Names and dates march past memory in an unending list of horrors—Kilvenmani, Villupuram, Muthukalathoor, Bodi, Kodiyankulam, Melavalavu, Tamirabharani, Unjanai, Thinniyam, Gundupatti, and now, Dharmapuri...massive caste atrocities against Dalits have given Tamil Nadu’s map zones shaded for horror and shame. With this history of hate and a tradition of honour killings, 20-year-old Ilavarasan’s death does not come as a surprise. It does not come as a shock either—in the last eight months following his marriage to Divya, not a single week passed without the PMK publicly declaring, often to thunderous applause, that Dalit men who lured Vanniyar girls would be murdered.
Even as it serves the interests of the PMK to portray Ilavarasan’s death as a suicide, the many inconsistencies surrounding his autopsy suggest otherwise. While advocates appearing on his family’s behalf point to lapses: the post-mortem was not conducted between 10 am-4 pm, his hair was not shaven to examine the nature of the head injury, his organs were not weighed, there were discrepancies in collecting blood for chemical analysis. Such lacunae directly result in the surgeon being unable to make the final call on whether the suspicious death is a murder or a suicide. A bench of the Madras High Court watched the post-mortem videos with a panel of experts to decide on a second autopsy—the footage was shocking in itself, as it revealed the steady stream of visitors, including policemen, politicians and lawyers inside the mortuary while the procedure was being carried out. The consensus is clear on one vital fact: irrespective of whether it was a suicide or murder or a murder made to appear like a suicide, the blame squarely rests on the caste terror unleashed by the PMK.
In the aftermath of Ilavarasan’s marriage to Divya of the Vanniyar caste last year, 268 Dalit homes were burnt and vandalised in three villages in Dharmapuri on November 7, 2012, by a PMK-led mob that used crude petrol bombs in the assaults. Although the scale of the attacks was staggering, such an incident of violence is only a small footnote in the sizzling history of the PMK, a party that thrives on anti-Dalit hate politics to consolidate its Vanniyar vote bank. Masterminded by S. Ramadoss, most reverentially referred in party circles as Doctor Ayya (pronounced I Yeah, translated for non-Tamils as Lord or Sir or Yahweh, as the occasion demands), a man who manaes to maintain a poker-face even in the face of this everyday terror.
Once upon a time, Doctor Ayya’s primary achievement lay in guiding young men of the Vanniyar Sangam to cut trees, block roads, burn Dalit settlements and employ similar tactics of intimidation against the state and the Scheduled Castes to secure for his people the tag of Most Backward Caste, and thereby create a sub-category of reservation to which most of the Other Backward Classes aspired to belong. He shot into prominence calling for the bifurcation of the state, and used every occasion he got to remind people of his rudimentary medical knowledge by demanding a referendum on the policy of prohibition (Do You Want To Drink And Die? or Do You Want To Just Die?)
According to legend, myth, anonymous blogs, unauthorised amateur historians and the official biopic broadcast on the party-owned TV channel, the Vanniyar caste traces its origin to a fire sacrifice, where armed men on horses erupted from a sacred cauldron and undertook twelve expeditions against tyrannous demons (read asuras) and destroyed them. Shorthand: Setting fire is second nature to seasoned party cadres. When Dalits in recent history started to seek their share in the power-structure and fought to win panchayat or parliamentary elections, forming their own political groupings like the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, or even excelled in the daily grind of feeding a family and building a home, it turned out to be a season for arson. So, as his political constituency declined and when a full-scale carnage was called for, all that Doctor Ayya had to do was to create an atmosphere of fear and suggest that Dalit upstarts threatened the pure bloodlines of incestuous inbreds. It was easy to play the caste card once his people were seized by the panic that no longer would the certainty of grandfather Vanniyar begat father Vanniyar begat son Vanniyar begat grandson Vanniyar hold. It was no country for half-bloods.
Though Tamil Nadu comes at the bottom of the all India list on inter-caste marriages, with less than two per cent of marriages taking place between Dalits and non-Dalits, the state faring marginally better than J&K and Rajasthan, Doctor Ayya was quick to launch his war on the global terror named Inter-caste Love. Although he was arrested for challenging the Jayalalitha government and daring the police to prove if it was possible to imprison him, his hate speech did not subside. Upon his release from prison, he squabbled about everything that made the Dalit male attractive. Jeans and sunglasses. T-shirts and cellphones. Tamil cinema and film songs. He pictured them as being actors in love dramas, referred to inter-caste unions as staged marriages, and repeated his earlier allegations that they were being coached by their leaders into this love mission. His concept of men on the prowl might have unintentionally advertised their desirability—smooth/ suave/ sexy—but his plan paid dividends. Untouchability, outlawed under the Constitution, was back in business. It has burnt villages, killed young people and recently cobbled up a non-Dalit (read anti-Dalit) caucus of intermediary castes like Gounders, Kallars, Udayars, Yadavas, Mudaliars, Naidus, Nadars and Reddys to work alongside the Vanniyars. Their two common demands—ban on inter-caste marriages and an abrogation of the Prevention of Atrocities Against sc/st Act—gave away their true agenda of upholding untouchability.
Dabbling in his Doctor Jekylldom, Ramadoss did not stop with the external threat of the Dalit male. Zeroing in, he has spotted an enemy within his own fold. Even his mask of sophistication does not hide his visceral hatred of the very idea of women’s independence. As caste can be protected only by controlling the bodies of women, they are ordered to be put under an adequate safety and surveillance regimen. To these caste fanatics, women’s sexuality is the equivalent of one hundred and eight million megatons of tnt, worse than Hiroshima, worse than the hydrogen bomb. Simultaneously seen as volatile and explosive, it’s only through caging women that their putatively pure caste lines can be maintained. The intimidation that Divya faced for her marriage, her contrary decision to stay with her mother, her entrapment, all point to the extent to which caste fanatics hold women hostage.
As Tamil Nadu does not harbour either oil reserves or the long-dead Osama, western imperialist powers will turn a blind eye to the fate of Tamil women (and men). No one will call for an intervention, no one will announce a drone attack to safeguard women’s rights, or Dalit rights, for that matter. For reasons easily imaginable, even FEMEN will not make the mistake of baring their collective breasts to condemn casteist patriarchy. Courts will make the correct noises and commissions of inquiry will buy time. Before beginning the mandatory class analysis, the Communists will mock, and perhaps rightly so, at the absurdity of the state’s institutionalised identity politics. The media, in spite of its new-found feminist avatar, will move on to other stories. Democracy will crack its knuckles, and before long, elections will get everyone busy. What happens to Doctor Ayya? If Tamils remember Periyar’s legacy and the Self Respect Movement, they will permanently dismiss him and his party from the public sphere. What happens to the moratorium on inter-caste marriages that deranged caste fanatics seek? Cutting across caste lines, young people must defy the diktats, come forward and lay claim to the life of love that Ilavarasan and Divya were not allowed to live. In these embattled times of caste terror, falling in love is a revolutionary act in itself.