CHITRAVEL FOUND OUT that his daughter Kasturi had been murdered, via a WhatsApp forward received by his neighbour.

A local in Mallivattanam village — about 60 km from Keeramangalam in interior Tamil Nadu, where Chitravel and his family resided — had taken photos of Kasturi’s body being recovered by the police from a five-foot deep canal. Her remains were found in a gunny sack: hands bound, face disfigured, body showing evidence of extreme trauma. The post mortem report noted that death had been caused by ‘the combined effect of smothering and concussive head injury’, further, that Kasturi had been sexually assaulted. Kasturi, 18, had been missing four days when the police came to her parents to tell them she’d been found dead.

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(Above photo: Kasturi’s mother at her home in Keeramangalam, a month after her daugther’s murder)

Chitravel’s daughter had completed a Diploma in Nursing; she’d been working at a pharmacy in the nearby town of Alangudi, and was in a relationship with Nagaraj, a 30-year-old tempo driver who belonged to an upper caste community. The police investigation concluded that Nagaraj had murdered Kasturi when she proposed that they wed: he had been happy enough to carry on in clandestine fashion, marrying a lower-caste woman however, was “dishonourable” he felt. The police arrested Nagaraj on charges of rape, murder and attempting to destroy evidence; he initially claimed he wasn’t guilty.

Kasturi’s murder takes the total number of honour killing cases in Tamil Nadu to 192. Where the majority of these cases involve an upper caste woman married to a Dalit man, Kasturi’s is an outlier. Since 2014, 500 individuals — mostly women — have been victims of honour killings across India. But this is a conservative estimate, say activists, who believe that many such killings are covered up to seem like suicide, or simply not reported. “Most of these murders are usually not even registered by the police as caste-based crimes, and very few come to court,” says A Kathir @ Vincent raj, director of Evidence, an NGO dedicated to the cause of Dalit rights, which works closely with survivors of honour killings in Tamil Nadu.

Read on Firstpost: How an organisation called Evidence is fighting against 'honour killings', by aiding survivors in legal cases

Over the last three years, the cases of Kausalya, Kalpana and Amritavalli have seen the Tamil Nadu courts deliver historic judgments against honour killings.

Kausalya and Sankar, Engineering students, fell in love and married against her family’s wishes. Kausalya’s family hails from the powerful Thevar community, while Sankar was Dalit. On 13 March 2016, four men armed with sickles and machetes attacked the couple near the Udumalpet bus terminus. Sankar, 22, died. Kausalya, 19, survived.

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(Here: Kausalya talks about her journey as a crusader against caste-based crimes and articulates the need for a separate law against honour killings in the country)

In December 2017, the Tirupur court pronounced the death penalty on Kausalya’s father Chinnasamy for masterminding the attack, and to four of the assailants. The trial went on for 20 months, during which time Kausalya asked the court to reject the bail petitions of the accused 58 times, relentless in her pursuit of justice for Sankar.

Since the verdict, she has become a crusader against caste-based killings, and recently wed Shakthi, a Parai artiste, in a self-respect marriage ceremony. (The couple took an oath to continue fighting against caste/honour killings and to annihilate casteism.) Kausalya is often asked how she summoned the courage to testify against her parents, and her answer is always: “No one asked them why they tried to kill me or their son-in-law. So why [ask] me? They are criminals and ought to be treated like that. The court verdict is a warning to all the other caste fanatics.”

Evidence’s Kathir says that notions of identity and self are entwined very closely with caste, for many perpetrators of honour killings. “Inter-caste marriages present a huge threat to that identity and status,” Kathir explains. “The woman is considered essential for the continuity of caste. There is this firm belief that if I get my daughter married to someone of my own caste, I have succeeded in safeguarding it.  And if not, one’s prestige is challenged, and then there is barbaric anger.”

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Amritavalli, a 20-something Dalit nurse working in a government hospital, fell in love with Palaniappan, a caste Hindu from her village. When the couple found out that she was four months pregnant, they eloped and got married. For about half a year, no one knew their whereabouts.

