Tamil Nadu

The unkindest cut of all

Saranya’s mother Thenmozhi, father Sekar and relatives grieve for the death of Saranya and V. Mohan at Thulukkaveli on June 13.

Saranya’s mother Thenmozhi, father Sekar and relatives grieve for the death of Saranya and V. Mohan at Thulukkaveli on June 13. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The recent chilling murder in broad daylight of an intercaste couple — S. Saranya, 27, belonging to the Scheduled Caste and V. Mohan, 31, a Senguntha Mudaliar (a backward class) — at Thulukkaveli in Cholapuram near Kumbakonam shook Tamil Nadu. It also raised complicated questions about murders of inter-caste couples and could have political ramifications for Dalit movements fighting against caste killings in a State that has seen several high-profile cases of killing of inter-caste couples over many decades.

On June 13, the newly wed Saranya and Mohan, who hailed from Ponnur village in Tiruvannamalai district, were convinced by her eldest brother Sakthivel, 32, to visit her parents’ house at Cholapuram and reclaim the gold mortgaged in her name from the bank. Saranya’s parents were for the first time meeting Mohan, who she had married a few days ago, without the knowledge of her family.

Saranya, who had completed her diploma in nursing and was working as a nurse in Chennai, had met Mohan at Kilpauk Medical College while the two of them were looking after their mothers undergoing treatment.

On June 13, Saranya could not have sensed what was about to unfold since neither her parents nor her other brothers (Sathish, 28, and Saravanan, 23,) had expressed any anger or threatened the couple over their decision to get married. On Monday, the couple reached her parents’ house in the morning.

Sakthivel and his wife had bought fish and urged his mother to cook it so the newly-wed could be served in the afternoon. Sakthivel’s wife who was also in the house had reportedly expressed her apprehension that her husband was drunk and some untoward incident might happen.

One of the brothers, both of whom are working for a packaging unit in Tiruppur, had reportedly told his wife to ensure that the couple leave their home quickly on Monday. Their fears stemmed from the fact that Sakthivel wanted Saranya to marry Ranjith, his wife’s brother.

Reportedly, Saranya, too, was open to the suggestion until she began realising Ranjith was wayward. She had apparently decided against marrying him after she met Mohan.

The parents and the two other brothers of Saranya swore that they had no issue accepting her decision to get married as inter-caste marriages were not new in the family. But, clearly that was not the case with Sakthivel. He wanted his revenge. He sweet- talked his sister to visit their parents.

On the day, as they were about to leave in the afternoon, Saranya had reportedly asked him to call for an auto as they had a suitcase with them but he insisted that he would carry the suitcase to the nearby bus stop. As soon as the couple stepped out of the house, Sakthivel reportedly locked the front door from outside and held Saranya’s hands. Meanwhile, Ranjith who was hiding nearby came with a machete and struck Mohan on the back of his head, making a fatal, deep cut in the neck.

As he lay on the floor just outside the house, Saranya managed to free herself from her brother’s grip and tried to run away. As she ran, she was chased by Ranjith and attacked in a similar manner, said the mother. The two accused reportedly kept shouting that they would attack anyone trying to intervene. The couple died on the road. The police say the two accused were apprehended 4 km away.

A guide for the family

Saranya was the third child in the family. The members of the family and the neighbours, who have known her for a long time, say she was the glue that held the family together. She was ambitious, hard-working and was looked up to by the brothers when they had to take key decisions in the family.

The brothers — Sathish and Saravanan — say she played an important role in setting up the finances to help her father and her eldest brother Sakthivel finish building the house at Thulukkaveli. “She would be upfront and do everything. The family was held together by her,” said Sathish.

The neighbours also described Sakthivel as a ‘meek’ man, who would never raise his voice. “I would always call him and those with him if I had some construction work to be done because he was reliable. He didn’t have any bad habits that would hamper his work. He was also very religious and visited the church every Sunday. It is inconceivable what he has done,” said a local.

The family said that Sakthivel’s association with Ranjith had taken him down a path of violence and alcoholism. Members of the church the family prays at also said that he had stopped coming a while ago after the Pastor had urged the churchgoers to quit alcohol.

Caste killing?

This case of murder is unique, in the Tamil Nadu context of inter- caste marriages, for the fact that member of the Dalit family was involved in the murder of the inter-caste couple, and not the family of the intermediate caste. A question that needs to be asked is how could caste-based murders, which have roots in caste-oppression and inequality, be defined with this particular murder taken into account.

For instance, the infamous murder of Dalit youth Sankar, who married Kousalya, of the Other Backward Class, at Udumalaipettai, again in broad daylight, was committed because of the perceived sense of shame to the OBC family as the woman, in whom the honour of the community and family is vested, chose to marry a Dalit. However, in this case, these factors may not apply.

Patriarchal assault

All India Democratic Women’s Association national vice-president U. Vasuki said there are many sides to caste-based honour crimes and patriarchy is definitely a crucial element in it. It denies women’s right to choice.

“Though the so-called caste pride and purity is part of such murders, it is the patriarchy in society which views women as the ‘protectors’ of caste honour and that prohibits their right to be independent. Caste-based honour crimes are usually related to caste-oppression and this is the reason why we cannot say this is a caste-based murder. However, generally, families are unable to accept inter-caste marriages even today,” she said.

Ms. Vasuki said former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi created a department to campaign against social evils such as caste and gender discrimination, but the department has ceased to exist over time.

“The government, political parties and individuals have a responsibility to address discrimination. Except for the Left parties, all other parties use caste-based mobilisation during elections which strengthens the caste equations in society. Major political parties do not comment on caste-based murders related to pride because they are scared of losing support. The State government should carry out campaigns for equality in general and caste and gender oppression in particular,” she said, adding, “The DMK government must revive the social reform department and campaign against social oppression. The government must ensure a time-bound trial.”

Promoting violence

Samuel Raj, State secretary, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, affiliated to the CPI(M), says this particular murder calls into question the moral right of the Dalits to speak against such caste-based murder and violence as it would give more weight to the narrative of caste-based organisations that have previously justified such violence. 

“When those who follow untouchability and caste discrimination are questioned, they would point out that Dalit communities also follow such practices. Instead of accepting that they are wrong, they counter it by saying Dalits also follow it and justify their own actions. Similarly, the upper castes point to the actions of the Other Backward Classes. The caste system is about graded inequality and casteists divert questions directed to them to others and refuse to answer the pointed questions,” he said, adding, “Murders like these strengthen such arguments.”

Mr. Samuel Raj further said, “Many caste organisations justify such killings. Tamil Nadu has also seen a coming-together of non-Dalit political organisations claiming that Dalit youths romantically lured non-Dalit girls It was carried out as a movement. We [activists] are pushed into a corner because we lose the right to question such actions if murders such as these continue to happen frequently.”

Stringent punishment

Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi general secretary Sinthanai Selvan said the murder created a predicament for the Dalit parties. “Any discussion on whether it is a caste-killing or not is immaterial. There is a male chauvinistic angle to the murders as women taking independent decisions are not being accepted by men. Male chauvinistic violence against women should be condemned unequivocally. The perpetrators in the case should be tried in 90 days and they should receive the maximum punishment,” he stressed.

A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a Madurai-based NGO that documents and fights cases of caste-based oppression and violence, said the perpetrators should not be given bail and must be kept in jail until the verdict was delivered.

“The State government must give Mohan’s mother ₹10,000 in monthly pension. The State government must take immediate steps to implement a separate law against violence against inter-caste couples,” he said.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2022 12:14:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/the-unkindest-cut-of-all/article65539648.ece