“I am not afraid,” are Kausalya’s favourite words.
At 20, she looks battle ready, her hair cropped short as she roars into office on a motorcycle. Dressed in simple cottons, her smile is effusive and her voice soft – the only indication of the steely resolve that has propelled her to the centre of a movement against honour killings are those four words: I am not afraid.
At 18, Kausalya dared to marry a Dalit man in college, transgressing the inviolate bounds of caste that regulate the lives and loves of millions of Indians. Her family lashed out, first threatening her, then abducting her and finally in a feral attack last year that shocked India, hacking her husband to death in broad daylight.
Today, she breathlessly travels across Tamil Nadu for public meetings and lectures against honour killings, her new colleagues encasing her in a warm, protective ring. To her family, Kausalya is a villain who besmirched their caste honour but for the hundreds of young women who crowd her events, she is a freedom fighter.
“I have to motivate the next generation against caste so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone… (Bhim Rao) Ambedkar and (EV Ramaswamy) Periyar inspire me,” she tells HT.
Her father and uncle are behind bars, owing to a police complaint she made from the hospital bed after the attack, but she has plenty of enemies back in her home town of Palani in southern Tamil Nadu. But ask her about the danger, and she firmly shakes her head. “Shankar is no more, what do I have to lose? I know they are looking for me but I am not afraid.”
In 2014, Kausalya met Shankar at an engineering college in Pollachi; he came up to her on the second day in a bus and proposed. She turned him down but a friendship kindled over the next six months. “Shankar was respectful, he told me I looked like his mother who had passed away.” When he asked her a second time, she embraced his love.
But trouble was already brewing. Kausalya’s parents were influential Thevars, an intermediate caste with significant political and economic clout, and relatives had seen the couple together after college. After a particularly nasty fight at home, Kausalya decided to drop out, marry Shankar and support him through college. They wed in the presence of his friends but despite growing threats, decided to not flee the state. That decision would later come to haunt them.
On March 12, 2016 the couple travelled in Udumalaipettai town to buy Shankar a new shirt. As they walked to the bus stand, a gang of men armed with hatchets and sickles on motorcycles waylaid the couple and hacked 22-year-old Shankar – the grisly murder caught live in a traffic camera to be later beamed to the world. Kausalya barely survived.
The tragedy blindsided her. In May that year, she allegedly tried to kill herself amid the crushing loneliness and disappointment at the apathy of mainstream parties, who stayed away to placate the powerful Thevar vote. Closure came slowly. She cut her hair, shunned make-up and even her favourite bindi, prepared for a tough job exam and is today a successful officer. “I don’t want to depend on anyone…I want to build a new life. So I changed myself.”
But it isn’t easy to leave the spectre of caste in a state that has seen a string of riots and atrocities from the 50s. Next week, Kausalya is travelling to Tiruvannamalai, where a group of dominant caste Vanniyar youth allegedly ransacked a Dalit village and killed a man, all for the crime of an inter-caste romance – an almost blow-by-blow repeat of the Dharmapuri massacre of 2013.
C Lakshmanan at the Madras Institute of Development Studies estimates around 150 such cases happen every year – a curious occurrence in the land of social reformist Periyar where both major parties claim his anti-caste legacy.
“No, actually. Anti-Brahmin politics isn’t anti-caste politics, it just replaces hegemony. Non-brahmins never thought of annihilating caste but held on to the rhetoric,” he says.
He points to the murder of Dalit man Gokulraj in 2015 – almost identical to Shankar’s – and how his alleged killer triumphantly surrendered to the police with an adoring crowd of 2,000-odd men. “There are no Dalits in decision making positions in police and politics. No judicial commission set up for these cases has had a Dalit judge.”
Kausalya knows this, and is prepared for an uphill battle. But she says the nights are the toughest to pass, when she is alone and thinks of Shankar. “You know, he used to call me “papa” (little girl), he would do the dishes, wouldn’t let me work.”
The young girl who spent her days listening to love songs is now surrounded by anti-caste books, and says she sometimes feels like a prisoner. “Our country got independence but we don’t even have the freedom to love.” But her fight against caste steadies her – I remember Periyar’s saying “Religion makes animals out of humans, caste makes garbage” and I find the strength to fight for our freedom.