By T S Sudhir
Are Kausalya and Amrutha connected by a strange twist of fate? Their destiny that made the two young women fall in love, marry in rebellion, only to find their husbands, both Dalits, targeted by the crudity of the machete and the sharpness of the sickle.
It is eerie how Miryalaguda in Telangana is Udumalpet in Tamil Nadu revisited. In March 2016, Sankar, a Dalit engineer who had married Kausalya from the Thevar community, a caste deemed superior to his, was killed by assailants at a busy marketplace in Udumalpet in Tiruppur district in Tamil Nadu. The murder took place in Kausalya's presence and was caught on CCTV. The hired assassins were engaged by Kausalya's father who was awarded the death sentence by a Tiruppur court in December last year.
On Friday, Pranay, a Dalit youth was killed by a hired assassin in Miryalguda town in Telangana, 140 km from Hyderabad. His fault was to fall in love with Amrutha Varshini, who belongs to the Vysya community, a forward caste. The scene of crime was a hospital where the assailant attacked the 23-year-old with a machete, killing him on the spot even as Amrutha recoiled with horror. Like Sankar's killing, this horrific act too was captured on CCTV. Amrutha has accused her father Maruthi Rao of being the brain behind the alleged case of honour killing. The police have arrested the assassin, reportedly hired for a fee of Rs 1 crore, from Bihar.
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Pranay and Amrutha who were in love since their school days, married this January. Amrutha's family was not happy with her decision. Amrutha is five months pregnant now and she says her father had been putting pressure to undergo an abortion.
I had met Kausalya a few days after Sankar's murder. She was staying at her father-in-law's home with her Sankar's two younger brothers and grandmother. It was a tiny one-room house, with the outside portion a thatched dwelling of sorts. Certainly not the more comfortable life Kausalya had been used to.
"I cannot live without Sankar. I feel very lonely,'' said Kausalya. In caste-obsessed Tamil Nadu, being jailed for taking revenge on a Dalit is considered a badge of honour. Kausalya, her head covered with a cloth to cover her injury marks the hired assassins had inflicted on her, brooded over the futility of honour killings and wondered aloud if blood must have a caste group.
"Parents should have the heart to let go. Why isn't anyone thinking like that? By killing like this, what is achieved? Look at our case. Sankar was killed, my parents are in jail and I am here by myself,'' she lamented to me.
Hear Amrutha and it is Kausalya-speak all over again. Determined to have her baby, Amrutha has begun a social media campaign demanding justice for Pranay.
''We can uproot caste system only through inter-caste marriages and by encouraging such marriages. It should happen the way BR Ambedkar envisioned it and we must challenge the inhuman caste system,'' says Amrutha.
What does the fact that civil society inflicts such harsh punishment on the likes of Kausalya and Amrutha for falling in love, say about us?
That caste is cast in stone. Despite progressive movements espousing the Dalit cause and trying to promote inter-caste marriages, the politically powerful OBCs and forward castes shun a relationship with a Dalit family. Such is the anger that arises out of a false sense of humiliation, that Dalits become soft targets. A person, who looks otherwise normal on the exterior chooses to turn a murderer.
Both Amrutha and Kausalya's fathers wanted their daughter back at any cost, claiming they loved them. But what they sought was a shackled existence for them, a life where only their writ ran. On the day of the verdict, Kausalya refused to even look at her father's face. Amrutha demands nothing less than death for her father. What should be otherwise such a beautiful bond between father and daughter, sacrificed at the altar of the caste divide.
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The Government of India would argue that it is doing all it can to promote inter-caste marriages. The ministry of social Justice and Empowerment gives Rs 2.5 lakh as financial assistance if either the boy or the girl is a Dalit. But while that helps in politically correct chest thumping, the politicians on the ground do not exactly encourage inter-caste marriages.
A few years ago, PMK leader Dr S Ramadoss, a Vanniyar, said that Dalit boys dressed up like `Romeos', to impress more economically affluent girls from Vanniyar, Thevar and Gounder communities. All three OBC communities are politically powerful in Tamil Nadu and Ramadoss' opinion is endorsed by many in the intermediary castes.
Like CK Nagaraj, founder of the Kongu Jana Nayaka party, who fought the 2016 assembly election in Tamil Nadu in alliance with the BJP and is fiercely opposed to intercaste marriages.
"Follow her for a month or two, make her fall in love, take her away. She will either come with money or gold or her parents will be ready to pay any amount of money to take the girl back,'' was how Nagaraj described to me the modus operandi of Dalit boys. It was obvious the disapproval of such a match was strong.
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"Such matches are a great insult to the family. They cannot walk outside on the street. If there is one more daughter, no one will marry her,'' he added.
Even those comparatively less well off, put a premium on caste honour. I met Muthuswamy Gounder, who works as a watchman at the Mariamman temple in Coimbatore and asked him if he supported inter-caste marriages.
"If my son married a Dalit girl, I will cease to be a father to him. How can I feel happy if my son is ruined?'' asked Muthuswamy Gounder.
In Miryalguda, Maruthi Rao is reported to have told the police that honour of the caste was more important to him. Rao is economically affluent and politically well-connected and had top politicians in the district on speed dial. Amrutha has pointed the finger of suspicion at TRS MLA Vemula Veeresham as well, though the police have not found anything to substantiate her claim.
In Tamil Nadu, 80 cases of honour killings were reported between 2013 and 2016, a figure the government refused to accept. In Telangana, since June 2014, Dalit activists say 19 cases of honour killings have been reported. The fact that they have happened in every nook and corner of Telangana - from Peddapalli to Nalgonda - suggests the caste divide has deep roots.
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With media and public attention riveted on the Amrutha-Pranay case, the police has worked diligently on the case.
But it is imperative that the political leadership of Telangana makes it clear that it frowns upon caste-based violence. Though IT minister KT Rama Rao tweeted expressing dismay and anguish at the ``heinous crime'' and assured justice, Dalit activists are unhappy at chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao's silence. The argument is that if KCR came out and told the state that this is unacceptable, it will send a strong message to the public at large. His silence, most believe, only emboldens people to indulge in such brutal and pre-planned violence.
What does life offer to Amrutha? She looks set to follow in Kausalya's footsteps who is a much sought-after speaker at seminars on caste violence, apart from her regular job in the government. Amrutha wants the death of Pranay to be an example for others not to indulge in meaningless bloodshed and believe in love instead. But with marriage alliances and even politics done on the basis of caste in India, it will take quite an effort to get rid of the deeply entrenched caste bias.