With a drum and a loudspeaker, TN village banishes women who married men from other castes
28-year-old Lubersha distinctly remembers cringing in pain outside her maternal home at Punakaiyal in Thoothukudi district. She had just delivered a baby and complications had left her weak; she was holding on to her sister's hand to even stand. But blocking the entrance to her own home was a member of the village's caste panchayat. She was refused entry – her crime was that she had married a man outside her caste.
Days after this incident in August, Lubersha left the home she grew up in. But it was not just this young woman who was driven out. Multiple announcements were made in meetings by the caste panchayat asking women who had married outside the Parava caste, categorised as Most Backward Class, to leave the village. (The fishing village largely has a Christian population, including the Paravas.)
Women who had married men from scheduled castes were specifically targeted. Those calling the shots, according to reports, were members of a caste panchayat. Particularly, it was a leader named Selvaraj, who was informally elected in an exercise that allegedly takes place every year.
"I had huge fights with members of the panchayat. Why do they care who we marry when our families are okay with it?" asks Lubersha, who used to work as a clerk in the village's Gram Panchayat office. Her husband, who is just a year older, is from a lower caste and works as a driver. "But it was becoming detrimental for my mother. These caste leaders had too much power and everyone listened to them," she rues.
Lubersha 's mother runs a small shop in the village and caste leaders allegedly said that if she did not leave, residents will boycott the store.
"We were amongst the first to leave. But we still went to the village when there was a festival or event. We put up with the discrimination. But in February, a new announcement was made, forcing us to act," explains Lubersha, who now lives with her husband in a neighbouring village.
Despite a few families moving out of the village, the caste leaders were not satisfied.
On February 20, an announcement was made through the streets of Punakaiyal. Beating the traditional drum, a man deployed by the caste panchayat said the decision was to banish families in which women had married out of caste.
Their logic for this move is truly twisted and discriminatory, and a perfect example of caste hegemony. They believe that if a woman from their caste or community married out of it, the child will not carry forward the community's legacy. But if a man were to marry out of caste, it didn’t matter because the child will still be a 'true successor.’
"They believed that our children would unrightfully take over the village," explains Lubersha.
The announcement was as follows: "All women who have married men from outside their caste or community in the last 15 years have to leave the village today. These people who have gone astray cannot take part in any celebration or mourning in the village. If they do so anyway, or if someone supports them, severe action will be taken against them… The decisions taken in today's public meeting won't end just here, it will continue in the coming days. If these women do not leave, residents will come lock their houses."
Following this threat, nine families were forced to move out of the village. But 18 women were allegedly named in the announcement along with the names of their fathers.
"Before the announcement, I went to the village once as my child was ill and needed treatment at the hospital there. The leader abused me and said I don't deserve to use the medical facilities there. Even then, I kept quiet. But telling me I cannot enter the land that I grew up in ever was the last straw," says Lubersha.
The next day, she went to the Superintendent of Police's office and to the Collector's office. But petitions submitted there had no effect on the ground situation.
Police forced to act
It was in fact a report by News 18 Tamil's Senior correspondent Saradha, that pushed the district administration into action. Lubersha too had meanwhile approached Evidence, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works against caste discrimination.
Under pressure from the media and the NGO, the Thoothukudi police finally filed a case against the caste panchayat leader on February 27, a week after the complaint was given
Defending the delay, the SP tells TNM, "We can't just simply go there and arrest people. Once we get a complaint we have to actually inquire with people there. This is a not an issue concerning just an individual, it is about an entire society. We have taken appropriate legal action."
The police have now registered a case under Section 506 (ii) (Punishment for criminal intimidation) of the IPC and Section 7 (B) (obstructing a person from exercising their right) of the Civil Rights Act, 1955.
Despite this, however, the nine families will not be accepted with open arms.
The discrimination continues
Villagers told News 18 Tamil that the decision to ostracise the families was taken by all of them and not just Selvaraj. "If these families are allowed in the village, then more women will go astray. If the police wants to make arrests, they will have to send the entire village to jail," says one resident.
Lubersha however is determined that she will return home. "Other who have come with us are scared that their families will be affected if they speak out. But how long can we be treated in this manner for choosing our own partner? I will not stop fighting till my child makes her first footsteps in my village."