Justifying violence: The savarna response to Pranay's murder is casteism consolidated

The changing rhetoric on reservations and justifications of violence against Dalits expose the casteist mindset of the upper castes who have come together.
Justifying violence: The savarna response to Pranay's murder is casteism consolidated
Justifying violence: The savarna response to Pranay's murder is casteism consolidated

Months after the caste killing of Pranay, his family members live in perpetual fear of death. Pranay’s wife Amrutha delivered their baby on January 30. She says that she fears for the life of their child, too.

24-year-old Pranay was killed in broad daylight in the presence of his pregnant wife on 14 September, 2018. This was, in fact, captured on a CCTV camera. Pranay, who belonged to the Scheduled Castes, married his long-standing girlfriend Amrutha, who hails from the Komati caste, which is a non-Brahmin dominant caste in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

The incident took place in Miryalaguda of Nalgonda district and was widely reported in the media and discussed on social media platforms. The primary investigation revealed that Amrutha’s father had allegedly paid Rs 1 crore to assassins to kill Pranay.

Many such cases of violence against lower-caste men and dominant caste women who were involved in inter-caste relationships have taken place before as well as after this incident. The extensive reportage on Pranay’s case by the Telugu television and print media has made the case well-known in both the Telugu states.

Consolidation of upper castes

Violence against inter-caste couples, especially in the case of Pranay, has led to the consolidation of dominant castes in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with a semblance to contexts like the post-Chunduru massacre and the anti-Mandal protests.

Various dominant caste groups have supported Maruthi Rao and defended his alleged murderous act. These caste groups have actively harassed Amrutha on social media and caused her untold distress. These supporters have attempted to construct the crime as an act of parental love and thus tried to subsume the caste dimension of the crime.

Castigating the reservation policy was another important aspect of the consolidation of dominant castes. Non-Brahmin upper-castes such as Kapus, Kammas, Reddys and of course Komatis have played a major role in consolidating the support to Maruthi Rao using television and social media platforms.

Harassment of Amrutha

The supporters of Maruthi Rao resorted to vicious ways of constructing Amrutha as an “immoral” woman with no concern for her parents and their “honour” in the society. They also harassed Amrutha by propagating false news like “Amrutha is going to remarry Pranay’s younger brother”. They have openly denigrated her and even issued death threats on social media platforms. The consolidated upper-caste groups have described her as a young girl who was lost in a transitory phase of infatuation for her lover.

Soon after the arrest of Maruthi Rao, the consolidated upper caste groups released a letter in Telugu, purportedly written by Maruthi Rao. The letter was written with the bitter tones of patriarchy and casteism. The letter sought to construct Maruthi Rao as an epitome of upper caste masculinity and painted him as a victim of the rise of lower caste masculinities in post-Mandal Indian society.

The letter divulges a misogynist tone with its opening lines: “I am an innocent father who celebrated the birth of a girl child (Amrutha) in the 1990s, a period in which girls were killed in the womb of the mother itself!" The letter concludes with a note of appeal to all the fathers, “If you are a father who finds your teenage daughter indulging in sexual activity in parks behind the bushes, what will you do?”

Though the origin of the letter is neither known nor claimed by anyone, it was widely circulated on social media platforms. Some have even celebrated his act of killing Pranay as an act of retaliation by the virile masculinity of upper castes against the lower castes. 

Anti-Mandal women against all inter-caste unions

Dominant caste people who participated on television shows have attempted to construct/interpret the murder of Pranay by Amrutha’s father as an act of parental love. Dominant caste ‘anti-Mandal’ women have actively participated in these shows to condemn inter-caste love, premarital conjugality and exogamy.

They have declared themselves as educated and economically independent, but have strongly upheld the idea of “arranged marriage”, in other words, caste endogamous marriage. Thus they have strongly endorsed the principles of caste purity. Moreover, they have branded Amrutha and Pranay’s love as nothing but ‘infatuation’, which is a transient teenage illusion.

The sexist, casteist and patriarchal attitudes of the women who participated in the TV shows were evident. Their arguments were based on how the child is brought up so affectionately by the father and therefore the child should marry the person of the father’s choice. According to them, children are mere properties of the father figure. Such objectification of children, and the girl child in particular, is constructed within the folds of parental love, family support and affection for girl children without mentioning any situation of violence in the family.

One of the major objections raised by them is the age of the couple. They condemned the teenage love that had begun in 9th standard as something immature. However, they did not confront the subject of child sexuality even if they want to call it ‘infatuation’. On the one hand, they have trivialised the idea of teenage love, but have not thought of teenagers’ right to explore their own sexuality that consists of a phase of premarital sexuality.

