C. Veluchamy, a Dalit agricultural worker from Tirupur district, Tamil Nadu, has reason to believe that his gods have stopped smiling. It has been more than four years since Shankar, his 22-year-old son, was killed in a busy market in Udumalpet for marrying Kausalya, a woman from the region’s dominant Thevar caste.
Veluchamy, who is now in his fifties, got a little relief in December 2017 when a trial court in Tirupur found Kausalya’s father B. Chinnaswamy guilty of ordering the murder, sentencing him to death along with five hired assassins. But this turned out to be short-lived—while Chinnaswamy’s well-off family filed an appeal, caste Hindu outfits operating in Western Tamil Nadu carried out smear campaigns against Shankar as well as Kausalya, who has since remarried but lives in constant fear of more attacks.
The biggest blow came in June, when the Madurai bench of Madras High Court acquitted Chinnaswamy of all charges. The death sentences of the hired killers were also commuted to life imprisonment. When Chinnaswamy was released from Coimbatore Central Prison, he was greeted with shawls and flowers by activists from some caste outfits.
“After the verdict, Kausalya contacted me over the phone and wept for a long time. She also said she would initiate the process of filing an appeal in the Supreme Court very soon. The Madras High Court verdict has devastated me and my two younger sons, along with Kausalya, whom I still treat as my daughter-in-law. We are sad and depressed and can’t understand how the court has reached such a conclusion that there was no conspiracy behind the daylight murder carried out by the hired assassins in a busy urban area,’’ said Veluchamy, who currently works as cook in a pre-matric hostel in Tamil Nadu’s Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department at Thirumoorthy Hills, which is located 23 km from his house. The job, which earns him Rs 15,000 a month, was given on compassionate grounds by the state government after Shankar’s death.
“When the authorities came to us with the offer of a permanent government job for one of the members of the family, I told Kausalya to accept it. But we found soon that the job was a last-grade one reserved only for scheduled caste communities. As my sons wanted to continue their studies, I accepted this job of a cook,’’ said Veluchamy, who walks the long distance to the hostel almost every day in the absence of public transport.
Activists and lawyers who have helped the family in their fight for justice say the state government and prosecution failed to argue the case with clarity in the High Court, leading to the adverse verdict. They are now preparing for the appeal in the Supreme Court.
“We have no land holdings and no sources of income other than this job. My son Vigneswaran is now doing LLB in Bangalore and he needs financial support. So I don’t want to risk everything by commenting on the merits of the high court verdict,’’ said Veluchamy.
However, his youngest son Yuvaraj, currently a BSc Computer Science student at a college in Pollachi, said the verdict has boosted the morale of caste Hindu outfits in the region.
“Some posters hailing the verdict have appeared in Udumalpet, Palani and Pollachi. Travel restrictions related to Covid-19 are preventing us from consulting top lawyers and human rights activists to look for further legal options to punish the guilty. Kausalya has already initiated the process of filing the appeal in Supreme Court and the process would be completed in the next two weeks,’’ said Yuvaraj. He said that despite marrying a folk music artist and relocating to the Nilgiris, Kausalya has been funding his education.
Rise in smear campaigns
In 2015, when Shankar married Kausalya, Veluchamy said he welcomed her with open arms and made her a part of the family.
“I had very little income as a landless agricultural labourer and I sent my elder son for study in Pollachi with the clear realisation that only education can empower him. On my part, there was no opposition to the marriage from the beginning. One afternoon, my son simply told me that he had decided to marry. I agreed to it, thinking that caste is irrelevant in love involving two people. I was quite impressed by Kausalya and that bond still continues,’’ said Veluchamy.
But since the June verdict, Veluchamy says there has been a renewed vigour in the slander campaigns against his family and Kausalya, as well as against all inter-caste marriages.
Why are people attempting to create a rift between us? We still stand with her decision to get remarriedC. Veluchamy
Veluchamy’s son Vigneswaran, who recently reached home after spending most of the lockdown in his college hostel in Bengaluru, said that dominant caste Hindus have been targeting Kousalya, lying that she had abandoned Shankar’s family in the pursuit of fame and money.
“That’s totally absurd. She married an artist with progressive ideals and that too with the consent and support of my family. It was under her initiative that we constructed a house with two rooms and a hall on three cents of land, using the compensation we received from the government and aid from different organisations and individuals. She supported my education till graduation and now I am managing the fee for LLB course from my father’s salary and help from friends. But she is giving me money for all additional expenses, including books, travel and food’’ he said.
Both Vigneswaran and Yuvaraj are active participants in the charitable trust began by Kausalya in Shankar’s memory, to educate and empower Dalit children from the neighbourhood.
