Thursday, Mar 30, 2023

Indians Still Tied To Age-old Social Prejudices In Matters Of The Heart

Indians Still Tied To Age-old Social Prejudices In Matters Of The Heart

Younger people do not have much progressive beliefs; a 2017 survey found that one-third of young people opposed inter-caste marriage.

Indians Still Tied To Age-old Social Prejudices In Matters Of The Heart Indians Still Tied To Age-old Social Prejudices In Matters Of The Heart

If you’re a data journalist trying to understand and explain India through numbers, you get used to using proxies to make up for all of the information that you wish you had but doesn’t exist. Consump­tion expenditure becomes a proxy for income (which India doesn’t collect), your ability to accurately report your age to a census surveyor becomes a proxy for numeracy (which is hard to measure). And marriage becomes a proxy for love. While this might outrage some readers who feel that this ign­ores the single experience, from a broad-brush perspective of Indian data it makes sense. Marriage in India is near universal. By the time they are aged 45-49, only one per cent of women and two per cent of men have never been married.

Love marriages are still rare. As of January 2018, at least 93 per cent of married Indians said that theirs was an arranged marriage. Just three per cent had a ‘love marriage’ and another two per cent described theirs as a ‘love-cum-arranged marriage’, which usually indicates that the relationship was set up by the families, and then the couple fell in love and agreed to get married. There has been only very slight change over time—94 per cent of octogenarians had an arranged marriage, and the figure remains over 90 per cent for young couples in their twenties.

What this also means is that most Indians’ first experience of sex is after they are married, and relatively late. Just three per cent of unm­arried women and 11 per cent of unmarried men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four told surveyors that they had had sex. Since marriage is very closely associated with the first experience of sexual intercourse, as people get married later, the age at which Indians first have sex has been rising rather than falling. Of the seventy-two countries for which there is comparable data, Indian men have their first exp­erience of sexual intercourse the latest, at age 24.3.

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While advertisements for matchmaking websites would like to make it appear that arranged marriages are no longer as rigidly orchestrated as they once were, the data does not bear this out. Forty-one per cent of women had no say in their marriage and just 18 per cent knew their husbands before marriage.

Physical characteristics still play an important role in the marriage market: one analysis of matrimonial advertisements in a newspaper in West Bengal found that height was mentioned in the ad by 96 per cent of the women and 90 per cent of the men. A prospective bride’s skin tone and beauty were mentioned by groom-wanted ads in 75 and 70 per cent of the cases, respectively.  

Above all other attributes, however, is caste. The matrimonial adv­ertisement study found a high preference for caste relative to other attributes; a man from the same caste as a prospective bride but with no education was as likely to be contacted by the hopeful bride as a man from a different caste with a master’s degree. Men were willing to sacrifice three shades of skin tone to marry someone within their caste.

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More than data on whom Indians love, we have a lot of data on whom Indians think it’s not ok to love. Three-quarters of urban respondents in a major national survey said that they would not accept an inter-caste marriage for any of their children. Education and inc­ome groups made next to no difference to attitudes to inter-caste marriage. Fewer than 10 per cent of urban Indians said in a 2014 survey that anyone in their family had married outside their caste and not many more outside their sub-caste (jati). Another survey, in 2011-12, found that just 5 per cent of urban respondents had had an inter-caste marriage, and that the number had changed little since the previous round seven years prior to it.

For richer urban Indians, these numbers may seem unlikely, given that younger people often profess their willingness to marry outside their caste. But there is likely a large gap between stated and revealed preferences. In 2015, res­earchers contacted 1,000 prospective brides through matrimonial websites and found that the SC man was least likely to be contacted, despite all other variables—educational qualifications, salary and even skin colour—being nearly the same.

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Younger people do not have much more progressive beliefs; a 2017 survey on the attitudes of young people found that one-third of young people opposed int­er-caste marriage. While this was a smaller share than in a similar survey in 2007 (55 per cent of young res­pondents opposed inter-caste marriage), this does not mean that young people are walking the talk; the share of married young respondents in the 2017 survey who said their spouse was not from their caste was just four per cent.

Inter-religious marriage was even rarer; just five per cent of urban res­pondents in the 2014 survey said that anyone in their family had married someone outside their religion. In a large national survey, 85 per cent of people said that marriage between two people of different religions was not acceptable. Young people in their late teens and early twenties were even more likely than older people to say that int­er-religious marriage was unacceptable, and neither income nor education made people more likely to accept inter-religious marriage.

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Families do not take transgressions lying down. In 2014, I examined every judgment passed in a case involving rape (IPC section 376) in Delhi’s seven district courts in 2013—nearly 600 in all. Of the 460 cases that were fully argued before the courts, the largest category (189 cases) dealt with cases involving or allegedly involving consenting couples. The majority of these—174 of these 189 cases—involved couples who seemed to have eloped, after which parents, usually of the woman, filed complaints of abduction and rape with the police. Many of them involved int­er-caste or inter-religious relationships.

This situation is about to get much worse. Over the last decade, Hindu nationalist groups in India have floated a theory they call ‘love jihad’, the belief that Muslim men lure Hindu women into sexual relationships and marriage as a way of spreading their faith. Once laughed at by the Indian mainstream as the talking point of an extremist fringe, the idea has now taken firm hold among India’s rightwing. In 2020, three states with BJP governments brought in stricter sentences for men found to be ‘coercing’ women into religious conversion for the purpose of marriage, and also added res­trictions on consenting inter-religious couples. Whether these cases stand in court or not app­ears to be irrelevant; in the first few months since the new law was passed in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where one-fifth of the population is Muslim, dozens of young Muslim men were arrested for ‘offences’ that included meeting a Hindu girl for a pizza date.

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But does that mean that falling in love, including with someone of ano­ther caste or religion is rare? In truth, we don’t know. While res­earching my book, I talked to Nitin Kamble, a young man from Maharashtra’s Satara district, who worked in a motorcycle rep­air shop in Mumbai, and within minutes our conversation turned to the young woman he was in love with, who was from another caste, and who he was worried would never be allowed to marry him, a Dalit. I told him weeks later on the phone about what the data on inter-caste marriage showed and asked him if this made him feel like an exception. He told me I was wrong, but not because he didn’t believe the data or because he thought it was fake. “That’s data about marriage, madam,” he said,—not about love. “I think if your data asked people if they have ever fallen in love with someone from another caste or religion, many will say yes. I see that all around me among my friends. But when it comes to getting married, most of us are not yet ready to leave our families. That’s why your data looks like that,” he said.  

(This appeared in the print edition as "It’s Just Numbers, Love")

(This piece draws on the writer’s new book, Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India)


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Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based data journalist