The murder of a 22-year-old Dalit man at Udumalpet in western Tamil Nadu has brought to the fore the worst aspects of today’s Tamil society: the resurgence of caste pride, a shameless disregard for individual rights when they are in conflict with the hegemonic order, and an anachronistic belief in the notion of caste purity and pollution. >That a group of mercenaries could casually surround V. Shankar and his 19-year-old wife Kausalya, and brutally slay one of them and leave the other seriously wounded on the edge of a busy road does not merely indicate a lack of fear of the law. It demonstrates a disquieting confidence that no one would dare challenge or pursue them. Often characterised as ‘honour killings’ because their motivation arises from the idea that a woman marrying outside her community brings dishonour to the family, such murders in India normally involve family members rendering brutal ‘justice’ to the ‘transgressor’ within. In recent years, it appears to work in a different way in Tamil Nadu. In such murders, the victims are often Dalits, for daring to transgress social mores to marry someone deemed to be above their station in life. Thus, E. Ilavarasan, a >Dalit youth whose marriage to a Vanniyar woman led to caste riots in November 2012 and whose body was found on a railway track in July 2013, and Gokulraj, another Dalit youth murdered for talking to a Gounder girl last year, were clearly victims of caste atrocities.
In the case of Shankar, too, the emphasis seemed to be mainly on wreaking vengeance against a Dalit man; though the element of punishing the family member too was present, as Ms. Kausalya was also attacked with long knives and remains in hospital. Whether in alleged defence of imaginary family honour or as a strike against >Dalit assertion , such murders have become disturbingly frequent. The regrettable part of the entire episode is that major political parties tend to condemn such murders only in general terms, and avoid any mention of the role of dominant castes. Seldom do they confront the arrogance of some castes that enjoy political patronage and operate as enforcers of norms in some regions, especially targeting Dalits. Caste groups have become powerful political lobbies. Caste associations attract young and educated members of the community. Shockingly, Shankar’s murderers drew fulsome praise on social media from committed caste adherents. There is a shallow debate over whether present-day caste consciousness indicates the failure of the Dravidian social reform movement in Tamil Nadu. It is futile to blame social reformers who fought for caste-based reservations when it is the political leadership of recent years that has given credence and credibility to caste icons. Tamil society, which prides itself on its cultural moorings, needs to look inwards. Freedom to choose who to love has been seen to be a distinguishing sign of progressive societies. That it can be denied in this day and age is a disgraceful commentary on our times.