Kausalya Sankar delivered a speech at a conference organised by Dravidar Kazhagam to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Periyar’s struggle for annihilation of caste and the demand that members of all castes be made temple priests. Kausalya married Sankar, a Dalit, when she was 18. She first faced threats from her family and was later kidnapped and tortured. In 2016, her husband was hacked to death in broad daylight in front of her.
The conference was held at Periyar Thidal, Chennai, on November 25-26. The full text of the speech is reproduced below.
I am immensely proud to be standing on this stage. More than being proud, I am moved to be standing here at Periyar Thidal – the place where Periyar lived and worked. When I began my quest for justice in Sankar’s murder, I was only seeking justice for Sankar. Today, I stand before you as someone seeking social justice, annihilation of caste and liberation of Tamils. Periyar was the sole reason behind this transformation.
A life of struggle began to consume me when I started reading and hearing about Periyar. To sustain this life of struggle, there was something I had to do immediately. Without the slightest hesitation, I should break the cultural and social chains that bind me as a woman, and liberate myself. Thanthai (father) Periyar taught me to do that. Today, people see me as a widow – as someone to feel sympathy for. I have come to know that some of them had approached (activist) Evidence Kathir with the proposal of ‘giving me a fresh lease of life.’ I wanted to tell them: The Kausalya that was inconsolable over Sankar’s death, the one that had attempted suicide is also dead. Today I am born again as the liberal woman dedicated to annihilation of caste and that shall be the final justice for Sankar. It was Periyar who had given birth to this new Kausalya. It is with that emotion that I call him Thanthai Periyar. But Periyar is not my father alone, he is my teacher, comrade, friend and even lover.
The impact of the caste system has been wide and varied in Tamil Nadu. It has cruelly fed faeces to fellow human beings. It has burnt a family of Dalits including kids alive. It has beheaded a person who had ‘dared to contest’ in local body elections. The list is endless. Dalit women continue to be sexually harassed across the state. Honour killing is perhaps the most dreadful impact of the caste system in the state today.
Murder is a crime. A murder in the name of caste can be termed as caste murder. But in my understanding, the Indian law does not distinguish between a murder and a caste murder – everything is a murder. The law does seek to protect Dalits under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). The act is the right of the Dalits – earned after a long struggle – and not a privilege. According to this act, a person abusing another in the name of caste is punishable. But the two tumbler system is still prevalent here. The practice of giving separate tumblers to Dalits still exists in many places. Wouldn’t you agree that it is a crime under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act? Despite being non bailable, the act is not a deterrent. Need I say more?
I have a reason to mention this here. Honour killing today on the lines of caste has become a separate crime in itself. We continue to demand a separate law for honour killing. On this, I would like to speak from my own experience. Sankar and I were in love. We fell in love when studying in the same college. My family came to know of this. My family had this strong
sense of caste pride and brooked no tolerance towards Dalits. When I was in school, my father would point to a classmate I really liked and warn me against moving in with her. He would say I shouldn’t even drink water offered by her. I was too young to understand that caste was behind this.
When the family came to know of my love affair, they vehemently opposed it. They began to hatch conspiracies to kill our relationship. They left no stone unturned to separate us. Sankar was a Dalit and that was reason enough to hate him. But as days passed, I fell more in love with him. Even today, I am in love with him. I would like to say something else here. I will fight for justice for my love till I die. But even in my love, I refuse to be trapped. Thanthai Periyar gave me this clarity. It was his book Pen Yen Adimai Aanal (Why was a woman enslaved?) that gave me this vision and clarity.
Let me come back to the point. Afraid that I would lose Sankar, I left my home. I was keen to complete my education so we had not thought of getting married. But since my parents were so vengefully against our relationship, we decided to get married.
