Sunday, November 11, 2007

Birth Rights: India's Intercaste Marriages

[This was my first assignment for Peter Godwin's International Journalism class at Lang.]

October, 2006

Imagine marrying someone whose shadow, according to tradition, couldn't touch your skin, all because of the fear of contamination. Imagine a Brahmin marrying a dalit, the highest-ranking member of society marrying an untouchable, someone whose status requires them to perform unseemly duties such as cleaning up excrement. A betrothed upper-caste member to a lower-caste member would bring nothing but shame and scandal to both families.

This seems like a dated practice, but the current Indian caste system maintains just that.

Now, in an effort to break down that system, the Indian government plans to increase financial incentives to Rs 50,000 ($1,000) in order to promote intercaste marriages. The proposal is pushed by Social Justice Meria Kumar, a dalit herself, and is backed by the political party United Progressive Alliance. Earlier this month, Kumar called for a plan that sets aside more seats in engineering and medical colleges for lower-caste members.

The origins of the caste system have been widely disputed, but the first reliable account was written by British anthropologist Herbert Risely, The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, in 1892. During British rule, the caste system was used as a ranking of who was superior to whom. The main four groups are the Brahman (usually priests), kshatriya (landowners), waishya (merchants) and shudra (agriculturalists). The fifth group, the paryjanya, were never mentioned because they were the untouchables; they weren't considered part of the population. The lower-caste made up 24.4% of India's population in 2001. It is impossible to determine what caste someone belongs to based on looks; it is only determined by last name. Many people change their last names in order to disguise their caste, but this is difficult in rural areas because everyone knows each other. Adhering to caste distinctions is common, but it doesn't mean that different caste members don't interact. In fact, they exist together—live in the same villages and cities, work in the same areas, attend the same universities and walk down the same streets.

However, it is the move towards India's version of affirmative action that shook the caste system—lower-caste members are given advantages that back in the 1900s, they wouldn't have. Officially, the caste system was eliminated in 1950 by the Indian Constitution. In order to promote mobility in society, the government created the reservation system. Seats are set aisde in colleges and government offices just for lower-caste members. In universities in New Delhi, the percentage of lower-caste members rose from 22.5% to 49.5% according to a caste census and the Washington Times.

Being a dalit himself, Kumar's father, Jagjivan Ram benefited from the reservation system. He was a powerful figure in Indian parliament for over forty years and served as Deputy Prime Minister for three years in 1977. The late former President KR Narayanan was the first dalit elected to such a high position in 1997.

However, both of Kumar's proposals face resistance from upper-caste members in the State Governments.

As more lower-caste members take university and government seats, the number of spots for upper-caste members is dwindling. Because of this, many upper-caste members are reduced to accepting lower-caste positions, such as driving rickshaws and various sanitation jobs. In efforts to thwart the system and obtain higher jobs, it is possible to purchase false lower-caste birth certificates, as the Indian Express exposed.

University students against the reservation system formed "Youth for Equality," asserting that the system promoted discrimination. During one protest on May 13, 2006 in Mumbai, medical student protesters were beaten by the police. In response, the students went on strike and were joined by other students and doctors throughout India.

Despite the push for reforms, lower-caste members still face discrimination. When Balit Singh's daughter, a dalit, was raped by three upper-caste members in Jhabbar, a village in Mansa in 2000, Sing refused to let it slide. After spending two years in court, the three men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Sign became politically involved with Leftist groups soon afterwards, fighting for dalits' rights. When he suspended another upper-caste leader, Sign was attacked on January 5, 2006 by several men with axes and rods. Singh then developed gangrene and had both his arms and left leg amputated. Singh's story depicts just one of the many injustices done to lower-caste members.

Upper- and lower-caste members already find it difficult to work and live together, how could they marry? India is mired in the past, where religion dictates law and tradition reigns within families. Arranged marriages are still prevalent and most who immigrate to Western cultures, like England or America plan to uphold that tradition. This even extends to online Indian dating sites such as and, where you can search for potential spouses within specific castes.

Looking outside your caste, however, can be dangerous, whether it is for love or friendship. This was seen in 2001 in the village of Alinagar in Uttar Pradash. Vishal and Sonu, 15 and 16 years old, were friends and outwardly nothing more than that. The only problem with their friendship was their castes—Vishal was a Brahmin and Sonu a dalit. A village saw the pair talking and told their parents.

Alinagar was strict with customs and Vishal and Sonu weren't allowed to be near each other, let alone talk to one another. The children's punishment for this unthinkable act? Death. Sonu's parents first strangled and hung her with the help of neighbors behind their home. Because Vishal's parents didn't want to commit the act themselves, they allowed Sonu's parents to do so. Then, the villagers dragged their bodies away and cremated their bodies in a cow manure bonfire.

When intercaste marriages, or love marriages as some call it, happen, the couples face disapproval and opposition. On August 23, 2006, Uma Aggarwal's family took her husband, Santosh Kumar, a lower-caste member, to court with the accusation of kidnap. The family wanted Aggarwal to leave her marriage. Kumar was granted bail but the case still remained in court. Kidnapping allegations are common, especially from upper-caste families. The Indian Supreme Court urged police to deny those who file kidnapping charges in the case of intercaste marriages.

"Intercaste marriages are necessary for the progress of the country," the Supreme Court stated.
Earlier that year, the Supreme Court also ruled that an upper-caste woman couldn't receive reservation benefits from simply marrying a lower-caste member.

What it comes down to is shame. The reason Vishal and Sonu were murdered by their own families was because of the social disgrace they brought onto their families. With such deep-seeded traditions, Indians will continue to have a hard time letting go of its habits, but if the government continues to create and uphold incentives and laws, there might be a way.

"This is not the only way to end the caste discrimination but one has to start somewhere," Kumar said, referring to the marriage financial incentive. Her hope is that casts will fade away with time.

1 comment:

varunsview said...

really a nice post...i appericate authors command on indian henious caste system ,still its practised nd preachded unofficialy by the goverments after 50 years of independance.