Oppression and discrimination suffered by the low caste groups and Dalits at the hands of the dominant caste groups in Haryana and Rajasthan is reproduced within the families bringing in wives from other parts of India.
The brides are “needed” solely for their ability to perform free reproductive and productive labour. They are also preferred over local women as the loosening of natal family connections renders them vulnerable to domination and abuse.
In the last decade and a half, the male marriage squeeze in the prosperous north Indian provinces such as Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh has led to men from these States paying money to marry women, usually from under-developed or economically marginalised regions of eastern India.
They are segregated, isolated and shunned primarily because of their ‘unknown’ caste status, though the families overtly insist otherwise. Furthermore, the caste-based exclusion and humiliation is experienced both in the public arena and the private space of the family, according to a study ‘Tied in a Knot — cross-region marriages in Haryana and Rajasthan, Implications for Gender Rights and Gender Relations,’ funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy.
The research was conducted in three phases in Rohtak, Rewari and Mewat districts of Haryana and Alwar and Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, across 226 villages with 1,216 cross-region brides participating. In the source region of Odisha, the research was conducted on a cluster of 10 villages in Balasore district.
“The most disturbing finding… has been the conjugal communities’ widespread intolerance of the cross-region brides in Haryana and Rajasthan. This takes a number of forms, the worst being caste discrimination. Caste councils or Khap panchayats, though taking a tough stance on inter-caste marriages in Haryana, maintain a studied silence on the nature of oppression and discrimination,” Reena Kukreja, author of the study, told The Hindu.
Caste discrimination is further amplified by deep racism against women and their natal communities. They are all pejoratively called ‘Biharan,’ a term that implies poverty, desperation, filth and savagery. Their parents and natal communities are branded as ‘thieves,’ ‘sellers of daughters’ and ‘primitive savages.’ The repeated denigration is internalised by the brides, and this leads to lowering of their self-esteem and self-worth. As a survival strategy, they minimise their social contact with others, with a negative impact on their mental health.
Most cross-region brides are victims of colourism (darker pigmentation of their skin). Dark skin leads to their rejection in the local marriage market, making them more likely to be offered for long-distance alliance, resulting in dislocation from their culture, community and family. Apart from casteist and racist slurs, these brides are considered, and often taunted as ugly and dull in intelligence, because of their dark skin, the study suggests.
Shortage of women is not common across all caste groups, but is endemic among the dominant caste groups of Jats, Ahirs and Yadavs. While the well-off from these groups are able to marry locally, men who are underemployed, poor, those who have little land, suffer from some deformity, are less educated or are old are the ones who most often seek cross-region brides. This practice, however, is slowly spreading to some lower caste groups and Muslim communities
Such marriages are non-customary as the women come from different ethnicity, region and, sometimes, even religion. Families of these brides are extremely poor, often in the Below Poverty Line category, with little or no land assets and seasonal low-paying agricultural work. Inability to meet the exorbitant dowry demands made by local grooms forces them into long-distance alliances. This is the main reason why they opt for ‘dowry-free, no wedding expenses’ offers made by Haryanvi or Rajasthani men.
These marriages are arranged in four ways with grave consequences for the brides, depending on which marriage route they take. These are trafficking; alliances through marriage brokers or Dalals; husbands of brides; and brides as marriage mediators. Though there is trafficking of women for forced marriages, it is not as extensive and rampant.
Children of such unions face similar racial taunts from their peers and are not accepted as one of their own. The insults range from sidelining in games or bullying with name-calling. Such incidents are high in Rohtak district of Haryana and the Alwar region of Rajasthan. Some older male children have faced difficulty in finding local girls because of their mother’s ‘questionable’ caste identity.
The brides are subject to heightened surveillance, which varies from total confinement to restriction of their movement within the village. The degree to which this is enforced depends on the mode through which the bride has been sourced, the duration of the marriage; and the amount invested by the family in the marriage; and whether she has children or not.
Suggesting that registration of all marriages, notwithstanding community or religion, be made compulsory with a bill passed immediately, the study says this will help to protect the gender rights of cross-region brides in case of trafficking; abuse; desertion by husband; or their claiming maintenance or inheritance rights.
The study suggests that the benefits of the government scheme to encourage inter-caste marriages with a monetary incentive be extended to cross-region marriages, with a clause that the wife shall be a non-resident and of low-caste status. It will ensure that such marriages are registered by a marriage registration officer, will lead to reduction in incidences of trafficking and will offer legal protection of human rights of the brides and their children.