It’s about 10am on Monday and a white Hyundai Accent is parked on RF Road. Standing beside the car is Vivek*, a cab-driver who works out of Netaji Nagar. It had taken two days of continuous phone calls and pleading to convince him to give me a tour of Palani town in Dindugal district. I wanted to take the ride only with this driver, and no other.
Vivek belongs to the same taxi stand where 40-year-old Chinnasamy worked for two years before he was imprisoned in the Coimbatore Central Jail. You would know Chinnasamy as Kausalya's father, the main accused in the murder of his Dalit son-in-law Sankar in Udumalaipettai.
The horrific 'honour killing' that was caught on camera had sent a shiver across Tamil Nadu in March 2016. And on Tuesday, December 12, a Tiruppur Court is set to announce its verdict in the murder case. The court's judgement will determine if Chinnasamy and his 37-year-old wife Annalakshmi were indeed behind this brutal murder, fuelled by caste pride.
"You first need to understand how our caste identity comes foremost for us," says Vivek, as I get into his vehicle. "Maybe in the city, your caste doesn't matter. But here, our communities are based on caste and my caste is my means of support," he says with conviction.
And which community is he talking about? "The Thevars, of course. We are known to be ferocious and even if Chinnasamy didn't plan the attack, somebody else from our community would have done it," he says as a matter-of-fact, as we drive to Chinnasamy’s home near MGR Nagar.
The Thevar community, which was notified as a 'criminal tribe' under the problematic British law which unfairly deemed entire groups of people to have 'criminal tendencies' by birth, is one of the most socially dominant castes in Tamil Nadu. Their population is concentrated in Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Sivagangai, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Tiruchirapalli and Tirunelveli, and the ruling AIADMK depends on them due to their large voter base and social capital. The golden armour donated by former CM J Jayalalithaa for Thevar Jayanti stands testimony to the sway that the community holds over the state’s politics.
At Kausalya's residence, caste pride galore
The pervasiveness of the Vivek’s sentiment is apparent the minute one enters the home of the alleged masterminds of Sankar's murder. Placed on a wooden showcase is a large portrait of Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar, the most revered leader from the community on whose name Thevar Jayanti is celebrated. Two ferocious lions flank him, but his face adorns a serene smile, with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. The lobby that we stood in bears photos of no other gods.
Kausalya's parents' home, where her younger brother Gowtham lives
"He is like a god to us," says 18-year-old Gowtham, Kausalya's younger brother who now lives in the spacious house with his maternal grandfather and grandmother. "He even took part in the freedom movement as part of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose's Forward Bloc. He realised that ahimsa (non-violence) will not get us peace. He was as brave as a lion," Gowtham declares, with a sense of conviction in his new-found belief. "I learnt all this myself in the last year. I have been reading about our caste since this incident with my sister happened," he explains.
But Muthuramalinga Thevar wasn’t all anger and bravery, the family insists he was inclusive and kind to all. Then, why could they not accept Sankar?
"He is not from our caste, and our way of living is different," Kausalya's grandfather Jayaraman explains. "How can we allow our child to marry a man from a lower caste?" he asks with angst. After a pause, he adds that Sankar's family was economically backward too.
Kausalya’s parents, Chinnasamy and Annalakshmi moved to Palani from Kuppamapalyam village in 2007 with both their children. Kausalya was in Class Six while her brother was in Class Four. "They got married in 1996, when Chinnasamy was a farmer. He used to work in a rice mill. After this he moved to the town and became a financier. With the money he made, he bought cars and became a taxi driver," recounts Jayaraman. The present house that they live in was only constructed three years back.
"We were such a happy family. My sister used to study very well and got over 1000 marks in the Class 12 finals. So, my father agreed to let her do engineering at PA College in Pollachi," says Gowtham. "The minute she joined and they gave her a phone, things started changing. She slowly began withdrawing from us. Sankar completely brain-washed her," he claims.
The family categorically denies that Chinnasamy and Annalakshmi could have planned the murder, but even mentioning Kausalya's name brings along for them a deep sense of betrayal.
Lies, abduction and deceit
"They brought her up with so much love. My daughter used to feed her with her own hands every day and my son-in-law would buy her everything she wanted. They were heartbroken when she left the house in July (2015). They had no idea that she was in love with this Dalit boy," explains Jayaraman. "If we wanted to murder her, we would have done it immediately, why would we wait for eight months?" he asks.
