In a landmark verdict and the harshest so far involving a hate crime, a Tirupur court sentenced six people to death for the 2016 murder of dalit youth V Shankar who was an engineering graduate. The 22 year old was murdered by a gang for marrying Kausalya, a non dalit. The killing took place in broad daylight near a bus stand with CCTV capturing it.
Kausalya’s father was among the six who face capital punishment. Kausalya’s mother and uncle, who were suspects, were let off due to lack of evidence. She welcomed the verdict saying in part, “I had waited for more than one and half years to get justice. The judgment has increased my belief in judiciary”. She did add that she would appeal against the acquittal of three people in the case, which included her mother and uncle.
Independent journalist Kavita Muralidharan in a column for The Wire, said that the verdict offers hope for those who are fighting to annihilate caste –
“Honor killings are not new in Tamil Nadu. Activists like Evidence’s Kathir who have consistently been working on Dalit issues put the number of honor killings in the state at over 180 in five years. The killing of Kannagi and Murugesan in 2003 arguably remains the most gruesome one in the state”.
Regarding the case referred above, in 2003, a married couple Kannagi and Murugesan were poisoned to death and burnt because they belonged to different castes. Before they forced him to drink poison, the killers had tortured him for information on Kannagi’s whereabouts.
“The December 12 judgment offers a rare glimpse of hope for those consistently fighting against honor killings in the state. For Kausalya, a law against honor killing would probably be the final justice for Sankar’s murder”.
There was no reaction from the political parties in the state. Dalit and women’s rights activists welcomed the decision. N Amirtham of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) said in part, “The judgment should be a wake-up call to people who were spreading hate in the name of caste”.
Following the verdict, there have been messages on social media from the thevar community countering the admiration that Kausalya has garnered; the messages on Facebook have hailed her parents as saviors of the caste’s name.
There has been pushback on the verdict primarily from Human rights activists who are against the death penalty. Tamil Magazine Vikatan in a report spoke to Human rights activists who said that while the verdict is commendable, the punishment of the death penalty is one that should not be applied irrespective of the crime.
A profile of Kausalya in the Tamil news site Puthiyathalaimurai called hers a social activist who learns karate to defend herself and has also learned to play the drums and continues to be an activist despite the death of her husband.
A recent Indian Express editorial stated that the caste divides and prejudices are prevalent in urban areas as well, mirroring the rural mindset. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) showed the level of violence against Dalits in 19 metropolitan cities in India; with Lucknow and Patna top the list -
“The continuing violence against Dalits — the number of incidents is rising every year — 70 years after Independence points to a failure of politics. A progressive Constitution and numerous laws have empowered the Dalits, but these have not ended caste discrimination”.
“The politicization and empowerment of the Dalit community has resulted in a backlash with counter-mobilizations by communities that are reluctant to give up their social, economic and political privileges”.
Kausalya is now an activist and a crusader for justice and someone who speaks out against caste-hate killings. Kathir, from a Dalit rights organization says he sees her as a dalit icon. Her journey from being a widow who attempted suicide after the trauma of watching her husband being murdered is now on a quest for justice using her knowledge and understanding of caste and gender divides.
She reached out to a woman named Divya, whose case shares similarities to hers. Divya’s inter-caste marriage led to the death of her husband Illavarasan. Kausalya’s husband Shankar had talked about the poor education among Dalit boys in their neighborhood. After her husband’s death, she took up tutoring the boys and has set up a center in his name.
In a speech Kausalya gave at a conference organized by Dravidar Kazhagam to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Periyar’s struggle for annihilation of caste; her determination is evident in the opening lines of her speech –
“…I am moved to be standing here at Periyar Thidal – the place where Periyar lived and worked. When I began my quest for justice in Sankar’s murder, I was only seeking justice for Sankar. Today, I stand before you as someone seeking social justice, annihilation of caste and liberation of Tamils”.
“Only Annihilation of caste will be the right kind of justice for the blood spilt by my Shankar and many like him. I would stand with you always to struggle for that justice”.
More columns by Varun Sukumar