The village of Komaralingam in Tamil Nadu was so silent that even the rustle of leaves in the breeze sounded unnaturally loud. Around 100 policemen stood guard in hushed lanes with shuttered shops, as a pall of grief hung in the air. It felt as if the whole village was mourning the murder of V Sankar, a 22-year-old Dalit standing on the cusp of a new life.

At a little distance from the main village stood a single-room house with a tiled roof and a small bathroom outside that was thatched with coconut fronds. This was Sankar’s house.

“When my first son got a job, I thought that the whole family would come up in life,” said S Velusamy, Sankar’s father, who wept as he spoke. “I sacrificed a lot to make him study. But just when the butter was being formed, they have broken the pot and thrown my son’s lifeless body on the ground.”

Sankar was hacked to death in Udumalaipet, 14 km from his village, in broad daylight on March 13. He and his young wife, a member of a higher caste, were returning home from a shopping trip when three bike-borne youth stopped by their side and assaulted them with sickles. Sankar died on the way to hospital. His wife is recovering from her injuries.

Sankar was the first of three children born to Velusamy, an agricultural labourer, and Selvanayagi. The Scheduled Caste Pallar family survived on the Rs 150 that Velusamy brought home every day. Selvanayagi died after an illness in 2014.

Sankar was a determined young man, said his father. After finishing his schooling at a government school in Komaralingam, a village about 100 km from Tamil Nadu’s textile hub of Tirupur, Sankar applied at an engineering college but did not make the cut. “He was undeterred,” recalled Velusamy. “He joined a polytechnic and completed two years there. He studied hard and scored well. He then joined an engineering college in Pollachi, near Coimbatore.”

Sankar paid for college with an educational loan. In another month, he would have been the first mechanical engineer in his family – a first generation graduate. But it was not to be.

How it started

Around November 2014, the bridge connecting the town of Palani in Dindigul district and Pollachi in Coimbatore district fell into disrepair. So for four months, while the bridge was being repaired, buses plying from Palani to Pollachi had to pass through Sankar's village. He was elated. This meant he could catch a bus directly to his college in Pollachi instead of having to change buses at Udumalaipet.

It was on this bus that Sankar and S Kausalya first met. Kausalya, 19, a resident of Palani, was a first-year computer science student in Sankar's engineering college. She hails from a family of Thevars, which is a dominant caste in Tamil Nadu categorised as a Backward Class. The two fell in love.

When Kausalya's father Chinnasamy Thevar learnt of the relationship, he decided to get her married against her wishes. But Kausalya "ran away from home and asked Sankar to marry her,” recalled Velusamy.

On July 15, 2015, Sankar and Kausalya married at a temple in Palani with friends as their witnesses. From there, the couple went to the all women police station at Udumalaipet to seek protection before travelling onwards to Komaralingam to begin the next phase in their lives together.

“They could not afford to pay tuition fees for both of them,” said Velusamy. “So Sankar and Kausalya discussed the issue among themselves and decided that she would stay at home while Sankar went to college. Kausalya also started working in a tiles company in the village and earned Rs 3,000 a month.”

Sankar’s younger brother Vignesh recalled that Kausalya’s parents arrived at their home and threatened her, asking her to come back with them. She refused. Next came her grandparents, who sweet-talked her into returning to Palani with them. Upon learning of this, Sankar complained to the police who helped him bring Kausalya back to Komaralingam.

Two months later, some people who haven’t been identified as yet accosted the young couple at Udumalaipet bazaar. But they managed to escape unhurt, said Vignesh. Kausalya’s father and uncle then came to Sankar’s house and offered him Rs 10 lakh to send Kausalya home with them. “When Sankar refused, they issued a death threat and left,” he said.

The family was worried. Sankar then decided he needed to leave home and head to Chennai with Kausalya in order to protect the rest of his family. “He had passed his exams and got a job in an on-campus interview with a private firm,” said Vignesh. “They decided to go to Chennai.” The plan this time was that Sankar would work while Kausalya would pursue her studies.

Sankar was all set to join his new workplace in the first week of April. Last Sunday the couple decided to go shopping in Udumalaipet to buy new clothes for Sankar. There, as the couple returned home after completing their shopping, they were attacked viciously.

“It seemed like a scene from a movie,” said A Mani, an auto rickshaw driver in Udumalaipet who witnessed the brutal murder. A CCTV camera from a department store nearby captured the horrific attack. Kausalya, who tried to hide under a car, was not spared either. She had severe injuries to her head.

CCTV video of hacking dated March 13.

The Tamil Nadu police has arrested six persons in connection with the murder. Kausalya’s father surrendered the day after the attack. The police said he blamed it on his brother-in-law.

Back in Komaralingam, villagers are struggling to make sense of the tragedy. “There have been a number of inter-caste marriages in this village,” said A Nagarasu, a resident of the village who belongs to the upper Naicker caste. “Naicker-Dalit marriages have taken place as also weddings between Muslims and Dalits. There have never been any issues before. This is the first marriage between a Thevar and a Dalit though. All this violence has come from outside our area.”

Komaralingam has a population of 13,250 people of which 40% belong to the Scheduled Caste Pallar community. The other 60% include Gounders, Naickers and Chettiars among other castes. The village is part of the Kongunadu belt comprising the western districts of Tamil Nadu. The Gounders – classified as a Backward Class in the state – are dominant in this belt, but are not very powerful here. The district of Dindigul, a hotbed of caste tension between the dominant Thevars and Dalits, is just six km away from Sankar’s village.

The upper and lower castes here have been inter-dependent, said Nagarasu. “For the past 20 years we have been peaceful here, with the scheduled castes working in the fields of the upper caste landowners,” he said. There used to be conflict over the two-tumbler system and access denied to Dalits in common property, but those issues were sorted out two decades ago.”

The backlash

As Tamil Nadu heads into polls in May this year, caste is an even more delicate issue than it usually is. As a result, major parties do not want to offend dominant castes. Chief minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J Jayalalithaa, and her prime Opposition rival M Karunanidhi, the chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, haven’t said a word on the murder.

However, Karunanidhi’s heir apparent MK Stalin called the murder “a law and order problem” in a statement on Tuesday. He condemned the state government for failing to keep people safe. Another politician, Vijayakanth, leader of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam issued a statement saying the AIADMK must “own moral responsibility” for what he called an “honour killing”.

Several caste-based parties have taken strident stands on the issue. S Ramadoss, leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, had, in 2010, first created a political issue of Dalits “wearing jeans and sunglasses and luring our [upper caste] women away”. He was furious when asked to comment on the murder. In this video, he is seen refusing to comment and shouts angrily at reporters instead.

In this video, S Ramadoss, leader of the Pattali Makkal Katchi, refuses to comment on the murder of Sankar and shouts angrily at reporters instead.

ER Eswaran, the leader of another smaller caste-based party of the Gounders, justified the brutal murder. “Some people deliberately instigate Dalit youth to love and marry upper caste girls,” said Eswaran of the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi, “The parents would not like their daughter to live in poverty. This is the outcome of such anger.”

The polarisation is so deep that divisive messages such as these messages are rampant on social media.

Dalit parties, on the other hand, are furious. “Except Dalit organisations and a few smaller political parties, no one else has really spoken out about this,” said Thol Thirumavalavan, former MP and leader of the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi, a Dalit party.

This silence can be attributed to the fact that polls are coming up in less than two months. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK and Karunanidhi’s DMK depend largely on the majority Thevar votebank – the caste of Sankar’s wife Kausalya – in the southern districts. To antagonise them now would be to commit political suicide. Justice for Sankar, at least for now, seems a distant dream.