“If you decide to get involved with a girl, make sure she is from our caste only,” my mom once told me. Marrying a person from a caste other than your own is considered a radical act, a transgression. Marriage is a highly regulated institution in Indian society. The Majority of marriages are “arranged”. There is zero scope for inter-caste union in an arranged marriage because the elders of a community act as mediators between prospective brides and grooms.
These elders are the gatekeepers of the “marriage market”.
An inter-caste marriage is possible only outside the logic of arranged marriage. Such a union is dangerous for three reasons. One, it challenges the norm of endogamy, or marrying within a clan. Two, in such a marriage, the two partners choose each other, thus subverting the authority of the elders to act as mediators. And three, the woman’s agency in choosing her own partner poses a threat to patriarchy. Even when the two partners belong to the same caste but get married because they — rather than their family — have chosen one another, they are considered transgressors because they still challenge the authority of elders and patriarchy.
According to the India Human Development Survey, conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, only five per cent marriages in India are inter-caste. Brahminism and patriarchy work in a perfect tandem to hold sway over women’s sexuality; a necessary act for continuation of caste. The practice of endogamy is essential for caste purity. Therefore, every caste makes sure it is strictly followed by its members, and those who transgress are duly punished.
Dr B R Ambedkar in his paper “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development” wrote, “[t]he various characteristics of Caste leave no doubt that prohibition, or rather the absence of intermarriage — endogamy, to be concise — is the only one that can be called the essence of Caste when rightly understood.” Therefore, it is no wonder that caste communities so zealously guard the practice of endogamy.
On July 19, a 16-year-old boy named Swapnil Sonawane was killed by the family of the girl with whom he had a relationship. Swapnil was from a Scheduled Caste and the girl belonged to an Other Backward Class, or OBC, caste. Swapnil is not the first, and will not be the last, to be killed for daring to challenge our caste society.
In a letter written to Jyotiba Phule in 1868, Savitribai Phule recounts an affair between a Brahmin boy and an “untouchable girl”.
29 August 1868
Naigon, Peta Khandala
The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba,
Savitri salutes you!
I received your letter. We are fine here. I will come by the fifth of next month. Do not worry on this count. Meanwhile, a strange thing happened here. The story goes like this. One Ganesh, a brahman, would go around villages, performing religious rites and telling people their fortunes. This was his bread and butter. Ganesh and a teenage girl named Sharja who is from the mahar community fell in love. She was six months pregnant when people came to know about this affair. The enraged people caught them, and paraded them through the village, threatening to bump them off.
I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under British law. They changed their minds after listening to me. Sadubahau angrily said the wily brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you. What else to write?
A 22-year-old engineering graduate from a Scheduled Caste family was hacked to death by three men in Tamil Nadu’s Tirupur district on March 13, eights months after marrying a woman from the Thevar caste. The stories of murder, excommunication and other aggressions against those who dare to cross the caste boundaries are countless.
But even against the backdrop of such heavy repression, many exercise the freedom to marry a person of their choice, withstand excommunication and succeed as role models to be emulated. There is one such example in my own family. My mother’s younger sister (belonging to an OBC caste) was in relationship with a man from a Scheduled Tribe. When the family got to know about this “affair”, they tried to marry her off with an “arranged marriage”. But before they could succeed, she eloped. She was expectedly excommunicated. She practically lived in exile for 10 years after which she returned to the village. She now leads a very happy life and everybody has resumed communication with her and her family.
Castes are not natural. If individuals were free to associate with whomever they wanted and there were no social sanctions against such intermingling, castes would have ceased to exist.
If women were given the freedom to love whom they wanted, sleep with whom they wanted and marry whom they wanted, the caste system would have been annihilated by now. Inter-caste marriages are the biggest threat to the continuation of castes because they challenge the fundamental premise of the caste system — hierarchy. The ascending hierarchy of deference and the descending hierarchy of humiliation is the ideological base that sustains the logic of castes.
In the 70th year of India’s Independence, let us resolve to fight for our own and our fellow citizens’ right to marry anyone regardless of their caste, religion, colour, sexuality and so on.
Let us unite to annihilate castes, one “love marriage” at a time.