Kevin Jospeh and Neenu Chacko Image Credit: Social Media/Twitter

Kevin P Joseph, a 23-year-old man from Nattassery, Kottayam, Kerala married Neenu Chacko, a 21-year-old Syrian Christian woman from Thenmala, Kollam, Kerala, Friday, May 25. They were in a relationship for the last three years. All over the world, there is nothing special in two youngsters falling in love and getting married. But theirs was not fated to be a fairytale of love and romance. The boy was a Dalit Christian, a lower caste, while the woman belonged to what is perceived as an 'upper class' among Kerala Christians.

False pride about caste, misplaced notions of family honour and difference in social status led their relationship to a tragic end as the girl’s brother and some relatives allegedly kidnapped Kevin in the early hours of Sunday from Kottayam and allegedly murdered him in cold blood. Kevin’s body was found in a canal in Thenmala the next day. 

Neenu Chacko, left, with Kevin's father Jospeh. (Twitter)

Public life was paralyzed in Kottayam on Tuesday following a call for hartal (shutdown) by the Congress-led United Democratic Front of Kerala, BJP and BSP. Dalit organizations like Council of Dalit Christians, Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha, All Kerala Cheramar Hindu Mahasabha had also extended support to the protest shutdown in the district, highlighting the anguish and caste angle in the incident.

The National Commission for Minorities termed Kevin’s murder as an ‘honour killing’ and asked Loknath Behra , Kerala Director General of Police, to submit a report within seven days on the matter. 

This is the second instance of ‘honour killing’ in Kerala this year after the shocking murder of a woman Athira on March 23 by her father himself on the eve of her marriage, in Areekkodu, Malappuram, Kerala.

In the latest case, six people, including the main culprit, Sanu Chacko, Neenu’s brother, and his father have already been arrested. Those in custody include Ishan Ismail, Neenu’s cousin from her mother’s side, and Niyas (23) of Idamon, Kollam district, and Riyas (26). 

Niyas was a unit secretary of DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation for India - A youth wing of ruling Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) who had been expelled from party after his role in the incident came to light. Two policemen were also arrested for their role in the murder. They have been accused of taking a bribe from the gang and not acting on the complaints from Neenu and Kevin’s father.

Affront to dignity

Neenu’s family apparently found it an affront to their dignity and social position as Kevin belonged to a Dalit Christian family. Neenu’s father Chacko John is a Malankara Syrian Catholic, but ironically he himself had broken the rules of his society. He transgressed the boundaries of cast and religion by marrying a woman from Muslim community. Neenu’s mother Rehna was converted to Christianity, but it is obvious that caste and class are thicker than love and faith in Kerala. 

In an extremely hierarchical society like Kerala, Syrian Catholics who claim to have been the descendants of Brahmins do not enter into marriages with Dalit Christians. Dalit Christians are Dalits Hindus (the so-called untouchables) who got converted to Christianity.  

Neenu’s family challenged the union but their objection didn’t stand legally as the couple had attained marriageable age. Kevin was abducted from the house where he was staying in Kottayam town in the wee hours on May 27and found dead in a remote corner in another district the next day.  

Though Kevin’s abduction was promptly reported to the police in Kottayam, no action was taken. Police reportedly told Neenu that chief minister of the state was in town and they had to take care of his security first and her case would be investigated later.  

Cultural untouchability

The incident clearly indicates the apathy of the police and authorities towards the Dalits and the marginalised. It shows that cultural untouchability still prevails in Kerala though the practice of physical untouchability has been legally abolished long back.

“It is the time to question Malayalees’ hollow claims about a casteless society,” said Sunny M Kapikad prominent Dalit intellectual and activist from Kerala. Kevin is the latest victim of a series of caste murders occurring in Kerala for the last few months, he said. Kevin is also a victim of animosity that exists in the Kerala Christian community towards Dalit Christians, he added. The main stream community is ignoring the role of 'casteist pride' in this incident and trying to pass it off as an ordinary murder. This is nothing but a blatant casteist murder, says he. 

Dhanya Raman, another prominent Dalit leader in Kerala, said that ‘honour killings’ such as this should not have happened in a state like Kerala where the Communist movement is very powerful. She alleged that it’s an irony that Communists are also Brahmanic in their attitude and approaches. 

“Though we believe casteism is the bane of only Hinduism, it has already been percolated into other religions too,” she said. It is well known that Dalit Christians have never been accepted as part of main stream Christian church, she added. 

Dr. Mathew Joseph of Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, said it’s extremely unfortunate that an ‘honour killing’ involving Christian community took place in a place like central Kerala where social reformists like Poykayil Appachan and Pampadi John Joseph led movements against casteism in a big way in the last century. It’s alarming that ‘honour killings’ get political patronage and even social acceptance in Kerala, he said.

