On 29 March, Sudhakar Murugesan, a 24-year-old of the Kullathur community—classified as Scheduled Caste in Tamil Nadu—was murdered by a group of men, in Morrappathangal village of Thiruvannamalai district. In September 2019, he had married Sharmila, a woman from the caste-Hindu Gounder community, classified as Backward Class in Tamil Nadu. “Sudhakar and Sharmila, from the neighbouring village, had gotten married without anyone else knowing,” Murugesan, Sudhakar’s father, told me. He continued, “She belonged to an upper-caste community and her family kept troubling us.” Fearing for their life, the couple fled to Chennai, where Sudhakar began working as a mason. However, 16 days after their wedding, Sharmila’s family managed to find her and forced her to return to her parents’ house. Sudhakar however, remained in Chennai fearing for his life. “He came back home because of the lockdown. His wife’s family, who had threatened to kill him, were waiting for this opportunity,” Murugesan said.
That morning, Sudhakar had left his house to go to the fields. “Fifteen minutes after he left, we got a call that he had been attacked” Murugesan, said. “By the time we reached the spot, he had died. His mother has been bedridden since then. She doesn’t eat, and is crying all the time,” Murugesan, who broke down frequently while speaking over the phone, told me. “We want justice for our son.”
The murder of Sudhakar is one among the rising number of atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu that have taken place during the national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdown brought not only a daily struggle for food and employment for Dalits in the state but also a sharp uptick in caste-based murders and public humiliations. Under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, the SC/ST Protection Cell of the state chaired by the director general of police is required to collect and publish data every month on the number of atrocities that have occurred. However, the body has not published any of the relevant statistics for the duration of the ongoing lockdown. The office of JK Tripathy, the DGP, directed me to Thamarai Kannan, the assistant DGP for welfare. Kannan’s office did not respond to our queries about the number of atrocities that have occurred in the state and why the administration had not published the data.
The missing data on the rise of anti-Dalit atrocities in the state has however, been carefully collected by Evidence, an organisation which works on Dalit rights and is based out of Madurai. Vincent Raj, the founder of Evidence and commonly called Evidence Kathir, told me, “We have been collecting data of atrocities from the police and from Dalit organisations for years now. The lockdown has seen a clear rise in the number of brutal atrocities. If you count brutal atrocities, against SC and ST communities, like rape, murder and lynching, those have sky-rocketed.” Kathir told me that in January, February and March this year, the number of brutal atrocities in the state were five, eight and six respectively. “According to our studies, which we conduct on a regular basis, every month in Tamil Nadu there are about 100 to 125 cases filed under Atrocities act, five to seven of them being brutal,” Kathir said. “During this lockdown period the brutal cases alone have shot up to thirty.”
Several Dalit organisations in the state told me that this high number was despite the systematic under-reporting of atrocities during the lockdown and the Tamil Nadu police’s unwillingness to register atrocity cases. “It becomes very difficult for the victims to reach out to police stations because of the lockdown,” Kathir said. “The police, on the other hand, cite the pandemic as a reason to avoid filing FIRs or take action. Some form of atrocity is being committed against Dalits every day till date. Perpetrators look at this lockdown as an opportunity to unleash atrocities against the vulnerable communities,” he added.