Young Women in Kerala : Between Empowerment and Death? — Part II
[With inputs from Sudeep K S]
Are there honour killings in Kerala? No, perhaps. However, like in everything else, Kerala has a way of telling the world that things can be done differently. Well, it appears that we can continue to claim another kind of exceptionalism — in national evils. Kerala has its own special way of ‘doing’ caste and patriarchy as well, which researchers and activists have forcefully argued recently. It is possible that the deadly consequences of stepping out of community-ordained boundaries in love and marriage can visit Kerala in ways that we cannot really detect with our usual instruments.
This is what the message seems to be, when one reflects on the sordid and utterly frightening turn of events following the death of a young woman, O.K. Indu, whowent missing off a train from Trivandrum to Kozhikode, on the night of 24 April. Two days later, her body was recovered from the Aluva river. Initially, the police called it a suicide, and from a ‘love triangle’. She was to be married very soon; her family had been making preparations for the marriage. The young woman was, apparently, torn between marriage and love, and she committed suicide. However, very soon, the suspicion fell on her friend, with whom she was apparently intimate, who travelled with her in the train — a young SC teacher at NIT, Kozhikode, where she was a research scholar.
All of a sudden, the debate changed.Though some of the newspapers began with mentioning the young woman’s dilemma, soon the media pounced upon her co-traveler,who was also her intimate friend, and declared him her murderer. After over seven days of investigation, the railways SP closed the case saying that it is a suicide and there is no reason to suspect Subhash. But the case was transfered to the Crime Branch. The media then launched an all-out attack on this young man, and fabricating more and more sensational tales of his friendship with Indu. There have been few efforts to counter this in the mainstream media — but for the efforts of Sudeep K S, a social commentator who works at the NIT, the picture would have been too easy and too perfect. Sudeep’s writing [http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150172757071027] gives us a clue on why this young man has been such a consistent target: he points out how the reports have stressed the young man’s ‘poor social status’, his job in NIT as due to ‘SC reservation alone’, his ‘short, dark-skinned looks’, which ‘could not have possibly attracted a ‘high-born’ daughter of an ‘aristocratic’, influential, upper middle class Nair family! He points out how vicious and motivated this campaign has been — Kalakaumudi Flash remarks that the support for this young man is from other teachers at NIT, who are also ‘beneficiaries of SC reservation’. Sudeep himself is not safe — as he mentioned to me, there was news in the Malayalam Manorama that the young man’s colleagues from NIT who have been campaigning for him on the Internet will be questioned by the crime branch.
Now, it is interesting that the Malayalam media should read things this way. For what may possibly be smelt most foully in all this is an ‘honour suicide’. I have of course no proof that Indu’s family may have pushed her directly or indirectly towards suicide, or whether it is an honour killing . My question is why the mainstream media does not highlight this possibility despite enough indirect evidence. If the young man’s caste status is good enough evidence for the mainstream media to declare him a killer, why does not the caste status of Indu’s family, which has been baying for this young man’s blood with a fervour that borders on the uncanny, implicate them? For, Indu’s relatives have insisted in public that she would not even think of marrying a man of another caste; the general horror at the thought of ‘miscegenation’ has been expressed in a completely unselfconscious way by her relatives. Why does the media, then, not suspect an ‘honour suicide’ in which the family could have played a considerable role? Why does it simply echo the xenophobic sentiments of the family? As Sudeep points out, the game would have been very different had the young man been an aristocratic Nair from an influential family in Trivandrum, and Indu, a dalit woman with no claims to an aristocratic famiy background.
In other words, there has been little reflection in the media about how how the occasion of marriage, which is socially forced, can be so upsetting of a woman’s life. It could well have been a situation in which this young woman had feelings for both men, and never really had the option of sorting out her feelings or that of becoming comfortable, in some way, with both. Both these would be private decisions, of course, something that a young woman in her mid-twenties had every right to make. However, young women in Kerala have no right to a ‘private’ — as distinguished from the ‘domestic’ which is open to community, family, and state surveillance. And women’s social membership does depend on their induction into the ‘domestic’. Indu, apparently, did have a ‘private’ — and she paid a tragic price. It is not as if young men of her class have open access to a ‘private’ either, but they do have the option of keeping away from marriage, or to a large extent, they can still maintain a private while lording over the domestic — an open secret to most of us Malayalees.
I do revise the claim that I made in my earlier post; it is clear that we need not only feminism but perhaps more than that — we need counter-communities that are feminist and open. It strikes me that Indu does not belong to the social class to which the young woman I mentioned in my last post belongs; she was highly educated and could have easily migrated to escape from whatever social trap that was set for her. In that sense she was ’empowered’. If she indeed committed suicide, that means that even her highly marketable skills did not save here — and perhaps because she was still expected to resist by herself, because there was no counter- community that could help her resist. In a society which is ‘casteist and patriarchal by other means’ we do need more and more counter-caste and counter-patriarchal communities — that are not just yet another round of caste-based interest-groups (these have their unique political significance in our context but do not suffice to be the base of resistance to community-patriarchal pressures), that will not demand ontological passports of caste or gender. Precisely because secularised brahmanical patriarchy ensures that all those who are born upper-caste do not enjoy power available to those in its upper echelons, and because heteronormativity involves, equally, the fear of miscegenation.
The grief and rage that I feel when I realize that a young woman may have had to throw herself away just because she could not bear such pressure is not translatable readily into words. We do need feminism, I’d say, to create an enabling atmosphere in which women faced with such pressures could step out easily from situations of oppression, and connect with other women, and counter-communities through which the pressures of caste and community may be resisted. I despair, equally, that no such feminism is in sight over here, that which will not give itself up to the games politicians play, that will not lend itself to governmentalizing feminism — and in the process,downplay,perhaps inadvertently, its mandate of radicalizing civil society.