Dalit youth's murder a grim reminder of Tamil Nadu's brutal casteism
Its youngsters pay a terrible price for just falling in love.
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Is there one thing that can secure you dignity of life and choice in a system where bigotry has existed way longer than you and your ideas of liberty have? In such a situation, not even education - the most propagated drug for every social stigma infesting our minds - can.
A Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a non-governmental organisation working on the human right violations against Dalits, contends with the earnestness of a first-hand victim: "If I’m born into a poor family, I may work hard, land myself a well-paying job and stop being poor one day. But if I’m born a Dalit, I die a Dalit. No achievement – no matter how substantial – changes that."
This brings us to another highly conflicting question: Just what is the kind of "empowerment" we are implying in the same breath as education? Is it the kind that stops with imparting you a broader outlook towards dissent? Is it the kind that makes you capable of standing your ground and yet knowing and acknowledging opinions healthier than yours when you hear them? Does it grow in you the nerve to change a failing pattern for yourself and another? And if so, does it also ensure you security of life to enjoy what you’ve achieved?
The Dalit youth, V Sankar who was hacked to death in broad daylight in Tirupur last week, may have us wondering how Tamil Nadu, with its absence of as many organised khaps as north India, continues to throw up such incidents year after year. But what will stump you is that Sankar’s case is in fact the latest addition to the 81 murders "for honour" that have been committed in the state since 2011, according to reports.
However, it was really the infamous Ilavarasan-Divya case in 2012 that made caste honour a methodical agenda for political groups and local panchayats, says Madurai-based advocate and activist Nirmala Rani. Rani has handled over 50 cases of honour killing and closely observes the trend of well-networked caste groups perpetuating these crimes with care, and tightly finishing them to ensure details don’t trickle over outside the community.
"Since the Ilavarasan-Divya case, caste-based political parties are personally giving direction to separate or boycott newly married inter-caste couples, in some cases socially abetting their suicides and pressurising their families. If two people in love cannot live at peace with their choices, what is the point of calling ourselves a democracy," she asks.
In July last year, Yuvaraj, the leader of a Gounder caste group in Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district, was arrested on charges of killing a 21-year-old Dalit youth Gokulraj by strangulating him, stabbing him on the neck and leaving him to die on a railway track. Gokulraj had earned the ire of the caste outfit after he was seen talking to a caste Hindu girl in a temple.
Yuvaraj, who is known to have organised large-scale rallies counseling Gounder youths not to fall for Dalit girls, surrendered three months later, but not before releasing tapes of his television interviews online and being welcomed like a hero even during his arrest.
In fact, even in the Ilavarasan-Divya case, those following it closely will find it apparent that the Vanniyar girl here is indeed the real prey to this brutally self-consuming system.
She paid the tragic price of having her loved ones ruthlessly taken away one after the other in close succession, for following an instinct that youngsters around the world do in careless passing: falling in love and marrying the man she desired. First the father, then the lover; both suicides clearly abetted by an intolerant cult that can’t seem to contain its high-handedness.
Sadly, 80 per cent of those killed in the name of honour in Tamil Nadu are women. And 65 per cent of their perpetrators hail from upper-caste families – in most cases their own kin; fathers, uncles, brothers, grandmothers and even mothers. In a state where castes such as Vanniyars and Thevars take up more room within major regional parties than Dalits, nothing more than a few condemning muffles manage to surface from the political fraternity for the causes of the latter.
"And because in many cases, it’s the upper-caste girl who is killed by her own family, her murder is not taken up by pro-Dalit groups. It doesn’t even fall under the SC/ST’s Act, although it’s a crime blatantly rooted in casteist sentiment," says Rani.
If you are a girl and born into an upper-caste family, you will be brought up with a skewed sense of worth that mandates blind allegiance to your community’s ideals, because your gender makes you its mascot of sorts.
Without having asked for it, you represent every discriminatory thought and prejudice your caste may be guilty of and too hardened to second-think. And if, unable to escape the influence of a radically evolving rest-of-the-world, you end up harbouring the slightest independent thought of dissent, be certain that you will be lynched with a vengeance like never before. This is because an upper-caste girl causes deeper betrayal to her community failing in her duty as the upholder of its legacy.
This disturbingly sexist conditioning could also explain a twisted psychology that has for the last 400 years been used to justify honour killings in the state, say experts. "Over history, caste villagers in Tamil Nadu seem to have deified the girls they killed for honour and built temples for them across villages. Kanni, or virgin goddesses, who are worshipped in these small shrines are usually sacred representations of slain girls who are considered worthy of worship, having 'sacrificed' their lives for their families' honour," says Kathir.
Alarmingly, 300 such "goddesses" have been identified by a survey in the state over the last four centuries, he adds.
What’s most deplorable – and we’ve heard this enough from activists - is that there is no separate law for honour killings in India yet. Cases that manage to be reported are registered under Section 302, which rewards punishment for murder. But the drill typically plays out like this: the victim is murdered by his/her own family and community, the case passed off as suicide and the bodies cremated/buried before the police is notified.
"It becomes immensely crucial for a case of honour killing to be proved, especially since the accused and the deceased come from the same family. In such cases, the witnesses almost always turn hostile and it finally ends as a family affair you cannot breach into," says Rani.
"It is for this reason that whenever a young girl dies unnaturally, we must make it mandatory to conduct a post mortem. And if she is hurriedly buried or cremated without this procedure, motive to murder must be considered seriously," says Kathir.
He says that when the Supreme Court sent out notices to all states asking them to produce their status reports on honour killings, Tamil Nadu claimed to have none. "Caste-nurtured political parties pressurise a family to either wipe out a defying youngster or protect their honour by killing themselves," he adds.
As with any age-old socially pervasive practice, mindsets cannot be expected to change overnight without the compulsion extended by a stringent and infallible legal system. This is why consenting adults choosing to live by a right that was always theirs, must be protected. And this is possible only by challenging this social evil squarely and from within.