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“I Am A Dalit!” – In Conversation On Caste Based Crimes

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Recently one more shocking but not new incident was heard from Tamil Nadu. A Dalit man died under mysterious circumstances in Kanyakumari. Soon after his death, the kin alleged an ‘honour killing’.

His name was Suresh Kumar. Suresh was 27 years old and a B.Com graduate. He fell in love with a dominant caste woman. All in all, crimes like beheadings, custodial tortures, forceful suicides are not a ‘sudden’ thing in the so-called most progressive Dravidian state.

To know more about these honour crimes, I spoke with Mr A Kathir – one of the leading human rights activists in Tamil Nadu and the founder-executive director of Evidence NGO. Evidence is a program unit of the media institute for National Development Trust.

This is an image of A. Kathir a prominent anti-caste activist
A.Kathir, human rights activist and founder of Evidence.

Kathir, who himself experienced several instances of caste discrimination, started the Madurai based NGO in 2005. The NGO has taken around 3000 cases of human rights violations into consideration related to dalits and tribals.

Sofia Babu Chacko (SBC): Tamil Nadu is not new regarding honour killings. Recently in Kanyakumari, a man was killed for having a relationship with an upper-caste woman. So it is a recent example. Mr Kathir, you have been fighting against caste discrimination for several years. So why has there been an increasing trend in honour killings in Tamil Nadu? Where does the state fail?

A. Kathir (A.K.): Evidence has been staunchly raising voice against honour crimes, particularly caste-based suicides, tortures, kidnaps and killings. From my experience, I could say those honour crimes are the byproducts of structured patriarchy and male chauvinism. The terrifying fact is that at least three honour killings in the name of caste are happening in Tamil Nadu every month.

Evidence has collected the RTI data from 2016- 2020. It was found that there were 55 cases of honour killings in the state, but the government’s response was shocking. The government had only seen four cases of honour killings.

Another data shows that from 2016-2017, seven accused persons were arrested, and the police had filed chargesheet only in one case.

From our conclusion, honour crimes are happening in Tamil Nadu every month. Still, the stressful factor is that family members of the deceased usually claim ‘that is a normal death’, which is entirely a wrong statement. Who are they trying to save in this?

We have witnessed other honour-based crimes where the family members themselves burn down the dead body by dishonour. However, in the last 20 years, only five convictions on honour killings happened in the state, and in maximum cases, convicts are acquitted.

So this is not about an increasing or decreasing trend. Now the real reasons behind the honour crimes are coming out. So we could say that this is a positive time, that cases are being reported, unlike the previous years. There is an end number of honour crimes happening. Hopefully, most of the issues are coming out in public now.

This is because of the judicial awareness and education factors deep-rooted among people that make them think. Now people started thinking about the early structured social problem, believing that honour deaths are not ‘normal’ deaths. This thinking is a positive step towards the annihilation of caste hatred.

This is an image of a conversation on Zoom based on caste-based crimes
Sophia Babu Chacko in conversation with Mr A Kathir via Zoom

SBC: Tamil Nadu, is at the forefront against injustices for years. Whether it is the state’s political stand on CAA, farm laws, reservation, NEET, Jallikattu, etc. The state has proved it would not tolerate hate. But why has this failed in the case of casteism?

The south calls itself progressive compared to the Northern states. But honour crimes, untouchability and casteist sentiments have been growing too fast in southern states. What’s your response to this?

A.K.: True that. Tamil Nadu is known for its anti-Brahmanical movements. The state’s socio-political stands are highly impressive. But, at the same time, we can see that casteism and the so-called Varna system are playing their worst forms in Tamil Nadu. This is a huge issue and a severe threat to brotherhood.

Progressiveness can be seen everywhere in its epitome but not in Dalit empowerment and development. We are raising this concern in public. In every village in Tamil Nadu, even today, we can witness the issues created by untouchability. There is a separate glass for a Dalit person in a tea shop and another glass for an upper-caste person.