Since the day we got married, we were relentlessly chased. Once when we were walking on a street, there was an attempt to kidnap me. We rushed to the police station seeking help. We filed a complaint against my parents. Instead of approaching it legally, the police worked out a khap panchayat styled compromise. My parents were not even warned. This emboldened them to kidnap me again. This time it was successful. I was harassed. I was taken to a sorcerer and left in his custody for days together. I was tortured. I braved all this and reached Sankar again. He was like a real mother to me. I have lost him to caste.
In broad day-light at Udumalaipettai, Sankar was hacked to death in front of my eyes. They had hacked me too hoping to kill me. The killers were sent by my parents. How did my parents, who had so lovingly brought me up, want to kill me? What pushed them to kill their own daughter? Of course I survived and continue to live with Sankar’s memories.
They probably did not want to kill me initially. My grandfather, my relatives, and my parents were beseeching me to give up on Sankar. After a point, they began threatening me. When they realised I was stubborn, they kidnapped me, made me stay with my relatives and tried to brainwash me. They beat and harassed me, hoping I would relent. After all this, I escaped from them and began living with Sankar. Only after this they decided to murder Sankar and me as well.
After all this, they could have simply severed their ties with me and carried on with their lives. They could have simply declared that I am not their daughter anymore. They could have even dared to kill Sankar. But how can they hire mercenaries to kill their own daughter? I wanted to find answer to this question.
After all their attempts to win me over failed, my parents were probably left with just one question: How could they even walk around from now? Wouldn’t their relatives and caste members laugh at them? My parents were troubled by this question. If Sankar was from an upper caste, such questions would never come up. They would have accepted us without any qualms. Since he was a Dalit, they felt humiliated among their caste members. If they had to roam around with pride among their caste members after I walked away, how could they do it? What could they possibly do to regain their caste pride? By now, their daughter would have lived with that Dalit guy. They were unnerved by the possibility of a Dalit baby in their daughter’s womb. There was only one thing that could set everything right. They had to kill their own daughter.
Caste preserves itself through women who beget children. Sankar was killed as an act of revenge. If I was killed, it was only to save their family honour – the honour of the caste.
I survived their attempts. Can you call this murder an attempt at honour killing? If not, what can the crime of slitting my throat be classified as? If caste-related murder is honour killing, an attempt should also be called one. What should one call the attempts to kidnap and harass me, to confine me in a room and issue threats? If that is crime – what do we call it? We also need to speak up about these crimes to broader caste-related violence. Only then will the crimes against women along the lines of caste become a talking point.
Is it not a crime to expect one’s daughter to give up on her love citing caste differences? We should make it a crime. If my parents can arrogate themselves the right to beat and harass me, to lock me up and arrange my marriage without my consent, can I still call this a civilised society? My parents don’t think it is a crime. Is it not dangerous?
Every woman’s right to fall in love should be protected. To fall in love is a basic right. To deny that right by any means should be made a criminal offence. Only then can honour killing – and related crimes – be classified as a separate crime. Honour killings continue to happen today. Unless every act associated with it is considered criminal, we cannot call ourselves civilised.
We need a separate act to address the issue of honour killings. The act should also take into consideration other associated attempts that deny a person the right to fall in love on the basis of caste.
All my life, I will fight for this. I understand my voice is more powerful than any other voice making similar demands. I will continue to build all my strength to fight for this. I will continue to support all movements that demand this.
Kerala has recently passed an Act allowing members of all castes to become temple priests. Could we bring this Act in all parts of India? We have made self-respect marriages legal. Can this be done all over India?
Similarly, we need not wait for a national act against honour killings. Tamil Nadu should come forward to enact one. I believe it would be made possible by struggles. Like Jallikattu, the youth would come together to fight for annihilation of caste, for an act against honour killings. I carry this hope in my heart as I continue to strive towards the final justice for my beloved Sankar. I will continue to carry this hope and work hard, even if I grow old and wrinkled.
Love will triumph when honour killings are prevented. Caste will be annihilated when love triumphs.
Only Annihilation of caste will be the right kind of justice for the blood spilt by my Sankar and many like him. I would stand with you always to struggle for that justice.
Translated by Kavitha Muralidharan.