Growing Caste, Communal and Gender Violence in Tamil Nadu

Dinakaran, a Tamil Daily dated July 7, 2015 carried a news item with the title ‘Wife who ran away with illicit lover hacked’. The wife left her child behind with her husband and ran away with her lover and so was brutally attacked. The headline and news story implied that ‘a wife who had illicit relationship was justly punished by her husband.’

On the same day, the same daily carried another news item with the title, ‘Do you get divorce in the market? Judges asked Ambur Pavithra.’

Pavithra, a worker in a leather unit, had run away from home in May, after which her husband had filed a habeas corpus petition seeking her production in court. Within the next month, Shakeel Ahmad had been picked up by police, illegally detained and tortured, and then killed, allegedly because he was in a relationship with Pavithra. Thousands in Ambur had protested against Shakeel’s four-day illegal detention and custodial killing.

After this, Pavithra was traced at a working women's hostel at Ambattur in Chennai, and produced before the high court division bench that was hearing the habeas corpus petition. Pavithra told Justices S Tamilvanan and C T Selvam she did not wish to go back to her husband, and that she wanted to divorce him. The Judges chastised her for this, saying that “divorce was not a commodity sold in shops.” Madras High Court Advocates Association president R C Paul Kanagaraj, who happened to be present in the court, told the bench that Pavithra’s “illicit relationship” had led to the Ambur violence, and so the Court should lay down guidelines to prevent such relationships. The judges apparently invited the Advocates Association to suggest guidelines and promised to pass appropriate orders to “eradicate such illicit relationships in society.”

The court was dealing with a habeas corpus petition (habeas corpus literally means ‘produce the body’; the purpose of such petitions is to produce a missing person - in this case Pavithra - in court to make sure that she is not kidnapped or being coerced or harmed in any way). In a habeas corpus matter, the judges should only have asked Pavithra only two questions: Are you a major? Are you being held captive or coerced by somebody? If she replied in the negative the court should have closed the case. Instead, the court indulged in moral policing and held forth on ‘illicit relationships.’

But the court blamed Pavithra’s ‘illicit relationship’ for the custodial murder by police of a Muslim man, and proceeded to offer solutions to “put an end to illicit relationships”, instead of making any injunctions against the police to prevent and punish custodial killings!

Phrases such as ‘illicit love’, and ‘illicit relationships’ imply that the woman does not have any right over her body and that she does not have any right to choose her partner. Newspapers and channels covering the case made plays on Pavithra’s name (the means ‘pure’) to castigate her for her lack of purity and chastity.

The ideology that denies women their autonomy in the name of ‘purity’, has roots in private property and caste and gender domination. Various casteist outfits and parties as well as the BJP and Sangh Parivar are deploying these notions in their bid to gain strength. As they do so, the spate of violence against women and Dalits and Muslims in the name of ‘honour’ is increasing alarmingly.

‘Honour’ Killings On The Rise

On July 7, the Tamil edition of The Hindu daily carried a story titled ‘There is no honor in killing’. It said in the past three years there were 60 honor killings in Tamil Nadu. Among them were 12 dalit men killed for being in love with upper caste women. 95% of those killed in such cases are women; among the remaining 5%, 99% are dalit men.

Recently, a Dalit engineer Gokulraj in Tiruchengode was murdered when he married a woman from the Gounder community. Casteist forces hacked him and threw is head and torso in the railway tracks near Pallipalayam. A fake suicide note was found on the torso of Gokulraj. A fake tape was also manufactured. A post mortem following intervention of rights groups revealed his death to be a murder. The prime accused in the murder is Yuvaraj, president of the Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Peravai, who has been suspected in other similar crimes for years. In the same Tiruchengode, Hindutva and patriarchal forces organized an attack on Perumal Murugan’s novel One Part Woman.

In an interview with the Frontline (August 7, 2015), K. Gopal Ramesh of the Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi clearly outlined his notion of ‘Lakshman Rekha’ for both Dalits and women, even as he claimed to condemn the murder of Gokul Raj:

“As a Dalit, he [Gokul Raj] should have understood his birth-based limitations. As we respect other castes, and never interfere, they also must respect ours. We all should maintain the “Lakshman rekha” for a peaceful coexistence. We in the Kongu Vellalar caste take a lot of pride in our women. The girls in our families are our “princesses”. We nourish them and pamper them since they are the ones who nourish our traditions and customs. How could you expect us to get this sullied? I consider that education for a girl beyond the age of 19 pollutes her and her family. It gives them [girls and their parents] a false sense of financial security and a high social status. But, unfortunately, what they fail to realise is that it [education] threatens the very existence of our caste’s pride and decorum. We are spreading the message of “caste purity” and individual discipline among our youngsters…girls’ education should be encouraged only up to the age of 18. They should be married off then. Those who wish to pursue higher studies can do so after getting married….Today, when girls from our caste are getting educated, our boys are concentrating on business and money. ...We have been telling the boys to marry our girls first and earn so that unpleasant incidents such as the one involving Gokul Raj can be prevented.”

‘Respect’ for Periyar But Allergy To His Views?

When Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT, Chennai was banned, every party and organization in Tamil Nadu (except AIADMK and BJP) raised their voice against the ban, including those casteist outfits were responsible for the killings of Ilavarasan and Gokulraj - Dalit men who married women from other castes.

Common people, advocates, judges, and journalists, and the parties that claim periyar’s legacy should be asked to read Periyar’s writings, in particular his tract ‘Why woman was enslaved?’ published on January 1, 1942, as an antidote to moral policing and casteism.

