In Tamil Nadu, boys and girls from Dalit and OBC communities often pay for their love with their lives. Nisha Ponthathil reports on why such cases are almost always hushed up

Life, interrupted The body of Gopalakrishnan, a Dalit, was fished out from a lake in Cuddalore district in 2012. His crime? Falling in love with a Vanniar girl

Honour killings endorsed by khap panchayats of Punjab and Haryana and the ‘love jihad’ controversy have streaked through national consciousness. But a series of honour killings in Tamil Nadu have cartwheeled through local media outlets but stayed determinedly out of the national limelight. And these share the same noxious intertwining of inimical communities and their visceral animosities at the bottom of the Hindu social hierarchy. The honour killings in Tamil Nadu are primarily a fight between backward castes and the Dalits.

On 11 December 2014, Keelamaruthu village in Thiruvarur district woke up to a ghastly sight. Somebody found an adult male torso in a paddy field in Vedanadapuram area of the village, sending everybody into nauseous tizzy.

The police eventually found the head of the unfortunate 32-year-old man, Palaniappan, nearby. They also found the body of a 28-year-old woman, Amirthavalli, a Dalit from the Pallar community and nurse at the General Hospital in Tanjavur, on the banks of Harishchandra river, about 3 km away from where the decapitated body of Palaniappan was found. A few days later, the police fished out the body of a 38-day-old infant from the river.

It was Amirthavalli’s father Ganeshan, a resident of Keelamaruthu, who first identified the body of Palaniappan, a member of the Vanniar community.

The couple, aware of the opprobrium their union might evoke, had moved to Madurai from Keelamaruthu village, where they first met and fell in love. Amirthavalli had given birth to their first born a little over a month ago when she got news that her mother was unwell. She rushed with her husband and baby to meet her mother. They were waylaid and brutally butchered by Palaniappan’s brothers Mahendran and Shiva Subramanyian with two other Vanniar men.

This was the latest in an increasing number of honour killings in Tamil Nadu’s remote districts.

In early October, 20-year-old Vimaladevi from Usilampatti in Madurai district was found dead in mysterious circumstances. The girl from the Thevar community had married a Dalit man, Dileep Kumar, 22, who used to be the driver of the autorickshaw that ferried her to the college and back. They fell in love, feared for their lives and, in mid-July last year, ran away to Kerala to escape the wrath of the girl’s parents.

Tragic end The victims of honour killings include (from top left) Vimaladevi, Bavani, Boopathi, Parthiban, Durai and Gopalakrishnan

Vimaladevi’s parents filed a kidnapping case against Kumar claiming their daughter was underage. They used political pressure and the couple was sent back to Usilampatti by the Kerala Police. Kumar, who has been in hiding since, met Tehelka and said that the local MLA was involved in separating him from his wife.

“PV Kathiravan, the local MLA, snatched the wedding chain from Vimaladevi and coerced her to go back to her parents,” he said.

Vimaladevi’s parents arranged her marriage with Satheesh without her consent. According to the police, on 23 September, Vimaladevi convinced Satheesh to buy clothes for the wedding from Bathlagundu, where she had a rendezvous with her husband Kumar. But their meeting sparked an altercation and the police intervened. The Bathlagundu police sent her to a government women’s home at Oomachikulam in Madurai.

On 27 September, Sub-Inspector Anandhi took the girl from the home and brought her to the police station where Kumar and her parents were present. Anandhi ordered them leave the station in an auto despite Kumar’s pleadings not to send them out. On the way, he was attacked and thrown out of the auto and Vimaladevi was abducted.

On 4 October, Vimaladevi was found dead by hanging and her parents cremated her without informing the police.

“I complained to the district collector and the superintendent of police of both Madurai and Dindigul districts to hand over Vimaladevi from illegal confinement,” said Kumar. “My wife was murdered by her parents for refusing to marry someone of their choice.”

The village administrative officer filed a complaint with the Usilampatti town police, who first registered a case of suspicious death and charged Vimaladevi’s parents and relatives for destruction of evidence. Later, it was altered to a case of abetment of suicide and eight persons, including the girl’s parents, P Veeranan, 48, and Thenammal, 35, were arrested.

Stolen lives (from left) Divya, Sankar Ganesh and Amirthavalli also lost their lives to the growing menace; (right) Amirthavalli’s grieving mother

Honour killings have been long and widely held to be the preserve of the feudal communities of north India.

