Caste impunity and gender violence behind murder of Dalit garment worker in Tamil Nadu

The employee identity card of Jeyasri Kathirvel a Dalit garment worker from Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district who was murdered in January. Her murder highlights the severe forms of caste impunity in garment factories in Tamil Nadu. COURTESY HOPE
28 February, 2021

On 1 January, Jeyasri Kathirvel, a 21-year-old garment-factory worker from Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district, was murdered. The local police have accused two men, including her immediate factory supervisor, V Thangadurai, who confessed to committing the crime with his relative B Jeganathan, according to a police report. Jeyasri, who is Dalit, was working in the district’s Kaithayankottai village, at the Natchi Apparel factory—a unit of Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment-export company. The case did not receive any national media coverage, though it was covered by the foreign press, in reports that focused on lack of accountability for sexual harassment in garment factories, which has often led to similar incidents in the past. Yet, even much of that reporting ignored the role that caste plays in empowering perpetrators of sexual violence, and the impunity enjoyed by dominant caste men.

Thangadurai and Jeganathan are both from Dindigul’s Kombaipatti village, and members of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, a dominant caste across much of western Tamil Nadu and classified as Backward Class in the state. A fact-finding report by the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, an independent workers’ union, and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions, human rights organisations and activists, released later that month found that Jeyasri had been continually sexually harassed by Thangadurai. Jeyasri and her mother, Muthulakshmi, are members of TTCU. However, several activists told me that framing the issue as one of sexual harassment alone hides the underlying structure of caste supremacy that defines hierarchies in garment factories.

Jeyasri had joined the Natchi Apparel factory, situated around twenty kilometres from her home, in 2018. She simultaneously pursued her bachelor of arts in Tamil, working evening through late night to fund her own education, and subsequently enrolled in a master of arts in a Tamil programme at the Arulmiga Palaniandavar College of Arts and Culture in the town of Palani. Jeyasri’s mother, Muthulakshmi, also worked in the same factory, folding garments, while Jeyasri was employed as a quality checker. “Jeyasri was a very promising student and her professor had promised her a job at the college when she completed her course,” Muthulakshmi told me.

The Natchi Apparrel factory had closed during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. When it reopened, only Jeyasri resumed, leaving her and her father, Kathirvel, to earn for their family of nine. Muthulakshmi told me that Jeyasri used to work demanding shifts, between 4.30 pm and 1 am, after her studies for the day. Thangadurai, who stayed at the company hostel, worked overlapping shifts with her.

Muthulakshmi told me that though Jeyasri was generally a quiet girl, she was forthright and vocal at work. “There was a recent incident—we came to know she had complained during buyer inspections that faulty pieces were coming in the line,” Muthulakshmi said. “This seems to have provoked Thangadurai, who casually told me once, ‘Your daughter is giving complaints in high places, tell her to cool down.’” Muthulakshmi said that when she asked her daughter what happened, she brushed it aside saying it was common at work. “He would call her often in the morning, but when we enquired why, she would say, ‘He is my supervisor, he’s calling to know about the pieces.’” Muthulakshmi said she had told her daughter to “quit her job and concentrate on studies” if she was facing difficulties with her supervisor. She added, “Sexual harassment is far more serious—if she had spoken to me about that, I would have told her to stop going to work immediately.”

On 1 January, Jeyasri had left home for work at the usual time but her family later found that she never arrived at the factory. “The last time we spoke to Jeyasri was at around 9.30 pm and I asked her if she ate, thinking she was at work,” Muthulakshmi said. “She sounded dull, and said that it was because she had got wet in the rain and was feeling cold. I could also hear a male voice behind her saying ‘pesu, pesu’”—talk, talk—“and when I asked her who that was, she said it was nothing and that she was in the factory canteen. She did not respond to any calls after that.” Muthulakshmi said factory workers from the village had seen Thangadurai report to work that day and got permission to leave early at around 7.20 pm.

Later that night, when Jeyasri did not return by 2 am as she usually did, her father filed a complaint at the Vadamadurai police station, located near their village, though no first-information report was registered against it. In 2014, the Madras High Court had mandated that the police must register FIRs against all missing-person complaints. Only on 5 January, when the police found Jeyasri’s body near the Classic Knit Mill at Vagarai village, more than fifty kilometres away from the factory, did they register an FIR at the Kallimandiyam police station, which exercised jurisdiction over the area where she was found.

“Our suspicion fell on Thangadurai’s phone number, as he used to call Jeyasri often on the pretext of work,” Muthulaksmi told me. “When the police checked Jeyasri’s call records, they found that he had called her multiple times from his phone on that day, and our suspicion was confirmed.” Thangadurai and Jeganathan were arrested on 8 January and booked for murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. A police report from the same date, a copy of which I have seen, notes that Thangadurai had confessed to the crime. Confessions to police officials are, however, inadmissible in court, according to Indian criminal procedure.

The police report noted, “The doctors who did the post mortem mentioned verbally that it appears Jeyasri was strangulated and killed.” However, there is no mention of strangulation or cause of death in the post-mortem report itself, a copy of which is with The Caravan. When asked over the phone and by email about this discrepancy, K Ashokan, the deputy superintendent of police for Ottanchatram, who is also the investigating officer in the case, did not respond. The post mortem report only stated that the final opinion was “pending” because the “chemical analysis of viscera” was still awaited.

The police report further stated, “As she worked there [at Natchi Apparel], she came to know Thangadurai, son of Vadivel, of the Gounder (BC) community and both of them developed a relationship. Over a period, Jeyasri started harassing Thangadurai to marry her, and thinking that if she continued to live, it would cause him ‘all kinds of trouble’, he decided to kill her with the help of Jeganathan. He fooled her saying he would marry her on 1 January and asked her to come to Ottanchatram by 8 pm that night.” Muthulakshmi told me that she heard Thangadurai had confessed as much to the police. But neither she, nor her family or friends, seemed to have been aware of any such relationship. “We shared everything, she was like a sister to me, but never once did she tell me she was in love with him,” a close friend of Jeyasri, who wished to remain anonymous, told me.

Though there are several versions about the exact nature of their personal relationship, the emphasis by the police account that they were found to have one, and that she was ‘harassing’ him for marriage, sidetracks from the various systemic failures that allowed for this murder. Most mainstream regional newspapers also reported the incident through this lens. Such reports also work to distract from scores of other similar cases of sexual and physical violence of primarily Dalit women in the garment industry. Regardless, several people told me that the characterisation of any relationship between Thangadurai and Jeyasri was ignoring a vast power imbalance of caste, gender and hierarchy. They argued that garment factories did little to challenge, and often a lot to maintain, such strict social hierarchies.

Several people I spoke to said that even though sexual harassment or coerced relationships were common in garment factories, Jeyasri was murdered only because she was Dalit. Speaking about Thangadurai, a Dalit woman from a neighbouring village who had worked briefly at Natchi Apparel and knew Jeyasri, told me, “He would not have come anywhere close to thinking of doing such a thing, had Jeyasri not been Dalit.” She, too, requested anonymity. Kathirvel, Jeyasri’s father, echoed the accusation. “Caste was the main reason. Why else would he have gone to the extent of killing her?” he said. “Within a matter of one month after Jeyasri complained about him regarding faulty pieces coming in the factory line, he seems to have schemed to use her and finish her. We hear now that many workers in the factory who worked under him had stopped going to work because of the way he would keep abusing them.”

Jeyasri’s family outside their home. “Caste was the main reason. Why else would he have gone to the extent of killing her?” Kathirvel, Jeyasri’s father, told me. Sowmya Meenakshi

Indeed, the phrase “all kinds of trouble” referred to in the police report is a masked reference to the consequences of publically admitting to a relationship with someone from a Dalit community. S Abrham, the Dindigul constituency secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi—Tamil Nadu’s largest Dalit party—told me that Jeyasri’s murder could be described as an honour killing. “Jeyasri was a well-educated girl from the Dalit community and he was from the so-called ‘upper caste’ Gounder community,” Abrham said. “We heard that his marriage had been fixed within his own community and his family would never accept Jeyasri as she is a Dalit girl, so he decided to kill her. To dominant-caste men like Thangadurai, the stigma of being found in a relationship with a Dalit girl appears more damning than the consequences of murder. Even with so many laws, they don’t have any fear.”

“Dominant-caste men like Thangadurai may also feel they can commit atrocities with impunity because nearly every position of power in the region is occupied by someone from his community,” a senior political observer in the region, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “Be it N Chandran, the owner of Eastman Exports; R Sakkarapani, who represents Ottanchatram in the state legislative assembly; or Edapaddi Palanisamy, the first Gounder chief minister of the state,” the political observer added.

While no FIR was registered at the Vadamadurai police station when Jeyasri’s father went to file the missing-person complaint, on 7 January, the Ottanchatram police station registered a case against 18 Dalit protestors for a protest demanding that Jeyasri’s murderers be apprehended. Abrham said, “The law says we can organise and protest, but in reality, they make it impossible for us.”