When asked about a resolution passed last year by some Dalits in their village, Komaralingam, which denounced Kausalya as an outsider who misappropriated Sankar’s legacy for her own personal gains, Vigneswaran clarified that it was not a collective resolution of the village. “Some of the villagers, including my uncle, were carried away by the misleading propaganda of some vested interests, who implemented the dominant caste agenda,’’ he said.
A Kathir, executive director of Madurai-based NGO Evidence which stood with Kausalya and Sankar’s family in the legal battle, told HuffPost India that his organisation has already hired lawyers for impleading in the appeal filed by the state government in Supreme Court and that the process of filing the request would be completed in two weeks.
“The judgment and supporting evidence are spread over 5,000 pages. We had to struggle hard to get all materials and to send them to some top legal houses in the country. The war is still on and there is no backtracking from it. All those who are responsible will be punished,’’ said Kathir, who has been supporting families of so-called honour killing victims across Tamil Nadu.
“On its part, the state government has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court but it lacks teeth. As per our plan, Kausalya and Vigneswaran will separately seek impleading in the case and submit documents to ensure justice to Sankar,’’ said Kathir.
The exoneration of Kausalya’s family by the high court requires strong legal scrutiny. Above all, it’s an infringement on the freedom of women to make marital choices.Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer in the Madras High Court.
‘Prosecution failed miserably’
Vigneswaran believes it was the lackadaisical attitude of the state government in pursuing the case that led to the acquittal of Kausalya’s father. He said the family was deeply hurt by the way the prosecution handled the case in High Court.
Kausalya told HuffPost India that she still has faith in India’s judicial system and is hopeful that the culprits including her father would be punished.
“The High Court judgment has created widespread concern across Tamil Nadu. I hope the state government will correct the mistakes on its part while pursuing the appeal in the Supreme Court. No such incident must be repeated in any part of the world,’’ said Kausalya, who works as a clerk with Wellington Cantonment Board near Ooty in Nilgiris. “My parents are responsible for Sankar’s death and they must get punishment. Shankar needs justice,’’ she said.
Kausalya also had to be constrained in her responses as her office is under the Union defence ministry and she faces restrictions in speaking about social and political issues.
“It’s a small job with a moderate salary that I got by passing tests and interviews. From the salary, I am spending a larger portion on Shankar’s family and the trust I have formed in his memory. I never abandoned Shankar’s family and never backtracked from his cause,’’ said Kausalya.
Kausalya said that the high court verdict has added to her feelings of depression during the coronavirus lockdown.
“I was unable to travel and interact with people whom I regard most. The High Court verdict came amidst this prevailing gloom and I found it unbearable. We will do more things in the name of Shankar once normalcy returns and the pandemic threat gets over,’’ she said.
On March 13, 2016, both she and Shankar were hacked brutally by the killers, but In its verdict, the High Court had ruled that no conspiracy was proved.
“Five of the assassins are now facing life terms in the case and they never had any kind of hatred and enmity with Sankar’s family. Without conspiracy hatched by somebody aggrieved by Sankar’s actions, how can the hired goons commit that crime?’’ asked Kathir.
It was Kausalya’s courageous deposition against her parents and fellow members of the Thevar community that led to the trial court sentencing her father and five assailants to death.
“The exoneration of Kausalya’s family by the high court requires strong legal scrutiny. Above all, it’s an infringement on the freedom of women to make marital choices. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing the conspiracy charge despite strong evidence,’’ said Sudha Ramalingam, a senior lawyer in the Madras High Court. According to her, there are records to prove that Kausalya’s father was in contact with the assailants and withdrawing money close to the crime scene.
Need to strengthen SC/ST Act
In 2018, when Kausalya married Sakthi at Periyar Padippakam, a radical organisation inspired by late social reformer Periyar E.V. Ramaswami, Shankar’s father and grandmother attended the ceremony. Sakthi plays the parai, a drum-like musical instrument traditionally used by Dalits and other oppressed classes.
Veluchamy pointed out that Kausalya’s first priority was ensuring that their concrete house was constructed according to Shankar’s dream. She has also been active in the anti-caste movement and runs the charitable trust.
“Why are people attempting to create a rift between us? We still stand with her decision to get remarried,’’ said Veluchamy.
Kathir alleges the state government has given only a meagre amount as compensation to Shankar’s family as per the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
“The government must release the remaining part of compensation very soon. Without further strengthening the SC/ST Act, such murders will continue to happen in Tamil Nadu,’’ he warns.
Veluchamy said he was waiting for the pending compensation to do some repairs to the house.
“My wife died due to disease a few years before Shankar was killed. As a single parent, it was exhausting to support my children all these years. As landless poor, our biggest dream is getting a piece of land to cultivate,’’ he said.`