Last week, 59-year-old Nirmala Devi was found beheaded in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
On the same day, Stephen Raj was beheaded near a bus stop in the same district. The week before, a man called Sankara Subramanium was found murdered and decapitated. Two days later, the severed head of another man, Mariappan, was found on Subramanium’s grave.
Investigators now assert that the four beheadings are connected to two warring “gangs” from two different castes in southern India: the Pandian and Pannaiyar.
“Caste affinity motivates them,” VR Srinivasan, the superintendent of police in Tamil Nadu’s district of Dindigul, told The Indian Express. “They all had a collective motive, of revenge,” another officer involved in the case told The Indian Express. “Nothing could have stopped them.”
In India, at least one incident of caste-based violence is recorded every hour.
A Kathir, a Dalit social activist who runs the NGO Evidence that monitors crimes against Dalits, said his organisation has documented at least 300 caste-based murders in 33 Tamil Nadu districts over the last five years. In the group’s survey of around 100 Dalit murders, they found that the suspects in half of the cases had not been arrested. The latest government report showed that crimes against Dalits across the country continue to rise, and yet the conviction rate remains very low.
The caste system in India has parallels to America's racism problem. In the ancient social structure, people born in Dalit families are considered “untouchables” and subjected to structural and institutional exclusion, often through violent means. India outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950, but the caste system still widely exists.
Unlike many Indian states where the caste divide is used for political gains, Tamil Nadu has historically had a strong anti-caste movement, said Kalpana Sathish, a human rights and anti-caste activist. Still, realities on the ground remain abysmal. Very often, the Indian police have been reported to have caste bias, too.
“When the Dalit people retaliate, violence is unleashed on them. Then murders are committed,” Sathish told VICE World News. “The state terms these incidents as ‘caste clash’ or ‘rowdyism.’ They will not address the root cause – the caste problem.”
The recent series of murders and decapitations highlights India’s deeply-rooted caste system, and how communities resort to violence when they feel justice eludes them.
The Pandians are Dalits while the Pannaiyars are from a dominant caste similar to Brahmins.
In their investigation, the police found that caste-based conflicts between the Pandians and Pannaiyars have so far claimed at least 12 lives. The latest victim, Nirmala Devi, was accused in the murder of C Pasupathy Pandian, who was a prominent Dalit leader.
“The beginning of these revenge killings by the Pandian was locally seen as a reaction to harassment meted out to Dalit labourers who worked under the Pannaiyar family, mainly over issues such as water scarcity and disputes over a salt pan,” a senior police official involved in the investigation told the media.
Last year, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Tamil Nadu recorded “new levels” of caste-based discrimination. Dalits were murdered, forced to eat faeces, lynched by mobs, and became targets of other forms of violence.
“Ideologically, our state stands for social justice” Sathish said. “But in reality, the caste system is so entrenched. There is a history of thousands of years of oppression.”
A Human Rights Watch report found that the pattern of clashes in Tamil Nadu is an attempt by the Dalit at self-assertion and a reflection of their loss of faith in the justice system.
Caste assertion is a phenomenon in many parts of India. For instance, some Dalits are reclaiming temple spaces where they used to be banned because they were considered “impure.” In 2017, a spate of attacks on Dalits by dominant-caste men over growing a moustache led to a social media movement.
Often, when caste-based killings are reported or documented, police officials would rather keep mum for fear of being questioned by the public, Kathir said.
“There are several motivations for such murders: land issues, harassment issues, untouchability and so on,” he added. “A lot of Dalit activists and political leaders are murdered, too. These are not personal clashes. These are clearly social issues.”
Various human rights reports have documented how the police often refuse to register complaints from Dalits, delay their arrival at a crime scene, or fail to arrest suspects from the dominant castes.
Sathish said caste retaliation is bound to happen if the system continues to discriminate against Dalits. “In practice, social justice remains a slogan for Dalits.”
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