They strongly upheld the ideologies of sexual purity by totally denouncing the right to any premarital conjugality. These women despise the idea of cohabitation outside marriage. While they advocated women’s right to education, ‘freedom’ and ‘mobility’, they also have stood up for strong control over girls’ sexuality. Interestingly, no one mentioned caste here but some cited the class differences between Amrutha and Pranay, which could have been the reason for the parental disapproval. The consolidated upper caste groups have construed the reasons for murder as issues of underage, lack of parental approval and class differences but haven’t acknowledged the dimension of caste. 

Construction of parental love as apolitical is in itself misleading. Many dominant caste parents force their daughters into violent matrimonial families, and at times, let their daughters get killed by the husband or in-laws. Parental love that is very much gendered, patriarchal, casteist, classist and communal in nature is disguised as something “pure”, “natural” and “divine”.

While the normative parental control in middle class society overlooks the premarital conjugality of their sons, there is fierce control on the sexuality and mobility of their daughters. Dominant caste parents do condemn even their sons’ marriage with lower caste women but their sons’ indulgence in premarital sexual relations is condoned. Many middle class parents warn their daughters not to fall in love with Muslim and Dalit men. Therefore, it is misleading to say that parental love is constructed beyond the sociological structures of caste, class and community.

"No Reservations No Caste”

While the extremist upper caste men have celebrated the upper caste violence against Dalits, the ‘liberal’ upper castes have resorted to providing a critique on the reservation policy to consolidate the upper caste opinion.

The reservation policy of the Indian state has once again been castigated by the consolidated upper castes in the context of Pranay’s caste killing. However, they subscribed to a different rhetoric and tone altogether in condemning reservations. The upper castes who mourned the death of “merit” in the context of the anti-Mandal protests have now rebuked the reservation policy for segregating Hindu society.

Moreover, they demand a reservation-free society, which according to them, is a caste-free society. They have argued that the reservation policy has segregated Hindus and engendered hatred and contempt in upper caste people for lower castes. Therefore, they express their strong belief that the reservation policy is the prime reason for the collective memory of caste in India. Thus, they conclude, the reason for Pranay’s murder is nothing but reservations provided on the basis of caste identities.

Ironically, it is true that the reservation policy in India is indirectly the reason for Pranay’s murder. However, I would like to explain it differently. Pranay belongs to an educated, middle class Dalit family. In a feudal agrarian society, the status of the dominant castes and the Dalits is absolutely hierarchical. The modern liberal space of academia has ideally (though not empirically) erased such hierarchies by providing a legitimate space generated by the post-colonial modern state. In the modern democratic state, Dalits have entered the space of education where they interact with the upper castes on the basis of this ideal “equality”.

Entry of Dalits into educational institutes is considered a threat to the sexual purity of upper caste women. The upward mobility of Dalits leads to the emergence of new Dalit masculinities. These emerging masculinities are considered a threat to upper caste groups whose primary goal is to guard the sexual purity of their women.

The rise of Dalit masculinity and their entry into the modern ‘democratic’ spaces has created a discomfort to upper castes at various levels. Particularly, it has become a threat to the upper caste women’s sexual purity, thus threatening the very caste system.

Secondly, it questions the very foundations of the hierarchical caste system. The media reportage on the case of Pranay and Amrutha has pointed out Pranay’s upward mobility in terms of his access to modernity, education and the commodities of the contemporary market. The media highlighted the clippings of his sophisticated pre-wedding video shoot, his photographs from the wedding, and his college days, all projected a non-stereotypical Dalit body.

The upper castes have argued against caste-based reservations on the basis of the upward mobility of Pranay’s family. Then, they also promoted the idea of reservations for economically disadvantaged upper-castes against caste-based reservations for upwardly mobile Dalits like Pranay.

However, through the gruesome violence against Dalits at the pretext of a Dalit man’s access to upper-caste woman, despite his upward mobility in terms of class and education, the consolidated dominant castes themselves have proved that the economic upward mobility of Dalits doesn’t solve the caste question.

The case of Amrutha and Pranay is only the tip of an iceberg. Various cases of caste killings in the context of caste exogamy take place in almost every corner of the country. The upper caste consolidation in this context, their changing rhetoric on reservations and endorsement of violence against Dalits represent the new developments of our society at the junctures of feudalism, modernity and neo-liberalization.

Sowjanya Tamalpakula teaches at TISS, Hyderabad.

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