In the recent successful Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal, which has a heart-wrenching take on the humiliations faced by Dalits at the hands of oppressive caste heads in and around southern Tamil Nadu, one of the antagonists of the story, caught in a rare mood of introspection in the climax scene, tells the hero (a Dalit, a victim all along in the story) "Who knows, anything can change tomorrow!" And the hero gives a dead-pan response: "I know, as long as you (the oppressive caste guys) remain as you, as long as you expect me to remain a dog, nothing is going to change."

The haunting lines in the end seemed a little jarring in a film that is filled with quiet optimism, one that portrays Dalit sufferings with remarkable restraint (its subdued treatment though has been critiqued by well-meaning writers from the Dalit movement.)

However, as it unfortunately happens, the words of Pariyerum Perumal proved chillingly right, as yet another instance of caste killing came to light last week in Tamil Nadu, proving that nothing has changed in the state.

The latest tragic incident involves Nandhish, a 25-year-old belonging to the Dalit Adi-Dravidar caste, and his 22-year-old newly-wed wife Swati of the dominant Vanniyar caste, both hailing from the Soodagondapalli village near Hosur in Tamil Nadu. Nandish and Swathi had been in love for over four years. They had eloped and got married in August last. Their bodies were fished out of Cauvery near Shivasamudra in Mandya district in Karnataka. They had been done to death after being reportedly kidnapped by Swati's father and her relatives.

Murders are foul. But this seemed the 'foulest', as the mutilated bodies bore the markings of severe violence. The perpetrators did not stop at that. The killers disfigured the bodies to make identification of the corpses difficult. The killers have been arrested, but that it's not about one case. In the recent past, yet another young couple fell prey to rabid casteism that runs rife in Tamil Nadu despite the tall claims from the Dravidian sections that Tamil Nadu is a progressive state.   

As per Dalit activists, there have been around 200 killings on the basis of caste in Tamil Nadu over the last five years alone — a figure that catapults the state to the dubious distinction of being among the top states from where such cases are reported often. These numbers are a conservative estimate as many caste murders go unreported or they are hushed up as 'suicides' due to the nexus between the casteist lords and the police, a force where many upper caste groups have sneaked in. Police posts being filled with upper caste groups during Jayalalithaa's regime because of the influence of Sasikala and family who belong to the Thevar community — an aggressive upper caste group — is a separate story for another day.

Very few cases of violence against — and murders of — Dalits reach conviction. The life term handed last year to the killers of Shankar, a Dalit who married Gausalya, a Thevar, is one of the rare exceptions. "The system is skewed against us," says V Suresh, a Dalit activist in Madurai. "The pathway to the chambers of law are essentially a maze for Dalits. Vested groups easily divert or mislead us and never allow us to reach our destinations," he adds.

According to Visalakshi Sugumar, a PhD scholar in the study of caste dynamics in the state, "Tamil Nadu's case is a paradox. It leads the country in enforcing social justice in schools, colleges and recruitments. But it also tops in terms of violence against Dalits. But this dichotomy gets explained if you bother to listen beyond the rhetoric of the megaphones of Dravidian politics."

The Dravidian movement, which to its credit did break the Brahminical hegemony in the state, has failed to deliver anything to the Dalits, the truly oppressed class in the society. "The intermediary castes have fattened themselves beyond imagination. The sheer numbers of them put together make them a force that entails no brooking," says Hemalatha Santosh, a professor who is into subaltern studies in southern India.

"The Dravidian movement painted the Brahminical forces as a bogey. There was a case for it, but even as they dislodged them, the intermediary caste groups quickly occupied the seats of power and pelf. Mudaliars, for instance, began to dominate the academia in the state. The Chettiars the financial institutions. But nothing was done to improve the lot of Dalits. The intermediary castes, however, continue to project Brahmins as the arch-villains. This is far from the reality," she adds. If anything, it is only recently that the media is reporting specific caste names of those who indulge in violence. "Otherwise it was all bunched under the anti-septic description 'upper caste' aggressors. In a state where the Brahmins alone are technically the upper caste, this created a skewed image in popular imagination. But that is how they control the narrative," says Hemalatha. 

Popular and widely respected Tamil literary figure B Jeyamohan, who also runs a well-read website, recently described the Dravidian movement as a 'populist' one whose single major agenda was anti-Brahminism. Another constant crib of his is that the Dravidian movement, led by its totem, Periyar, never really did anything substantial for Dalits. But the Dravidian ideologues are quick to take offence at this charge as, in their universe, both Periyar and Dr BR Ambedkar occupy the same slot when it comes to Dalit welfare. "To equate the good work of Ambedkar with the Dravidian movement is a sham. If the Dravidian politics had indeed worked for Dalits, they (Dalits) would not be still stuck in a sorry state," says Hemalatha.

According to the Census of 2011, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes accounted for 20.01% and 1.10% of Tamil Nadu's 72 million population. The Brahmins are roughly around 5% while the omnibus Other Backward Classes (OBCs) make up 68% of the state's population. The Vanniyars, at around 38%, are the single largest community in Tamil Nadu.

"When seen in the context of these numbers, you will understand how much of an anomaly the 69% reservation policy in Tamil Nadu is. In the rest of the country, there is a slab at 50% for reservations. It is nobody's case that there shouldn't be any reservations. But at 69%, when many of the communities that corner the benefits are well endowed, it makes a mockery of the whole system. It vitiates the atmosphere and also makes things worse for the really oppressed sections," says Visalakshi.

As per the state criminal bureau statistics, Vanniyars, along with the Thevars and Gounders, lead the pack in the violence against Dalits. Almost all the recent caste killings involve one of these three major forces in Tamil Nadu. Since these castes also dominate the political spectrum (the current TN CM Edappadi Palanisamy is a Gounder, his deputy O Panneerselvam is a Thevar. Vanniyars are well represented in the state Cabinet and Dr Ramadoss's Vanniyars-backed PMK is a pivotal political outfit in northern Tamil Nadu), there are some sections that see the attacks on the Dalits as much casteist as political.

"There is a case for counting these as political murders. Most political parties cultivate the aggressive caste groups for votebank gains. While Dalit political groups are disparate, the aggressive caste combinations tend to vote en bloc. The politicians know this reality and hence tailor their approach to suit this," M Bhaskar, a journalist in an English newspaper.

Some Dalits have started to see the killings at the point where politics and caste mix. Dalit ideologue Vasugi Bhaskar posted a tweet yesterday in which he says that "honour killings" need not be confused with the casteism of over 2,000 years. This is a violence that has been sharpened for electoral politics. Casteism has sharpened, and is being sharpened.

Bhaskar's words have drawn criticism too (for belittling the menace of casteism), but the fact of the matter is that such thoughts are now creeping into the minds of people, including Dalits. While political parties have typically condemned the latest caste murders, nobody is ready to be fooled by it. Tamil Nadu feels that they are mere lip service that really change nothing. This, of course, brings us back to the foreboding words of Pariyerum Perumal.