Love in the time of manufactured pride and prejudice

In Tamil Nadu, competitive caste assertion through competing masculinities has eroded the possibility of exploring women’s autonomy through their choice of love. The honour killing in Udumalpet is only the latest of an ongoing saga

March 19, 2016 01:18 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:02 pm IST

"Shankar’s family has found support from the local community cutting across caste.” Picture shows C. Chandraprabha (right), State officer-in-charge for National Commission for Scheduled Castes, with Shankar's father C. Velusamy at their home in Komaralingam.

"Shankar’s family has found support from the local community cutting across caste.” Picture shows C. Chandraprabha (right), State officer-in-charge for National Commission for Scheduled Castes, with Shankar's father C. Velusamy at their home in Komaralingam.

A two-tier police cover shields Kausalya from prying eyes at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital. It wasn’t so just days ago — on March 13, men in uniform were nowhere to be seen when a group of mercenaries pounced on the 19-year-old Thevar girl and her 22-year-old Dalit husband V. Shankar in broad daylight on a crowded street in Udumalpet . Suffering severe head injuries and left in a pool of blood by the attackers, Kausalya miraculously beat back death, but Shankar succumbed en route to the hospital. A cold-blooded “honour killing”, fortuitously captured on the CCTV camera of a departmental store.

About 13 kilometres from Udumalpet , the streets of Shankar’s hometown Komaralingam are sedate as the police do the rounds in the walled little town. Shankar’s family has found support from the local community cutting across caste. But there is no hatred, no sign of a caste backlash; only the raw pain of loss.

Kausalya met Shankar, two years her senior, at a private engineering college in Pollachi. The two soon fell in love. In July 2015, when Kausalya’s family, from the dominant Thevar community, caught a whiff of the goings-on, they immediately started making arrangements for her marriage even though she was only in her second year at college. Kausalya had been betrothed as a child to her maternal uncle Pandi, now an absconding co-accused in the murder. Fearing that she would be forced into marriage with Pandi, Shankar and Kausalya eloped and married in a temple the same month.

For Shankar, it was a tough call to make. He was the eldest of three sons, with a younger brother also in college, and the youngest in school.

A week after her marriage, Kausalya’s grandfather arranged to have her kidnapped, but was forced to produce her before the police after Shankar lodged a complaint. The eight months that followed the marriage were marked by frequent threats, unsolicited visits by members of Kausalya’s family to force a pay-off and get their daughter to return. Even a fortnight before the fatal attack on her husband, Kausalya had reportedly sensed they were being followed and watched.

When the couple had faced open threats from her family within the premises of the All Women’s Police Station in Udumalpet in the aftermath of their marriage, the police had suggested that the couple be sent to some safe place until the dust settled. For her part, Kausalya was prepared to face the opposition from her family through the legal route; never did she anticipate this brutality.

On Friday, Shankar, who was to complete his mechanical engineering degree this month, came home with news of a job offer during a campus interview. He was all set to join the company in Chennai once his semester exams got over. His first aspiration was to get Kausalya to resume her studies, which she had discontinued after marriage to take up a job at a neighbourhood tile dealer’s. With things finally looking up, the couple went out to shop for clothes on Sunday in time for Kausalya’s birthday, March 14.

The Dalit as the common Other The emergence of the Dalit as the “Other” among the intermediate castes was first witnessed in late 2012, in the wake of caste riots in Dharmapuri triggered by an inter-caste marriage between a Vanniyar girl and a Dalit boy in November that year.

The elopement and marriage of Divya and Ilavarasan sparked violence against Dalits after the girl’s father committed suicide. But activists viewed the Dharmapuri riots as more of a laboratory that played out the masculine-caste anxiety fanned by caste-based groups that finally culminated in the death of Ilavarasan in July 2013.

In the months preceding the incident, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), representing Vanniyars, a community that has Most Backward Class status, called upon Vanniyar men to guard “their Vanniyar women” from the “virile Dalit men”. One second-rung leader went as far as to ask Vanniyar men to “chop off the hands of any Dalit man who dared to touch a Vanniyar woman”. Then, the PMK mobilised leading caste outfits representing dominant castes that traditionally wielded socio-economic-political clout in the southern and western parts of the State. The bloc found common cause in its anxiety over Dalit assertion. The image of the upwardly mobile Dalit youth attired in “jeans, tee shirts and fancy sunglasses”, “tricking” caste Hindu girls into love and eventual deceit was constructed.

The trope finds strong resonance in the hounding of inter-caste couples. The Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KMDK), a caste outfit-turned-political party in 2013, has come to articulate this male anxiety and caste supremacy with chilling conviction in its public meetings. “Women are given mobile phones and taught computers. Then why wouldn’t they fall in love and go astray,” bellowed a KMDK leader, to cheers from the audience, recently.

The party draws its support base from the Kongu Vellala Gounders, the traditionally landed class who maintained linkages with the ruling class on the one hand and drew exploitative labour from Dalits, largely Arunthathiyars, in the industrial Coimbatore region.

These self-styled boundary-setters have only got brazen over time. In 2012, an Arunthathiyar boy from Coimbatore filed a habeas corpus before the Madras High Court when his caste Hindu wife, who he had married four months earlier, did not return home. The girl was kidnapped by her parents and held captive. “I was held against my will in a farmhouse in Erode for over 15 days. There were these two young men, bearing affiliation to Kongu Makkal Katchi (sic), who held me against my will with the support of my parents. When my parents almost gave in, the men advised my parents not to yield and beat me up in their presence. This was their way of intimidating girls into submission,” says Aparna (name changed), the wife in question.

In northern Tamil Nadu, the Vanniyars are led by the PMK; in the western region, the Kongu Vellalars are led by the KMDK; and in southern Tamil Nadu, Thevars and Nadars now need this tacit bond to counter the Dalits dispersed across the State. These caste outfits at once openly shame the men for their inability to regulate women and call for disciplining and punishing those who transgress the caste boundaries. This tacit understanding among intermediate castes to countervailing political power across the geographies of the State by targeting the Dalit as the common ‘Other’ is stark.

Rendering the woman invisible An English daily dubbed the honour killing as a case of a Dalit boy’s life snuffed out, for daring to “clinch” his “upper-caste muse”. It is this idea of “clinching the woman” (caste Hindu or Dalit), and the linked male anxiety, that has eroded the possibility of exploring inter-caste unions holding out an emancipatory potential for woman.

The patriarchal set-up of the marital home; the transfer of women as commodities from one caste to another; and the discourse that foregrounds the Dalit male vis-à-vis the caste Hindu male — both vying for the caste Hindu woman and the Dalit woman — has rendered women invisible, even as their sexuality is made the site of conflict. Competitive caste assertion through competing masculinities has eroded the possibility of exploring women’s autonomy through their choice of love.

Karl Marx considered shame to be revolution of a kind: “Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward. And if a whole nation really experienced a sense of shame, it would be like a lion crouching, ready to spring.” The solidarity with the Dalit cause in the State’s political space hinged on an understanding of shame over the past wrongs meted out, though it had its own fault lines. The 2012 mobilisation of caste outfits led by the PMK against Dalit assertion is a watershed for one reason — for its telling absence of shame. The contagion has only spread — within hours of the honour killing and the circulation of the CCTV footage, a caste orgy erupted on social media, with self-styled youth vanguards of the Thevar community celebrating the killing of V. Shankar. How the winds of change change.

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