The media is full of the sad story of the ill-fated inter-caste marriage of Ilavarasan and Divya that ended in a mysterious death. It has been suggested that the young man in question being of a lower caste than his bride had everything to do with it. And yet, such instances are not new to Tamil Nadu.

A prominent instance was the marriage of Jothi to P.V.S. Venkatachellum. Born in Rangoon in 1917, she in the 1930s married a scion of the P. Venkatachellum family, which had made its fortune in condiments and pickles in India and abroad. The bride belonged to a caste that was higher than the groom, a step that was then considered path-breaking. While the husband focused on his business, Jothi took to social welfare, which brought her into Congress circles. In 1962, she successfully contested the Madras Legislative Assembly elections as a candidate from Egmore, where the Venkatachellum family had huge landholdings as well as a palatial residence, on Atkinsons Road. That year, she became minister for public health in the Kamaraj cabinet. Between 1977 and 1982, she was the governor of Kerala. On her death, Atkinsons Road was named after her. Venkatachellum was tragically killed in a road accident several years earlier.

The other marriage involved a woman who is remembered today for her pioneering social work. Soundaram was one of the eight children of T.V. Sundaram Iyengar, the founder of the TVS Group. Born in 1904, she married her cousin, a qualified doctor. Unfortunately, he died young while treating plague victims. Respecting his last wishes, Soundaram moved to Delhi and joined the Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi. She obtained her MBBS in 1936. Drawn to the freedom struggle, she became a member of Mahatma Gandhi’s inner circle. There, she met G. Ramachandran, who was active in Harijan uplift. The two decided to marry. T.V. Sundaram Iyengar was none too happy but abided by Gandhi’s advice that if the couple stayed apart for two years and at the end of the period, still felt the same towards each other, they should be allowed to marry. When at the end of the stipulated period, Soundaram and Ramachandran felt the same, her father gave in. It was a marriage that spanned the highest and the lowest ends of the caste hierarchy.

It was Gandhi who channelled Soundaram’s energies into women’s welfare, getting her to be the Madras representative on the Kasturba Trust. In 1947, Soundaram began Gandhigram for women, orphans, the disabled and the destitute. In 1957, the Gandhigram Rural Institute was founded, which thanks to the efforts of Ramachandran, became a deemed university in 1976. An MLA in 1952 and 1957, Soundaram became an MP in 1962. As union deputy minister for education, she made primary education compulsory and free all over India. The National Service Scheme was also her brainchild.

Given such shining role models, why do we have such rigid attitudes now?

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