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Book Review | The Die Is Cast: On Saathiyin Peyaral by Ilangovan Rajasekaran

“Honour killing is the crux of this book. But it is not a book about death; it is also about life. It does not stop at stating that honour killing took place. It raises questions about ‘why’ it happened, thus exploring the many aspects of life surrounding it, from multiple perspectives. The book draws our attention to the contradiction of an individual with his fellow citizens, the distance between our ideals and practical lives and the many masks under which we hide our true faces. It is in Tamil Nadu, hailed as the land of social justice, that we find the caste system raising its monstrous head. It is not only alive, but it devours lovers and swells every day. I wish to emphatically communicate this enormous contradiction and the grave danger of caste monstrosity. None of us can ignore this reality as if it were happening somewhere else, to someone else. Those killed may be strangers; But the killer is caste, and we all know it… Seeing parents who murdered their children because of this irritating disease of the caste system left a deep scar on my mind. And that scar permeates this book.”

Saathiyin Prayer
Aanava Kolaigalin Pathivu

By Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Translated from English by Marudhan and Niveditha Louis

Pathippakam Road, 2024
Pages: 224
Price: Rs.260

The above lines, from the book by journalist Ilangovan Rajasekaran Saathiyin Prayer (In the name of the caste), are testimony to the fact that their journalism has also been a launching pad for their social activism. Saathiyin PrayerA collection of stories from seven inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu that ended in “honour killings”, helps us understand the multiple ways in which the caste system operates in Tamil Nadu.

For instance, Ilangovan explains the case of Kausalya-Sankar, where Sankar was hacked to death in 2016 by hitmen hired by Kausalya’s family: “According to them (the dominant caste), it was not a murder. It was a punishment. When a death sentence is imposed on someone, it is customary to explain why it is being carried out. The same follows here too: ‘You have been allotted a space; you and your people should live there; but you have crossed that boundary. You have entered the space that belongs to our caste. Therefore, our honour is lost; your love and marriage have made us impure. Therefore, you deserve to die.’”

Saathiyin Prayer It is not just a study of honour killings in Tamil Nadu; it is a document of the history of the State over the last 40 years. | Photo credit: By Special Arrangement

The unwritten rule is about transgression of caste: how can a young Dalit man, trained as an engineer, marry a girl from the dominant caste? It is a social crime and death is the price he must pay.

Murder is inadmissible as a social ethic. No society ever accepts it, but the toxin of the caste system normalizes it. This caste attitude is an expression of the inability of the dominant caste to accept the changes in the lives of the oppressed sections of the society. The caste system becomes anti-human and goes against the ethics of life. It acts like a fascist frenzy. We can sense it in each of these honour killings. One becomes a monster when one kills one’s own child. Honour killings in Tamil Nadu are a testimony to this social psychology.

Ilangovan’s narrative unravels the workings of this social psychology. He explains how the media reports on such cases; how powerful caste organisations formed over the last three decades help carry out honour killings; how political parties competing with each other for vote banks and the police, tasked with maintaining law and order, deal with such incidents. In the process, he exposes the ugly faces of many functioning social systems.

Read also | In the name of honor

Ilangovan also explores in parallel how patriarchy fuels the social psychology of caste, how it affects Dalit men and women differently and how gender equality is lost in this caste psychology. The book helps the reader understand the social and psychological pressures on Dalit communities while pointing out that an honour killing is a crime committed because of the social institutions and social psychology that drives them.

The past three decades have seen an explosion of mass media. On television and in popular print media, honour killings are presented as consumer goods, spiced up with hyper-emotional drama. While news channels report the “latest” news on these killings, they do not offer any meaningful analysis or counter-discussion, nor do they support or initiate any social activism beyond the headlines.

Ilangovan, on the other hand, has used the platforms provided by The Hindu and Front line For him, the killings are not “current” news, but the culmination of various caste dimensions in society. He boldly exposes them through his field studies. In doing so, the rudeness of political parties, government, police and caste-based organisations is also exposed. Through Ilangovan’s analysis, we realise the tricks used by various groups to safeguard their own caste interests.

Social change is inevitable. Today, technology has strengthened human relations and made the feudal aspects of communication between man and woman obsolete. Thus, remnants of feudalism, such as castes, have also lost their everyday influence. In practice, a man and a woman can interact with each other, transgressing their respective castes. Caste has no role to play in this communication. It becomes natural for young people to express their feelings in public spaces. But caste, a remnant of the feudal system, does not approve of it. There is no understanding of social development within caste communities. That is why they resort to murdering the young couple. Caste groups, government institutions and other public systems also function within this context. Ilangovan’s work helps us understand this phenomenon with evidence.

