Signature killings recorded recently in Tirunelveli in south Tamil Nadu, seem to be designed to send a chilling message of supremacy across different castes. In these murders, the perpetrators commit the crime after vowing to decapitate their foes.
In September 2021, four people were decapitated in four separate incidents all having links to caste related conflict in Tirunelveli and Dindigul districts. Also, there have been three other beheadings related to money laundering, property tussle and even petty tussles in the last one month in southern TN.
The Quint analyses why beheading is the modus operandi (MO) for revenge murders in Tirunelveli.
Is this the result of a heady mix of caste fanaticism, liquor and drug addiction, lack of access to education and job opportunities that have misled the youth to become revenge-seekers?
Caste Pride Makes the Crime Bloody
Since 1993, rivalry between the gangs of Pandian and Subash Pannaiyar had allegedly sparked off a series of revenge killings that claimed at least 12 lives. This year, such killings have returned.
The MO in such killings include beheading the victim, carrying the head over a good distance, hurling it at memorials of caste leaders, graveyards of earlier victims, or at the entrance of the village.
The MO is beheading because ultimate violence is part of caste rivalries. Even children are taught to defend themselves. Speaking to The Quint, SP Jangid who was the Superintendent of Police of Tirunelveli during 1990s, when murders were frequent in the district, said that children should not be exposed to caste feelings and revenge.
However, a local, Murugappan (name changed) told The Quint, that even village elders think that children should be exposed to tough life as it will come in handy, "if they need to wield the sickle to safeguard their pride".
Segregated to Dehumanise Opponents
In the region beheadings have become casual, sources say. In a way, the crimes are brutal because the victim is dehumanised. Dehumanising the opponent is possible by strict segregation that prevents mingling of different caste groups.
''If someone doesn't repay debts or if they cause trouble, then definitely they will be beheaded. Beheading is meant to instill fear in the other community?"A local in Tirunelvelli to The Quint
''The situation has become so worse that if we find an abandoned torso somewhere, we already know where the head could be found, what caste issue it is related to and who was killed.''Police officer on condition of anonymity
Another officer said, ''Police stations maintain a list of people belonging to violent outfits. The list has to be updated daily because of the regular recruitment and deletion due to continuous murders.''
But caste based segregation extends from homes to public spaces, and even prisons.
Four wards in the 138-year-old Palayamkottai Jail are earmarked for the Thevar community, two for Dalits and one for Nadars, Udayars and other intermediate castes, a local reporter, who has been reporting on caste segregation in the area, said.
''When we go to the police station, we are first asked about our caste and also the caste of the person we are asking security for and accordingly the police decides the treatment," said a local.
Identity Crisis Fueled By Joblessness
Elders in Marudham Nagar, Muneerpalam, Nainarkulam, Ambasamudram, and Brammathesam in Tirunelveli district said one of the main reasons why men between 16 and 35 years of age resort to violence is that they are denied access to education and employment.
Dr Mohan Raj, Consultant Psychiatrist, explained, ''Head is considered the headquarters of the body and defines the identity of a person. Beheading is a way to show that one group has the power to eradicate someone's identity."
''In most cases, the accused are not really fighting for caste but for their own self respect. They want to either become rich quickly or, become a leader by instilling fear,'' said SP Jangid.
Also, diminished respect for the criminal justice system increases the rate of crimes, Jangid said. ''In some cases, the investigation and prosecution takes so long. Whatever may be the reasons for failure of prosecution, people think they are not protected by the police and the legal system. Hence they decide to take law into hands,'' said Jangid.
Police Need to Be People Friendly
Several police officials proposed fail proof, quick investigations and trials to improve faith in the justice system and control revenge killings.
''We usually use our intelligence sources to find out who is going to create a problem and then take preventive actions. Thereafter the system of peace committee meetings may be advisable,'' said Jangid.
Dr Mohan said, ''Children should not be taught caste. Instead they should be taught empathy. What we should talk about is the experience of the victim, their pain and the humiliation. Usually reports are on the rage and murder but it is the suffering that needs to be focused on.''
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