E. Ilavarasan has killed himself, brutally underscoring the continuing tragedy of young married couples being wrenched apart by caste and political pressures. Indeed, India’s veneer of modernity comes apart each time an inter-caste marriage breaks. And when one half of the couple is Dalit, as in this case, mob fury comes as an inheritance.
When a year ago, news came of the Vanniyar-Dalit inter-caste marriage of Divya and Ilavarasan, now known as the Dharmapuri couple, most observers wondered how long the union would last. The marriage collapsed, and tragically so for the much-in-love couple. Only a few days ago, Ilavarasan had told The Hindu: “We led a happy life and she was happier with me than with her own family. But we have become victims of a political conspiracy.” Divya herself had told the press earlier that she and her husband were under huge pressure and she had decided to sacrifice “my love and my marriage” for the sake of a society that is caste-obsessed. The Pattali Makkal Katchi, which is said to have acted as a pressure group to break up the marriage, denies any overt role, but insists nonetheless that parents must have a say in the marriages of their children.
The unhappy end to a happy marriage takes me to Madurai and to an unusual and, for the most part, joyous occasion. The day was January 24, 2013 and more than a dozen couples, who had entered into inter-caste marriages, facing familial opposition and threats of physical violence, were being felicitated for their courage by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). As part of the celebrations, another inter-caste, self-choice marriage was being solemnised on the dais.
Another case in Tamil Nadu
It was the sombre presence of 24-year old Abhirami and the tragic tale that she narrated, however, that brought out the barbarity that lurks very close to the surface of social life in our country. A barbarity that hundreds like her experience, a barbarity that threatened each of the happy couples that had gathered.
Abhirami belongs to the Kallar (OBC) caste and she had joined a Teacher’s Training College in Varothanadu, near her village, Surakotai in Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu. On the bus to the college, she met and befriended a young Dalit boy, Marimuthu. This was reported to her family who confined her to the house and tried to force her to marry her 35-year-old alcoholic maternal uncle. Abhirami contacted Marimuthu and they eloped.
The hapless young couple went from place to place, and it was only after they met some Communist Party of India (Marxist) members that they could go to Kumbakonam and get married. That was on September 16, 2010. After a life of struggle in Chennai, and the birth of their daughter, Soundaraya, the couple returned to the village to live with Marimuthu’s family. However, just before Soundaraya’s first birthday, Marimuthu was contacted by Abhirami’s brother on the pretext of gifting the child a gold chain. On May 25, 2012, Marimuthu left home to meet his brother-in-law. He did not return.
The next morning, his body, hacked to pieces, was found near the river. Abhirami’s father and brother surrendered to the police confessing to the murder. They were arrested but were soon released because no witness came forward to give evidence against them. Since Abhirami herself belonged to an OBC caste, she was told by the District Collector that she could not claim the compensation payable in cases of Dalit deaths. Fortunately, the case came up before the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the course of a public hearing. The NHRC ordered the District Collector to pay a compensation of Rs.5 lakh to the girl and her daughter besides asking him to arrange employment or a plot of land for her survival. Abhirami handed her share of the compensation to her in-laws but she is still to get the promised employment. Her in-laws, who face an economic boycott from the landowning Kallars because of Abhirami, have asked her to leave.
Whether the violence ends in murder, separation or social boycott, it underlines in each case the need for a special legislation to deal with “honour crimes,” a draft of which has been submitted by AIDWA to the Union Government. An Act along the same lines was recommended by the 242nd Law Commission and the recently-released Verma Commission Report, which describes the various aspects of these crimes, including the role of ‘khap’ and caste panchayats, (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu), also supports the Law Commission’s recommendations.
UPA’s weak stance
The United Progressive Alliance Government (UPA), unfortunately, has been completely impervious to the need to deal effectively with these inhuman crimes which are caused by the retrograde practice of caste discrimination and the strong patriarchal structures that this practice reinforces.
On December 18, 2012, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, R.P.N. Singh, made the following statement in the Lok Sabha in response to questions on “honour” crimes: “As per information provided by the National Commission for Women (NCW), in the current financial year, 333 complaints on honour crime have been registered on the basis of complaints of victims and proceedings initiated in all of these cases. Apart from the above, the commission has taken suo motu cognizance in 11 cases of honour killings and initiated necessary action.” When the Minister was asked whether the government proposed to amend the constitution to deal with “honour” killings, he replied that there was no such proposal. He, however, quoted the 242nd Law Commission on the need for a standalone legislation to stop caste councils from issuing diktats to young persons “marrying partners belonging to the same gotra or a different caste/religion.”
The ruling party at the Centre is also the ruling party in Haryana, the site of most of the retrograde activities of the ‘khaps.’ Along with other mainstream parties, the Congress lacks the uncompromising commitment to social and gender equality that is needed to attack the root of the problem, which is the interdependence between the khaps and politically influential caste and communal groups. Political parties need the panchayats for mobilisation of electoral and public support. This has created a destructive mutual dependence that has further strengthened caste and identity-based politics.
A dozen young Indians have already been killed in 2013 in the name of “honour.” Their brutal deaths cry out for effective legal redress.
(Subhashini Ali is a former Member of Parliament from Kanpur for the CPI(M) and a leader of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.)