On Friday evening, photographs of two highly decomposed bodies that had been fished out of the Cauvery river in Karnataka’s Mandya district earlier in the week were widely circulated on WhatsApp among residents of a Tamil Nadu village nearly 180 km away.

The bodies were not easily identifiable. But the residents of Soodagondanahalli village, 16 km from Hosur town in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district, instantly recognised N Nandish, 23, and S Swathi, 21, from the two passport photographs that were part of the message. Both their families live in the village. But the couple – who belonged to different castes – had moved to Hosur town after they got had married in August.

Shortly after, the police arrested Swathi’s father Srinivas, 40, and her uncles Venkateshan, 43, and Krishnan, 26, for murder. They were also charged under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The men reportedly confessed that they had strangled the couple because they felt humiliated that Swathi, who belonged to a dominant middle caste group called the Vanniyars, chose to marry a man from the Dalit community (Parayar), which is considered to be the lowest in the caste hierarchy.

The residents of Soodagondanahalli village say this is the first time that a couple in the region has been murdered for having an inter-caste marriage. But killings related to inter-caste marriages are not uncommon in the state. More than 180 such cases have been recorded in Tamil Nadu over the past three years by Evidence, a human rights organisation in Madurai. As a consequence, rights activists in the state have been demanding a separate law just to tackle inter-caste murders.

Inter-caste marriage

On Saturday morning, the day after Soodagondanahalli villagers received the photos of the couple’s bodies, several women gathered at Nandish’s family home to comfort his sobbing mother, Thimmakka. Nandish was the second of three siblings. He has an older sister, who is married, and a younger brother who lives with his parents. “Now I have only one son,” Thimmakka lamented. “They might try to kill him too. What will happen to him?”

Like many women from the Dalit community in this area, Thimmakka works as an agricultural labourer in the fields of the village’s upper caste land owners, earning approximately Rs 200 per day. Her husband, Narayanappa, is a daily wage worker too. As a porter who hauls rocks used for construction, his wages rarely cross Rs 200 a day.

Village women gather around Nandish's mother at their home.

The bodies of Nandish and Swathi had been cremated in Mandya the previous day, soon after the post-mortems were completed. Thimmakka’s daughter and younger son were at the sub-collector’s office with activists from several human rights organisations, demanding that the official declare that the murders were due to “caste arrogance”. They also demanded that the government frame a new law to try cases of murders related to inter-caste marriages.

Nandish had dropped out of school after Class 8 to help support the family. His parents were worried that they did not earn enough to save up for his sister’s dowry. “Though he studied well and wanted to pursue his studies, he had to start working,” said N Shankar, Nandish’s younger brother.

The agricultural lands in Soodagondanahalli village are owned only by Vanniyars (who are categorised as a most backward community) and Kurubas (who are categorised as a backward community), and upper caste groups such as Naidus and Reddys. Members of the village’s Dalit families work as labourers, cultivating and harvesting flowers and vegetables. Segregation is strictly enforced. Dalit farm labourers are served food on plantain leaves outside the homes of the land owners. They are not allowed to enter the homes of the middle and upper castes or even the village temple. “Even during the annual village festival, we stand outside the temple and offer our prayers,” said Nandish’s uncle, who did not want to be identified.

He said most Dalit children in the village dropped out of Class 10 because of poverty. “No member of a Dalit family in this village has ever entered college,” he said. “Class 10 is the maximum a person from our community has studied.”

The village’s graduates are all from the middle and upper castes. “In such circumstances, no one could imagine a Dalit marrying someone from a higher caste,” he said.

Nandish's parents at their home in Soodagondanahalli in Hosur.

Swathi’s own parents had an inter-caste marriage. Her father belongs to the Vanniyar community while her mother is from the Naidu community, which is dominant in this region. They own nearly two acres of land in the village.

In recent years, pushed out by Tamil Nadu’s agrarian crisis and drawn by new opportunities in Hosur, many youngsters from the village’s Dalit community have been moving to the town for work. Nandish used to travel from the village to work every day, which is how he and Swathi met. “He fell in love with Swathi who used to travel from the village to her college in Hosur,” said Nandish’s cousin Anitha.

N Shankar said that Nandish had been in a relationship with Swathi for nearly four years, but the families became aware of this only two years ago. Swathi’s father and her uncles had expressed their disapproval, and had warned Nandish’s family to keep their son away from Swathi. “I fell on Swathi’s feet, asking her to leave my son alone,” said Thimakka. “If we had lodged a complaint with the police at that time, my son might have been saved. The couple might have lived.”

But instead of lodging a complaint, the family persuaded Nandish to move to Hosur, ordering him to cut off contact with Swathi.

