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Dalits Under Siege in Caste-bound India

Rohit Wadhwaney
Jaipur, India
2016-03-15
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V. Sankar is treated at a hospital after being attacked in Udumalpet, Tamil Nadu, March 13, 2016.
V. Sankar is treated at a hospital after being attacked in Udumalpet, Tamil Nadu, March 13, 2016.
Photo courtesy of Thirumurugan Gandhi

V. Sankar paid with his life for marrying a woman belonging to a higher caste.

On Sunday, the 22-year-old engineering student from south India’s Tamil Nadu state was out shopping with his wife, Kausalya, 19, in Udumalpet, some 430 km (270 miles) from Chennai, when three machete-wielding men attacked the couple in broad daylight.

Sankar was killed and Kausalya critically injured in the assault, which was caught on closed-circuit cameras, as dozens of onlookers stood by.

Police said they were investigating the attack as a “likely incident of honor killing,” in which couples are targeted because their families disapprove of their relationships over caste or religion.

The case is just the latest example of violent discrimination exploding from underlying tensions between an age-old caste system and modern society in India, the world’s most populous democracy.

Sankar belonged to the historically marginalized Dalit community, which forms the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, while Kausalya belongs to the upper Thevar caste, a dominant community in Tamil Nadu, police said.

The couple married eight months ago against the wishes of Kausalya’s family, police said.

“The girl’s father, Chinnaswamy, surrendered on Monday and has been remanded to police custody until March 21. We have arrested four others in connection with the murder. All of them are known to Chinnaswamy. We are now searching for a fifth suspect, the girl’s uncle,” a police official requesting anonymity told BenarNews on Tuesday.

India: Dalit Man Hacked to Death in 'Honor-killing'

Sankar’s younger brother, Vigneswaran, claimed that Kausalya’s family had tried to kill his brother on several occasions.

“Just 10 days after they got married, they (Kausalya’s family) kidnapped my brother and tortured him to make him leave Kausalya. They had threatened and tried to attack him many times after that,” Vigneswaran told BenarNews.

“Sankar had approached police several times, but no action was taken,” he said.

Evidence, an organization working to secure Dalit rights, claims there have been 81 honor killings in Tamil Nadu in less than three years.

“Though honor killings are on the rise, not a single case has ended up in [a] conviction in the state as family members are involved in such murders,” managing director A. Kathir told Deccan Chronicle. Of these 81 killings, 80 percent of victims were women.

“Caste Hindu women who love or marry a Dalit are murdered by their family members. On the other hand, Dalit women who marry caste Hindu men, are ditched due to societal pressure. Almost 84 percent of Dalit women who are into inter-caste marriage face humiliation due to marital discord,” he said.

Although India-specific figures are unavailable, U.N. statistics show that 1,000 of 5,000 such killings annually occur in India, a majority of them in the country’s rural pockets, according to an AFP report.

Deep-rooted problem

Ramesh Nathan of the National Dalit Movement for Justice said “so-called honor killings” stemmed from a “deep-rooted problem of caste-based discrimination in Indian culture.”

The situation for India’s nearly 180 million Dalits, formerly disregarded as untouchables, is grim, he added.

“Even though Article 17 of the Constitution of India outlaws the practice of untouchability, it is still very much prevalent in our society,” Nathan told BenarNews.

“The reason this outlawed and archaic practice is continuing unabated is because government and police officials refuse to act sternly on complaints,” he said, adding, “the officials are also part of the system, so they don’t want to take on their own community for fear of being ostracized.”

Nathan said there had been a 19 percent rise in the number of crimes committed against Dalits and tribal communities since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in May 2014.

“It isn’t as if atrocities were not being committed against marginalized groups before. But they have increased under the present government. That is a cause of concern,” he said.

Ruling party under fire

BJP came under fire for allegedly backing caste-based discrimination in the aftermath of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the Hyderabad Central University, in January.

Vemula hanged himself almost five months after he, along with four other Dalit students, was suspended following an altercation with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student leaders over “ideological differences.” ABVP is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), BJP’s ideological mentor.

In his suicide note, Vemula, who was forced to live in a tent on campus and barred from using the hostel, library or the cafeteria during his suspension period, wrote: “My birth is my fatal accident.”

While the opposing Congress party accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of suppressing India’s Dalit and tribal communities, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra countered the allegation, saying it was the opposition, not the ruling party, which had an “anti-Dalit mindset.”

At a public meeting in Tamil Nadu last month, Modi said that India “can be healthy only if Dalits … grow.”

“I am different”

Modi’s statement makes little sense to Rajni, a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, who goes door-to-door collecting garbage from about 100 households every morning.

“When I was very young, my mother told me that this will be my life. I will be collecting other people’s waste. And I should not dream of anything else,” Rajni, who goes only by her first name, told BenarNews.

“As I grew older, I understood what she meant. I am different. People avoid touching me because I am considered dirty, since I make a living collecting and cleaning other people’s dirt. No one even allows me to step inside their homes. They leave the garbage can at the door,” she said.

In 1990, India implemented a caste-based quota system, which ensures 52.5 percent of government jobs and educational institutes are reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) or Dalits, Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC) and people with disabilities.

Despite the effort aimed at helping socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society, more than 60 percent of Dalits earn their livelihood collecting garbage, cleaning public toilets and doing other odd jobs, according to official figures.

Farm laborer C. Velusamy, whose eldest of three sons, Sankar, was hacked to death Sunday, said he does not want any help from the government.

“I’ve raised my three sons working as a farmhand. Sankar would have been the first to graduate from college. But he’s gone now. I don’t want any help raising my other two sons.

“I have only one request for the government. Put an end to these caste-based killings. Let Sankar be the last one to die because of his caste,” he told BenarNews from his village in Tamil Nadu.

Vasudevan Sridharan in Bengaluru, India, contributed to the report

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