The suspected honour killing of a Dalit man near Coimbatore on Sunday may have caused a nationwide uproar, but this is only the latest case of caste-based violence in a state with its own history of Dalit oppression.
A group of unidentified men armed with hatchets and sickles hacked 22-year-old Shankar to death in the town of Udumalaipettai in Tiruppur district, reportedly for marrying his wife Kausalya, an upper caste Hindu.
Kausalya told police she believed the attackers were hired by her family as she was threatened by them in the past for marrying against their wishes.
Political parties such as the DMK and the Congress have criticised the ruling AIADMK government for not doing enough but Shankar’s death is just the latest in a long line of atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu; a fact that may seem at odds with the state’s image of being one of the more progressive in the country.
A history of violence
The political landscape of Tamil Nadu abounds with Dravidian parties that have inherited and being influenced by the social justice movement of Periyar, who spoke forcefully against caste-based violence and advocated ‘self-respect’ marriages.
But behind the lip-service to Periyar, the state hides a sordid history of violent responses to inter-caste marriage, or demands from Dalits to have the same access to places of worship that the higher castes do.
Kausalya belongs to the Thevar caste, a community that has, along with the Vanniyars and Gounders, a history of committing atrocities against Dalits.
Shankar’s brutal murder echoed that of Gokulraj, a Dalit man who was murdered in 2015 by members of the Gounder community simply for speaking to a Gounder woman at a temple.
It also brought to mind the violence of 2012, when over 200 Dalit houses were torched by an angry upper-caste mob after a Dalit boy, Ilavarasan, had eloped with a girl from their community, Divya.
Violent clashes between OBCs and Dalits have increased in northern Tamil Nadu because of its changing political climate; specifically, the formation of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (Working People’s Party) in the late 1980s by Dr S Ramadoss. The PMK was predicated on the Vanniyars’ sense of identity, and aggressively employed a political rhetoric that framed the demands of the community in terms of caste.
The PMK was born largely due to the absence of a strong anti-caste policy from the two main inheritors of Periyar’s legacy, the DMK and the AIADMK. This space was not just used by OBCs however; Dalits also formed parties to counter the rise of caste politics, with the most notable being the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party).
When Ilavarasan’s body, was found on the railway tracks near Dharmapuri in 2013, foul play was immediately suspected.
And while PMK chief Ramadoss publically refuted claims that he or his party had anything to do with it, the fact that his followers publicly condemned inter-caste marriages and even advocated violence led many experts to believe that caste tensions and politics had intertwined in the state.
“The death of the Dalit youth Ilavarasan of Dharmapuri district, who married Divya, a Vanniyar girl, has emboldened castiest elements. Caste outfits masquerading as political parties are ready to go to any extent to break inter-caste marriages as they fear it will spell a death knell for casteism,” wrote P Sampath, president of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front.
When the main suspect in Gokulraj’s murder, Yuvaraj a leader of a local Gounder party, was arrested, he was surrounded by many of his cheering supporters, highlighting perhaps how politicised inter-caste violence had become.
Last year, the then chief minister O Pannerselvam dismissed claims of caste violence being on the rise in the state assembly, saying, “There was no incidence of honour killing in the state. Rarely do suicide or suspicious deaths involving inter caste couples occur.”
But, as Shankar, Ilavarasan and Gokulraj show, caste violence is alive and well in Tamil Nadu; and, given its political undertones, it is unlikely to die down anytime soon.