On ‘chastity’ as a feminine ideal, Periyar was scathing, and boldly advocated for the right of women to marry who they pleased and to divorce husbands whom were abusive or whom they did not love:

"Karpu [the Tamil word for chastity] connotes such ideals as integrity, honesty and purity. The English equivalents -- chastity and virginity -- refer to a sexually pure state, applicable to both men and women. However, the Sanskrit equivalent of Karpu, Pativrata, introduces ideas of enslavement. Since this word connotes a woman who holds her husband as God, who is devoted to being her husband's slave, and who will think of none but her husband, and the word Pati connotes overlord/leader, the word Pativrata is infused with slavish connotations.

“The cruel religions and laws, which force women to put up with the brutal behavior of the husbands for the sake of chastity, must die out. The wickedness of society, which, in the name of chastity forces a woman to suppress her real feelings of love and live with the man who has neither love nor kindness for her, should also go….

“The tyranny of the male is the only reason for the absence of a separate world in our languages for describing the 'chastity' of men.

“If a woman cannot have the right to property and the liberty to love whomsoever she chooses, what is she but a rubber -doll for the selfish use of man?

“To insist that chastity is only for women and should not be insisted upon for men , is a philosophy based on individual ownership ; the view that women is the property of the male determines the current status of a wife.

“I say that nobody, a woman or a man or a third person, has the right to talk, determine or compel about a woman’s or man’s love, desire, lust, friendship, affection…. It has to do only with the personal choice, nature and satisfaction; others interfering into these is unnecessary meddling and domination.”

On traditional marriage, this is what Periyar had to say:

“The boy and the girl are matched before marriage, not on a consideration of compatibility in appearance, mutual affection, proper understanding and similar education, but on whether the girl will be obedient and be a good slave to the boy, much in the same manner as we do when we buy cattle.

“The implication of the sacred knot is that from the time it is tied, the boy accepts the girl as his slave, and she also agrees to be a slave to him. Thus, the husband can treat his wife in whatever manner he likes, and none has the right to question him, nor is there punishment for him if he misbehaves.”

And Periyar declared that “As long as the theory of male superiority survives in the world, the subjugation of women will continue. Until women put an end to the principle of male domination, it is certain that they will have no freedom.”

Keep The Focus on Communal Custodial Killing

In contrast with many other Tamil media that lost sight of the issues of custodial killing and communal anti-Muslim prejudice in the Ambur case, choosing to focus instead on shaming a woman for an extra-marital affair, the editorial of ‘Ananda Vikatan’ (a popular Tamil weekly) dated July 8, 2015 was refreshing:

“In Ambur of Vellore district, the custodial death of a Muslim youth, Shakeel Ahmed has led to tension.

“This is not the first instance of custodial death. Between 1993 and 2013 there were 1413 custodial deaths in the country.

“When there is a suspicion about involvement of a person in a crime, police can conduct an enquiry, and can arrest if there are necessary grounds. But it does not have any right to threaten the arrested person, to beat or to torture.

“Police do not intimidate those with muscle and money power, those in the ruling party and those in bureaucratic circled. Though these too are accused, they are treated with dignity by the police. But poor people, dalits, minorities and women who do not have any power are being treated very badly by the police. From Padmini of Chidambaram to Tamim Ansari of Neelankarai there are many such examples.

“The practices of the police such as kangaroo courts, false cases, rape of women who come to the police stations with complaints, robbery in the name of bribes are all blatant criminal activities. This police are treating the people who fight for their rights as anti-social elements; and treats anti-social elements as friends. That is why people are scared of going to police stations.

“Though only on rare occasions action is taken against police personnel the government and the bureaucracy generally protect them. Right from the fake encounter killings that are carried out openly to custodial killings the police does not worry about anything. That is why the police involve in such killings repeatedly with impunity.

“They are not able to anticipate the scale of tension, when a Muslim youth picked up for enquiry is killed by police in the month of Ramzan, in an area where Muslims live in large numbers.”

In the Ambur case, a Muslim youth was killed – and killers are police officers. Extraneous focus by judges, advocates and media on ‘illicit relationships’ and shaming of the woman only diverts attention from the real crime, and contributes to the toxic climate that is breeding violence against inter-caste and inter-faith relationships by casteist and Hindutva political groups in Tamil Nadu and all over the country.

Patriarchal pronouncements by Courts in Chennai have come thick and fast in recent times. In another recent instance, a Madras High Court Justice Devadass recommended ‘mediation’ and bail to a man convicted of rape of a minor girl. In that instance, 100 lawyers in the HC had petitioned the Chief Justice to re-allot the portfolio of Justice Devadass, saying “…it is inappropriate that the judiciary should assume the role of the quintessential patriarch and condemn the survivor to the fate of accepting the rapist’s hand in marriage as a peace offering…In allowing this decision, the High Court is effacing the autonomy and agency of a single woman, her right to a partner of her choice and to be the authority where her body is concerned.”

While movements have demanded repeal of Section 377 that criminalizes homosexuality and Section 497 which criminalizes adultery, and have asserted women’s right to fearless freedom and fullest autonomy in all matters including her sexual relationships, regressive casteist and Hindutva politics is pulling in the opposite direction.

To resist the regressive politics of caste, communalism and patriarchy, we should all read and encourage others to read Ambedkar’s and Periyar’s views on annihilation of castes, and freedom of women.

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