In 1967, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister CN Annadurai created history by amending the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, and recognising what’s called a ‘self-respect’ marriage that rejected priests, dowry, and encouraged inter-caste matrimony. Social reformer Periyar called this “daring not just for Tamil Nadu but also the entire world.”
Which is why, the case of P Aruna, who was allegedly strangled to death by her mother in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli on 21 November, was a wake-up call that indicated caste inequity still prevails in the state. Aruna, who belonged to the Thevar caste, was studying in a private nursing college in Coimbatore and was in love with a man, whom she wanted to marry, from the Nadar caste.
"If caste doesn't exist, love will prevail peacefully. If caste doesn't exist, Aruna and Shankar will still be alive," said Udumalai Gowsalya, an anti-caste activist whose husband was brutally murdered allegedly because he belonged to a marginalised caste.
The recent incidents are a reminder of the long-standing demand made by survivors, families of the deceased, and activists to implement a law, specific to Tamil Nadu, against 'honour' killing.
‘Not Just Caste, Patriarchy Too Plays a Role in Honour Killings'
Gowsalya and other activists including ‘Evidence’ Kathir formulated a draft Bill titled ‘The Freedom of Marriage and Association and Prohibition of Crimes In the Name of Honour Bill 2022’ and the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network submitted it to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin in September 2022.
Arokiasamy Vincent Raj, better known as 'Evidence' Kathir, was selected to be the recipient of the 2022 Raoul Wallenberg Prize, as he has been known for his work to help secure Dalit and Adivasi rights in the state.
The draft Bill emphasises on the right of adults to choose partners without the consent of their families, castes, tribes, or religious communities. It also seeks to extend protection to those who seek to be in a relationship or cohabit.
Kathir told The Quint that it isn't just caste but also patriarchy and age-old cultural notions that play an active role in 'honour' killings.
"If this bill becomes a law, it is not going to immediately bring social changes but it will reinforce the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and will keep a check on the authorities who could inflict pain upon the victims."A Kathir, Evidence NGO
Draft Bill Extends to All Crimes Committed in the Name of ‘Honour’
What makes the Bill important even when there are other laws, including Special Marriage Act and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act-1989, which protect the constitutional rights of adults who want to marry?
The draft Bill proposes to penalise individuals found guilty of committing crimes in the name of ‘honour.’ This pertains not only to caste, but even 'honour' in the name of faith, gender, sexual orientation, and age.
Gowsalya reiterated the need for a separate law by citing her own life as an example.
On 13 March 2016, V Shankar, who was a Dalit, and his wife, Gowsalya, a caste Hindu, were allegedly attacked in broad daylight in Udumalpet of Tiruppur district. Though both sustained severe injuries, Gowsalya survived and Shankar died on the spot. Gowsalya's father Chinnasamy was the prime accused in the case.
“If I had been murdered and Shankar were alive, he wouldn’t have been able to fight for justice under the SC/ST Act because the act does not cover people from other castes. And that is why we need an exclusive law that assures our right to choose our partner that isn’t decided by caste.”Gowsalya
In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister, submitted a year ago, she pointed out that Stalin was among the first to raise his voice against the Madras High Court order to acquit Chinnasamy and two others, for their alleged involvement in the murder of Shankar.
Need Police Protection, Economic Security
Gowsalya cited another incident from 26 November 2022, when Gurusamy, a young Dalit PhD scholar, was allegedly made to spend nearly 24 hours in police custody after his wife’s father filed a ‘person missing’ complaint and levelled allegations of theft against him.
He has been married to Sudoroli, who belongs to the Reddiar caste (Backward Class) since 13 October 2022. Despite multiple letters to police officials clarifying that she got married on own will, the couple have allegedly faced harassment. It was only after pressure from anti-caste activists, including Gowsalya, that the police agreed to release Gurusamy.
Gowsalya reminded that providing help and security should be the government’s duty. “Sudaroli’s case is a classic example of how even when they go seeking help from the police they are denied the same and in turn harassed more,” she added.
The Bill states that couples can seek protection from the police if they face opposition from their families or others.
The draft Bill also assures all victims and witnesses, economic security as they will be provided shelter, travel, and maintenance expenses during the investigation and trial.
For the past one and a half years, Jayaram, a differently-abled man working as a barber in Karur, who lost his son a year ago, has been appealing to the state government for monetary aid but has not received any help so far. In 2021, his 22-year-old son Hariharan was murdered in broad daylight in front of a temple in Karur, allegedly by the relatives of a woman with whom he had been in a relationship, because he was from a marginalised caste.
Honour Killings Should Be Recorded Separately
A key demand made by families of victims of honour killing and activists is that these deaths and crimes should be accounted for what they are.
“How many caste-based murders have happened in the past few years? None of them have even been recorded separately. So how will we have a systematic understanding of the honour killings in the state?" Gowsalya asked.
The draft Bill also dictates that the state government must constantly monitor areas that are notorious for such caste-based crimes, a special cell of police needs to be constituted in each district, and safe houses must be set up in each district for persons seeking protection against these crimes.