Then, Palaniappan’s family traced them to Tanjore — and according to Amritavalli’s mother Roosinavathi — tricked them into returning.

“They told her [Amritavalli] that I was on my deathbed,” Roosinavathi says. “They betrayed her trust.”

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(Above image: Roosinavathi, Amritavalli’s mother, speaks of how her daughter was betrayed)

When the couple, with their little-over-a-month-old infant reached the village bus stop, Palaniappan’s brothers and friends were waiting. Some of them led Palaniappan away to the fields, made him consume alcohol, and then killed him. The others took Amritavalli away, beating and strangling her before stuffing her into a sack. The baby — 39 days old — was also murdered. The remains of all three were dumped in different spots, to mask the crimes.

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(Here: Amritvalli’s parents hold up a photograph of their daughter)

Palaniappan’s family was part of the Vanniyar community, which enjoyed considerable clout. Most of the villagers, including Amritavalli’s father, laboured on their farms. “We are all like slaves, no one could do anything against them,” Roosinavathi remarks.

“They [the perpetrators] were hoping we would only find Palaniappan’s body, so they could blame us for his death,” says Jyothipass, Amritavalli’s brother. “Even after they were arrested, they looked at us with derision and mocked our helplessness. They were confident of getting out [of prison] in a few months. However, the NGO Evidence intervened, and filed a case. Eventually, three of them were sentenced to 30-37 years of imprisonment.”

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(Above photo: Jyothipass, Amritavalli’s brother, points to the farmland where Palaniappan was murdered and buried by his brothers)

The case moved quickly, Kathir says, because an infant was among the victims. Sadly enough, the infant was among the tipping points for Palaniappan’s family’s rage. “They were furious that Palaniapppan had not only married a girl from the SC community, but also had a child with her. They murdered the child so that it wouldn’t grow up and demand land rights,” Kathir observes.

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Sometimes, a family member — rather than a couple themselves — may become a fatality in an honour killing. Such is the story of Kalpana, whose brother eloped with an upper-case woman. Kalpana and her brother Viswanathan are Dalits, and Viswanathan’s bride Kaveri a caste Hindu. Soon after the couple eloped, Kaveri’s parents, Sankaranarayanan and Chelammal, began threatening Kalpana to reveal her brother’s whereabouts. Initially, these threats were issued over the phone, angry conversations during which they stated their intent to kill Viswanathan and Kaveri when they were found. Then, they visited Kalpana’s home.

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(Seen here: Sargunam with his son, narrating the events that led to the murder of his wife Kalpana)

“They acted very friendly, saying they wished to reconcile and move on,” recalls Sargunam, Kalpana’s husband, while their four-year-old son hugs him tightly. “Kalpana served them water, which they accepted with a smile, and drank. Assuming that good sense had prevailed, I walked into the kitchen with our boy, then a year old. And before she knew it, they [Sankaranarayanan and Chelammal] attacked her from behind with a machete.”

“My wife was killed in the next room and I didn’t have a clue until I heard her scream and howl in pain,” Sargunam says.

Sargunam and Kalpana ran from their home but she died on the way to the hospital. Seven months later, the sessions court in Tirunelveli sentenced Kaveri’s parents to death, a first in the country for an honour killing case.

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Kausalya, Kalpana and Amritavalli’s cases, however, are exceptions rather than the norm, in terms of the justice delivered. Even when cases are reported, perpetrators get out of jail on bail within a few months. Illayaraja, a Dalit youth, was killed by his wife Anandi’s brother and friends — all for the “sin” of marrying a woman from the Udayar community, a group far higher on their village’s caste ladder than his.

Illayaraja’s father breaks down when speaking of his son, remembering how they warned him and Anandi that their hopes of being together were not feasible. “But Anandi would come home and tell us that she can't live without my son,” Illayaraja’s father says. “Once they got married, her brother acted in a completely normal manner, calling Illayaraja for a truce. My son never returned home after.”

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(Here: Illayaraja’s father with his son’s portrait; his grandchildren are playing in the background)

When the police found Illayaraja, his face had been smashed in, his body severely bruised. “It was a horrid murder, yet the murderer is roaming free. Every time our paths cross, he looks at me as if asking what could I possibly do? My grandchildren pass by his house every day on their way to school, and they’re terrified,” the father weeps.