Observe this difference. In temples and burial grounds, we can see this deadly discrimination. In every way, we can sense these inequalities. For example, if you are starting a business in India, the primary thing that matters is your caste or the community you are coming from.

This is an image of the Evidence team collecting data for a caste crime
Fact finding team of Evidence working in field to collect data of Harikrishnan Kallakuruchi’s honour killing.

See how pathetic it is to measure a human being by religious identity. When we had collected the data, some of the districts did not turn it in. They said the crime rates are confidential and can not be shared publicly. The truth is that the government is strategically not putting up the data.

Political parties like VCK and CPM are highlighting dalit issues at the forefront, which is appreciable. However, dalit representation, especially dalit women in the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, is complex. The reality is that casteism is deeply rooted in the minds of Tamil people, and most of the political parties are using it for vote bank politics.

SBC: Can we consider beheadings and revenge killings as other forms of caste hatred mentality of society?

A.K.: Not entirely. To an extent, caste hatred is the reason. But revenge murders have crime aspect mainly. Several years of problems have existed between different communities that may not always be categorised in caste hatred. In my understanding, caste murders and revenge murders are separate.

In most cases, caste is the reason, but the motive is crime and revenge with personal intention. Recently the cases of four beheadings were reported within ten days in Tamil Nadu. The revenge killings of 59 years old Nirmala Devi, Stephen Raj, Sankara Subramaniyam were shockingly heard by the state.

SBC: Can you share with us any unforgettable instance of caste discrimination you have gone through in your life? Did that motivate you to start a human rights defending NGO like Evidence?

A.K.: In 1984, when I was 12 years old, one of my relatives was gang-raped by two upper-caste Hindus. That was a shocking day for my family and me. The concerned Panchayat had not punished the culprits. He was acquitted after paying some fine.

When I was in class 11, my teacher asked me what my caste name was. I had remained silent for a few moments. Soon after that, my teacher asked me, “Do you belong to the scheduled caste”? That time I cried. I started thinking, what does Dalit liberation mean?

Maybe in getting a better education, adequate health facilities, land ownership and all. These are necessary and secondary factors. Primarily every Dalit should say proudly without shame, ‘I am a Dalit’. Be confident in it and shout that you belong to the outcaste. There starts the liberation of the marginalised. It is like a revolution that you are paving the way for change.

SBC: Now, let’s come to the NGO. What are the programs that Evidence has taken until now to prevent crimes based on caste?

A.K.: Evidence started functioning in 2005 soon after I participated in the U.N.’s World Conference against racism held at Durban. I started thinking about a new organisation that particularly highlights caste-based violence. We are focusing on Dalit human rights monitoring.

We have taken around 3000 cases of human rights violations, primarily caste-based. Every year 200 to 250 cases have been reported. Evidence gives stress on victim protection, granting compensation and strategy training programs.

Evidence's Fact finding on Devathanapatti land issue
Evidence’s Fact finding on Devathanapatti land issue

Through this, we will make sure the participants know how to file a complaint and use the media when an honour crime happens in their place. We, as an organisation, legally monitor caste crimes. As a result, Evidence is the only legal organisation that ensures legal intervention in caste crimes separately.

We are organising programs for safeguarding tribal human rights. Evidence actively intervenes on those issues related to untouchability practices. We ensure the participation of marginalised sections in politics and fight for their land rights.

Our fight promotes inter-caste marriages, strongly opposes sexual violence against women, and end child labour. Our approaches are different. We apply right-based and comprehensive techniques by conducting detailed research and round table consultations. Most importantly, social dialogues, training programs and mobilisation campaigns.

SBC: How to tackle this critical situation of casteist attacks? Are all these programs enough to end murders, beheadings, honour killings? What steps can we take to make people aware of social instability?

