In the sleepy village of Iveli in Namakkal district in western Tamil Nadu, at a roadside restaurant, a 30-something man, bare chested, chopped vegetables in a frenzy. When asked if he knows where Yuvaraj lives, he paused. A long, uneasy silence followed. “No, I don’t know, please ask at the tea shop,” he said finally.

At the tea shop, a group of four men sipping tea were stone-faced. “I don’t know who Yuvaraj is or where he lives,” came the answer from one.

A stone’s throw from Yuvaraj’s home, no one admits to knowing the young man who has hogged the headlines for the past three months in Tamil Nadu for his alleged role in the murder of a Dalit student. This is the Omerta of the Kongu Vellala Gounders, a dominant caste in the western belt of the state, classified as a Backward Class within the 69% reservation quotas of Tamil Nadu. They refer to their region – consisting of Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Namakkal and Salem districts – as Kongunadu.

Across the highway from Iveli village stands Yuvaraj’s house, a large structure for these parts, surrounded by 10 acres of land bearing tapioca, paddy and groundnut. Across the skyline looms the Varadarajaswamy Perumal temple, a Vaishnavite monument atop a small hill, in the village of Ayyankaattur in Karumbalikaadu near Sankagiri.

The murder of Gokulraj

Thirty five-year-old S Yuvaraj shot to notoriety in July, as he went into hiding after being named the prime accused in the murder of a young Dalit engineering student, Gokulraj. Police say the murder took place because Gokulraj was seen talking to a classmate, a girl belonging to the "upper caste" Gounder community on a small hill near the Ardhanareeswarar temple in Tiruchengode. Police say that the two were friends, trying to sort out a lover’s fight between Gokulraj and another friend. Yuvaraj and a group of men were caught on CCTV taking Gokulraj with them. A day later, Gokulraj’s body was found on the railway tracks near Pallipalayam, about 17 km from the temple town of Tiruchengode, his head severed.

While in hiding, Yuvaraj caught the public imagination with his frequent audio recordings circulated via the messaging service WhatsApp. His careless taunts to the police created a furore in the regional language media. Yuvaraj finally surrendered to the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department of the state police on October 10, after 109 days, to face charges. Yuvaraj arrived in style, with over 1,000 supporters following him on bikes and hoisting him on their shoulders to give him a hero’s sendoff.

CB-CID officials told Scroll that Yuvaraj has confessed to the murder. “We have retrieved crucial evidence in the case,” said an officer on condition of anonymity. “We have recovered Gokulraj’s driving licence from a car which we picked up based on Yuvaraj’s confession. We have also got evidence to show how Yuvaraj and his gang made Gokulraj record a suicide note video which they then circulated via WhatsApp,” he added.

The police office in Namakkal where Yuvaraj is being questioned.

A small-time crook

Back home in quiet Ayyankaattur, Yuvaraj’s parents are not surprised at their son’s grandstanding. “He was always a precocious child,” grinned his father 60-year-old Subramani Gounder, a farmer. “Yuvaraj will look at something once and he will replicate the same action immediately. He has always been this way.”

Educated at the Government Boys High School in Sankagiri and with a degree in Computer Science from Sengunthar College of Engineering in Tiruchengode, Yuvaraj slowly evolved into a small-time crook, all the while holding local kangaroo courts in neighbouring villages. Dabbling in real-estate brokerage, he hit gold when dubious emu-rearing schemes became all the rage, becoming a partner in the infamous Susi Emu Farm and in another similar firm.

The emu scheme, popular in the early 2000s, was a get-rich-quick strategy by which investors would pay firms to rear chicks of the large bird native to Australia. These firms promised over 100% returns within a year, claiming that emu meat and medicinal oil made from the bird were in great demand abroad. Though these were obviously Ponzi schemes, they saw a rush of investors. Both firms connected to Yuvaraj went bust along with many others, cheating investors out of of crores of rupees. Yuvaraj was thrown in jail for a month along with the founder of Susi Emu Farm. In 2013, the Economic Offences Wing launched an investigation and Yuvaraj was suddenly in trouble.

