By Nithya Pandian

“My mother hit me with a stick and burned the soles of my feet. My father tried to kill me with an aruvamanai (a vegetable cutter).” Four years on, Keerthi* still shudders as she recounts her parents’ rage when she told them that she, a Vanniyar (classified as a Most Backward Class or MBC) woman, wanted to marry Soundar*, a Dalit man.

This was in 2019, when Keerthi’s parents allegedly inflicted severe emotional and physical abuse on her for nearly six months, as they felt their ‘caste pride’ was tarnished by her relationship with Soundar. Yet, the couple held onto hope. With immense courage, Soundar visited Keerthi’s parents and asked for permission to marry her. “Her father asked me if I watched the news. He asked me if I wanted to end up dead, lying in a pool of blood on an open road or on a railway track”, Soundar recalls.

It’s fortunate that the couple made it out alive, and are now happily married. Unlike Kannagi and Murugesan, Vimaladevi, ShankarIlavarasan, and scores of other young men and women in Tamil Nadu whose horrific caste murders Keerthi’s father had invoked to intimidate Soundar.

Violence and murders are commonplace for many inter-caste couples in Tamil Nadu, when one of the partners is from a Scheduled Caste. Between 2020 and 2022 alone, activists have recorded at least 18 incidents of caste killings in the state, although the numbers recorded by the police are much lower. Despite its history of anti-caste movements, the state has an abysmally low proportion of inter-caste marriages. Government support systems for inter-caste couples are often unhelpful or inaccessible, according to activists. The police, too, are accused of often mishandling cases of inter-caste relationships, leaving activists and NGOs labouring to support couples in distress.

Inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu
Victims of ‘honour’ killings: Kannagi and Murugesan (top Left), Ilavarasan and Divya (top Right), Shankar and Kowsalya (bottom left) and Vimala Devi (bottom right)    

Keerthi and Soundar’s story

After finding out about her relationship with Soundar, Keerthi says her parents tormented her for months. She says she had to dress carefully to hide the scars of their abuse. Her mother would even track her movements at her workplace, to know if she was meeting Soundar. Her father would often show up at her office without notice, she says, travelling the 100 kilometre distance on frivolous pretexts like handing her a pen she had ‘forgotten’ at home.

It was traumatic to be hounded like this. But the worst was yet to come…