Since Sunday afternoon, all major news outlets have been reporting, with accompanying CCTV footage, the public murder of Sankar, a Dalit man, reportedly for marrying a woman from an OBC caste. If you were to pick your way through the comments sections of most of these reports, a clear pattern emerges: a palpable discomfort with conversations about caste.
Thus, almost every single major report was followed by one or more comments asking why the Dalit identity of the man had been highlighted. Accusations of sensationalism and of treacherous desires to perpetuate caste divisions inevitably followed.
There was another set of reactions that argued that such incidents only showed good reasons for why inter-caste marriages should be banned. For these commentators, explicitly or implicitly, the very existence of a marriage that transcends caste boundaries becomes a threat to legal and social order, and the ensuing violence is just a natural reaction to this threat.
Finally, there are those who want the media to ignore the caste issue entirely, focusing attention on the couple’s young age or their differing economic status. The desire is to move the blame away from caste, which is seen as explosive, to some other more innocuous social factors.
Of course, one might argue that internet commenters are a lunatic fringe, unrepresentative of the general population. Yet, there is something troubling about the perpetual silence on caste that refuses to be disturbed for more than a day or two by repeated instances of “honour killings”.
But consider these two sets of statistics: firstly, according to this Indian Express report, anti-Dalit atrocities are only on the rise, increasing by 17.1 per cent between 2012 and 2013, and 19.4 per cent between 2013 and 2014.
Dalit life is not easy, outside these moments of extreme horror either: 74 per cent of Dalits live in villages, where they own less than 0.3 hectares of land on an average, and most of them are landless. In fact, over two crore Dalits live in houses that have just one room, while another nearly 1.4 crores live in the “luxury” of a house with two rooms.
Secondly, and more specifically looking at Tamil Nadu, of the total marriages that take place in the state, barely three per cent take place between castes. When it comes to the SC population of the state, the average falls even further to a miserable 1.6 per cent of all marriages.
If the statistics seem too opaque, you only need to look at the cases of Ilavarasan or Gokulraj. When Ilavarasan, a Dalit, fell in love, and eloped, with Divya (of the Vanniyar caste), and subsequent attempts to separate them through the Panchayat failed, Divya’s father committed suicide. Riots followed, and scores of Dalit houses were burnt. And Ilavarasan ended up dead on a railway track in what has been categorized by police as ‘suicide’.
Gokulraj, a Dalit engineer, was seen with a girl from the Kongu Vellalar Gounder community, who was the last person he was seen alive with at a temple in Tiruchengode. Later, his decapitated body was found on a railway track with a suicide note that blamed failure in love. The main accused in the case finally surrendered to the police a year later.
Or you could replace the names Ilavarasan and Gokulraj with Amirthavalli and Palaniappan, Vimaladevi, Aruna, Vaidehi or Muthulakshmi, and alter a few details as to the nature of the death, and you find a depressingly repetitive story of young people killed for inter-caste marriages between a Dalit and a non-Dalit.
Many people today believe that talking about caste or undertaking social justice efforts that explicitly identify people on the basis of caste perpetuate caste. But such people can do so only from a social position where, for one or more reasons, they can elide or ignore their own caste identity.
Life for many of the people that appear in this article, however, does not afford similar liberties. For them, caste exerts a very real presence in their lives. Indeed, their attackers would accuse them of the very crime that these internet commenters are offering as ideal, secular behaviour: their crime was that they ignored caste considerations.
For the rest of us then, ignoring the caste of these individuals and their attackers cannot be an option.