Joining politics

It was around this time that political ambitions beckoned and Yuvaraj joined a Gounder caste-affiliated party, Tamil Nadu Kongu Ilaignar Peravai, led by U Thaniyarasu, an MLA allied with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government.

“During a function to honour Dheeran Chinnamalai [local freedom fighter and chieftain in the 1800s], Yuvaraj and others tore apart the flex banners put up by rival parties,” said Yuvaraj’s father Subramani. “The police went and complained to Thaniyarasu that Yuvaraj was doing such things. Thaniyarasu said he did not know any Yuvaraj. The policeman then came and told Yuvaraj what he had said, asking him why he was still with such a thankless leader. That got Yuvaraj very angry.”

A furious Yuvaraj swore vengeance. From then on, all of his moves were aimed at thwarting Thaniyarasu. Propping up a rival party in 2014 called Dheeran Chinnamalai Gounder Peravai, Yuvaraj began actively poaching Thaniyarasu’s men. “Once he went to Madurai for a function to welcome new joinees in the party,” said Yuvaraj’s mother Rathinam Subramani, 58. “It was a trap. Yuvaraj and a few others were locked into a room, while they could hear knives being sharpened outside. He would have died that day if the Madurai police had not rescued him."

Yuvaraj campaigned for the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014. He was one of the protesters against writer Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan, a work of fiction set in Tiruchengode, claiming the book offended Hindu sentiments. Yuvaraj and his associates were also regulars at the hills in Sankagiri and Tiruchengode, shooing away young couples and threatening to tell their parents about their alleged indiscretions. During this time, his vitriol against Thaniyarasu continued unabated.

Yuvaraj told his parents more than once that there was a threat to his life from unnamed rivals. “About five months ago, we were travelling by car to a function when he got a call,” said his mother Rathinam. “He kept telling the other person there is a plot to finish him off. I was very upset and worried. I went to the Varadarajaswamy Perumal temple up there to pray for him.”

Veeram (Courage)," smirked Yuvaraj’s father Subramani. “That defines Yuvaraj. He set up his party with veeram. It was all a challenge to Thaniyarasu. He was saying to him, see what I will do, I will take all your men away from you."

Yuvaraj’s parents insist on his innocence, claiming that he is being framed for the murder of Gokulraj. “Yuvaraj is not capable of going to such lengths,” exclaimed his mother Rathinam. “He is not casteist. He is respectful towards all castes, including SCs [Scheduled Caste]. In fact he insisted that we pay them Rs 10 more to work in our fields."

Caste conflict

For all the talk of respect and compassion, it is clear that the Gounder community is locked in conflict with Dalits. Most visibly, the antagonism is over inter-caste marriage. Gounder leaders express anguish at the increasing number of their women falling in love with and eloping with Dalit men.

This makes Yuvaraj the object of adulation among Gounders. Some representatives of the Kongu Vellala Gounder caste support him openly, while others are more cautious. The community has come together to support a man accused of murder, because they feel he has struck at the heart of an important issue, that of marriages between Gounders and Dalits.

The murder of Gokulraj "is not an honour killing", said ER Eswaran, general secretary of the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (Kongunadu People’s National Party). "Let us wait for the police to finish questioning him [Yuvaraj]. We will know the truth only after that.”

GK Nagaraj of the Kongunadu Jananayaga Katchi (Kongunadu Democratic Party) said he does not condone violence. “I met Yuvaraj four months ago in Dharmapuri,” explained Nagaraj. “I told him back then that he should not indulge in violence. If he has committed this murder, it is wrong.”

But Nagaraj also added that the Gounder community supported Yuvaraj. “The biggest issue facing the Gounder community is that Dalit boys are wooing Gounder girls, making them fall in love with them and then extorting money from the parents or asking for a share in property,” he claimed. “Most Gounders do not condone murder, but they are glad that at least someone like Yuvaraj had the guts to take on this issue."

Political dividends

Those who study caste in Tamil Nadu believe the Gounder pride is being stoked deliberately by political parties to win over the community. “When you evoke emotive issues between any community or caste, it will certainly pay dividends,” said C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “Inter-caste love marriage is one issue. The other one is to bring back the Hindu religious pride."

Voices from this dominant caste dovetail into those of pro-Hindutva groups, which are attempting to expand in Tamil Nadu. With about 60% of the population, Gounders form an important vote bank in the region.

