Kausalya’s journey, punctuated by a suicide attempt and sporadic depression, culminated in her taking up activism against caste-hate killing.
Not all tragedies trigger the transformation of victims into activists and crusaders for justice. But one did, in recent times, when a brutal caste hate crime took place in the public eye in broad daylight.
In March 2014, images of Kausalya, in a mustard saree, sporting long hair and a garland, and content in the company of her husband were flashed across the media. That was the image of a victim who survived a mercenary attack on her and her husband Shankar, for their inter-caste marriage.
A year later, a closely cropped short hair framed the fragile face of Kausalya, with its prominent jawline. By then, she had learnt to play the parai drum – the art form that was traditionally consigned to Dalits, and transformed into an activist-crusader against caste-hate killings.
“I see her as a Dalit icon,” says Kathir, of Evidence, a Dalit-rights organisation based in Madurai, about Kausalya, a girl from Thevar community. “In the first few months, she would break down like a child, throw tantrums in grief (when she was in the care of Evidence). Yet, it was the same girl, who objected to the bail petition of her parents in the High Court 58 times, stood the course to fight,” he says.
Kausalya’s journey and her focus on justice have particularly been important for subaltern activism in the State for one reason. “Here is a girl, who witnessed her husband’s killing, and then it was left to her to bring to the stand her entire family. She did not waver one bit, committed as she was to justice for Shankar.”
It was different in similar instances of caste-hate killings, says Kathir, alluding to the death of Illavarasan or the killing of Gokulraj. The young women, Divya and Swathi, were lost to their families, he says.
Kausalya’s journey, punctuated by a suicide attempt and sporadic depression, culminated in her taking up activism against caste-hate killing. Today, at 20, Kausalya stands as a feminist-caste crusader, with her understanding of caste-class-gender divides informing her quest for justice. This understanding may have come in time over the last 21 months. But, Kathir alludes to a statement Kausalya had made once before. “When somebody once asked if she was always courageous, even when Shankar was around, she replied, ‘without courage I never could have married him’.”
The role she set out for herself was evident, when she made an unsolicited call to visit Divya, the young woman whose inter-caste love and marriage triggered riots and the death of her partner Illavarasan in Dharmapuri. In a moving Facebook post, she spelt her respect for Divya.
The length of her hair, in many ways, symbolised her revolt. When one imagined it to be a result of the surgeries she had to undergo after she was hacked alongside her husband, it was indeed a political statement. Says Kathir, “I asked her once why she continued to keep it (hair) short? She said, she saw it as being equal to a man.”
Inside of all this grit, there is also that fundamental vulnerability. The trauma of reliving the memories of loss of the love of her life and hate-filled violence was sharp on the eve of the verdict. “The whole of Monday, this young girl had been crying a lot. It affects her a lot,” says Kathir.
In their happy times, Shankar had lamented about the poor education among the Dalit boys in their colony. After Shankar’s killing, she took up tutoring the boys and has set up a center in his name to tutor.
Kausalya will appeal against the acquittal of her mother and two others including her uncle, says Kathir.