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In India, a gift for inter-caste couples

Officials hope to help erode the rigid social hierarchy by rewarding those who break taboos to marry 'down.'

November 04, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BAIRAGHAR, INDIA — Plenty of women may feel they deserve an award for marrying their husbands, but Madhavi Arwar is actually getting one -- from the Indian government, no less.

Not that her husband, Chandrashekhar, is a bad sort. In fact, he's a good-looking guy, holds a steady job at an insurance company and dotes on their apple-cheeked son.

But he is also a Dalit, or an "untouchable," the lowest of the low under India's ancient caste system. Madhavi is not a Dalit, and for marrying "down" the social ladder, she is entitled to $250 in cash, plus a certificate of appreciation.

"I was a bit amazed that even for a thing like marriage, they were giving money," Madhavi, 33, said as she sat in her living room here in central India.

The windfall is part of the government's campaign to chop away at the barriers of caste, the complex hierarchy wherein a person's place in society is determined purely by birth.

As India struggles to modernize and transform itself into an important world player economically, officials know they need to erase these age-old divisions and expand opportunities for social mobility for all the country's 1.1 billion people, including the majority who have historically been considered low-caste and oppressed.

Mandatory quotas in education and public-sector jobs have been in place for years. Now private companies, the engine of India's rapid economic growth, are also looking to train and hire more employees from lower-caste backgrounds.

The integration efforts have enjoyed some success, especially in booming cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, where caste distinctions are somewhat blurred. High-caste Brahmins sit next to Dalits on packed public buses. Upper-caste Indians, who in the countryside might refuse to draw water from the same well as lower castes and "untouchables" for fear of "spiritual contamination," are served by low-caste waiters in chic new restaurants. Dalits occupy some of the highest positions in the Indian government.

Last holdout

But one institution has proved stubbornly resistant to change: marriage.

Scan the matrimonial ads in any Sunday newspaper, and the importance of caste quickly becomes apparent. In a country where the vast majority of marriages are arranged, parents seeking spouses for their children tout their eligible "Agarwal," "Khatri," "Gupta," "Gujjar" or "Jat" sons and daughters, all names of castes or of communities whose caste affiliation is immediately understood.

In a survey last year by the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies, 74% of Indians said inter-caste marriages were unacceptable, despite a law passed 52 years ago that expressly affirmed an individual's right to wed whomever he or she chooses.

"It's very difficult," Meira Kumar, India's minister of social justice and empowerment, acknowledged in an interview. "You can't legislate the mind-set. You can't order an attitude."

The caste system traces back thousands of years in India, although its exact origin and how it evolved to its present form is the subject of debate.

People were generally divided among four groups: the Brahmins, or priestly caste; a kingly and warrior caste; a merchant caste; and a caste of agricultural, service and manual laborers. Those labeled "untouchable" were considered so unclean that they did not even technically belong to a caste and were outside the system, assigned the most degrading jobs, some of which persist today, such as cleaning out communal toilets with little more than their bare hands.

Modern India began with a vision of a society based on dignity for all, and caste discrimination was outlawed after independence in 1947. But notions of caste, which is inherited from the paternal line, continue to exert a heavy influence on politics and society and, despite being identified with Hinduism, cut across religious lines to affect Muslims and Christians as well.

Nowhere is this truer than with regard to marriage, a stronghold of caste and the means by which group segregation has been maintained and reinforced over the centuries.

Although no official data exist on the number of inter-caste couples, experts doubt that such alliances make up more than a tiny fraction of the total. Most probably are elopements or "love marriages," rather than arranged matches.

A dangerous step

The consequences of breaking with tradition, particularly by marrying an "untouchable," can be severe.

Inter-caste couples who defy their parents' wishes often are banished from their families. Hostile village elders find ways to invalidate such unions, sometimes by alleging that one of the partners was coerced and throwing the other in jail. Or the couple is hounded out of the community, their homes and property forfeit.

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