According to noted Malayalam novelist KP Ramanunni, the incident shockingly reveals the hollowness of the much-hyped ‘Kerala renaissance’ just as the electoral victory of Donald Trump exploded the myth of American liberalism. 

“In the pre-renaissance Kerala people who fell in love outside their castes were ostracized but were allowed to live. But now, those who fall in love are being killed,” Ramanunni lamented. 

There was a time when people of Kerala believed that honour killings and mass rapes happen only in ‘uncivilised and uncultured’ places in north India and were unthinkable in a literate and civilised state like Kerala, said writer and social critic Sangeetha Jaya who teaches at SNG College, Kozhikode. It is now clear that we had been living in a false, make-believe world, she said.

Background of the tragedy

Kevin and Neenu were in love for the last three years. They had met when Neenu came to Kottayam to pursue a course. 

She ran away from home and they filed application for their marriage at the sub-registrar office when Neenu’s family decided to marry her off to another person of their choice. Her family complained to police that she was being held by Kevin against her will. However, when the couple were brought to the police station, Neenu said that she is in love with Kevin and wants to live with him. This happened on last Friday, 25 May, 2018. 

According to reports, her family members beat her up at the police station itself and tried to drag her into a vehicle, with the support of policemen but the local people who gathered at the station prevented it. Even on Saturday, 26 May, her relatives came and threatened Kevin following which Neenu was shifted to a women’s hostel in Kottayam and Kevin moved in with his cousin in Mannanam, a nearby place. 

The kidnap and murder

Neenu’s brother and gang arrived at the cousin’s house in Mannanam in three vehicles and kidnapped Kevin along with his cousin after breaking into their home. Kevin and his cousin Aneesh were beat up viciously by the gang at the house before they were kidnapped. They were taken in different vehicles. Reports say that the kidnappers declared at the site itself that they are going to kill Kevin.

This incident happened in the wee hours of Sunday, 27 May, and nobody in the neighbourhood dared to come out of their houses because the gang had threatened the neighbours the previous day. 

What happened at the police station on Sunday?

Kevin’s father Joseph Jacob arrived at Gandhinagar Police station at 6am in the morning to lodge complaint about the attack and kidnapping of his son but the policemen in charge were not willing to register it. Hearing this, Neenu arrived at the police station in person at about 11am to force them register the complaint. Police reportedly told her that they don’t have enough personnel to deal with her case as Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was visiting the district that day on some official engagement and all the force were deputed for his security. However the police were forced accept the complaint late in the evening after live reporting from media from the station.

The policeman who refused to register the case. He was later arrested for his involvement with the culprits.

When was the body found?

Aneesh, Kevin’s cousin who was kidnapped along with him, says beatings continued inside the car. He had no clue about Kevin’s fate as he was taken in a different car. Later, Aneesh was thrown out of the car at a place called Sankranthi, barely minutes away from Gandhinagar police station and the gang continued their journey to Thenmala in Kollam, Kerala with Kevin.  Kevin P Jacob’s severely tortured body was found on Monday in a canal in Thenmala, hundreds of kilometres away from where he was kidnapped.  

What is ‘honour killing'?

It is generally an act of vengeance committed usually by male members of a community, based on the purported notions of honour with respect to one’s caste, class, faith, social status etc., when a man and woman enter into relationship, without the approval of the community. It is also noted that in majority of such instances, the woman belongs to a ‘higher’ caste or class than the man in question. 
Usually the woman is killed to preserve the purity of the clan. But men can also be victims, when male members of the woman’s family consider the relation to be a violation of their ‘honour’. It is typical in some patriarchal Asian communities.

Is honour killing common in Kerala?

No, it is not. Kerala is not immune to caste or religion-based tensions when it comes to man-woman relationships, but killing was never reported, until recently. One reason could be that the ‘arranged marriage culture’ is still strong in the society where parents select partners for their sons and daughters from their own caste. A glance at any of the matrimonial site catering to Keralites is enough to gauge the caste-fixation of Kerala society. The ads for prospective brides and grooms openly declare their preference for caste and, in many cases, even subcastes.

There is also immense pressure on youngsters to find partners from their own caste, even when they are allowed to form relationships on their own. This self-censorship nips many ‘unwanted relationships’ in the bud itself and parental coercion, forced marriages, etc. take care of the rest, helping Kerala project a clean image for the outside world.  

It should also be noted that there is a sizeable section of people in Kerala who have managed to get out of the stranglehold of caste. They are the beneficiaries of the social reforms Kerala had seen in the last century. On one side, various social reformers of the last century ranging from Sri Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Pundit Karuppan had reinterpreted the irrelevance of caste and class while on the other, mass movements and philosophies including Rationalism and Communism have sought reorientation at a social and human level, not on the basis of one's religion or caste. 

Who is a Dalit Christian?

A Dalit Christian is a so called ‘lower class’ Dalit Hindu who gets converted to Christianity. It has been observed by many, including legendary social reformers like Poykayil Appachan that the ‘caste stigma’ associated with Hinduism follows them even after converting to Christianity

Who are Syrian Christians in Kerala?

