wedding

A Hindu wedding in Orissa. Fire is an important part of the ceremony. (Photo: Paolo Crosetto

Caste and Marriage in India

According to a newly published report, only 5% of all marriages in India are inter-caste. While the numbers are not necessarily surprising, they do show how important caste still is in contemporary Indian society. 

Even though the caste system has a long history in the Subcontinent, the modern perception of it is relatively recent. The British colonial administration introduced caste-based positive discrimination measures, making it a central mechanism of British rule and ingraining the system further in Indian society.

by the Know Nothing Enquirer    13/05/2016

The Constitution of independent India, that came into effect in 1950, declares the country as a secular, socialist democratic republic, guaranteeing its citizens justice, equality, and liberty. Article 15 specifically states that "no citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition". It then continues to list those conditions. Yet it also provides "for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens" in clause 5 of that article. It then continues with article 16, defining equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and declares in clause 4 that "Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the State, is not adequately represented in the services under the State." And finally in article 17: 

"'Untouchability' is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of 'Untouchability' shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law."

 

The Indian constitution was in 1950 - and still is - one of the most progressive in the entire world. It acknowledges the "backwardness" of a large portion of society and aims to increase the opportunities of those communities and enable them a place in mainstream Indian society. A system of positive discrimination through quotas ("reservations") in government jobs and public institutions was implemented to decrease the existing structural inequalities in Indian society. Similarly to the situation of black Americans in the United States, caste discrimination is far from being a thing of the past. Or as the JNU professor Gopal Guru writes

 

"Indian liberalism has helped Dalits to acquire self-esteem if not self-respect. Liberal democracy exists in the shadow of eternal truth of caste."

 

In other words, the "Indian nation and its liberal democratic structure" have failed to enable Dalits (the former "untouchables") from being part of mainstream society. Through positive discrimination they can achieve personal success but India's caste conscious society does not allow them to "gain self-respect". 

Clearly modern India has a caste problem and the new study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), a New Delhi think-tank, shows how bad this is. The study uses data from the 2011 India Human Development Study that was conducted by NCAER and the University of Maryland. Over 41,000 households across the country were contacted. They asked the wives of the households whether their family at birth belonged to the same caste as their husband's family. The results suggest that 95% of all Indian marriages are between husband and wife from the same caste. There are obviously great regional divides. In states with a high percentage of Christians or Muslims inter-caste marriages are more common (the caste system is identified with Hinduism but it is also practiced by other religions in India). For example, in the North-Eastern state of Mizoram only 55% and in Jammu and Kashmir 35% of all marriages were between two members of a caste.

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Map and data: IHDS

Of course, caste is not the only issue associated with marriages in India. Arranged Marriages are still extremely common - especially in the Hindi Belt of North India. The map only shows those arranged marriages that were made with no consent. 35% of all women (age 25-49) had no say in the choice of their husband. 23% of all women reported that their family chose their spouse but they had some say in the decision.

 

Things are changing though. 27% of all rural respondents said that they knew people within their own community who married outside their caste. In urban localities this was the case with more than 36%. Some are even trying rather unorthodox (or rather extremely capitalist) ways to tackle the problem. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, offered newly-weds cash incentives to promote intra-caste marriages. Yet even amongst the overwhelming majority of non-resident Indians, inter-caste marriage is still practiced. There is still a long way to go. 

 

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Graph and data: IHDS