By the time Kausalya’s hair, waist long earlier, started growing back, she knew it would be her first symbol of defiance. It was the summer of 2016 and a few months had passed since her life had changed completely. On March 13th of that year, she and her husband, V Shankar, had gone to Udumalpet, the town closest from Shankar’s village, Kumaralingam, to buy a shirt for him. When they exited the clothing shop, the couple was set upon by a group of five men. Grainy CCTV footage captured shows Shankar being repeatedly hacked even as Kausalya is hit and attacked. By the time they were taken to the nearest hospital, Shankar had succumbed to his injuries. The men had been sent by Kausalya’s father; Chinnasamy, a financier who was enraged that his daughter, a Thevar (a politically powerful OBC community in Tamil Nadu), had married Shankar, a Dalit. Shankar was 22, Kausalya, 19. They had been married for less than a year.
“My time in the hospital is a daze… after I came out, many activists came to meet me and pledged support. People would leave books for me to read. One of these was Periyar’s Penn Yen Adimaiyaanal?,” she tells Open. The book Kausalya is referring to is a powerful book on female empowerment by social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy and had a direct bearing on her decision to not grow her hair long again which had to be cut as she had received blows on her head. In the four years that have followed Shankar’s death, Kausalya has shed her old skin, of being a quiet homebound girl, to become a prominent anti-caste activist. She is also the principal witness in the case against her father. In 2017, a district court had awarded him and five of the assailants death penalty even though her mother was acquitted. However, on June 23rd, the fiery activist who now drives a motorcycle to work and counsels other couples suffered a setback when the Madras High Court acquitted her father while reducing the death sentence of the other five to life. “I will not rest till Shankar gets justice. This case will go all the way to the Supreme Court,” she says.
In a 2006 judgment, Lata Singh vs State of U.P. & Another, the Supreme Court of India had held that right to marriage is an essential right under Article 21 of the Constitution and people had the right to choose their partners without fear and compulsion. But it is not a right which is given easily, especially to those who want to marry outside of their caste or faith. Honour killing, in which people are murdered by their own family members for choosing their life partners, is still practised today. It is still not recognised in law as a crime being under murder (Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code) and culpable homicide (Section 304 of IPC). In 2014, it was finally recognised as a separate category by the National Crime Records Bureau, leading to data reporting. That year, 28 cases were reported; the figure rose to 192 in 2015; in 2016, only 77 cases were reported—Kausalya’s was one of these.
“There is a perception that honour killing is a north-Indian phenomenon, but it has roots everywhere,” says Kathir who runs a Madurai-based organisation, Evidence, fighting caste discrimination and social injustice. According to Kathir, Evidence has been tracking these killings and helping survivors get legal help since 2005 when they started. He reels off cases from several villages and districts that tell the same story: non-Dalit woman marries Dalit man; both get attacked by members of her community—often brutally.
Most honour killings centre around the woman’s caste, especially if she marries a Dalit. But that is not the only ‘problem’. At issue is also women’s assertion of their sexuality and independence tied closely with economic concerns such as share in family property. These marriages are also seen as an assertion of identity by Dalit men, even small acts of which, such as wearing jeans or sunglasses, can result in higher-caste violence. With local government officials also slow to interfere when the perpetrators are from a higher, and often powerful, caste, living without fear becomes unimaginable for intercaste couples. “Caste purity can only be maintained through endogamy and a woman’s assertion besmirches not just the family but the entire community. It sets a dangerous precedent for others. The family worries about her claim in the property as well as ostracisation from the community. For the sake of the honour of the family and the community, action has to be taken,” Kathir explains the higher-caste mindset.
At the centre of most honour killings is the woman’s caste but that’s not the only ‘problem’. At issue is also women’s assertion of their sexuality and independence tied closely with economic concerns such as share in family property
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Seldom, a couple escapes violence if the man has a promising future such as being in a prestigious job. Educated and economically independent couples are more likely to escape murder by their families than poorly paid and unemployed runaway couples, according to research by Haryana Women and Child Development Department’s Puneet Kaur Grewal. “My wife is a Kongu Vellalar [a powerful OBC community] while I am an Arunthathiyar, a Dalit. We are landless labourers who have traditionally worked in the fields of the Kongu Vellalars. My wife and I met in college in Salem while studying engineering,” says a Tamil Nadu government employee who did not wish to be identified. Their love story blossomed in 2018 but the ghost of Shankar and Kausalya’s fate hung heavy over them. “She told her family I am a Dalit but not the exact caste. There was a lot of emotional pressure and every day I used to wake up in fear of being attacked.” The couple eloped and eventually rapprochement took place though he says for a few weeks it was touch-and-go as the father-in-law was under pressure from his community to take action against them. “Today I go to meet her parents in my official government vehicle and it gives them great pride,” he says. His economic situation plays a huge role, he says, but even that has limitations; his in-laws still don’t know his specific caste.
