The unfurnished single room doesn't offer much in terms of facilities, but for couples in danger, it's a luxury.

A room of hope A new shelter in Trichy is offering safety for intercaste couples
Features Caste Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 12:57

Love, in India, often comes with a heavy price. Especially when it is love that threatens the social order, it is brutally crushed even before it can bloom. Tamil Nadu, despite being a state which has a rich history of anti-caste politics, has seen the worst violence when it comes to intercaste relationships. The murders of Dalit men like Ilavarasan and Shankar are still fresh in the memory of the public. And these crimes are grotesquely used as cautionary tales in families to prevent their young from repeating such "mistakes" that go against family "honour".

But now, an initiative in Trichy is looking to offer help and support to intercaste couples who are trying to escape the danger posed by their family and society. A group of four High Court advocates and one retired police officer from different corners of Tamil Nadu, united in their political ideologies, has come together to inaugurate a facility that houses intercaste couples seeking guidance on registering their marriage.

The modest space that is located in Trichy’s Navalpattu Police Colony was inaugurated on February 10 by the state’s Social Welfare Department. This facility has been instituted by Adhalinal Kaadhal Seiveer (AKS), a registered NGO that is active in counselling and providing shelter for just-married or yet-to-be married intercaste couples across the state.

Se Gunasekar, an advocate based out of Tirupur and AKS’s managing trustee, explains that the idea behind this shelter has been in the making for quite some time.

“All five of us - myself, advocate Porkodi from Madurai, advocate Ilamathi (a) Chinnasami from Thanjavur, advocate Angaiyar Kanni from Chennai and retd. police inspector Pitchai (a) Tamizh Sudar from Trichy - have had intercaste marriages ourselves. We are also united in our political thoughts - all of us follow Periyar - and we’ve been hosting and helping inte-caste couples in our circles individually for a while now,” begins Gunasekar.

Gunasekar, an active Periyarist, has performed over 150 intercaste marriages in the past ten years, offering shelter for couples in his own house or at his office space in Tirupur.

A brisk walk from Anna Nagar Main Road in Trichy’s Police Colony, will take you to the newly inaugurated shelter that lies on a vacant plot surrounded by a few houses. 

For now, all that there is, is an unfurnished single room with a grill door. The structure has two toilets and a staircase leading to the open terrace. The freshly painted building has a board that proudly says 'Saadhi madham ozhiya kalappu mannamey theervu', which translates to 'For caste and religion to be banished, intercaste marriage is the only solution'. A few contact numbers are also displayed on the board. Interestingly, the colours of the board are in black, blue and red - and inside the room, there's reading material for the young couples. The writings of Ambedkar and Periyar.

photo courtesy: Se Gunasekar

While the shelter doesn't offer much in terms of facilities, for couples fleeing threats, even this little room in the dry land where it stands, is a luxury.

“Advocate Porkodi in Madurai is my senior and has been performing intercaste marriages for about 25 years now. She must have helped over 300 couples so far,” Gunasekar adds.

Porkodi, who married in the early ’90s, against the wishes of her parents, says that she began helping intercaste couples way back in 1995, when she was pregnant with her first child.

“My experience in this is as old as my daughter. There can be nothing more satisfying than seeing couples, whom you helped get married many years ago, again. Sometimes I may not recognise them but they come over to thank me and introduce me to their children. It just fills my heart,” she beams.

The shelter was Gunasekar’s dream, says Porkodi.

“He put in most of his time and effort in this. It has always been his dream to open such centres across the state,” she says, adding, “This can be called the first such private facility in the state. Although, this should’ve been done by the state government, as mandated by the law.”

Four years ago, High Court Justice Ramasubramanian, in the Vimala Devi case, had given a few directions to the government. Based on it, in Madurai, Trichy, Chennai and Coimbatore, exclusive cells for preventing and dealing with caste-based killings were to be started.

Yet, the functionality and even the existence of such cells are questionable says Porkodi.

Advocate Porkodi outside the facility

“The judge also directed that district-wise, a shelter should be formed for protecting intercaste couples. While the government has not done its part, we have,” she adds.

The founders of AKS also explain the reason behind choosing Trichy as their location.

“Trichy is the centre of TN. We wanted the space to be a democratic one. Periyar has said that Trichy is the people’s capital and only from here you can travel to any corner of the state in 4 to 5 hours. This is why we chose this space,” reasons Gunasekar.

The facility is also very close to the police training academy, that is located just a few hundred metres away. Gunasekar highlights the importance of police presence, given our society’s familiarity with brutal caste-based killings, most of which take place in broad daylight.

“Also, the Navalpattu police station is one kilometre away and the All Women’s police station is five kilometres away. If the government and authorities are supportive, couples need not fear for the safety of their lives here,” he points out.

AKS shelter will house couples for a period of one week, during which time they’ll be given free food and accommodation in addition to counselling and guidance on how to register their marriage, and find employment.

This period is more than enough, explains advocate Porkodi.

“Thozhar Gunasekar always says the first few days after an intercaste couple has eloped is the golden time of their life, akin to the golden hour doctors refer to when there has been an accident of some sort. The decisions that they take during this period will affect their entire life. Therefore, during this one week, members from AKS, all of us advocates, will help them register their marriage and also give them valuable inputs to take it forward from there. Usually, young couples who come to us are pretty clueless on what needs to be done. They only know that they love each other and want to be together. It is easy for them to get misguided,” she explains.

Porkodi, however, adds that youngsters today are better informed, and know enough to bring the right kind of documents that are required for registering their marriage.

Gunasekar says that previously, he has housed couples for even more than a month.

“Some have also stayed with me for 3 to 6 months, those are exceptional cases. Before they leave, we make sure they are equipped enough mentally to start a new life,” he shares.

Elaborating on the exceptional cases, Gunasekar explains that in some cases, under-age couples, too, have sought him out for support.

“Sometimes, either the girl or the boy will be a few months away from turning 18 or 21 respectively. In such cases, they end up staying longer, until they can register their marriages. We do so if going back is not an option for them,” he explains.

The very fact that caste killings still remain rampant in Tamil Nadu necessitates such shelters. And for those running it, the experience can be bittersweet.

Sharing an anecdote from his own life, Gunasekar say, “Just when the Illavarasan-Divya case had happened, a couple from Pochampalli, a few kilometres away from Illavarasan’s village, had come to me for help. Their case too was the same, the girl was from the Vanniyar caste and the boy a Dalit. Fearing a communal clash, they sought my help, having obtained my contact from a friend. I housed them for about 6 months and registered their marriage. When things looked calmer, they left, but they never got back to me after that. Sometimes, you want to know if things worked out with the couple you’ve spent so much time with. They didn’t attend my calls either. It can be disillusioning. But these are only exceptions."

Those wishing to support AKS or seeking AKS’s support can get in touch with Se Gunasekar on 9361545000.

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