I think it was the picture of the young woman and her young man that really firmed up my position on this subject. It sounds really cliched but she looked like the girl next door, she looked like she could have been my friend telling me how her family doesn’t like her boyfriend. The girl with a PLU name, Nidhi Barak, didn’t live next door but she did live right next to Delhi, in Rohtak. As much as we could identify with Nidhi’s life story — girl meets boy, they fall in love, their families disapprove of it — her death took us back to another age, and maybe to some Taliban-dominated country. The fine arts student was lynched and cremated in public by her family and her boyfriend was beheaded. For falling in love.
We blamed the khap panchayat for its constant diktats against same-gotra love, same-village love; we rightly blamed the parents and they were arrested for this never-in-a-million-years-will-we-forget lesson against love; we blamed the politicians who silently encourage these khaps; but I think, that much of the blame lies with us, for still treating love marriage as abnormal and arranged as the norm. And every time one of us, educated, supposedly independent, individuals agrees to marry someone not of our own choosing, someone we don't love, we are silently condoning those who kill to oppose the concept of love marriage.
I know the arguments for an arranged marriage but what surprises me is how common and normal it still is. When a journalist I know recently got married, I asked her where she met her husband. She hesitated and said a little apologetically, “No, it’s an arranged marriage.” She looked a little wary and I remember telling her being married was quite fun; she said, “Is it?” We didn’t talk more and I didn’t want to intrude but I really couldn’t figure out why she would agree if she was so uncertain.
Could it be that our tradition of listening to elders in our family is just getting the better of us? Maybe, we are confusing the need to respect and take care of them with putting our lives in their hands. After all, isn’t the right to choose our partner the most basic right of us as individuals? Isn’t it an exercise of free will that we have a responsibility to fulfil? And when we give it up to make our parents happy, we aren’t just being lazy about asserting our independence, we are trying to be ‘good’, unlike those who bad, wayward people who marry out of choice and for love.
It’s because many of us just give in to our parents’ objections to caste, colour, status and region that people like Nidhi and Dharmender have to die. In 2007, newlyweds Manoj and Babli, from a village two hours away from Rohtak, were killed for marrying within their gotra. In the same manner of public execution, Babli was made to drink pesticide after being forced to watch her husband’s limbs broken and then strangled by her own family.
I know that most people would say that cracking down on honour killings, handing out death sentences to the perpetrators like a Delhi court did last year to family members of another couple murdered, will be the best way to prevent honour killings but I suggest that we start actively opposing arranged marriages. I’m not talking about parents helping out their single too-busy-to-mingle children meet a few suitable boys and girls which is a great boon in a way. I’m saying the social sanction it receives right now should immediately be lifted. Just as no one would admit to asking for dowry in public, they should feel embarrassed about forcing their children to marry someone. No longer should young people proudly proclaim their arranged marriage status, — it’s best left a dirty secret, because lovers who run away aren’t freaks.
This campaign for marrying for love needs megastars so maybe we have crusaders like the uber cool MS Dhoni, who didn’t just set trends with his hair and his small town background but also has a filmy love story to be proud of. The story goes that his wife Sakshi was interning at a Kolkata hotel and when the cricket hero checked in, sparks flew. Or how about Sachin who is not just defying retirement age but is also a posterboy for falling in love with an older woman. These are Gods of Modern India and so maybe they could do this as a public and social awareness campaign instead of just endorsing cool drinks. We will, of course, gloss over the fact that Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, all metro boys, all went in for the girls their parents chose.
But it’s an idea whose time has come. If groups like Love Commandos and Gulabi Gangs could emerge out of our cities and villages to protect those who are threatened by khaps and their likes, why can’t we all take this simple stand to make arranged matches ‘dishonourable’? The worst that can happen is that we stay single and that’s not such a bad thing for our population, either.
And for those who just don’t want to break their parents’ heart — I offer the line my friend did to her heartbroken parents. When they objected to her choice of husband — a divorcee who was 10 years older — she dramatically declared, “Fine, but if I’m unhappy with the man you choose for me, you’ll have to live with that all your life?” Her parents gave her their blessings in a heartbeat.
(The writer is an associate editor, NDTV and senior anchor. Her email: sunetra.choudhury @gmail.com)