Reports of Jeyasri’s murder by international campaigns for sustainability in the fashion industry, and social media conversations place the entire onus of preventing such crimes on the big global brands that create unsafe workplaces—seen as the most powerful entities in the supply chain. But these narratives tend to be stripped of the local social and caste context in which they take place. “Till the 1980s, Dalits were not even considered in the labour supply chain in the textile factories,” R Karuppusamy, the director of the Rights Education and Development Centre, a non-governmental organisation that works with marginalised communities and textile workers in Tamil Nadu, told me. “They were employed to clean toilets, the factory premises, and so on. As the need for labour grew with exports, factory owners started recruiting Dalits to work inside. But all the supervisory and management roles were almost always with the so-called upper castes. The hypocrisy of caste discrimination is that it is conveniently overlooked when money, or the satisfaction of sexual needs, is involved.”

N Palanichamy, the secretary of HOPE, a Dindigul-based NGO that imparts rights-awareness and vocational training to women workers, told me that cases of sexual violence, murder or suicides of Dalit garment workers under suspicious circumstances were common. He said they barely ever led to convictions. “There have been over 100 reported deaths—either suicides or murders of young garment workers in Tamil Nadu over the past five or six years, many more go unreported,” he told me. “In most of these cases, the company pays some small compensation to the family and the case is closed without any arrests for the lack of evidence.”

In this case, Eastman Exports gave the family a solatium of Rs 5 lakh, Jeyasri’s mother told me. Alagesan S, the senior vice president of Eastman Exports also told me by email that, “We have paid the settlement dues and ex-gratia amount on the humanitarian ground to the victim’s mother.” He denied any responsibility in the incident. “The said unfortunate incident has happened almost 70 KMs away from our factory and no way connected with the workplace,” Alagesan said.

Referring to the compensation paid by the company, a female worker earlier employed in a private textile mill in Vedasandur, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “Even this much would not have happened had the girl been from other states or districts.” She told me that suspicious deaths among migrant workers in textile and garment factories was even more widespread. “The brokers who bring them to work in these factories tell their parents at the outset that it would not be the company’s responsibility if the girl runs away,” she said. “When these girls commit suicide or get killed, the factory just pays some ten or twenty thousand rupees to the parents, sometimes not even informing them of her death, and lying that she ran away.” Karuppusamy added, “Of the 62 reported suicides related to textile workers in the past three or four years in the Tiruppur, Erode and Dindigul area, 90 percent are young, Dalit women and migrant workers.”

BR Ambedkar has extensively written about how caste, control over women’s bodies and patriarchy are inextricably intermeshed, and many studies by research scholars on contemporary India show how little has changed. In 2011, the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations—a Dutch non-profit research organisation working on social, ecological and economic issues—and the India Committee of the Netherlands, a human-rights group, published a report titled Captured by Cotton, about the garment industry in Tamil Nadu. “Globalisation of production chains has led to increasing flexibilisation and feminisation of labour,” the report stated. “These trends are also clearly visible in the Tamil Nadu garment industry where a male, permanent labour force has been replaced by a female, flexible labour force.” Quoting from a specific case, the report continues, “At KPR Mill, one of the big players in the export garment industry in Tamil Nadu, financial director Kumar candidly explains that ‘With girls it is easier to maintain discipline’.”

But supervisory and managerial roles still remain with men, who brazenly exercise many forms of control on factory floors predominantly comprising women. In a December 2016 report called Fabric of Slavery, the ICN, interviewed 2,286 workers from 743 spinning mills in four districts of Tamil Nadu—Dindigul, Tirupur, Erode and Namakkal, covering nearly half the mills in the state. The report stated, “During the research, focus group discussions took place with workers from all mills. Women will never report being victim of sexual harassment themselves, but share stories of colleagues who have been victims of different forms of harassment.” It added, “Women workers who live in a society where sexual harassment is rampant, look at verbal harassment as being ‘normal’. Rape goes mostly unreported, since reporting seldom leads to prosecution of the perpetrator, while it stigmatises the victim.” 

The report continued, “Researchers found media reports that document (sexual) harassment in 64 of the (743) mills in this research. In group discussions with women it turned out that verbal harassment and intimidation occurs in ALL mills.” The TTCU-AFW fact-finding report also stated that nearly 90 percent of the workers at the Natchi Apparel factory are women. The supervisors of the factory are, however, nearly all men.

In Dindigul, at least one woman worker told me that she had faced such harassment. “I have been sexually harassed by my senior in the same company,” an ex-employee of Natchi Apparel from the Dalit community, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “My brothers intervened and I ended up quitting the job. It is easy for women like you to talk—only we know what all problems we have to face if we spoke up or registered a formal complaint. How much ever we study and get an education, we live in that same circle, and have to fear what people around us talk, what it would mean for my family.” She said that even her parents would scold her after such incidents and ask her to “stay within her limits.”

