On March 14, a self-proclaimed advocate in Tamil Nadu, TS Arunkumar Villupuram, put up an unusual Facebook post.
“Don’t worry if you have committed an honour killing. Come to me and I will take up your case and see that you are saved. There is no crime called honour killing,” the post read with the advocate’s email address included.
“In fact the killing is a punishment for having violated honour. Parents have the right to punish the ‘killing’ of honour.”
Chennai-based activist Geetha Narayanan immediately shared the post and tagged Chennai police commissioner.
In two days the post was taken down and the account closed after a Chennai lawyer sent him a notice.
But Arunkumar was only one of hundreds of such accounts, many of whom congratulated the killers of Sankar, a young Dalit man who was killed allegedly by the family of his upper-caste wife, Kausalya, last week.
Since June 2013, Tamil Nadu has seen the murder of 80 young men and women who dared to marry or fall in love in violation of strict caste rules but not a single conviction.
Most victims are girls, often killed in public or forced into suicide by their own families for daring to love and marry a Dalit man.
The reason for the lack of convictions is that the families –the perpetrators of violence -- hush it up in cooperation with the administration and police. If a Dalit man is murdered, his family usually follows up the case in court.
“Is caste more important than your daughter’s life, I asked a father whose daughter had been killed,” says Kathir, the Madurai-based founder of Evidence, an NGO documenting atrocities against Dalits.
“Yes, he replied. Caste is more important than God. Because caste is what makes God.”
Political parties ‘silent’
The AIADMK and DMK, both dominant caste parties, are silent on the issue.
Ramdoss, leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a Vanniyar-based political party, walked out of a press conference when asked to respond to Sankar’s killing. PMK activists are known to have mobilised against Dalits in the wake of love affairs between Vanniyars and Dalits. Only Vaiko, the founder of MDMK, called for an end to such practices.
But how does casteism persist in a state known for the Dravidian movement? “The values of the non-brahmin movement were implicitly anti-Dalit and explicitly anti-Brahmin,” says C Lakshmanan, a Dalit scholar at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
“While the non-Brahmin middle-level castes grew stronger, they too acquired feudal, hierarchical values and continued to discriminate against Dalits.”
According to a policy note on the police department, the number of murders due to caste was 12 in 2012, 7 in 2013 and 18 in 2014. The number of murders over love affairs or sexual causes was 321 in 2012, 351 in 2013 and 320 in 2015.
The cases multiply in certain districts in west, south and central Tamil Nadu, where these castes dominate the administration, courts, police, political parties and the economy.
But in spite of overwhelming evidence, the state government remains in denial. In 2012, Tamil Nadu was one of a handful of states who didn’t send details of honour killing cases to the Supreme Court.
“Films glorifying regressive feudal traditions of certain castes, who dominate both the film industry and politics contribute to this mindset,” says Narayanan.
In July 2015 Gokulraj, a Dalit man was murdered for talking to a woman from the dominant Gounder caste.
Yuvaraj, the founder of a Gounder youth group and accused in the killing, evaded arrest for six months and then engineered a surrender drama with hundreds of his supporters, embarrassing the police.
“The dominant political and social status of the castes concerned – usually Vanniyars, Gounders and Thevars – is the main reason for the persistence and the official denial of these deaths,” says Prabhakar, an activist.