In 2003, when Se Gunasekar was working as an auditor, the news of a gruesome honour killing was sweeping the nation.
In a village in Virudhachalam, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district, a young couple was forcefully taken to the village cremation ground, where they were beaten up and tied. They were forced to drink poison, and then their bodies were burnt while making sure that they were cremated separately from one another.
The crime that the victims — 22-year-old D Kannagi and 25-year-old S Murugesan — had allegedly committed was that they fell in love while studying at Annamalai University, despite being from different castes. While Kannagi belonged to the Vanniyar community, Murugesan was from the Dalit community. Possibly aware that her father, a panchayat president, would not accept their union, the two eloped in May that year.
When Kannagi’s father found out, he launched a manhunt for the couple. To maintain their safety, Murugesan had put his wife up at a relative’s house, while he stayed in another’s. But soon, he was found out and tortured till he gave up Kannagi’s location. In July 2003, the two were brutally murdered in front of their village.
It took 18 years for the courts to deliver a verdict in the matter. In September last year, 13 accused were convicted, with Kannagi’s brother, who had hatched the entire conspiracy, being given the death sentence. Her father and two policemen who had acted as perpetrators in the murder were sentenced to life.
“But it’s possible that if the couple had been given a safe place to stay, this wouldn’t have happened,” Gunasekar, now an advocate opines in conversation with The Better India.
Years before the Cuddalore incident occurred, he had been helping arrange inter-caste weddings across Tirupur, where he currently resides. But the case stirred within him a deeper need to address why caste had created such barriers that two people were no longer allowed to fall in love.
Where love has no boundaries
At the time, a senior lawyer by the name of P Rathinam was fighting the case on behalf of Murugesan’s family. Gunasekar says this advocate was like his guru. Inspired to do something about the safety of inter-caste couples in Tamil Nadu, Gunasekar began pursuing law at the age of 40.
In 2011, after completing his law degree, he started a society named Ambedkar Periyar Inter-caste Married Couples’ Association. Here, he helped arrange and perform several inter-caste weddings for couples who came to him for help. For this, he divided his own home into two sections — one for him and his family, and one as a safe house for these couples.
Ten years on, Gunasekar has assisted hundreds of inter-caste couples with a safe house, as well as legal and financial assistance. In 2017, he formally registered his NGO, Adhalinal Kadhal Seiveer (AKS), the name of which translates to ‘therefore, go ahead and love’. Over the years, with a network of around 300 lawyers across the state, the NGO has helped around 200 inter-caste couples live freely and safely.
Gunasekar cites his inter-caste marriage, as well as the ideologies of Ambedkar, Periyar, and Karl Marx, as the basis of AKS’s work, which aims to unite Indians beyond the lens of a predominant culture or language. “We want to arrive at a utopian society devoid of caste, creed, and religion,” he notes. “One way to tackle this problem of caste bias is to encourage inter-caste marriages.”
AKS was set up in Trichy on a piece of land that is located in a police colony. “There’s a training academy here, and many retired policemen stay here as well,” he explains. “So that way, the couples have a safe place to stay.”
Gunasekar runs AKS with three other advocates and one police officer — all of whom have had inter-caste marriages as well. Couples can avail services without any costs if they are unable to afford them. Otherwise, they are charged a fee, he says. This fee, alongside the money contributed by co-founders, sees through the funding of the organisation.
“The couples who I feel would be in grave danger from their families stay in the Trichy safe house,” he notes. “Those who can get by easier are put up in my house in Tirupur. Sometimes, the families eventually accept the union. In case they don’t, I take the couples back in. Right now, around 10-15 couples are in the Trichy safe house.”
Gunaseker explains that each couple is assigned a lawyer from AKS’s network on the day of their marriage. These lawyers then assist with documents such as marriage certificates, as well as collaboration with the police in case of threats. In case a couple requires jobs, Gunasekar and his team ensure that they are hired somewhere that offers a minimum of Rs 10,000 per month, as well as food, housing, and clothes, till they are financially stable enough to manage by themselves.
AKS also provides marriage counselling services for couples, Gunasekar says. “I encourage them to come back to me if there are any problems in their marriages, rather than going to their parents. In the case of the latter, there is almost always surety that parents will try to separate the two, or even pose a threat to their lives. But here, we can try for reconciliation. If nothing works out, I work with my team of lawyers to work out a formal and mutual divorce.”
“What is marriage at the end of the day?” he asks. “Just an agreement between two people in love. Sometimes, the agreement changes.” Over 10 years, only two couples have returned to Gunasekar seeking a divorce. He has assisted both. “Life is meant to be lived happily, regardless of what the circumstances are.”
Alongside, couples who come to AKS for help are made aware of and given access to government schemes. On every second Sunday of February, the organisation holds a public conference in Trichy for inter-caste couples.
‘To live and love the way we want’
In 1999, Gunasekar was approached by Kalyani, a Dalit woman, and Babu, a Malayali Christian, a couple who wished to get married despite opposition from both their families. They are the first couple that the lawyer ever helped.
“When I met Gunasekar sir, I opened up to him about the problems we were facing in getting married,” Kalyani tells The Better India. “He took it upon himself to make sure we could go ahead with it. He took the time out to speak with both our families. He managed to convince my husband’s parents, but not mine.”
Kalyani says Gunasekar took care of all the expenses of the wedding and ensured that the ceremony went smoothly. Even as her parents refused to attend, he stood by her to offer whatever support he could, she notes. “After we gave birth to our child, things improved,” she adds.
Around 23 years later, Kalyani and Babu continue to keep in touch with Gunasekar, and often visit his NGO to help out when they can. “We are based in Coimbatore, but we catch up whenever we can. He has stood by us through everything, so we will always support him. He always tells us that he is on standby, that he will still help us if we need it.”
Meanwhile, Gunasekar notes a part and parcel of his work are the threats he receives from angry families and naysayers. In the past, he has been followed by men deployed by these doubters and even threatened to be murdered. But with a nonchalant laugh, he notes, “I have this black shirt with Periyar’s symbol on it, so that people are aware of where my ideologies lie, and what I believe in. They know who I am, they know what I do, and that is enough for me to continue my work regardless. Many people where I live are outspokenly against my work, but I am ready to face any consequence.”
Even as the lawyer carries on in good faith, Tamil Nadu continues to battle the burden of caste-based violence. As per a report by Hindu Frontline, RTI data suggests that there was a high incidence of caste-based violence in the state between 2016 and 2020 — a total of 300 murders have been registered under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015. Meanwhile, The Wire stated that during the lockdown, such crimes saw a jump of a whopping 40 per cent in just one month.
Kalyani notes, “When there is an understanding between two people who love one another, then why does anyone else need to be involved? I believe that love should be allowed to transcend the boundaries we have created. There is more pressure to abide by these boundaries on women. We need more liberty, more agency to live and love how we want.”
-With inputs from Sai Sudharshan
Edited by Yoshita Rao