In its observations made while proposing a legal framework to prevent honour killings in 2012, the Union Law Commission noted, “As far as India is concerned, ‘honour killings’ are mostly reported from the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Bhagalpur in Bihar is also one of the known places for honour killings. Even some incidents are reported from Delhi and Tamil Nadu.”

However, the phenomenon has been under wraps in Tamil Nadu, and one of the reasons is because it is often brushed under a broader subject of caste violence by the administration.

“There are no specific studies done on this issue mainly because honour killingswere passed off as caste-based violence or part of caste-based violence,” says Jaishankar Karuppannan, senior assistant professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli. “So, it is difficult to give any statistics in this regard. Unlike the past, more and more cases are getting reported these days mainly due to the conscious efforts of some organisations and human rights activists.”

Another fallout of these legal blinkers is that women suffer the most. The State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) says as many as 6,179 women committed suicide in Tamil Nadu in 2012. The same year, 662 women were murdered, in which 198 were in the age group of 19 to 30. Some of the murders and suicide of women in the age group of 19 to 30 are suspected to be honour killings. A request to the SCRB for the latest data was ignored.

“Women being the repository of honour as daughter, wife and mother, the sordid tales of honour killings get hushed up here, especially in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, very often in connivance with the police and local administration,” says Lenin Kumar, an independent human rights activist from southern Tamil Nadu who has researched the issue for several years.

While transferring Vimaladevi’s case to the CBI, Justice V Ramasubramanian of the Madras High Court observed, “In the light of the facts pleaded and disclosed from the files, it is clear, at least prima facie, that the death of Vimaladevi is a case of honour killing. But the investigation team had not brought this out deliberately. On the other hand, the team had manipulated the records and come out with different stories so as to save their own officers. Hence I am of the opinion that the investigation cannot be left in the hands of the officers under the Tamil NaduDirector General of Police.”

Some of these romances across caste lines begin with the innocence of Malgudi Days. Aruna, a 19-year-old upper-caste Hindu girl from Narippayur, fell in love with a tailor named Nagaraj, 30, from the nearby town of Sayalkkudi, who stitched her clothes. Both towns are located in Ramanathapuram district.

“I used to stitch Aruna’s dresses, which were sent to me through a friend. We exchanged phone numbers, fell in love and got married on 12 October 2014 at the Ishakthi Amman temple in Bilathikulam and stayed at a lodge in nearby Pudhur town,” says Nagaraj of his brief romance and briefer marriage.

Amirthavalli’s grieving mother

The girl’s parents filed a missing-person complaint with the police. Accompanied by Soorankudi panchayat president Selvaraj and some of Nagraj’s relatives, the couple surrendered at the police station, from where Aruna’s parents took her home kicking and screaming.

By 19 October, Aruna was dead and cremated. The parents said the girl had consumed Harpic, a popular over-the-counter toilet cleaner, containing about 10 percent hydrochloric acid besides butyl olemine and other chemicals. It does not kill even if taken internally.

“Aruna’s family informed that she consumed Harpic and needed medication,” the doctor who attended to Aruna told Tehelka on the condition of anonymity. “When asked to admit the patient, they declined, saying her stomach was washed at home and persuaded me to prescribe antacids. And after medication, she went back home walking.”

The next day, somebody informed the doctor that Aruna died that night and her family cremated her in the wee hours of 19 October without informing the police or conducting the mandatory post-mortem.

“Nobody will die by consuming Harpic, especially when she walked back to her house,” adds the doctor.

The police booked a case under IPC section 306, which amounts to abetting suicide, against Aruna’s father Sachidanandham, 60, and two brothers, Muthurasu, 27, and Bharathi, 25. The police said the specific charge was framed as the same doctor submitted a report to them saying it was suicide by consuming Harpic.

The doctor told Tehelka that he had neither given such a report nor does he believe that anybody could die by consuming Harpic.

If the discrepancies in the various versions come as a surprise, there are more insidious and invidious ways the law itself functions in cases of honour killings in Tamil Nadu.

In Aruna’s case, the accused are her father and brothers. The FIR filed at the Sayalkkudi police station names her mother and elder sister as witnesses. And there is a method in this seeming madness.

“In many such cases, when instead of murder, abetting suicide is registered against the male members of the family, the witnesses are often the female members of the family,” says A Kathir, executive director of EVIDENCE, a Madurai-based NGO working on human rights issues. “The male members of the family are initially arrested and they come out on bail. But when the trial starts, the female family members turn hostile and the case is dropped.”

