Unbearable torment: What inter-caste couples in TN have to endure for ‘caste pride’

Inter-caste couples and activists talk about caste violence in Tamil Nadu, and the state’s failings in protecting couples from the brutal violence of their own families.
Inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu
Inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu
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Written by Nithya Pandian, The News Minute, and Vishnupriya, BBC Tamil  

“My mother hit me with a stick and burned the soles of my feet. My father tried to kill me with an aruvamanai (a vegetable cutter).” Four years on, Keerthi* still shudders as she recounts her parents’ rage when she told them that she, a Vanniyar (classified as a Most Backward Class or MBC) woman, wanted to marry Soundar*, a Dalit man.

This was in 2019, when Keerthi’s parents allegedly inflicted severe emotional and physical abuse on her for nearly six months, as they felt their ‘caste pride’ was tarnished by her relationship with Soundar. Yet, the couple held onto hope. With immense courage, Soundar visited Keerthi’s parents and asked for permission to marry her. “Her father asked me if I watched the news. He asked me if I wanted to end up dead, lying in a pool of blood on an open road or on a railway track”, Soundar recalls.

It’s fortunate that the couple made it out alive, and are now happily married. Unlike Kannagi and Murugesan, Vimaladevi, Shankar, Ilavarasan, and scores of other young men and women in Tamil Nadu whose horrific caste murders Keerthi’s father had invoked to intimidate Soundar.

Violence and murders are commonplace for many inter-caste couples in Tamil Nadu, when one of the partners is from a Scheduled Caste. Between 2020 and 2022 alone, activists have recorded at least 18 incidents of caste killings in the state, although the numbers recorded by the police are much lower. Despite its history of anti-caste movements, the state has an abysmally low proportion of inter-caste marriages. Government support systems for inter-caste couples are often unhelpful or inaccessible, according to activists. The police, too, are accused of often mishandling cases of inter-caste relationships, leaving activists and NGOs labouring to support couples in distress.

Victims of 'honour' killings: Kannagi and Murugesan (top Left), Ilavarasan and Divya (top Right),
Shankar and Kowsalya (bottom left) and Vimala Devi (bottom right)    

Keerthi and Soundar’s story

After finding out about her relationship with Soundar, Keerthi says her parents tormented her for months. She says she had to dress carefully to hide the scars of their abuse. Her mother would even track her movements at her workplace, to know if she was meeting Soundar. Her father would often show up at her office without notice, she says, travelling the 100 kilometre distance on frivolous pretexts like handing her a pen she had ‘forgotten’ at home.

It was traumatic to be hounded like this. But the worst was yet to come.

(This story done in collaboration with the BBC is part of the BBCShe project where we are working on journalism to serve women audiences.)

Things took an ominous turn when Soundar visited Keerthi’s family to ask for their permission to marry her. That is when he allegedly faced death threats from her father, and the couple began to fear for their lives.

As Soundar left their house disheartened, Keerthi remembers her father telling her mother to throw out the chairs on which Soundar and his father had sat. The fruits, sweets, and flowers they had brought found their way to the dustbin.

That was when Keerthi’s parents allegedly began nudging her to write ‘suicide notes.’

“They planned to eventually use the notes [once they killed her]. Keerthi felt that the only way to survive was to get married and get away,” Soundar recounts.

The many hurdles for an inter-caste marriage

In March 2019, Keerthi and Soundar registered their marriage at the sub-registrar’s office in Dindigul. Once legally wedded, they both returned to work without disclosing their marriage to anyone.

But somehow, word got out, and the consequences were harsh to say the least.

“My father beat me with an iron rod when he found out. I bled for hours,” says Keerthi, recalling her final hours in her parents’ house.

She says she was asked to write a letter saying she would never claim her rights to her parents’ properties, or make any attempts to meet them if her marriage eventually failed. Her parents forced Keerthi to leave their house with just Rs 100 in her hands. However, both Keerthi and Soundar had government jobs, and their financial independence helped them start a new life, unlike many young people in Tamil Nadu who never made out of such situations alive.

Caste violence in Tamil Nadu, home to the Self-Respect Movement

In 2006, in its landmark judgement in the case of Lata Singh versus State of UP, the Supreme Court had observed that ‘honour’ killings were “shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons who deserve harsh punishment,” and ordered stern action against anyone who harasses inter-caste couples. Seventeen years later, threats, intimidation, and brutal violence remain pervasive across the country.

In Tamil Nadu, the proportion of the population opting for inter-caste marriages is appallingly low. According to a study published in 2015, only three percent of the state’s population had married outside their caste. At the national level, the proportion was much higher at 10%, according to the report co-authored by senior academic and former director of the International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS) K Srinivasan. With 97.04% of people in Tamil Nadu preferring same-caste marriages, the state leads the other southern states in the preference for such marriages.