In 2018, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment had ruled it was illegal for village elders to interfere in a marriage between two consenting adults and to punish them. It also said that all cases of honour killing, including pending ones, were to be tried by fast-track courts earmarked for that purpose. The judgment also directed the police and the state to set up safety houses for couples on the run fearing the wrath of their communities. In fact, both Punjab and Haryana have had safety houses for couples since 2010. “The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has launched the Dr Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration under which the Government provides a certain amount to an intercaste couple if the bride or bridegroom is Dalit, but there is very little awareness on the ground about these things or even their rights,” says Asif Iqbal, cofounder of Dhanak of Humanity, a Delhi-based NGO that works to promote the right to choose one’s partner. They provide a safety house among other facilities to couples who come to them but only after vetting.
Open met Mohit Nagar, 25, and Amreen Malik, 22, at one such house. The couple belong to Khadoli village near Meerut and have been in Delhi since March, though they got married only in the last week of July. “We have been together for a few years now, but there was strong opposition to our match owing to our religions,” says Nagar. They had met at the medical store he ran in her locality. They were forced to run away after Malik’s marriage was fixed with another man. “We tried to talk to our families, reason with them, but all we got were threats and emotional blackmail in return. I even asked her father, ‘What is your objection to this match? I am educated, I am capable of providing for her, I don’t have any bad habits’? Is it just because my faith is different?” The same question was posed to his parents also. Nagar initially sought legal recourse, but every lawyer he approached suggested conversion for Malik. “But we weren’t ready to do that. We accept each other with our faiths.” Trawling YouTube led Mohit to Dhanak of Humanity. It was only after they came to Delhi in March did the couple even found out about the Special Marriage Act of 1954 that solemnises as well as registers marriages between interfaith couples. Their families have been informed though they have no plans to return as of now. “I don’t know what we are supposed to go back for. They are my family, but then they should stand by you through everything and that didn’t happen,” says Malik. Eid was a bittersweet occasion for her as she was finally with Nagar but estranged from family.
Ambedkar wrote that caste will cease only when intermarriage becomes common. As politicians continue to pay more heed to dominant sentiments, that does not seem like a possibility anytime soon
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In The Annihilation of Caste, BR Ambedkar writes that ‘caste will cease to be an operative force only when inter-dining and inter-marriage have become matters of common course’. According to the Census 2011, only 5.82 per cent of marriages reported were intercaste, with no major growth in the absolute figure for decades now. Interfaith marriages were even lower at 2.6 per cent, according to recent National Family and Health Surveys. “For intercaste and interfaith couples to be able to come out openly, without any fear for their safety, we need government to get more involved,” says Iqbal. However, as political parties continue to pay more heed to dominant sentiments, that does not seem like a real possibility anytime soon.
The one thing that could serve as a deterrent to violence by higher castes is a law against honour killing, a demand of activist groups for some time now. “Honour killings are currently tried under Section 302 which is murder but this is more than that. We have to see honour killing as a crime in its own category which involves conspiracy. The concept of domestic violence was a struggle until it was recognised as a crime with the passing of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Bill, 2005. Honour killing is murder in the name of izzat and we have instances of it being carried out even years after the union has been solemnised,” says Mariam Dhawale, General Secretary, All Indian Democratic Women’s Association. A separate law will also ensure that the local state machinery, often complicit, is held up to some level of scrutiny.
Educated and economically independent couples are more likely to escape murder by their families than poorly paid and unemployed runaway couples
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Picking yourself up after your world has been upended violently by those closest to you is difficult for those who choose to defy their families for love. For Kausalya, it was complete breakdown of faith and trust which she has not been able to restore. When she thinks about her parents, there is anger and sadness but no desire for reconciliation. “How could I have gone back to the very people who had killed my husband? I came from a family where I was adored but even walking fast was frowned upon for girls. After puberty, even my visits to relatives’ homes were curtailed. Shankar gave me the freedom to be. I could do anything, be anyone. The question of going back to my parents never even arose.”
Kausalya’s words echo those of Amrutha Varshini who too lost her husband of a few months after marriage in 2018. A resident of Miryalaguda, Telangana, Amrutha, 21, married her highschool sweetheart, Pranay, against the wishes of her influentiual father Maruthi Rao, whose objection was centred on his Dalit caste. Pranay was hacked to death by machetes in front of his then pregnant wife and mother as they were coming out of a hospital, allegedly by persons sent by Rao. Varshini remained steadfast in her refusal to return to her parents or withdraw the case against them, even going on record to say that her father should be hanged. Rao killed himself earlier this year, which led to widescale trolling of Varshini, who remains unperturbed. Theirs is not an uncommon story: despite the lethal price, people continue to find their way in love.