In March 2016, Kausalya and her husband Shankar were brutally attacked on a crowded street in southern India.

Shankar, who came from a lower Dalit caste, died of his injuries. Kausalya survived and accused her parents of orchestrating an honour killing.

Witness follows Kausalya as she fights for justice through the courts, testifying against her parents in a trial where they face the death penalty.

Kausalya's now-estranged grandparents and brother, Gautham, also await the verdict, desperately hoping Kausalya's mother and father will be released.

The unique access to both sides shows a family torn apart by a caste hierarchy that remains deeply-rooted in India's social fabric.

Kausalya lost her husband Shankar in an honour killing in 2016. Her parents were accused of organising the attack [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]


By Sadhana Subramaniam

Modern India has changed radically from the country I grew up in during the 1980s and 90s. Having now spent half of my life in the UK, I remain fascinated by the seeming conflict between tradition and modernity in India today, and have always wanted to make a film that explores this.

Two years ago, I came across the CCTV footage of the brutal attack on Shankar and Kausalya that sent shockwaves across India. My gut instinct was that, if handled sensitively and responsibly, this honour killing had the power to reveal something really important about both the deep-rooted caste system in India and the aspirations of a new generation.

To do this properly, I strongly believed that I needed to get access to both Kausalya, Shankar's widow, and also her family, who are accused of orchestrating the murder and from which she is now estranged.

In these situations, it's almost impossible to get the victim's side of the story as they either don't survive or are forced to go back to their families. Equally, parents or relatives accused of orchestrating such attacks generally do not want to speak to filmmakers.

It took me eight months to ensure that both sides were comfortable and on board with the idea of me making a film about their lives. Filmed over 12 months, the film follows both sides of the family in the lead-up to the court trial for Shankar's murder, at which Kausalya's parents were facing the death penalty.

Kausalya's family disapproved of her marriage to a man from a lower caste [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

As time went on and I began to understand the perspectives of those involved, I realised that even as India hurtles towards modernity, many traditional and entrenched attitudes, such as those that underpin caste, maintain a tight grip on sections of society in this enormous and varied country. This seems to be particularly the case for women.

All too often, the intense stigma of dishonour surrounding intercaste and interfaith marriage means that most cases go unreported and the victims remain unknown. Yet, in Kausalya, I found a brave young woman, campaigning for justice - not prepared to let her husband's murder go unnoticed or accept the role and restrictions that traditional values place upon her.

One thing that surprised me was the discovery that, in some ways, Kausalya's family were also victims of the caste system. This is not to condone the savage violence of honour killings in any way, but to recognise the shame heaped upon families by their community and relatives when their child decides to marry out of caste.

Without understanding and addressing these pressures on individual families, little progress will be made in eradicating such behaviour. I came to the conclusion that to treat caste-motivated violence only as a law and order issue, as opposed to a sociocultural issue, will not help India in the long run. 

My hope is that this film will help to raise awareness of the issues surrounding honour killing and caste discrimination. I believe that only by showing the devastating human impact of such hate crimes can the issue be properly debated, understood and, ultimately, resolved.

Kausalya and Shankar met on a college bus; since his death Kausalya has become an anti-caste campaigner [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera