Caught in the web of caste politics, while the girl’s father committed suicide, anti-Dalit violence was triggered in three villages of Dharmapuri, the couple were separated, and finally, the boy was found dead along a railway track on 4 July
The mob violence left a trail of destruction in three Dalit hamlets in Dharmapuri last year
It was one of the most controversial inter-caste love affairs in the country. The elopement and subsequent marriage last year of I Ilavarasan, a Dalit boy, and N Divya, a Vanniyar girl, was at first viewed as a story of how love had triumphed over caste. The two had even been supported by the state. However, a happy ending it was not to be. Caught in the web of caste politics, while the girl’s father committed suicide, anti-Dalit violence was triggered in three villages of Dharmapuri, the couple were separated, and finally, Ilavarasan was found dead along a railway track on 4 July.
In November last year, Divya and Ilavarasan of Dharmapuri district (254 km east of Chennai) in Tamil Nadu decided to get married. As a Vanniyar, Divya understood that a relationship with a Dalit boy would never be acceptable to her community. Though officially a Most Backward Caste (MBC) and historically only slightly more privileged than Dalits, the Vanniyars have experienced a degree of economic and political empowerment in recent years. In order to be together, the couple figured there was no way other than running from their homes.
But Divya was to rue her decision afterward. Unable to bear the “humiliation” of his daughter marrying a lower caste boy, Divya’s father, R Nagarajan, 48, committed suicide. The Vanniyars are a powerful community in Tamil Nadu and an important vote base of the Patttali Makkal Katchi (PMK) party led by former union minister Ambumani Ramadoss. It was alleged that at the instigation of PMK leaders, a Vanniyar Sangham (meeting) was organized, where Vanniyars from neighbouring villages gathered and decided to seek revenge over the humiliation suffered by the community. PMK leaders had for long been accusing Dalit boys of luring Vanniyar girls into marriage.
What followed came as a rude awakening of the reality in our country, that politics of caste is still as strong today as it was before Independence. On 7 November 2012, a 2,500 strong Vanniyar mob burnt down the three Dalit villages of Nathankottai, Kondampatti and Annanagar in Dharmapuri district in a matter of hours, forcing 1500 people to flee for their lives. Even though no lives were lost, the fire crippled the villagers’ lives economically and psychologically.
The couple, however, escaped unhurt then. According to Ilavarasan, they first moved to Bengaluru, and later under police protection, were brought to Dharmapuri. After living together for six months, on 6 June, there was a twist in the tale, when Divya’s mother Thenmozhi filed a habeas corpus petition in the Madras High Court, seeking custody of her daughter.
Before his tragic death, speaking from an undisclosed location in Andhra Pradesh, this is how Ilavarasan had described the sequence of incidents leading to the petition. “On 4 June, we got a call saying that Divya’s mother was seriously ill and she wanted to meet her.” Divya went to see her mother alone, but Ilavarasan could not as he was caught up with some work. Getting no news of either his wife or her mother until late evening, Ilavarasan suspected foul play and filed a missing complaint with the local police station. However, the next time he saw Divya was only in the court, where he said, they didn’t even allow him to talk to her.
On July 1, Divya told the Madras High Court that she would go with her mother “for the time being”. She also said that she had no problems in the house of her husband or with her mother-in-law, but had been under tremendous pressure because of the turmoil after her marriage and was haunted by her father’s death, who committed suicide after her marriage.
Ilavarasan had insisted that they were “not separated as projected in the media, but being pressurised to go our separate ways due to caste politics.” As for Divya’s decision to ask for a separation, Ilavarasan blamed the Vanniyar community leaders, the PMK and Thenmozhi.
Her decision had also upset the victims of the three villages who bore the brunt of their love affair. They felt that their losses would have still amounted to something, if the couple had stayed together. “The villagers were willing to give them all kinds of support,” says Pota Bhaskar, an activist from their village. “We had told them we would protect them.” In fact, human rights activist A Marx says the decision was driven by political considerations. “Her father’s death, the riots and caste pressures made her emotionally weak,” he says. “PMK leader Ambumani Ramadoss made it a prestige issue.”
On their part, the PMK denies any role in Divya’s decision to come back to her mother. However, its leaders defend their stand on opposing inter-caste marriages. “India has not developed so much that we can tolerate these kind of marriages,” says PMK leader Senthil R. “Even if they are allowed, the permission of their parents has to be sought. We are seeing too many cases of girls being duped and cheated in the name of marriage.” Senthil even has a formula handy for a successful married life. According to him, the cut-off age for love marriages for boys and girls should be 23 and 21 respectively, whereas it could be 21 and 19 for arranged marriages.
On 4 July, Ilavarasan’s body was found along a track behind the government arts college in Dharmapuri. There were also two letters found near his body, but the police are yet to ascertain the contents of the letter. Meanwhile, the Dharmapuri Superintendent of Police Asra Garg has said that the Railway police are conducting an inquiry and that it was too early to say if there is any foul play. Police pickets have been posted in sensitive areas in Naickenkottai and prohibitory orders have been clamped in Dharmapuri. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes chairman P L Punia has expressed shock and ordered a probe into the boy’s death. He said it was unfortunate that the boy had died and that “fanatics were finally able to succeed”.