A.K.: As I said earlier, social dialogues are required to end these discriminatory practices. The next step is spreading the culture of human rights. Teaching the importance of dignity and equality is necessary from the school level itself.
The proper implementation of policies and laws are very significant. Government has to provide Panchayat, school-college level awareness against honour crimes and the importance of human rights to dalits and tribals.

SBC: It is proved that there are delays in filing chargesheets. In that case, what is the role of the police and legal system in denying justice to the victims at the proper time? Government can play a huge role in implementing strict actions against hate killings. Isn’t it? So how is the state government extending its support to reducing crimes against dalits?

A.K.: FIR filing process has been pending in many cases. There is also a delay in the actual pronouncement of judgements. The biased investigation is the basis of these delays. Otherwise, we can see a complete failure by denying justice to poor people. The important thing is that quality education is missing here.

The police fail in submitting proper evidence and authentic documents in several cases. We can witness a complicated and complex investigative process systematically carried out by police. If influential people filed the complaint with political influence, definitely there would be no delay in the investigation.

Evidence organising Youth Human Rights training program
Evidence organising Youth Human Rights training program

Their lives are secured as they have influential positions in society. Then who is accountable to marginalised people?
The state government is monitoring crime cases regularly. However, our criminal procedure system is a failure. The loopholes can be seen very clearly. We need a criminal justice monitoring system in various government departments to prevent victims from tackling this. It is not about extending support.

This is the duty and responsibility of the government to reduce honour crimes in the name of caste. If the police fail in ensuring justice to dalits, the whole responsibility goes on the shoulders of the state government. Being accountable to people is essential. That’s what a responsible government should do.

SBC: School textbooks teach about ‘what is Varna system’ but never discuss the issues created by this varna system functioning? What is the scope of starting the fundamental lessons of caste brutalities from curriculum lessons in that scenario? Can education and academic space have their roles in reducing casteist crimes?

A.K.: Our curriculum never teaches about the social problem of casteism. Learning theories and writing for exams is not the exact meaning of education. We should apply this in practical life. Education and awareness are crucial.

At the same time, the mindset of people towards casteism needs to be changed. The attitude of non-dalits needs to be changed. We need more dalit activists to propagate our views, political stands and social concerns.

Through education, we can teach the practical aspects of social justice and human rights application. The importance of welfare activities and equality programs can be well trained from the primary level. Panchayats can also monitor honour crimes, and it has to implement progressive initiatives for dalit tribal rights protection.

SBC: The Kollywood industry has been making more films like ‘Pariyerum Perumal’, ‘Asuran’, ‘Jai Bhim’ and so on, based on caste-based subjects. Art is a creative medium to convey an issue. Is this a good sign that movies focus on humanitarian grounds rather than super mass hero movies?

A.K.: Definitely, this is a good sign. Art and artistic form are very influential in society. Movies on human rights issues are hopeful. The transformation from mass hero movies to content-based valuation is praiseful. Compared to other movie industries, Tamil films now focus more on dalit and tribal related issues.

At the same time, hatred towards art forms and artists has become a usual thing nowadays. For example, during the movie release of ‘Asuran’, when I openly supported the movie, I got a lot of threatening calls and messages. Of course, this is a huge issue. However, this new wave of marginalised storytelling is appreciable.

SBC: You and your team have been working to protect human rights for many years. Was there any threat you received? What challenges do you tend to face while covering a particular human rights violation issue?

A.K.: Since 2005 itself, we have been getting threats. I mean many threatening calls and messages, like what I said earlier. Some people cannot tolerate the essence of truth. They are creating problems by dividing communities.

Evidence's fact finding on a Dalit woman assault case in Tamil Nadu
Evidence’s fact-finding on a Dalit woman assault case in Tamil Nadu

Fact-finding is not an easy task. We have gone through many challenging situations, but justice delivery is more critical. There will be barriers. Evidence’s job is to clear all those barriers and move on to work for the rights of dalits and tribals. We will continue to do this process.

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