India tackles barriers to inter-caste marriage

The Baltimore Sun

BAIRAGHAR, India --Plenty of women might 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 good-looking, 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, 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 hierarchy wherein a person's place in society is determined purely by birth.

As India struggles to modernize, 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 historically have been considered low-caste and oppressed.

Mandatory quotas in education and public-sector jobs have been in place for years, and private companies are looking to 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 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 "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.

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

In a survey last year by the New Delhi-based Center for the Study of Developing Societies, 74 percent of Indians called inter-caste marriages 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, said 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 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 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.

Inter-caste couples who defy their parents' wishes are often banished from their families or villages. In some cases, relatives have resorted to "honor killings." Close to New Delhi a few years ago, an upper-caste girl and Dalit boy were publicly executed because of their romance.

The Indian Supreme Court has condemned such killings as barbaric, declaring inter-caste marriages "in the national interest, as they will result in destroying the caste system."

But the government's attempt to play Cupid, with a fistful of cash instead of arrows, has had meager results.

Here in Madhya Pradesh, a state of 60 million people, only 97 couples in the last fiscal year claimed the $250 government award for marriages between Dalits and non-Dalits. Only 14 couples took advantage of the incentive program in the eastern state of Bihar, where caste antagonism in some communities seethes so strongly that it sometimes erupts into armed battle.

For Daduram Balai and Jyoti Prajapati, getting married had nothing to do with government handouts and everything to do with following their hearts.

"We've never allowed caste to come between us," said Balai, 33.

Both sides of the family eventually became reconciled to the couple's relationship. Balai and Prajapati now have two young sons and live in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh.

They have no concerns about whom their boys one day will choose as wives.

"It's entirely up to them," Balai said.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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