Kausalya feels her life is akin to hell. Her attempt to kill herself having come to nought, she has returned to the small, dingy and unventilated one-room house of her in-laws. To a life of sadness and mourning.
On March 13, the town of Udumalpet in western Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district watched while hired goons hacked Kausalya's husband Sankar to death. Kausalya escaped with serious injuries on her head.In the two months since Sankar's murder, his 20-year- old widow felt she was dying a slow death. On May 11, she tried to hasten the process by consuming malachite powder, a chemical substitute for cow dung, but was saved by the doctors at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital.
Kausalya's family was upset that she married a Dalit, the 22-year-old Sankar, who was an engineering student. She is from the Thevar community, which, though classified as backward, is considered superior to Dalits. The crime is being considered an honour killing and Kausalya’s parents surrendered before the court and are now in jail.
Dividing blood by caste
After Sankar's death, Kausalya chose to live at her in-laws' home in Udumalpet, with her father-in-law, two brothers-in-law and Sankar's elderly grandmother. However, returning to a home where she spent eight months of matrimony with Sankar has been traumatic for her.
She said her spirit has been broken, she has no one to talk to. “I feel lonely without Sankar,” she said, when asked about her suicide attempt. “I cannot live without him.”Though Kausalya – who was in the second-year of a computer science engineering degree when she dropped out of college to get married in 2015 – spoke of plans to study further, her heart did not seem to be in it.
She kept referring to the futility of leading a life like this, wondering whether blood must be grouped according to caste as well. “What did my parents gain by hiring those killers to murder Sankar?” she asked. “He is no more, my parents are in jail and I am lying here.”
In Kausalya’s mind, there is no doubt that her parents were behind the ploy to murder the couple, one that she escaped.
With the incident taking place just two months ahead of the Tamil Nadu assembly elections, the AIADMK, keen to not lose Dalit votes, had acted quickly after the killing.
The government released Rs 5.62 lakh to be deposited in a joint account in the names of Kausalya and Velusamy, her father-in-law. Of that, Rs 1 lakh has already been spent on repaying Velusamy's various debts and another Rs 69,000 will go towards repaying the loan Sankar took for his engineering degree.
The government also posted four policemen to keep vigil 24X7 outside Kausalya’s marital home, lest the murderers return for her.
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, reportedly upset with the shoddy handling of the case, also denied a ticket to Member of the Legislative Assembly C Shanmugavelu from the Madathukulam seat.
But none of this has assuaged Kausalya, who had to pay a heavy price for following her heart.
Psychologists said what she needs now is counselling and a change of environment. “Kausalya needs psychological fostering,” said Dr Purnima Nagaraja, a psychiatrist. “She saw her husband being killed and is likely to have undergone acute post traumatic stress disorder. By now, she should have ideally been given psychological first-aid and bereavement counselling.”
Nagaraja said Kausalya lacks an adequate support system and the 24-hour police presence is likely to make people shy away from approaching her. “She should be put in the care of volunteer organisations in Coimbatore or Chennai. Otherwise, she could attempt suicide again.”
A high premium on caste
In caste-obsessed Tamil Nadu, there are thousands of Kausalyas.
Beneath the veneer of a progressive state is an ethos where being jailed for taking revenge on a Dalit is considered by many to be a badge of honour. CK Nagaraj, founder of the Kongu Jana Nayaka Party, who is opposed to inter-caste marriages, said such matches are a “great insult” to the family.
“The parents cannot step out of their home," he told this writer. "If there is one more daughter, no one will want to marry her."
In his view, Dalit youth “employ a devious modus operandi”.
“Dalit boys deliberately follow a girl from the intermediary caste, make her fall in love and ensure she elopes along with gold," he claimed. "If the parents are adamant, they will agree to pay a hefty amount to take the girl back."
There is a high premium on caste in the state. Muthuswamy Gounder, who works as a watchman at the Mariamman temple in Coimbatore, said that if his son married a Dalit girl, he would cease to be his son.
“How can I feel happy if my son is ruined?'' he asked. “I will feel angry. I will say ‘to hell with them’ and not allow them into my home.”
Dalit rights activists say there have been more than 80 cases of honour killings in the last three years in Tamil Nadu. And even when inter-caste marriages don’t end in this gory manner, the woman is often boycotted and ostracised. Despite the numbers, neither the AIADMK nor the DMK spoke against caste violence in the recent elections.
With intermediary castes such as Vanniyars, Gounders and Thevars occupying positions of power in both Dravidian parties, both Jayalalithaa and DMK chief M Karunanidhi don't speak about the atrocities against Dalits. Even though scheduled castes make up 20% of the state’s population, the absence of a strong pan-Tamil Nadu political voice from the community takes away from their numerical strength.
Sankar’s killing was horrific, but to allow Kausalya to become collateral damage will be an even bigger injustice.
After the Chennai floods, in an impassioned plea, Jayalalithaa had said: “I am with you, for you, forever.” The chief minister needs to extend this support to Kausalya now, instead of allowing her to become just one of the many victims of caste violence in Tamil Nadu.The state needs to adopt her to aid her recovery. Along with the physical security provided to her by the cops, Kausalya also needs emotional security.