Chennai, April 20, 2016:
For Gowri Shankar and Kamna Gautam, an inter-community couple from Tamil Nadu in the south of India, the state government’s decision to provide protection to couples like them has come as a huge relief.
Shankar, an upper caste Brahmin from Kumbakonam, married Kamna, who belongs to a lower community of Brahmins, in 2010, against the wishes of their families. The couple was forced to live apart from relatives until two years ago when the families “finally relented.”
Shankar said he was lucky.
“It could have been a lot worse,” he said, referring to a string of recent “honor killings” in his state.
Honor killings, in which couples are attacked because their families disapprove of their relationships over caste or religion, have emerged as a major debate in the last two decades in officially secular but historically caste-conscious India.
Shankar hailed last week’s High Court order, which directed the Tamil Nadu government to build safe shelters and set up a 24-hour helpline, among other measures, for inter-caste couples who fear for their lives.
“Such an order was long overdue because there is no place for caste discrimination in modern-day India,” he said.
“It is a big relief for us and many other couples that don’t care about the caste of their partner, but still have to live each day in fear of being attacked or killed by their own families,” Shankar, a software engineer, told BenarNews.
However, Shankar expressed doubt about how the order would be carried out.
“Tamil Nadu police officials are also caste-ist. So, I’m not sure how they’re planning to implement this,” he said.
Government seeks data
A senior state official said Monday that the government had already begun work to implement the High Court order.
Raj Shekharan, deputy secretary of the Department of Social Welfare, told BenarNews: “We have already directed our field officers to send us the data for ‘honor killings’ from their respective areas. After we receive their reports, we will consult the law department and other concerned agencies before preparing a draft proposal (to address the problem).”
Evidence, a Tamil Nadu-based organization working to secure rights of the Dalit community, which forms the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, claims there have been more than 80 honor killings in the state in less than three years.
Although India-specific figures are unavailable, U.N. statistics show that 1,000 of 5,000 such killings annually occur in India, a majority of them in the country’s rural pockets.
Hacked to death
In the latest such incident, V. Sankar, a 22-year-old engineering student, was hacked to death allegedly by members of his wife’s family in broad daylight in Tamil Nadu’s Udumalpet town last month.
Sankar, a Dalit, had married Kausalya, 19, who belongs to the upper Thevar caste, eight months before the brutal attack, which occurred in full public view and was caught on closed-circuit cameras.
Sankar and Kausalya, who was critically injured in the attack, had approached police on several occasions, citing threat to life, but no action was taken to provide them with security, Sankar’s brother, Vigneswaran, had told BenarNews then.
Last week’s court ruling is set to change that.
Among the court’s nine-point directive, the state government has been ordered to establish a special cell in each of the state’s districts to ensure the safety of inter-caste couples who fear attacks from family or community members.
These cells, which have to be set up within three months, must comprise a Superintendent of Police, District Social Welfare Officer and District Adi Dravidar (Dalit) Welfare Officer, according to the directive.
The government must also create a special fund to protect inter-caste couples who elope fearing a threat to life, the court said. The fund is to be utilized for providing shelter to the couples and rehabilitating them.
A bill that calls for harsher punishment for honor crimes has been debated since 2010 but has yet to be tabled in parliament for clearance.
“Legislation to take stringent action against those involved in honor killings should be brought forward,” G. Ramakrishnan of the left-wing Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) told reporters recently.
“Without considering the political affiliation or vote bank politics, it is the responsibility of all parties to put an end to such heinous crimes,” he said.
Calls for similar setup across India
Priyanka Gupta, a social development officer from Rajasthan state who married her upper-caste colleague Laxman in 2012 against the wishes of his family, said a system to protect inter-caste couples should be put in place across India.
“We don’t need moral policing. What we need is awareness campaigns all over India,” Gupta told BenarNews.
“It is strange that the country believes you can choose your government at 18 years, but your family and community members don’t give you the right to choose your life partner,” she said.
Neeraj Pandey, a lawyer in the High Court of north India’s Uttar Pradesh state, which has one of the highest rates of honor killings in the country, agreed with Gupta.
Each day the Uttar Pradesh court hears about 80 cases pertaining to honor crimes, Pandey told BenarNews.
“Soon, we will move a Public Interest Litigation seeking directions to the state government to take stringent measures to curb honor killings,” he said. (BenarNews)