Shop owner Sanjay Patel gave Nandish a job loading and unloading packs of tiles. He said that Nandish was a hard worker who never discussed his personal life. “I liked him so I provided him with accommodation close to the shop,” said Patel.

Nandish would send money home every month and visit during festivals, his family said. But despite the opposition to their relationship from both their families, Nandish and Swathi stayed in touch. Nandish’s aunt said that Swati was the one who persuaded him to marry her. They got married on August 15 at a temple in Shoolagiri village, 25 km from Hosur. On September 4, the couple registered their marriage in the Shoolagiri sub-registrar’s office.

When Swati’s family heard about the wedding, they barged into Nandish’s family home and beat up his parents and siblings. That was when Nandish’s parents and siblings found out that the couple had married.

Nandish’s cousin Anitha alleged that Swathi’s relatives and several women from the Vanniyar community had warned the family that they would bulldoze the homes of Dalits in the village. “They even told us that all the Dalits should be pushed to a corner in the village and never be allowed to build houses close to the houses of other castes,” she said. This reporter could not independently verify these allegations during her visit to the village as most of the Vanniyar families had left the area, fearing a backlash.

Swathi's family home in Soodagondanahalli village in Hosur.

Abduction and murder

Shankar said his brother was distressed about the threats to his family. Shankar used to visit his brother and sister-in-law regularly and helped them run errands. “I spoke to him last Friday [November 9], a day before he went missing,” said Shankar.

At 2.14 am on Sunday, November 11, Sanjay Patel received a WhatsApp message from Nandish that said: “Anna kidnap…na…kanakapura” – Brother, kidnap...I am in Kanakapura. Nandish seemed to have being attempting to alert his employer and his family that he and Swathi had been abducted and that he was in Kanakapura, nearly 80 km from Mandya.

Patel didn’t see the message until he woke up that morning. He phoned Shankar immediately. Shankar arrived in Hosur at 7 am and started searching for his brother. At around 9.30 am, he and Patel went to the Hosur police station to register a complaint. But since they could not write in Tamil and were unable to find anyone who could help them write the complaint, they left the police station and resumed the hunt for the couple. Two days later, on November 13, they returned to the police station and registered a complaint. That day they got a phone call from the police in Whitefield, Bengaluru, about 40 km away, asking them to come there. In Whitefield, they were told that the body of a man had been found in Mandya.

They identified Nandish from his t-shirt: it was one of 10 shirts he and his cousins had printed to commemmorate BR Ambekar’s birth anniversary. It had a portrait of Ambedkar and the name of their village emblazoned on the front. “If it was not for that t-shirt, we would have never found out that he was killed,” said Shankar.

Swathi’s body was found two days later, on November 15.

Swathi’s relatives told the police that that they had deceived the couple: they said that the family had accepted their relationship and wanted to organise a ceremony in the village as per custom. But instead of taking them home, Nandish and Swathi were led to Shimsha in Mandya district, where they were strangled and thrown into the Cauvery.

Human rights activists protest against the murders at the sub-collector's office in Hosur on Saturday afternoon.

Murder for caste pride

Activists say that Dalits marrying members of an upper caste is not a new phenomenon in Tamil Nadu. The difference, though, is that in earlier times, disapproving families would simply ostracise the couple. “There might be unease, dislike…but the murderous fury that we see now…I don’t remember that this is how it was even two decades ago,” said V Geetha, a Chennai-based historian and feminist.

She added: “On the other hand, there is greater visibility to these crimes now, more avenues for speaking of them, and so in a sense, they are more ‘visible’ than perhaps they were in the past.”

Aadhavan Dheetchanya, general secretary, Progressive Writer and Artists’ Association in Hosur, said that the pervasive practice of untouchability in villages and the pride associated with being a member of a higher caste identity were among the factors that led to hatred against Dalits – and such crimes.

Geetha added that women, especially young women, are more mobile now than ever: they go to work in larger numbers and also travel to study. This has seen greater anxiety among families, which translates into more “control mechanisms” directed at girls, she said. “There is also anxiety about Dalit progress and mobility…the clear confidence that marks Dalit lives, and their determination to be independent of the caste-based rural and semi-rural economy,” said Geetha.

Demand for new law

On Saturday, several organisations, including the Democratic Youth Federation of India, Progressive Writers and Artists Association, Neelam Cultural Centre, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, demanded that the state government frame a separate legislation to try such cases.

But Tamil Nadu has a poor record on this front. In 2016, after a plea was filed by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, the Madras High Court issued directions to the state to prevent such so-called honour killings. The court had also asked the state to establish special cells and a 24-hour helpline to register complaints from aggrieved couples, and directed the police to provide protection and safe houses to them. However, the state has done nothing to implement the order.

Nandish's brother Shankar at the sub-collector's office in Hosur.

All photographs by S Senthalir.