According to Gowtham, his father and mother were not in town when the murder happened in Udumalaipettai. "They were in fact in our hometown for a temple festival," claims the 18-year-old. "I was writing my 12th standard exams then and came back from school to see police swarming the residence. I then went to a relative's house," he adds.
Chinnasamy and Annalakshmi
Kausalya's grandfather claims that nobody from the family even met or spoke to her after she married Sankar. "We pleaded with her to return home when the police produced her at the Udumalaipettai court but she refused and completely disrespected our wishes," he explains. "After that we decided she was dead to us. We never even met her," he claims.
Most of these claims turn out to be provably false.
The Netaji Nagar stand where Chinnasamy parked his taxi was only ten minutes away from his residence. As I waited at a tea stall nearby, nervous auto and taxi drivers shuffled in. Amongst them was a crucial witness in the case, who did not wish to be named. His confession proves why he wants to remain anonymous.
"I haven't told anybody else about this," says Dinesh* nervously, as we move away from the other drivers. "But the truth is, the family did meet Kausalya after she got married to Sankar," he reveals. The auto-driver describes himself as Chinnasamy's ‘right-hand man’.
"It was close to a month after she left. Chinnasamy came to me and another auto driver, and told us to come to Maduthukolam with him to collect some money," he begins to narrate. Chinnasamy, in addition to driving the taxi, was apparently still lending money and collecting interest. "But when we went there, we found Kausalya and her grandfather at a government hospital. I then drove them to Dindugal to a relative's house. When I tried to talk to her, she refused to respond," he adds.
According to him, the family had made Kausalya come to the hospital by lying that her grandfather was unwell, and she was then forcibly taken to Dindigul.
Dinesh was 'unknowingly' part of this plan to abduct Kausalya, which was foiled when Sankar filed a missing complaint. According to the police, the family offered Rs 10 lakh to Sankar to break off the marriage. But Sankar refused the money. This is when they allegedly decided to kill them.
"Chinnasamy knew of the love affair a week before she ran away. The conductor of the bus in which the two travelled told him," says another auto-driver, on the condition of anonymity. "He didn't tell us because he was ashamed of it," he adds.
The bus stand at Palani
As it turns out, if he had, Chinnasamy may have even forced his daughter to not leave. "I saw her standing at the bus stand with all the papers and certificates," says Velu*, another auto driver. "She told me she was waiting for a friend and I didn't think anything about it," he adds.
When Kausalya's grandfather is asked about this, he bursts out in anger, "Do we not know to see a boy for her? We already had a police sub-inspector from our caste in mind. We did not think for a minute that she will run away."
Following Kausalya's decision, the drivers claim that Chinnasamy was a broken man. He would cry and avoid company most of the time. "His relatives would call and torture him about it. He was a good man, but how much can he take? Perhaps he took the decision to kill her in a moment of anger," says Vivek. "Can you blame him? He was betrayed by that girl," he adds.
And where was Chinnasamy when the murder happened?
"He was at the stand then," says Dinesh. "He got this call, and he and his wife immediately left to their relative's house. He told me to take his son to his friend Durai's house from school. We went there directly. I have even told the police about this," he adds.
But do they think that he would have planned this murder? The drivers are divided.
"He was such a good man and was the first to help anybody out irrespective of their caste. Our stand has Thevars, Gounders and even Nadars. He would never do this," says an auto driver.
Others however claim that a fit of anger could have resulted in the murder. But in their mind, the person to be blamed is the daughter. "They should have brought up that girl better. She clearly had deviant thoughts at a young age. You can't blame the Dalit because that is how men are. This girl should have been kept in control," they opined.
'Should have taught her caste'
Sankar's death and the arrest of the family members has made the family even more rigid about caste.
"They let her study too much and didn't teach her the repercussions of going against the caste system," says her grandfather Jayaraman. "I told her parents to stop her education and get her married but they didn't listen to me," he complains.
Kausalya and Gowtham
"We need to teach our children from a young age about their caste and how it is important to stay within the boundaries of it," he preaches. "Other families must learn from this. We are already ensuring Gowtham understands how our society works," he adds, looking at his teenage grandson.
He says that the lack of active conversation on caste in the household led to this 'problem'. Jayaraman attends every Thevar Jayanti in Ramanathapuram for the last decade, missing it only last year. "Even if their own parents keep quiet, the men in my caste are an angry lot. Children will face consequences if they marry out of their community," says Jayaraman.