The news of the murder of a female employee of a software company by her own colleague in Chennai on April 22 comes with a sense of déjà vu: another female employee of the same company had been found murdered just two months ago, in the same city. Their stories are eerily similar: both women were in their early 20s, having left their small town homes for well-paying jobs in the metropolis, staying on their own, working late on overseas projects, making new friends and their own choices.
In the case of the April 22 incident, the sense of déjà vu is sickening: the accused was arrested in 2008 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl in Erode, in western Tamil Nadu. The girl had been accosted in her own home after she turned down a proposal from him; she bled to death. The accused had been an MSc student back then, and the court acquitted him.
Responses to the two murders have covered the usual spectrum: from calls to stop the objectification and commodification of women on the screen to expressing shock these ills exist among the 'educated class'. Within the company, emails were sent around to employees advising safety and self defence. Newspaper reports trace both their murders to 'love angles'.
In a town very close to Erode, researching some of the education institutions that churn out the workforce for these companies, the murder hits very close to home: How much do the culture and attitudes prevalent in engineering colleges contribute to this culture among IT professionals? What does it really mean to contract romantic and sexual relationships of choice in these parts?
There is indeed a far-reigning culture of gender animosity that disrespects and frowns on consent and exercise of choice, both in the colleges and outside. Unlike a majority of other engineering colleges in the state, some colleges do not enforce a complete ban on interaction between the sexes; a ban is unnecessary on what is followed as a norm — and accepted as a part of Tamil culture. Having come mostly from girls' and boys' schools, there is even a palpable animosity between the sexes in class — birthday parties, cultural events are celebrated in relative segregation. The boys wear their sexist attitudes on their department t-shirts — 'When we screw, even metals cry,' is the most popular. The t-shirt was banned for women students.
Of course, the cellphone and the Internet exist as bridges — text messages flow, but only under the cover of the virtual dark. Dating is unheard of. When two people in a 'committed'/ 'timepass' relationship want to meet, random sightings are arranged through texts, across moonlit terrace tops and shop floors. When they want to spend time, the couple climbs a bus or walk on the street — both together and distant, strangers and lovers. When I ask my friends here, how their families would react to a choice marriage, I am told "they will kill me" and I know they mean it.
Lest we forget, the same region was home to Ilavarasan and Divya, a Dalit and Vanniyar, who contracted a choice marriage in the face of much opposition in late 2012. In the tragic events that followed, three Dalit villages were torched, Divya's father killed himself, after she returned to her natal home, and Ilavarasan was found dead by the railway tracks. That incident is often recounted: "We know about Divya and Ilavarasan, we do not know about the many others," my friends say. Love stories often follow the same script: they propose, parents dispose!
The only legitimate and safe open interaction — one that does not invite teasing, scorn or further emotional and violent entanglements — is of what is actually sexual harassment but never termed as such. Large bands of boys tease and sing, and metaphorically hit on the girl with witty comments (comment adi) when she walks by — a symbolic violence deployed by men who see these girls as unattainable otherwise. This is how infatuations come to light, are confessed, consent is sought and negotiated. If a choice relationship is contracted, it is almost never egalitarian: there is possessiveness, control over dress and friendships alike. And when that is spurned or resisted, our male hero is unshaven, goes mad, spills blood and displays the mad, mad urge to kill, all the while deflecting — why this kolaveri, di?
Martyn Rogers, writing on subaltern masculinity in Tamil Nadu notes that this 'eve teasing' is often centred on intense competition for male privilege and status between the newly emerged middle-class elite and impoverished low-caste groups, and it often plays off against women. He argues that these gender politics are re-working the social history of youth masculinity to meet the demands of new economic and political conditions.
In the private engineering colleges in the region, these conditions are structured by two objectives: making a student employable for a job through campus recruitment, while keeping their 'consumers' — parents, who pay hefty sums for management quota seats — happy. This is done through reproducing the traits of 'respectability' that maintain caste and gender status quo — let alone girls and boys hostels, even canteens are gender segregated because parents/guardians prefer to enrol their wards in institutions that reproduce the gendered inside-outside spatiality of the home. Therefore, even though there is an open mind towards women's higher education, it is achieved only under conditions that enhance respectability rather than suggest actual freedom or emancipation — they continue to breed hegemonic masculinity and caste patriarchies.
The unfortunate circumstances of the women's murders suggest that these same conditions are replicated in the workplace — despite economic independence and an autonomous existence in the big city, these women hardly have access to egalitarian relationships. Instead, it suggests that the processes of modernisation and globalisation, rather than contributing towards greater choice for women and greater flexibility in entering and terminating relationships, may be counterproductive — strengthening patriarchal structures and contributing instead towards ideas of the indissolubility of men's love.
The author, a research scholar from the Delhi School of Economics, is currently researching caste and gender in engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu