Where coercion fails, persuasion might succeed. But social groups and community leaders often use a combination of the two, a kind of coercive persuasion, to ensure that individual members do not violate social mores while making life choices such as those relating to work and marriage. Recently, rural Tamil Nadu was witness to a case of a woman deserting her husband to return to her familial home, after her marriage triggered violence between her caste Hindu community and her husband’s Dalit community. What should have been a simple choice for two individuals to make was turned into a raging casteist campaign with leaders of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a caste-based party, warning women of the Vanniyar community not to be “taken in” by Dalit men wearing “jeans, T-shirts and fancy glasses”. Even while informing the court she wanted to live with her mother, and not her husband, the young woman made it known this was not because she loved her husband less, but because she was shocked by the violence her marriage had triggered. She seemed prepared to sacrifice her love for what she must have seen as a greater social good: peace between the two communities, and quiet for her family.

The case is another reminder of the reality of caste in rural India, where the law and the law enforcers are no protection against the writ and the might of village elders and community heads. Across the country, old men who owe their position to feudal custom and traditional authority, and who therefore believe they are above the law of the land, constitute kangaroo courts (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu or khap panchayats in parts of north India), which not only order social boycott or expulsion from the village, but also use coercion and force to enforce their diktats. Marriages outside the caste are frowned upon, and the whole family faces ostracism. This is especially so when it is the woman who belongs to a caste higher in the social hierarchy. Feudal values of honour and betrayal enter the equations of such marriages. Worryingly, newer forms of representative authority, especially politicians and parties with a casteist agenda, are seeking to ally with these extra-legal entities. Their attempt seems to be to accentuate existing social divisions and mobilise support through caste polarisation. Unfortunately, the civil administration in Tamil Nadu appears incapable of dealing with these katta panchayats. Unless the government takes a serious view of the legal transgressions of such bodies, instead of condoning or ignoring them, rural India will continue to be witness to tragedies similar to the one that unfolded in Tamil Nadu.

More In: Editorial | Opinion