friend, was given a life sentence “without any remission or premature release”, and Manikandan, the last accused, was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for five years. Three of the accused, Annalakshmi (Kausalya’s mother), Pandithurai, <FZ,1,0,26>(her maternal uncle) and a 16-year-old relative of hers, were acquitted as the charges against them were not established. The verdict has triggered a debate on the ethics of the death penalty.
Shankar, who belonged to the Pallar caste, and Kausalya, an Agamudaiyar, a most backward caste (MBC) group, were attacked by a gang near the bus stand in Udumalpet allegedly at the behest of Chinnasamy. Despite opposition from her family, Kausalya had married Shankar on July 11, 2015, at a temple in Palani, from where she hails. They lived in Shankar’s house at Komaralingam village near Udumalpet despite facing constant threats and intimidation from her family.
The horrific killing was caught on the CCTV camera of a nearby shop and the footage went viral on social media. The video evidence was the clincher for the prosecution, besides the bold deposition of Kausalya against her family members. Shankar died on the way to the Coimbatore Government Medical College Hospital, while Kausalya survived a head injury that required 18 stitches.
Tirupur Sessions Court Judge Alamelu Natarajan, in her verdict, said that the court “has analysed the evidence adduced on the side of the prosecution carefully and meticulously”. Taking note of the gravity of the crime and “balancing and keeping in mind the rights and liberties of the persons accused as offenders”, the judge concluded that the facts and circumstances of the case “are very clear and are well corroborated by ocular, oral evidence, medical evidence, CCTV footage evidence, and other documents”.
The judge, in fact, based her entire verdict on one moot point. “If the punishment for marrying an upper caste girl by a lower caste boy would be only a death sentence by murder, then what should be the punishment for such persons, is the question raised in the mind of the court,” the judgment said. The judge pointed out that courts in the country had strongly condemned “honour killings”, as was evident in various judicial pronouncements.
“Still sane mind has not set on the parents and many others who still hail the caste system and disapprove inter-caste marriages, sometimes in a violent manner,” the judge noted in the verdict. She said the five hired killers “deserve no mercy” as it was because of the availability of people like them that parents were driven to commit such violent crimes.
The charge sheet filed by the police, after registering cases against the 11 accused under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, ran to more than 1,000 pages. The government appointed the veteran lawyer U. Sankaranarayanan, a retired Deputy Director of Prosecution, as special prosecutor in the case. The trial was completed in November 2017, with the prosecution arguing the case as an “honour killing”.
Talking to Frontline after the murder, Shankar’s father, Veluchamy, a labourer, said that he had never thought the girl’s family would go to such an extreme against their own daughter. “When Shankar got a job in Chennai, we thought they would be safe there and everything would become normal,” he had said then.
His village is not new to inter-caste marriages. “They are all living happily. But this is the first time that a girl from an MBC caste has married a Dalit boy,” an activist said.
Honour killings in Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu has witnessed two similar cases of caste killings in recent years. V. Gokul Raj, an engineering student from Salem who fell in love with a girl from the Vellala Gounder <FZ,2,0,26>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, was arrested in this connection. The Deputy Superintendent of Police R. Vishnupriya, a Dalit, who was investigating the case, was found hanging. Both cases have been entrusted with the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department ( “Losing battle”, Frontline , October 16, 2015).
In 2012, a Dalit of Natham colony in Dharmapuri, E. Elavarasan, who married a Vanniyar girl, N. Divya, was found dead on a railway track near Dharmapuri on July 4, 2013 (“Tragic end”, Frontline , July 26, 2013). The police maintained that the youth had committed suicide as Divya had disowned him, though many people insisted that he was murdered.
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, as presented in the Lok Sabha, say that there were 288 cases of “honour killings” between 2014 and 2016 in the country. As many as 28 honour killing cases were reported in 2014, 192 in 2015 and 68 in 2016 (provisional data).
Evidence, a Madurai-based social organisation, steadfastly pursued the Shankar murder case. A. Kadir, its executive director, who faced life threats for taking up the case, told Frontline that for the past 21 months after Shankar was killed, it had been a nightmarish experience for him and his team members. “We had to fight through every stage and ensure the safety of Kausalya,” he said.
“While pursuing the issue legally, we, with solid support from her, mobilised public opinion against such ‘dishonour killings’. Kausalya led the campaign to success. We also have made the State government ‘feel’ the brutality of the crime. For the first time, the government formed a four-member prosecution team with senior lawyers under the provisions of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, to ensure speedy justice,” he said.
Under the provisions of the amended Act, State governments are to prepare a panel of senior advocates who have been in practice for not less than seven years for each district to conduct cases filed under the Act. States shall also set up special courts, which have been authorised to take direct cognisance of such offences and, as far as possible, complete the trial of a case within two months from the date of filing of the charge sheet.
His team, Kadir said, had provided the necessary inputs to the teams of investigators and prosecutors from the initial stage. “Close monitoring and stringent deterrent provisions under the amended Act did not allow the accused to get enlarged on bail. They submitted bail petitions both in the trial court and in the High Court 58 times. None barring one, who provided shelter to the accused after the crime, could get bail. Besides, to plug any loopholes, we discussed the case with the investigating agency to prune down the witnesses’ list to 61 from 121. And all but one of these witnesses deposed as per the statements they made while filing the charge sheet,” Kadir pointed out.
This, in fact, ensured that there was no hindrance from any extraneous factor. The then Tirupur Collector and the Superintendent of Police met the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in May 2016 and got the necessary instructions with regard to the case. The State government also appointed three officers in the rank of Revenue Divisional Officer to implement welfare schemes for the victims, including Kausalya. “Jobs have been provided. The education of Shankar’s brother has been taken care of. Their one-room tiled house has been rebuilt under the Green House scheme. We have been able to convince the district administration to give Kausalya a monthly compensation of Rs.11,500,” Kadir said.
Under Section 15A (1) of Chapter IVA “Rights of Victims and Witnesses” of the Act, it shall be the duty and responsibility of the State government to make arrangements for the protection of victims, their dependents and witnesses against any kind of intimidation or coercion or inducement or violence or threats of violence.
“It was a long-drawn-out battle to get justice. We, within the legal framework, got welfare schemes and ensured justice for the victims. We kept her in our custody until she overcame her grief. And when she did shrug off her victim tag, she stood against untouchability and casteism. When mediapersons asked her about her father’s capital punishment, she said firmly: ‘The accused gets what he deserves.’”
Kausalya’s new role
Kausalya has slipped into the role of a crusader against “honour” killings and caste-based atrocities today. B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramasamy Periyar are her teachers. “I have ingested their teachings of social justice fully,” she said. She has floated a centre, “Shankar Thanipayirchi Mandram” (Shankar Special Training Centre), to educate Dalit children on their rights. She talks about women’s emancipation, Dalit empowerment and rights violations. “She has evolved from a fragile-looking girl into a woman of honour and maturity,” said a woman activist.
As a non-Dalit from a most backward caste, Kausalya, Kadir pointed out, had emerged as a “Dalit icon of Tamil Nadu”.