The Divya-Ilavarasan love marriage which rocked Tamil Nadu, consuming the lives of both Divya's father and her husband, is as much about female autonomy as it is about casteism .
It was about a woman who dared to air her true feelings. Her first was when she married Ilavarasan, a Dalit (a caste, assigned a rung way below her own Vanniyar caste). The second articulation was when she said in the court in Chennai that her husband treated her well and loved him but added the rider that she would remain with her mother — a clear indication that she intended to make her mother come around to accepting her marriage.
If the first statement enraged self-serving caste extremists, the second enraged the same men, for here was a woman who was doing her own thing.
The second statement, where she reaffirmed her love and commitment to marriage to the judges, in fact was a turning point in the tragedy. We do not know what forces were at work, but only a couple of days later she did a U-turn and told the judges that she cannot live with her husband. Ever.
Television viewers were left with the lingering image of Divya, struggling to hold on to her composure, while she announced to the world at large that she would stay with her mother and get back to her aborted education.
This was capitulation in its entirety. The subjugation of the woman was complete. Her husband was found dead hours later, and the tragedy made national headlines.
No one saw Ilavarasan's death coming, even as none expected Divya to sacrifice her love.
Clearly, it was not only civil society which was had been stupefied by the extreme objections to the marriage and the couple's struggle to merely live as man and wife , but women activists and women's groups as well. A senior journalist in fact holds the view that had their genders been reversed, (and the male hailing from the dominant caste) the Dharmapuri love story of Divya and Ilavarasan would not have created any ripples anywhere.
Let's be honest, objection to inter caste marriages are not the exclusive purview of rural India. Nor are they a recent phenomenon, even though Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder Dr Ramadoss would like us all to believe that the economically empowered Dalit youth are wooing girls with sunglasses and jeans.
A well known social activist who married a man from another caste once told me that her family never forgave her, and when her parents were sick or on death bed, a sibling would stealthily come to her window and give her live updates. This was in the 1960s. There have been many such marriages down the years, but none ended up as a gut wrenching tragedy as Divya and Ilavarasan's .
The two hailed from neighbouring villages in Dharmapuri district, and fell in love while sharing a bus journey—a story told over and over by our filmmakers in hundreds of movies. Divya's life followed filmy formula when she realized her parents were hunting for a groom for her from their community, and so the lovers eloped, on October 14, 2012.
A couple of weeks later, Divya's father reportedly committed suicide, apparently unable to face the taunts from his community. Three villages erupted in violence, fanned by some Vanniyars, the community Divya hailed from. The man pushing the caste button was none other than an ageing politician, desperate to get back his lost glory. From being ‘the most courted' party in its heydays, the PMK had become the most mercurial, as well as one with a miserable performance at the ballot box.
The star crossed lovers managed to hold on to their love, but not their marriage.
What a contrast the couple was, to the violence unleashed in both words and deeds by their detractors. He was well dressed and came through as someone cultured and courteous, she soft spoken and dignified. The jury is still out on whether Divya was a braveheart, who wanted to convince her family that caste factor need not sever blood ties, or if she was someone who caved under the pressure of the enormous guilt that she was carrying over her father's death.
There can be no doubt however that this woman had paid the ultimate price for daring to think and act in a way that showed her as representative of today's India. Young, educated, and wanting to enter the nursing profession. Ilavarasan had appeared for recruitment in the police force. Two ordinary youngsters, who probably love to watch cricket, catch a Rajinikanth film and for whom probably shopping in a mall and having a cold coffee is the week's highlight. Theirs is everyman's love story.
And there are tens of thousands of Divyas out there, who go about their life, confident of their ability to convince their elders of their view point. And the suppression of that average Indian female voice is a cause for worry.
Activist and author Meena Kandasamy feels there is a great need for raising awareness among the youth on anti-woman stances.
"What happened to Divya and Ilavarasan was not merely a result of caste politics, but it was also anti-woman," she says.
"Political parties will come and go, since we have a parliamentary system where people have the opportunity to send politicians home once in five years and teach them a lesson. However, the loss of love and life is irreplaceable and society should allow women's voices to be heard, " she adds.
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