Kathir is a Dalit who set up the NGO in 2005 after attending the United Nations conference on racial discrimination. He discovered then that there was a need for new, professional, scientific and strategic approaches to bring to the fore cases of discrimination rather than the quoting of traditional grievances that current socio-economic indicators prove in a retrospective way. EVIDENCE has been documenting and collecting evidence of such honour killings in southern Tamil Nadu from 2007.

The situation in these districts is worsened by caste considerations trumping a serious attempt to use the State machinery to eradicate the rampant social evil. Many of the senior posts in the police department, the first window a citizen approaches when caught in the crosshairs of bloody community feuds, are manned by policemen who are from the dominant caste of the area.

Broken family Anandavalli’s complaint led to the arrest of her husband Sekhar, who killed their daughter for falling in love with a Dalit

“In the areas where honour killings are rampant, the government should not post dominant-caste police officers alone in the area,” says Kolathur Mani, the president of Periyar Dravida Kazhakam, an anti-caste party. “Otherwise, the victims will not have the confidence to approach the police. Also, the police have been found taking the side of the dominant caste in many cases.”

Tehelka got a taste of this first hand when the team visited the house of Vaidehi, a 21-year-old Thevar woman who was hacked to death by her brother and three maternal uncles and buried in March 2014.

The story was in many ways the same as several others. Vaidehi married her Dalit lover, Suresh Kumar, 24, and moved to Kerala to escape the wrath of her community. She was pregnant when her mother called. Vaidehi shared the news of her pregnancy with her mother, who seemed happy to hear the news. Her mother convinced the girl to attend a temple festival in Theni on 16 March.

The very next day, she was killed and her body burnt. When her husband filed a habeas corpus in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, the judge directed the police on 21 March to produce the woman in the court. The police exhumed the decomposed body on the Vaigai riverbed at Kuyavankudi near Ramanathapuram.

“It is a clear case of honour killing,” Superintendent of Police NM Mylvahanan had told The Hindu then.

When Tehelka reached Vaidehi’s house to speak to her mother and grandmother, the two were not too forthcoming. Eventually, a few men arrived at the house. They accused our team of being agents for Vaidehi’s husband. One of the men forcibly erased pictures from the team’s camera. They then called the local police.

The police arrived, sought to seek the reporting team’s identity and eventually the team was driven away from the house and left about 5 km outside town. The police officer insisted that the team give a declaration in writing that they were on an official news-gathering mission.

Not surprisingly, the police officer, Inspector Murugan, also belongs to the Thevar community.

“Since most of the police officials and bureaucrats in the region where honour killings happen belong to the backward communities, they don’t act upon the complaints by the Dalits,” said K Mahendran, a former mla.

There are 76 sub-castes under the Scheduled Caste category in the state and more than 200 communities under the Backward Class (BC) category.

Even as long back as October 2010, when Mahendran, a Dalit, was an MLA from the CPM representing Perambur constituency, had told Tehelka that “since the 1960s, the Dravidian parties in the state have been dominated by the BCs, who comprise 70 percent of the state’s population. BCs benefited largely in terms of economy and education. But Dalits, who comprise 22 percent of the population, fell behind. Now the bcs dominate Dalits in every sphere of society.”

The situation is receiving some political attention, but too little to lumber up political will among the rulers in Chennai, the state capital.

“A number of honour killings have taken place in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu in the past two years,” says R Annadurai, the MLA representing Madurai South. “I have personally taken up the fight in Vimaladevi’s honour killing case and given protection to Dileep Kumar and provided legal aid.”

On 25 october, Sekhar strangulated his 17-year-old daughter, Muthulakshmi, after making sure her mother was not in the house at Abhiramam Pallapacheri, Ramnad district. Abhiramam Pallapacheri has more than 300 Dalit families. Muthulakshmi, who belonged to the washermen’s community, had eloped with Gnanasekharan, a 32-year-old married man and a Dalit.

“My husband killed my daughter after sending me away to a bank in Abhiram town,” an inconsolable Anandavalli told Tehelka at her home, surrounded by helpless relatives.

Muthulakshmi had fallen in love with Gnanasekharan, her neighbour. Gnanasekharan’s wife Bhanupriya attempted suicide by consuming poison when she came to know about the affair. She told Tehelka that she remembered that when her husband had asked Sekhar to stop beating Muthulakshmi, he said, “I shall not only beat her, but I will even kill her if she does not obey me.”

It was Anandavalli who eventually complained to the police about her daughter’s murder.

When revulsion from among women of the region reaches critical mass, perhaps the rulers will summon the political will to take on the misogynistic, patriarchal and atavistic ways of the caste war with women as pawns.