They are a group of Christians in Kerala who trace their origins to the widely-accepted but contended evangelist activity of St Thomas the apostle in Kerala. It has been noted that historically, they have enjoyed privileges within the caste system of Kerala and are considered a forward/upper class. 

The concept of shame in ‘honour’ Killing

The concept of shame ‘for a family’ is mostly associated with adhering to patriarchal values and seeing a woman’s body and marriage to be an extension of the male’s territory, the 'purity' of which has to be maintained at any cost, to ensure the purity of his bloodline. In such societies it is considered a shame to the male pride when a female of the clan chooses her partner according to her own will based on her love; in the absence of the family’s approval. 

Athira’s murder

Athira was young woman about to be married her lover; Brijesh, a soldier in the Indian army. She was from Ezhava community. She fell in love with Brijesh, from Pulaya communty when they met at a hospital where her mother was seeking treatment. Her father, an auto rickshaw driver, was against the marriage because of his caste. The marriage was fixed through some mediators and Brijesh arrived at his home for the event after securing family quarters and other amenities at his workplace, ready to start his life with Athira. However, on the eve of the marriage, Athira’s father Babu got drunk and in a fit of rage stabbed her to death. When asked by police why he did so, he said, he was ashamed to face questions from his friends and locals about his daughter’s marriage to a ‘lower class’ person. 

Why interfaith marriages are rocking Kerala now

Inter-caste and interfaith marriages are nothing new in Kerala, a place where two of the most prominent religions, Christianity and Islam arrived and flourished centuries before they even reached the rest of India. 

There are legal provisions in place which secures an adult’s choice of his or her partner in life and thousands have used these to lead a life of their choice in the state. However, like other parts of India, Kerala is also going through a frenetic phase of polarization along communal lines, largely aided by vested interests and some political parties who are using all means including social media to further their evil designs. 

'Love Jihad'

It is perhaps the first example of communalizing love in India. ‘Love jihad’ is a term used by a section of the media and public to describe relationship between a Muslim man and a woman from any other religion, suggesting that the men were feigning love in order to convert the women into Islam. It rose to prominence after alleged instances in Kerala, in 2009. Allegations of ‘Love jihad’ is often used to flare up communal emotions and government investigations have more than once concluded that there is no such organised attempt behind love marriages between Muslim men and women from other religions. 

Comment: By Dona Cherian, Guides Writer

Fight against casteism must begin from our homes

Literacy, culture, cuisine – these are the things that Kerala has always been known for. Touted as ‘God’s own country’ it is hard to perceive that a man was killed in the state only yesterday for the crime of falling in love with a girl. 

Why now, from a people fiercely proud of their education, their literature and their morals? Has the ugly head of casteism reared its head? 

Maybe because casteism, heavily practised in the state from the 17th century up until and during the British occupation, still survives in the hearts of the Malayali people, whether we accept it or not. 

As a Syrian Christian myself, I know for a fact that elders in the family would happily have family members mingle with anyone, regardless of caste or religion. Great friendships lasting lifetimes are forged without discrimination, and this can be attributed to Kerala’s education and literacy. 

However, that ball stops when it comes to marriage or the joining of two families. In this case, the boy was a Christian. He had loved and married a Syrian Christian girl. The crime he committed was that he was a Dalit, a lower caste, by birth. The only thing that the girl’s family cared about was his caste, a Dalit, and how that would ‘bring down’ the family’s honour. 

In a heavily patriarchal society with visible streams of sexism, it is always the male carrying the family forward, while the woman is absorbed into the caste or sect of the family. 

If the man happens to be of a lower caste, the woman’s family does everything in their power – financial, political and emotional – to stop the alliance.  Both Syrian Christian families and Hindu families based in the state are unforgiving when it comes to marriage between castes, regardless of religion. 

Practised for a long time, the difference in castes is deeply embedded in every generation, Christian and Hindu, on who is good enough or not for an alliance. 

To this day young people in the state, where arranged marriages are still the norm, are afraid to be in a relationship with someone from another caste. Behind closed doors adorned with degrees, a girl could be forced into a marriage with a more ‘suitable’ groom within days. With Malayali families across the world, it is not hard to send the boy or the girl away to a far-off country to make sure they stay apart. 

The inter-caste couple may sometimes be forced into submission with threats of physical violence. However, honour killings were non-existent, until now. 

As a Malayali, I am ashamed that in this day and age we let go of what we hold dearest – knowledge and wisdom. There is no caveat to casteism. You either practice it or you don’t – and we do. It is subtle, it is never talked about but it’s there. 

We can beat the drums about our literacy and literature, shout out about the heroes we have made without discrimination of religion or caste – but until we fight casteism in our families, relationships and homes, it will persevere. We will never be rid of the evil scourge of the caste system.