In the late 1980s, most community organisations started off espousing kalacharam (culture) of the Hindu Gounders. Their voices grew in the 1990s as the community felt a need to consolidate and push for power. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, a mushrooming of Gounder-affiliated parties took place. Today, there are close to 14 such parties in existence, each fighting with the other for political space and in alliance with various larger parties.

Hindutva forces have grown in tandem with the rise of the Gounder outfits. Since the communal riots of Coimbatore of the mid-1990s, followed by the Coimbatore blasts in 1998, the area has seen a steady rise of pro-Hindutva sentiment.

Arjun Sampath, state president of the Indu Makkal Katchi, a fringe Hindu outfit, claims to have met Yuvaraj five times. “I do not know him very well but he does not seem like a caste fanatic to me," he said. "It seems an exaggeration to say that he hates Dalits and that he is against inter-caste marriages. Inter-caste marriages have been taking place in the Kongu region for decades, it is nothing new." When it was pointed out to him that he is referring to inter-caste marriages between different Backward Classes but not those between Backward Classes and Dalits, Sampath simply laughed and refused to answer.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders spoke a similar language. “I do not feel Yuvaraj is someone who has done all this,” said M Subramanian, Namakkal District President of the RSS. “There is pressure on state police to convert a case of suicide [Gokulraj case] to murder and parties like the Viduthalai Siruthaigal [a Dalit party] are protesting and trying to put pressure."

M Subramanian, Namakkal District President of the RSS, says Yuvaraj does not strike him as guilty.

The alliance of Gounder parties with saffron groups is bound to pay dividends to the Bharatiya Janata Party, say experts. Caste polarisation may end up strengthening the Hindutva agenda.

Threatened by this prospect, the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu are trying to woo the community. "In 2010, for the first time, MK Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam garlanded the statue of Chinnamalai [the Gounder chieftain of the 1800s]," said ER Eswaran. "In 2011, when Jayalalithaa became chief minister, she too garlanded the statue."

Keen to attract Gounder support, the Dravidian parties have reacted cautiously to the murder of Gokulraj. “Any small slip in the major two Dravidian parties will let the cat out of the bag,” said Lakshmanan of the MIDS. “That is why both dominant Dravidian parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, are tight-lipped on this issue."

Economic factors

Economics also plays a major role in the struggle to keep caste structures rigidly in place. The Kongu belt, especially Namakkal, is a hub for the trucking industry as well as poultry exports. In Namakkal alone, there are 40,000 lorry owners who run around 54,000 lorries across the country, as per records available with the Tamil Nadu Lorry Owners’ Federation. The business, which began in the 1940s, continues to be dominated by members of the Gounder caste.

“Ninety five percent of owners are Gounders,” said K Nallathambi, president of the Tamil Nadu Lorry Owners’ Federation, and a Gounder himself. "Only around 400 Dalits own lorries.” Four hundred out of 40,000 is a meagre 1% of the thriving business.

The monopoly of the Gounders in the poultry business is even more stark. Not a single Dalit owns a poultry farm, as per the Tamil Nadu Poultry Farmers’ Association. Out of the 1,000 poultry farms in the state, 800 are in Namakkal. About three crore eggs are sent across the country and abroad from the region every day.

“Ninety percent  of owners of poultry farms are Gounders,” says R Nallathambi, president of the Tamil Nadu Poultry Farmers’ Association. “No SCs are owners. They used to work in our farms earlier but now they want to go in search of jobs which offer higher pay."

With the Dalits moving out of jobs in poultry farms, the owners have had to fall back on labourers from Bihar and other parts of north India. "This trend began about seven years ago,” Nallathambi said.

The dependence on labour from other states introduces greater uncertainty in the businesses of Gounders. It also means they can no longer dominate the Dalits. Despite the economic development of the region, the dominant castes want to preserve the feudal structure, said Lakshamanan. “This helps them retain labour exploitation, negation of labour dignity and denial of democracy."

It is the perceived loss of power that best explains the rising unrest over inter-caste marriage, where a woman's choice to marry a Dalit is seen as nothing less than the emasculation of Gounder men.