An abundance of media attention does not guarantee that justice will be served.

For instance, Ilavarasan, a Dalit man from Dharmapuri, was found dead on a railway track a few months after he married Divya, who belongs to the Vanniyar community. Divya’s father committed suicide after the wedding and stricken, she left Illavarasan to return home to her mother. Almost immediately after these developments, three villages in the Dharmapuri district — Natham, Kondamapatty and Annanagar — were the sites of violence, with 296 huts belonging to Dalits torched.

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(Above photo: A resident of Natham village. All the houses in the village were torched in caste violence seemingly related to Illavarasan’s case)

A few days later, Ilavarasan allegedly committed suicide. Sampath Kumar, a leading forensic expert who examined Ilavarasan’s remains, stated in the Madras High Court that even if there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that the youth had been murdered, there was enough to indicate that he hadn’t committed suicide. The case, however, was closed, with the CID declaring the cause of death as suicide.

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There are cases that can’t technically be categorised as “honour killings”, but still involve caste-based violence.

Boopathi, a Dalit, moved to Chennai for work. There, she met Satishkumar, and they were soon married. Boopathi’s parents weren’t too happy with their daughter’s decision to marry a man from an upper caste, but hoped things would turn out for the best.

Three months after the wedding. Satishkumar’s mother Sulochana began demanding dowry: cash amounting to Rs 2 lakhs, Rs 50,000 worth of jewellery. Boopathi’s parents refused; they couldn’t afford such a sum. Sulochana then fatally poisoned Boopathi. She was arrested, then released on bail.

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(Above: This is the only photograph Boopathi’s parents have of their daughter)

Boopathi’s parents say “dowry death” was a thin veneer for what their daughter was actually a victim of: an honour killing. And their quest to seek justice for their daughter’s slaying proved frustrating and fraught. “Every time we went to the police station, we were treated like dogs. What crime did we commit? Don’t we deserve basic respect? We see this as an honour killing, the dowry was just an excuse. But who can prove that?” says Boopathi’s father Chellapillai.

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(Above photo: Boopathi’s father in his one-room hutment in Pokkishakaranpetti)

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The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) first began recording honour killing offences across India in 2014. In Tamil Nadu, it has reported two honour killings within a span of three years — a statistic that is appalling.

To many, a distinct law/legislation that deals with honour killings seems to be the need of the hour, even as other experts believe better implementation of existing laws will prove effective in ending these crimes.

Samuel Raj, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), enumerates: “1. We need a clear definition of what constitutes honour killing in India. 2. We need accurate data to understand the magnitude of the problem. 3. A separate law dealing with honour killings is the only way out. It will help standardise punishments and not leave it to the courts’ discretion.” Raj points out that anti-honour killing cells were meant to be set up in 2017, of which only one (in Madurai) is functioning.

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(Above: The villagers of Pokkishakaranpetti assert that Boopathi's murder was a case of honour killing)

At present, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is invoked in certain cases, but it doesn’t apply when family members belonging to upper or intermediate castes murder their own son or daughter for marrying a Dalit. “The killing is because of casteism, so shouldn't that be accounted for separately?” Evidence NGO’s Kathir asks. “In Amritavalli’s case, we were able to get justice because the infant was killed. In Sankar’s murder, if Kausalya had been killed in hi stead, the SC/ST Atrocities Act would’ve applied. If one or both halves of an inter-caste couple is/are killed, the investigation should be from the caste angle first. A special law is needed for this,” he stresses.

In March 2018, the Supreme Court had laid down a set of ‘preventive, remedial and punitive’ guidelines until such a law was passed. But these guidelines haven’t seemed to suffice.

While legislation may not be the solution itself, it certainly is a big part of it. Only when deeply entrenched caste hegemonies and the culture of subservience are challenged will the instances of honour killing reduce. It will be an arduous journey indeed — this quest to change the belief that there is honour in murdering people.

— All photos by Sindhuja Parthasarathy

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