The electoral social space in Tamil Nadu, as elsewhere, is based on vote banks. This has been the case from the 1950s to the 1990s in a covert way. The Dravidian parties that emerged from the tradition of self-respect based on social justice made no overt references to caste. With the arrival of the Ambedkar centenary, the Dalit movement, especially that led by Thol. Thirumavalavan, has reached new heights. To counter this, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) has set itself up as the party of the Vanniyar caste group, which translates into a vote bank and restructures the mobilisation of communities based on caste. It has been shown that caste associations were behind the murder in the Divya-Ilavarasan case of Dharmapuri.

Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu has been the bastion of the Maoist movement since the 1970s. Ilavarasan and Divya belonged to different castes, but the communities themselves were not averse to inter-caste marriages. Divya’s father supported Maoist ideology, but the emerging Vanniyar caste group turned Divya and Ilavarasan’s wedding into fodder for the vote bank. Disheartened, Divya’s father committed suicide. Taking advantage of his death, Vanniyar caste groups set fire to three Dalit villages. Soon after, Ilavarasan was found dead. The two deaths were declared as suicides; inquiry commissions formed by the government and the police took the word of the Vanniyar caste organisation as the “truth”.

If the Vanniyar caste organisation was the culprit in the Ilavarasan case, the Kongu Vellala Gounder organisation is responsible for the murder in the Gokulraj case. The case was handled by Vishnupriya, Deputy Superintendent of Police, a Dalit by birth. The caste group killed Gokulraj and Vishnupriya, and presented their deaths as suicides. Thanks to lawyer PP Mohan and his comrades, the leader of the Gounder caste group, Yuvaraj, was found guilty and is now serving a life sentence.

By documenting in detail how these caste-based organisations are responsible for honour killings, Ilangovan establishes how the feudal remnants of castes have been transformed into caste organisations and political parties that depend on them as vote banks. Honour killings are therefore not just a matter of inter-caste marriages; they are the contemporary manifestations of caste organisations with political clout. The entire administrative system supports these activities. Commissions formed by the government, local khap panchayats and the police in particular, cover up these realities and make them look like chance occurrences.

This book also exposes the ways in which caste hierarchy and patriarchy intersect in honour killings. Of the seven cases analysed in the book, the majority of those killed are women. In India, the murder of women in the name of caste purity reinforces the hold of machismo and patriarchy. Ilangovan carefully documents the facts to show how women’s oppression also influences honour killings.

In honour killings, Dalits are the ones who die. As in other atrocities committed against castes, those at the lowest positions in the hierarchy are the worst affected. The book also records how, even within marginalised castes, honour killings occur based on caste and class hegemony.

Read also | A caste variant of jihadi love is vitiating the social atmosphere in Tamil Nadu

It would not be out of place to recount Ilangovan’s state of mind in his own words here:

“When the news reached me that Ilavarasan’s body had been found near the railway tracks, it was as if a huge stone had fallen on me. I had to confirm again and again whether the news was true. My heart hoped against hope that it was not so. I had met Ilavarasan the day before and had spoken to him. His face filled my thoughts. His smile grew bigger and bigger and it shook me.

“I spent many days without being able to sleep. I felt lost, there was a void in me. My normal self was gone, it was like something had been taken away from me and I didn’t know what it was. It took me a long time to calm down and get over that tragedy.”

This quote reminds us that a journalist must also be a humanist committed to social good. Saathiyin Prayer It is not just a work on honour killings in Tamil Nadu; it is a document of the history of Tamil Nadu in the last 40 years. It reveals how the democratic process of elections depends on caste groups as vote banks. Caste organisations push society backwards. This work is a reference book for students of social history. It is a rare document on gender oppression and caste hierarchy in our social rubric. It is a must read for all social activists. We owe our thanks and appreciation to Ilangovan Rajasekaran for writing this book.

The book also includes in the appendix a translation of an English article by Sowjanya Tamalapakula on inter-caste marriages among Dalits. It helps us understand the functioning of caste and its gender dimensions among Dalits. Thanks to the lucid translation by Maruthan and Niveditha Louis, Saathiyin Prayer It reads with the fluidity of an original Tamil work.

V. Arasu retired as Professor and Head of the Department of Tamil from the University of Madras. He is currently the General Editor of The writings of Ambedkar, It will be published in 75 volumes by New Century Book House for the Government of Tamil Nadu.

The writer thanks A. Mangai for translating this review.