Activists say that by handing out death sentences to six accused in the killing of a Dalit man, a Tamil Nadu court has sent out a strong message to apologists of caste in the state.
In February 2015, O Panneerselvam – the then chief minister and now deputy chief minister – emphatically denied that there was any honour killing in Tamil Nadu while rejecting a member’s demand for separate legislation for honour killings. A year later – on March 13, 2016 – a surveillance camera in Udumalaipettai proved Panneerselvam disastrously wrong. The world witnessed the gruesome murder of V. Sankar – a Dalit engineering graduate – who was married to Kausalya – a caste Hindu girl from Palani.
Caught on a surveillance camera, the murder sent a shiver down Tamil Nadu’s spine that had till then remained in a denial mode about honour killings. Kausalya survived the murder attempt with a head injury. On December 12, a principal court in Tirupur handed down death sentences to six convicts in the case including Kausalya’s father Chinnasamy, double life term to one and five years of rigorous imprisonment to another. Three persons including Kausalya’s mother Annalakshmi was acquitted.
This is the second time capital punishment has been awarded for honour killing. Early this year, a sessions court in Tirunelveli had sentenced a couple from Thevar community to death for killing a Dalit woman Kalpana. The murder had happened after the couple’s daughter Kaveri eloped with Kalpana’s brother Viswanathan. The Palayamkottai police had arrested the couple on charges of honour killing.
Welcoming the judgment delivered by Tirupur court, Kausalya told the media that she will fight against the acquittal of the three.
For the 20-something, who has now powerfully transformed herself into an activist fighting for the annihilation of caste, things have not been easy ever since she fell in love with Sankar.
The couple fell in love when they were studying at an engineering college in Dindigul district of southern Tamil Nadu, where the polarisation between the dominant Thevars and Dalits has traditionally been sharp. Kausalya’s family, from the Thevar community, were opposed to the match and were trying to brainwash her into giving up her love affair. Worried about losing Sankar, Kausalya left her home and married him in July 2015. The family has since then tried to kill them both. In March 2016, they managed to kill Sankar while Kausalya survived the attempts. In two months, a depressed Kausalya who had continued to live in Sankar’s home at Udumalaipettai attempted suicide. She survived and began to work on caste-related issues including honour killings.
Also read: ‘Love Will Triumph When Honour Killings Are Prevented. Caste Will Be Annihilated When Love Triumphs’
Honour killings are not new in Tamil Nadu. Activists like Evidence’s Kathir who have consistently been working on Dalit issues put the number of honour killings in the state at over 180 in five years. The killing of Kannagi and Murugesan in 2003 arguably remains the most gruesome one in the state. The couple who had hailed from Virudhachalam fell in love while studying together at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. S Murugesan – a Dalit – was a graduate in chemical engineering while D. Kannagi – from the Vanniyar community – was a commerce graduate. Fearing backlash, the couple eloped but were tracked and forcibly fed poison by Kannagi’s relatives in public view. Murugesan’s relatives had later told a fact-finding team that Murugesan was fed poison and killed while Kannagi had kept her mouth tightly closed. The relatives then poured the poison into her ears and nose and killed her. The trial in the case began in August of this year. Many witnesses have reportedly turned hostile.
Exactly a decade later, in 2013, E. Ilavarasan – a Dalit youth – was found mysteriously dead near a railway track near Dharmapuri district. Caught in sharp caste bigotry, his marriage to Divya – from Vanniyar community – led to tensions across the state with the Pattali Makkal Katchi chief S. Ramadoss accusing the Dalit youth of ‘luring dominant caste women by wearing sunglasses and t-shirts.’ While the CB-CID investigation concluded that it was a suicide, experts have contested the theory.
In June 2015, Dalit youth V. Gokulraj was found dead on a railway track near Salem after he was apparently seen with a girl from a Kongu Vellalar community at the Tiruchengode temple. When Yuvaraj – a small-time caste leader – surrendered in the case in October, he was given a hero’s reception.
“Between 2013 and 2017, 187 honour killings have happened in Tamil Nadu. About 80% of those killed are women” said A Kathir of Evidence, an organisation that works on caste issues. Evidence has played a crucial role in following up the case of Sankar. “I was at the spot on March 13 and was surprised there was a thandora announcement about funeral for Sankar. I presented eight demands including arrests and a job for Kausalya. I urged them to receive Sankar’s body only if the demands were met. The journey to justice in Sankar’s case started that moment. I have been to that spot about 30 times till now collecting evidences. The accused moved bail for about 58 times and every time we opposed it. Except for one, none of the accused was given bail. This case is landmark in more ways than one” Kathir says.
While conviction in honour killings are rare, Kathir credits Kausalya for her relentless fight for justice. “She was amazingly strong. Through this case, I saw Kausalya evolve into a fighter. She has been helping the education of Sankar’s brothers and has built a home for the family. She has also been running a tuition centre in Sankar’s name for the disadvantaged. Kausalya had a strong sense of justice. She is not a victim. But for her courage, I don’t know if this case would have reached its logical end.”
The December 12 judgment offers a rare glimpse of hope for those consistently fighting against honour killings in the state. “We stand with Kausalya, but capital punishment is not a solution” says Selvi, an activist with Manidhi – an organisation working towards gender equality. “Caste is a larger social issue and needs to be addressed at a larger level” she argues. While the deaths stand the chance of being reversed in further appeals, activists still say the judgment has sent out a strong message for apologists of caste in the state. “It is an important judgment, yes. But we need an act for honour killing in place” says Samuel Raj, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. “Honour killing is a real, serious issue in Tamil Nadu. The judgement is an acknowledgement of that fact. But unless we have an act in place, a judgement in any honour killing will largely be dependent on the judge.”
For Kausalya, a law against honour killing would probably be the final justice for Sankar’s murder.
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.