Chennai: On October 23, Tamil Nadu woke up to something that should have stunned it into shame. Fourteen kilometres away from Thalavaipatti, a village on the outskirts of Salem near Aathur, Dinesh Kumar, a member of a dominant community, had beheaded his 13-year-old Dalit neighbour Rajalakshmi the previous evening. Rajalakshmi had allegedly spurned his advances. Busy in #Metoo campaigns, Tamil Nadu remained stoic and silent about this crime. “This is, in a way, a MeToo crime. Rajalakshmi was killed because she had spurned his advances; because she spoke about it. In fact it is both a caste crime and a sexual offence and needs to be addressed at both levels,” says A. Kathir, executive director of Evidence, a movement that works on human rights among Dalits.
Kathir was among the first activists to reach the village and speak to the family of the victim. “Rajalakshmi and her mother Chinnaponnu were stringing flowers together when Dinesh Kumar arrived with a sickle. He abused them by targeting their caste, and beheaded Rajalakshmi, in spite of Chinnaponnu’s intervention. Thereafter, he took Rajalakshmi’s head and went home, where his wife Sarada advised him to discard it elsewhere. Subsequently, they went to the police station together,” Kathir said. Later, Sarada claimed that her husband was mentally ill. But Kathir says the claim was a ploy to ‘save her husband.’ “It has been made clear in the police investigation that he is mentally and physically sound.”
Chinnaponnu and Rajalakshmi were alone at home when the crime took place. “Rajalakshmi’s father works in a graveyard, because of which he often stays away from home at night. I visited the family three days after the crime and Chinnaponnu told me how the headless torso of her young daughter lay in her hands. Rajalakshmi had told her parents about his unsolicited advances, but the family chose to remain silent because Dinesh Kumar was not someone they could easily challenge.”
Kathir points out how the police sees this as a caste crime (and not a sex crime), whereas the society views it only as a sexual crime and not a caste crime.
“It is both” asserts P. Jagadeesh, Rajalakshmi’s brother in law. “Our complaint says it is both. He made sexual advances towards Rajalakshmi. Then, he was enraged that a Dalit woman had the audacity to spurn him. We demand that he should not be let out on bail, and that the case should also be tried under the POCSO Act.”
Corroborating Kathir’s version, Kausalya, an activist whose husband Sankar was a victim of honour killing, says the crime was both ‘casteist and sexual in nature’. “It is very difficult for Rajalakshmi’s mother to come to terms with what has happened,” says Kausalya, who had witnessed her husband’s gruesome murder in March 2016.
But what intrigues activists like Kathir and Kausalya is the silence that shrouds the crime. “When I visited the family along with another activist Valarmathi, the media had the most insensitive questions for the victim’s family. I wonder why such questions are never raised asked of the perpetrators of the crime or the administration that is complicit in this crime.”
“That a gruesome crime like this should go unnoticed when #MeToo as a movement is garnering huge attention is ironic,” observed Kathir. “If there is a MeToo moment in a slum, it usually ends in murder. The victim is not allowed to voice her complaint or seek justice. The civil society is complicit in this crime. The silence of the civil society is as violent as the crime itself, if not more.”
A meeting in Chennai on Wednesday hopes to break this silence. “We should now also speak about WhyOnlyMe in the context of Dalit girls and women and the harassment they suffer at the hands of dominant communities. It is not just #MeToo, they are alone in this harassment,” says Semmalar Jebaraj, a Dalit activist and one of the organisers. “This silence is deafening. The civil society is silent; politicians including the progressive leaders are silent. The media is silent. We want to break this.”
Semmalar points out how in sharp contrast to many #Metoo accusations which had either happened at a workplace or a public place, Rajalakshmi has been killed in her own home. “Essentially, a Dalit girl cannot be safe even in her own house. This is a clear case of honour killing. Dinesh Kumar would not just stop with murdering her, he made sure her head was cut off and he took it too. It is telling how castiest he is.”
Semmalar says efforts are on to bring in more voices to break this silence. “We know we require the solidarity of other voices, not just Dalit voices. For us it is not just about stopping this harassment, it is more about the annihilation of caste.”
The organisers also have plans to break many established norms around caste. “So, traditionally parai (a percussion instrument) has been played in funerals and nadaswarams have been played on auspicious occasions. At our meeting on Wednesday, we have some nadaswaram players performing in solidarity. T.M. Krishna has also promised to sing some numbers.”
Alphonse Ratna, another organiser, has penned a song on Rajalakshmi which she hopes will create some awareness about what the young girl underwent:
Why Only Me
Why should I be victimised in the name of caste?
Slavery does not live
By killing the truth,
Or by helping caste thrive.
This is the time to give back.
Rajalakshmi had many dreams
You killed her,
Despite her being a child.
She should be born again
To annihilate caste
Let us unite
Let us usher in a revolution
Let us struggle for social justice
Let us break our silence
Against the violence.
“That a 13-year-old Dalit girl who had harboured the dreams of becoming an IAS officer should meet such an end is a shame on us, collective shame on the society we live in. What is even more shameful is our silence.” Ratna says.
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.