Prem Chowdhry, who extensively studied the phenomenon of rising violence against couples flouting rules of arranged marriages for her book Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples, explains why it’s happening and some of the reasons why male guardians and khap panchayats unleash extreme violence on couples. Excerpts of an interview with Sheela Reddy:
What is it about society that has changed so drastically that it has now become a life-and-death issue to choose one’s own mate?
Many things have changed—political democracy, for instance, which has thrown up new social groups competing with the high-caste groups that were in power earlier. One can see a greater mobility, which means many more opportunities for youngsters to meet. It’s been a problem through the post-Independence era, although cases have risen sharply in the last decade for a variety of reasons. Two (legislative) acts have actually prompted them—the Hindu Marriage Act and the Hindu Succession Act because it gave the right to property to women. Therefore, the restrictions on who a woman can marry.
But we had love marriages before and without this violent backlash?
I think it is insecurity. It’s clear that this is a way of khap panchayats asserting themselves because they are marginalised. This is a highly emotive issue—involving caste, customs, dehati culture—on which mobilisation does take place.
Does it have anything to do with the fact that women have outstripped men—whether in earning power or in taking on new roles?
Take the example of Haryana. The marriage market is fairly restricted there for a variety of reasons—there are fewer girls, men are not getting jobs, there’s a very high level of bachelorhood and so on. The earlier caste restrictions are just not feasible in a situation where populations have grown, small villages have become very big ones, where there used to be two or three gotras in a village, now there are 25-30. So the degrees of prohibition which you have to avoid are just too many. There are just not enough suitable boys to go around.
So what do you do?
You ignore the usual restrictions and find someone compatible with your status. Although we say that boys and girls are eloping and getting married, the truth is that a lot of families are actually opting to ignore these restrictions. These are very much arranged marriages. The tendency now is to pick up a suitable boy: there are not many available as there’s a flux of girls at the top and a deficit at the bottom. Which means the lower class boys are generally remaining unmarried. In Rohtak district, where I did my research, as many as 44 per cent males in the reproductive age of 15 to 44 were bachelors.
“This is just a way for khaps to assert themselves. And marriages within gotras is a highly emotive issue they can mobilise on.”
The violence is because of the shrinking matrimonial pool?
Yes, it’s a very tight situation and I think the khap panchayats should behave themselves. Instead of opening out the marriage market, they are tightening it further. Historically, the khap panchayats, from time to time, even in the British period, opened out the marriage market by declaring that people of such and such gotra not allowed to marry earlier, may now marry. It happened in 1946, 1947, even as late as 1995. Why can’t they do it now?
What changes do you propose?
You can’t do away with them because they are old institutions, but I would suggest they take the reformist agenda. Surely, the government can put pressure on them to take up issues like female foeticide, infanticide, dowry, ostentatious weddings, even inter- and intra-caste marriages. But, instead, they are trying to appropriate judicial powers.
Why are they focusing solely on the issue of marriages within gotras?
Because it’s an emotive issue on which they can mobilise. It’s not as if there isn’t any dissent—there’s the defiance of young couples—but they are not allowing this dissent to surface. The functioning of the panchayats is very authoritarian: women are not allowed to attend even if they are a party in the conflict, youngsters are not allowed to speak, and all the decisions are taken as unanimous ones—which they are not. It’s neither a democratic body nor a grassroots one, as it’s made out to be.
There has been no effective movement against them, has there?
Whatever resistance there has been, it has been led by women. I think women’s groups in the villages should be encouraged more.