This is despite Tamil Nadu’s history of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement that encouraged inter-caste marriages as a way to eradicate caste discrimination. Self-respect marriages were made legally valid in the state through the Hindu Marriage (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act in 1968. Today, many people in Tamil Nadu continue to have self-respect weddings while rejecting Brahminical rituals.

But none of these efforts have made inter-caste couples any less vulnerable to violence.

As per data collated by Evidence, an NGO that works for Dalit rights, at least 18 incidents of caste murders over inter-caste relationships were recorded between 2020 and 2022. However, not all of them make it to official records. As per the Tamil Nadu State Crime Records Bureau, between 2013 and 2021, only two cases of ‘honour’ killings have been registered in the state.

Dalit writer and activist Jeyarani says most people in Tamil Nadu are determined to practise endogamy. Even the practice of inter-familial marriages of women with their maternal uncles or cousins is intended to restrict women from marrying outside their caste, she says. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS - 5) 2019-21, 28% of women in Tamil Nadu reported being in consanguineous marriages (where the wife and husband are related by blood), the highest in India. 

Samuel Raj, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front

When people do marry outside their caste, activists say there aren’t enough support systems to ensure their safety, and accuse the police of frequently mishandling such cases. “When parents approach the police, they often settle the matter informally in the manner of ‘katta panchayats’ (kangaroo courts). The [dominant caste] women are usually sent back to their families, and many times, the women do not escape alive,” said Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF).

According to Ramesh, an advocate who helps people register inter-caste marriages, another reason that couples remain unprotected is because they often do not want to have their marriages officially recorded. After escaping their families, Ramesh says many couples merely have a wedding ceremony in a temple.

“The fallout is that when the [dominant caste] woman’s parents file a missing complaint, the police often trace the couple and send the woman back because their marriage isn’t legally valid,” Ramesh explains.

On the other hand, it is not easy to get an inter-caste marriage registered. Ramesh says that officials often ask couples to bring their parents along to ensure their consent, despite there being no such requirement under any marriage law.

The long road to justice

Armed with replies under the Right to Information Act as proof, Ramesh has been trying to convince officials that the law does not mandate parents’ consent to register a marriage, while helping couples with the taxing process.

But this is just one small step. Ramesh wanted to do more, to create a safe space for people from different castes to interact and find partners —  as people typically do within their castes. About two months ago, Ramesh set up an inter-caste matrimonial website named ‘Manidham’ (Humanity). About a hundred people have already registered on the website — a small yet significant start.

Ramesh Periyar, Advocate and Founder of Manidham Materimonial 

Samuel Raj of TNUEF says that most murders over inter-caste relationships are committed by taking advantage of the lack of state protection.

In 2016, while hearing a petition related to the alleged caste murder of Vimaladevi, a Kallar (MBC) woman who had married a Dalit man named Dilip Kumar, the Madras High Court directed the state government to set up various support systems for inter-caste couples — helpline numbers, online complaint filing facilities, and district-level special cells.

Reporters from TNM and BBC Tamil tried the helpline numbers in five districts – Madurai, Salem, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Cuddalore – but did not receive any response.

Vimaladevi died in 2014. Nearly a decade later, the trial is still ongoing. When we reached out to Dilip Kumar, he said he is still hopeful about justice for his deceased wife.

But victims of caste murders often do not have anyone willing to seek justice.

“Usually, in murder cases, the victim’s family fights for justice. But in caste murder cases, the family members themselves are usually the killers. Forget about ensuring a conviction, there is no will to even file a complaint,” Samuel says.

In 2022, the Dalit Human Rights Defender Network, a coalition of anti-caste activists and organisations, put together a draft Bill to prohibit ‘honour’ killings. It seeks protection against victimisation in the name of honour, and also outlines the extent of punishment to perpetrators, and compensation and rehabilitation for survivors.

Keerthi was 25 years old and financially independent when she expressed her desire to marry Ramesh. Yet, her parents didn’t trust her choice.

Their caste bias was fuelled by myths and misinformation.

“In one of many brainwashing lectures, my mother told me that Dalits take a daily oath to find oppressor-caste women to pursue and marry. It was the most ridiculous thing I had heard. I wondered how a school teacher could possibly think that way,” Keerthi says.

It has been nearly four years since Keerthi left home. She is now a mother to a two-year-old, but her family members continue to ostracise her.

“My mom called me after I delivered my first baby, and has met us twice,” Keerthi says.

But her father is still upset, and never talked to her after throwing her out of the house.

“One day, he will understand me”, Keerthi hopes.

*Names changed to protect identity  

Read the BBC Tamil version of this article here

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