New Delhi: The Chennai police on Saturday, November 26, arrested Dalit PhD scholar Guruswamy and held him in custody for over 24 hours on the basis of a ‘missing person’ complaint and allegations of theft filed by Govindhan, his father-in-law.
On October 13, Guruswamy married 23-year-old Sudoroli, who belongs to the Reddiar caste, categorised as a Backward Class community. The Reddiar caste is part of the Reddy caste whose members migrated to Tamil Nadu from Andhra Pradesh. While the caste is a dominant one in Andhra Pradesh, when migrating to Tamil Nadu, it made its way into the list of Other Backwards Classes (OBC).
Sudoroli’s father was opposed to the match due to the fact that Guruswamy belonged to a Dalit community.
According to a report in the News Minute, the couple has faced harassment ever since Sudoroli told her parents about the fact that she was in a relationship.
But contrary to the father’s allegations, Sudoroli has maintained that she married Guruswamy of her own free will.
Background of the case
In a petition submitted to the magistrate’s court in Tamil Nadu’s Pollachi, Sudoroli detailed how she and Guruswamy fell in love over a year ago at Madras University when she was pursuing a Master’s in English literature and Guruswamy was completing his PhD.
She noted that ever since her parents found out about Guruswamy, they tried to keep her under “house arrest”. “I was in deep mental stress. I was being pressured to marry another person, violating my right of choice,” she wrote.
Sudoroli, however, managed to leave her house on October 13 and with Guruswamy, went to Periyar Thidal in Chennai where they opted for a suyamariyathai (‘self-respect’) marriage.
This method of getting married finds mention in the Hindu Marriage Act through a 1967 amendment and removed the requirement for a Brahmin priest to be present during the marriage proceedings. These weddings, instead, require only a simple exchange of vows.
Tamil Nadu is the only state in the country where such unions can take place.
Thereafter, the couple got their marriage registered under the Tamil Nadu Registration of Marriage Act and obtained a certificate for the same on October 18. They settled in Pollachi in order to avoid attention from Sudoroli’s family.
After their marriage, Sudoroli detailed in her petition, Govindhan filed a complaint with the Rajamangalam police claiming that his daughter was missing and accusing the couple of stealing diamond jewellery worth more than Rs 11 lakh, 64 sovereigns (512 gm) of gold and 4 lakh in cash – a claim which was denied by Sudoroli.
Following the registration of the FIR, Sudoroli made written representations to the Coimbatore superintendent of police (SP), an inspector of the Rajamangalam police station as well as the aforementioned petition to the Pollachi magistrate’s court to show that she is an adult and had legally married of her own volition.
She further wrote that on October 20, the couple had sought protection from the Pollachi All Women’s Police Station (AWPS), fearing for their lives. Moreover, in her letter to the Coimbatore SP, Sudoroli wrote that her parents, accompanied by the Rajamangalam police, arrived at the AWPS two days later and insulted her.
Sudha Gandhi, the couple’s lawyer, told the News Minute that the weeks leading up to November 26, when Guruswamy was arrested, were spent on filing paperwork and seeking relief.
Earlier this week, Guruswamy had to travel to Chennai for work and was arrested by three plain-clothes policemen from his home in Perambur.
It was only after agitation from anti-caste activists such as Kowsalya, vice-president of the Thamizham Manavurimai Sangam, an organisation that helps inter-caste couples, that Guruswamy was released.
The need for legislation
Kowsalya herself had been the victim of violence from her own family after deciding to marry outside her caste. In March 2016, her husband, Shankar, was killed in broad daylight and she was attacked, sustaining injuries but surviving.
Informed by her own past, Kowsalya now provides support to persecuted inter-caste couples and told the News Minute that a Bill needs to be passed to prevent such honour killings if vulnerable couples are to be protected.
Earlier this year, the Dalit Human Rights Defender Network had sent a 17-page draft Bill, entitled the ‘The Freedom of Marriage and Association and Prohibition of Crimes in the Name of Honour Act 2022’, to Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin for his consideration.
The Bill, which seeks to be applied across the country, lays down punishments for individuals found guilty of committing crimes in the name of ‘honour’. This extends not only to caste in this context, but for matters of faith, gender and sexual orientation, age, and more.
The draft also laid out procedures for compensation to and rehabilitation of victims of such violence as well as provisions to protect such couples in the first place. It also laid down various kinds of victimisation apart from murder, such as social and economic boycotts and persecution, and sought to cover not just marriages but also other relationships.
“If the Bill was enacted, when cops do something like this, we would have used that to fight for the couple,” the News Minute quoted Kowsalya as saying. The activist said that it took over 40 individuals to fight Guruswami and Sudoroli’s case, and asked if the numerous other couples facing similar persecution had access to a similar network of activists.
“But if this law existed, each of them would be able to use it to fight for themselves,” she said.
Gandhi, the couple’s lawyer, echoed Kowsalya’s sentiments, alleging that the police often do away with due process in such cases because there is no legislation regarding the matter. Apart from the passing of the Bill, she also sought for an oversight committee of activists to be formed in order to enforce the legislation.