The TTCU-AFW fact-finding report states, “Seven women workers at Natchi Apparels have testified that Jeyasre was sexually harassed multiple times by the supervisor.” It continued, “They have stated that the supervisor had a history of sexually harassing women and that he is not the only supervisor or manager who has indulged in these actions.” TTCU did not respond to multiple requests for further details.

However, such claims are systematically denied by factory owners. When asked by email about this report’s findings, Alagesan said, “The said allegations against Supervisor Thangadurai and other supervisors as well is totally False and baseless. No complaint was informed / registered against Thangadurai in the factory by any worker or co-staff till date.” In his reply, Alagesan also said that Eastman Exports had a grievance redressal committee, internal complaints committee for addressing cases of sexual harassment and a workforce representatives committee. He also said that a prominent local NGO called SAVE was an external member of their ICC and that Eastman has set up a hotline where victims could call a British audit firm called Impactt and register their grievances. Alagesan added, “No negative incident was reported to these relevant committees or factory management or Impactt through hotline or the referred NGO SAVE.”

Aloysius Arockiam, the founder and managing director of SAVE, told me that they had done an independent fact-finding mission into the murder in January and did not find evidence of Thangadurai having sexually harassed Jeyasri. “In this particular case, we should not deviate from the original objective of finding the real motives behind the crime,” he told me. “At the same time, we need to be constructive and create adequate space for dialogue with local stakeholders on how to further strengthen the internal systems for a safe work environment.” He did, however, believe that caste had played the major role. When asked if the fact-finding mission was done on the behest of Eastman Exports, Aloysius stated that it was done independently. He also mentioned that SAVE had, under a multi-stakeholder initiative, previously worked to promote ICCs in Eastman’s factories. He did not give further details.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 states that every workplace with more than ten employees must have an ICC at least four members, at least half of whom are women. It also specifies that the ICC must have one external member “from amongst non-governmental organisations or associations committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment.” This stipulation was made so that at least one member would not have a conflict of interest when arbitrating cases of sexual harassment. But NGOs having such a prior working relationship with factories, as SAVE did in this case, could cloud such a desired independence.

Worker organisations in the form of trade unions have not been able to fill this gap, either. The 2016 ICN report found, “Out of 743 mills, in 10 mills trade unions have access to the mills and membership amongst spinning mill workers. 33 mills have some sort of workers committee. Only 1 mill in Dindigul has both a trade union and a Workers Committee. 94% of the mills do not have any form of workers’ representation.”

“Trade unions are not strong in these areas; they are not allowed to come up,” KR Ganesan, the Dindigul district general secretary of the Central Indian Trade Union, told me. “Neither the mill owners nor the government is taking any steps to ensure workers’ rights. Young students are being taken away from poor and marginalised families on the pretext that they can continue to study while working at the mill, but in reality, they are compelled to work 2-3 shifts, kept in closed bondage and face widespread sexual harassment.” Ganesan was referring to the practice institutionalised by the Sumangali scheme, widely prevalent since the 1990s, under which young, unmarried girls would be contracted by brokers to work in textile mills under restrictive conditions. These girls would be paid only a lump-sum amount after three or five years to pay for their weddings.

Despite the Tamil Nadu government claiming that Sumangali is no longer practiced, activists say it is rampant and cases have been reported as recently as 18 February 2021. In a reference to suicide, Ganesan said, “With no one to speak to about all this, their young minds are unable to take that kind of pressure, leading them to extreme actions.”

While there is frequent reporting and campaigns to hold garment companies accountable in relation to sexual harassment or the right to unionise, the depth with which caste is in-built into the system is rarely written about. Alessandra Mezzandri, who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in her book The Sweatshop Regime: Labouring Bodies, Exploitation, and Garments Made in India, points out that high-pitched battles against “modern slavery” are somewhat wrongly foisted on countries such as India where structural and social differences of caste and patriarchy pre-exist and pre-date the industry, thus distracting from the real issues.

“What is in society is what will reflect inside the factory, too,” Karuppusamy told me. “Until we openly talk about caste-based discrimination and how endemic it is to gender violence and bondage inside the factories, and try to work to eliminate it, all our efforts will yield limited results.”

An earlier version of this article failed to mention that Jeyasri and her mother, Muthulakshmi, were members of TTCU. The piece has been changed to better reflect this. The line beginning, “Reports of Jeyasri’s murder by international campaigns...” incorrectly used a hyperlink to a social-media account of the Asian Floor Wage Alliance. This has been removed as it does not reflect the AFWA’s view on the issue. The Caravan regrets this error