I have been playing Emma Woodhouse lately. For readers unfamiliar with Austen’s charming and clever heroine who spends much for her time matchmaking, I implore you to head to the nearest bookstore (or a shopping app). For the readers who have spent some afternoons in the midst of Harriet, Jane and George, I urge you to imagine my role now. However this role I have not actively sought for myself. Rather, after my few years of being happily married, friends have decided that it is my duty to bring about such a state for others. A role I do not resent in the least.
Recently I received such a request that made me happy. The girl in question was bright and ambitious. She and her family desired a match who could fulfil her emotionally and intellectually. They had no preference for caste, class, or eating habits. They wanted a modern liberal family, someone who could support their daughter’s intellectual and professional pursuits. Finding such matches is however easier said than done. Yet there is delight in such an endeavour. One here is concerned with meeting of the minds and helping someone find love without the encumbrance of caste and class is as romantic as it can get in arranged marriages.
As opposed to this is a conversation I recall having with another acquaintance. She too wanted suggestions from friends instead of the ‘odious task’ of scrolling through wedding websites. Fair enough. However then she brought in the condition- he should belong to the same (upper) caste as hers, that was non negotiable. This irked us (my husband and me, who have had a inter caste marriage without it ever being an issue). Surely she, an educated, working girl, should not care about difference in caste and oppose her parents on this point. She needed approval from parents, she argued. Her choice it seemed extended to a point. She could choose, but with conditions, and these conditions were very similar to the tick boxes her parents would approve of. Moreover, she reasoned that it would be easier to adjust in a family with the same caste giving me a lesson in the differences in castes, their rules, customs and traditions. Something she was clearly planning to reinforce rather than subvert.
Young, urban Indian’s relationship with caste is interesting and problematic. While most chatter about caste system being obsolete, argue vehemently against reservation, and get very upset when news articles bring up the caste of victims of violence, assault or discrimination, they believe in the caste system nevertheless. This is never more apparent when they are choosing life partners for themselves. Matrimonial columns of newspapers remain divided caste wise. There will be some who will put up something even more revolting like ‘upper caste no bar’ or ‘OBC/SC/ST please excuse’. This ‘newer form of vocabulary’ creates new ideas of ‘caste purity’ albeit in a ‘polite form’. The wedding websites have provisions to indicate sub castes, gotras, and various other categories one didn’t even know existed. Young Indians remain unquestioning consumers of this division and continue to perpetuate the system.
Recent survey by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Lokniti with around 6000 respondents in the 15-34 age group found that young Indians were socially conservative especially in matters of love and matrimony. Among other things the survey found that mere acceptance of the idea of inter caste marriage was little over half, 55% (this was an increase from 31% in 2007). Actual such inter caste marriages stood at 4% amongst the respondents. This survey just speaks about marriage and attitudes towards it. However hilariously, this often even extends to dating within caste. A friend I discussed this about reasoned that since often the end game of dating is marriage it ‘makes sense to date within caste.’ This leads to an ironical situation- the idea of dating and falling in love and making a choice, still considered subversive in an otherwise socially conservative society, continues to operate within the realm of caste consciousness.
Some would argue that like any other thing that we chose in a partner like appearance, education, profession, emotional and intellectual compatibility etc., caste too comes under ‘choice’ and should not be a problem. Research has looked at this issue and highlighted that in an arranged marriage market caste serves as a proxy for range on indicators like education, profession, and life style. By choosing to marry within caste people are trying to make an ‘informed’ or ‘safe’ decision in a large market with various information asymmetries. They may also be choosing to marry within caste to retain the sense of familiarity, comfort and the social networks that they are accustomed to. This may become especially important in an arranged marriage when partners are not intimately known to the other.
Moreover while it is illegal to state caste preferences or ban certain castes when it comes to renting ones home or providing a service, stating caste preference and excluding certain castes in matrimony continues to be allowed as evidenced by the advertisements. In fact marrying within caste and maintaining ‘caste purity’ is lauded when it comes to societal norms and it’s even enforced (often violently) by kangaroo courts enjoying sort of quasi-legal sanction. Thus it comes as no surprise that the percentage of inter caste marriages is extremely low, and even young, educated, independent Indians continue to participate in this.
Why this is extremely problematic and why ‘choosing partner’s caste’ is no way same as ‘choosing his/her job’ is because of several reasons. Firstly, caste is an oppressive, hierarchical system with a burden of history of exclusion and discrimination. Thus participating in this choice is indirectly becoming part of the violence. Secondly, while professions, education levels, and even class are dynamic (although with riders), caste by its nature is defined by oppressive immobility and system of perpetuation. And lastly, and on a different note, love by its very essence should be delightfully transgressive and subversive. It should operate on a higher plane of human consciousness that looks above societal divisions. For there is nothing as wonderful as love based on meeting of minds and which in process also disrupts the socially conservative order.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.