From the staff at Evidence, an NGO that fights for the rights of Dalits and women, I learned a lot today about caste in modern Tamilnadu. The state government has been in denial about honor killings, they said, and recently told the Indian Supreme Court they had none such cases. But later the state had to report that there were 23 honor killings in the period of time in question. Last year, there were 6 known honor killings in Tamilnadu, a state that is known for higher levels of education and progressive treatment of Dalits and women.
What is an honor killing? Women and men are murdered by their own families or hired guns because they have or are planning an inter-caste marriage.
What is the reservation system? After the British were removed, many efforts were made in the Constitution and in early legislation to both ban caste and to offer a type of affirmative action in government jobs and colleges for SC/ST people (outcaste and tribal people.) Tamilnadu had the highest reservation percentage for lower-caste people in all of India: 30% of slots go to the “Backward Castes”, 20% to the Most Backward Castes, and 18% to the Scheduled Castes (Dalits, or outcastes and tribal people). These British terms have been retained. Apparently people don’t find them offensive. The slots are based on their percentages in the general population.
How does one prove one’s caste? Everyone has a certificate verifying their religion and caste, based on their father’s identity and what the officials find out in their village of birth. Here’s an example.
Staff told me that honor killings have actually increased because more men and women are meeting in college and falling in love across caste barriers. Evidence has documented close to 120 honour killings reported across the state between July 2014 and June 2017. Most of these take place in rural areas, where 70% of Indians live. Families and communities fight these marriages in various ways, including kidnapping and murder. In the past, the male Dalit lover would commonly be killed. Nowadays, both the man and the woman can be killed. In other words, families will kill their own children in order to maintain honor and respect within their caste and villages.
Murderous family members come from a variety of castes that are somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, often just above the Dalit group they hate or resent. Some of these castes have traditionally held land upon which Dalits labored as poor farm workers. Now those workers are less available, more educated and more outspoken. The specific caste dynamics vary from region to region, based on traditional caste landowning patterns and historical conflicts. The resentment has grown into honor killings as well as large scale killing and destruction of Dalit homes in “colonies”, the village areas where the outcastes are forced to live. Where do the police stand? Sadly, many local police belong to the same caste as the group doing the killing or take bribes to cover up cases. This is why Evidence’s monitoring work and their relationships with the media are so important, to bring these cases to light and push for change.
Fortunately activists and liberal judges have successfully pushed for legislation to both protect marginalized communities and to compensate them for violence. The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act identifies new, caste-related crimes with various remedies and compensation. This sounds similar to the American concept of a “hate crime”. The Supreme Court of India recently ordered the Central Government to pass legislation specifically protecting inter-caste marriages. Here in Tamilnadu, the High Court ordered the creation of a special police unit to respond to inter-caste couples fears, which the media have called the “love police”. Activists are still skeptical of police responses because of institutional casteism, lack of awareness and corruption. All these developments, however, do help to raise general awareness among the public and the media.
In my novel, a man kills his sister with poison but claims suicide. I was told this was not uncommon, and directed me to the 2016 Vimala Devi case. Young Vimala and her lover (later husband) went to the police several times asking for help. In the second incident, the police turned the young woman over to her family, who imprisoned her and likely hung her. They then burned her body. Her distraught husband brought a case to the High Court, who ordered the national CBI (like the FBI) to investigate the police’s behavior. He also ordered the government to set up a helpline for inter-caste couples.