On March 13, 22-year-old >V. Shankar and his 19-year-old wife Kausalya were attacked by a five-member gang in broad daylight in Udumalpet, in Tamil Nadu’s Tirupur district . Dozens of bystanders remained spectators as Sankar was hacked to death, and a battered Kausalya too left in a pool of blood. The young woman survived the attack.
Rarely has Tamil Nadu witnessed a murder of such audacity, one recorded on CCTV. Shankar, a Dalit, and Kausalya, who hails from the OBC Thevar community, married eight months ago in defiance of her family’s objections. And the attack was confirmed as an “honour” killing a day later when her father surrendered. In a television interview, Kausalya said she and her husband had been receiving threats from her family even after marriage. The matter was taken to the police but her account suggests that nothing much was done to ensure their safety.
This lax response clearly goes against the Supreme Court ruling in Lata Singh v. State of U.P. (2006) ordering “stern action” against all those threatening or carrying out threats against couples. “There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons who deserve harsh punishment,” the judgment said. In fact, the apex court, in Bhagwan Dass v. Delhi in May 2011, deemed honour killings in the “rarest of rare” category of crimes that deserve the death penalty. Soon after, the Central government proposed that Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code be amended to include ‘honour killings’ within the definition of murder. But rejecting this proposal, the Law Commission drafted the Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances) Bill, 2011 that sought to declare khap panchayats (katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu) unlawful. Tamil Nadu was not among the 22 States and Union Territories which supported the recommendation to bring a bill to prevent ‘honour killings’.
The >Udumalpet incident is only one in a series of ‘honour killings’ the State has witnessed in recent years, and it is mostly Dalits who have been at the receiving end of the violence. In 2003, 25-year-old S. Murugesan, a Dalit, and 22-year-old D. Kannagi, a Vanniyar, were harassed and force-fed poison by the girl’s relatives while people watched them die. In June last year, the headless body of 21-year-old Gokulraj was found near a railway track in Nammakal district. The prime suspect in the case, Yuvaraj, who runs an organisation named after the OBC Kongu Vellalar icon Dheeran Chinnamalai, absconded. For the next three months, the daring Yuvaraj would continue to release WhatsApp audio clips and even give television interviews from “undisclosed” locations. The investigating officer R. Vishnupriya, a Dalit, committed suicide, after which allegations of harassment from superiors surfaced. And Yuvaraj got a hero’s welcome by his supporters when he surfaced later to surrender to the police.
The Dharmapuri escalation
There has been >a spike in attacks on Dalits since the December 2012 Dharmapuri riots . According to National Crime Records Bureau data, the number of Dalits murdered in 2014 rose to 73 from 28 the previous year. It is also important to note that the Chairman of the National Scheduled Castes Commission, P.L. Punia, claimed that hardly 10 per cent of crimes against Scheduled Castes end in conviction.
An orchestrated backlash to the love affair between a young Dalit man, Ilavarasan, and an OBC Vanniyar woman, Divya, the >Dharmapuri incident was used as a propaganda tool by the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) for a good two years when it tried to put together a larger non-Dalit, OBC alliance against inter-caste marriages. This movement emboldened hitherto nondescript fringe casteist groups to openly indulge in hate mongering, which took the form of open and divisive campaigns even on college campuses. The party deemed many such marriages “love dramas” in which Dalit youth sporting “jeans pants” and “sunglasses” lured unsuspecting upper caste women only to swindle their wealth and dump them later. The movement objectified women by overemphasising the concepts of chastity, purity and pollution; glorified endogamy; and stigmatised inter-caste marriages in a State that pioneered a special law for such civil unions.
However, the PMK alone cannot be blamed for the rising intolerance against Dalits. The two major Dravidian parties (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), which claim to be legatees of Periyar's Self-Respect movement, have largely remained spectators to the violent assertion of caste identity. In fact, the AIADMK government refused to acknowledge the growing instances of honour killings in Tamil Nadu when the matter was raised by the Left parties in the Assembly. The weak reaction from these parties to the violence stems not only from the insecurity of losing crucial vote banks but also the financial might that some of these groups hold. In contrast, there are very few senior Dalit functionaries in both the DMK and the AIADMK, though Dalits account for more that 20 per cent of Tamil Nadu’s population. As indicated in a 1999 Human Rights Watch report on the southern district clashes in Tamil Nadu and the state’s response, increasing violence against Dalits stems from the fact that the economic relationship between the Thevars and Dalits has considerably changed since the early 1990s. With Dalits slowly asserting their presence in the economic and political spheres through education and thus becoming less dependent on the Thevars for jobs, and with two movements — the Dalit Panthers of India Tamil Nadu and the Devendra Kula Vellalar Federation — claiming equal share in public properties, the Thevars are “clinging more resolutely to their caste status as a way of affirming their superiority,” the report states.
Affirming superiority of caste is the basis of most ‘honour’ killings in the country. (In some cases it is affirming religious intolerance — one of the reasons for the Muzaffarnagar clashes in 2013 in Uttar Pradesh was the killing of a Muslim youth for ‘eve-teasing’ a Hindu Jat girl.) In north India, khaps, anachronistic institutions with no legal sanction, should have disappeared after the framing of the Constitution. Instead, because of a host of inter-related issues such as keeping property within the community and maintaining purity of caste, they exercise control by excommunicating members of a community for refusing to toe the line, sometimes even ordering the rape of women. They are mostly known now for opposing intra-gotra and inter-caste marriages.
In Tamil Nadu, political parties have attributed Sunday’s ‘honour’ killing to “the law and order situation in the State”, “inaction from the police”; one party simply termed the incident “shocking”. Similarly in north India, reactions to honour killings have been muted, but also outrageous. Industrialist and Congress MP Naveen Jindal in 2010 supported the Haryana khap panchayats’ demand for amending the Hindu Marriage Act to ban marriages within the same gotra. In January this year, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar called khap panchayats “useful” instruments of society.
In Lata Singh v. State of U.P. , the Supreme Court had said:“… inter-caste marriages are in fact in the national interest as they will result in destroying the caste system.” This was a decade back, but rings truer today. Emphasising the issue of choosing one’s own partner as a fundamental right, the All India Democratic Women’s Association had demanded enactment of a comprehensive law on honour crimes that goes beyond just the act of murder and focusses on aspects such as compensation to and rehabilitation of the affected family. That demand still hangs fire. To love cannot be a crime in a nation that is aiming to be a superpower.