Still frowning upon intermarriages

A survey in two diverse areas shows that the desire to stop other people from having inter-caste or inter-religious marriages is not as uncommon as we might like to think

December 29, 2016 01:15 am | Updated January 03, 2017 01:18 am IST

As 2016 draws to an end, it may seem that inter-caste marriages aren’t as uncommon as they used to be. Maybe you’ve even met someone whose spouse is from another religion. Do these salient examples mean that the times are changing? Are the divisions of caste and religion less sharp than they once were?

These are important questions. As B.R. Ambedkar pointed out, the social ban on intermarriage is “the most fundamental idea on which the whole fabric of caste is built up”. Ambedkar, and many others who have studied the stubbornness of caste, think it will only be annihilated when people marry across caste lines.

A new survey called SARI (Social Attitudes Research for India) investigated what people think about inter-caste and inter-religious marriage. SARI uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialling, within-household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults 18-65 years old. So far, we’ve interviewed 1,270 adults in Delhi and 1,470 adults in Uttar Pradesh.

Home truths

We asked people whether they would oppose their children or close family members marrying people from other social groups. People from all backgrounds said that they would raise objections to such marriages.

Nearly 50 per cent of the non-Scheduled Caste respondents in Delhi and 70 per cent in Uttar Pradesh said that they would oppose a child or close relative marrying a Dalit. There was even greater opposition to inter-religious marriages. In Delhi, about 60 per cent of Hindus said they would oppose a child or relative marrying a Muslim; a similar fraction of Muslims would oppose a child or relative marrying a Hindu. In Uttar Pradesh, the opposition was even greater: about 75 per cent of Hindus opposed marriages with Muslims, and only a slightly lower fraction of Muslims, about 70 per cent, opposed marriages with Hindus (see graph 1).

The media often covers stories of khap panchayats brutally punishing young people for marrying outside their caste. Yet, for those living in India’s metros, these stories may seem distant or irrelevant to their own lives. Unfortunately, the SARI data suggest that the desire to stop other people from having inter-caste marriages is not as uncommon or distant as we might like to think. The survey asked respondents whether they thought there should be laws to stop marriages between upper castes and lower castes. About 40 per cent respondents in Delhi and more than 60 per cent in rural Uttar Pradesh said that such laws should exist (see graph 2)!

Laws against intermarriage had backers among the lower castes as well as the upper castes. A higher fraction of women than men in each of Delhi, urban Uttar Pradesh, and rural Uttar Pradesh said they would support laws against inter-caste marriage. Women may be more willing to legislate their own beliefs on this topic than men are, or, they may just be less likely to give the interviewer a socially desirable answer.

The idea that laws should prohibit inter-caste marriages was not confined to older generations. The only demographic factor that is strongly associated with support for laws against inter-caste marriage is education.

At every level of education, reported support for these laws is higher in Uttar Pradesh than in Delhi. As with the differences between men and women, there may well be real differences in support for inter-caste marriage bans in these three regions, or it may be that people in Delhi are just more likely to give the answer that they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Although education is associated with fewer people being willing to bring the state into others’ marriage choices, a high fraction of people who had passed Class 10 or higher nevertheless said that they support laws against inter-caste marriage. In Delhi, about 25 per cent of highly educated people said there should be a law against such marriages; in Uttar Pradesh, it is about 45 per cent (see graph 3).

Marriages for unity

The finding that even many educated people think there should be laws against inter-caste marriage raises serious questions about our education system and whether it is doing enough to reduce caste and religious prejudice. It is telling that many of the youth passing out of the premier technical and medical institutions still depend on their parents to choose their spouses.

Of course, in a society that is so divided on caste lines, inter-caste or inter-religious marriages can make a person an outcast among his family and neighbours. He may even be barred from family inheritance. Even when families are not adamantly opposed to an inter-caste marriage, there is a strong belief that it is more convenient to settle down with a socially and culturally familiar person.

Thankfully, despite popular support, no actual Indian law prohibits inter-caste marriage. If anything, on paper, the government approves of these marriages: each year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment makes available 500 monetary awards to inter-caste couples. The small size of this programme makes it more of a symbolic gesture than an actual incentive, but it is nevertheless a good idea.

The government should be doing much more to promote inter-group marriage and to protect those who seek them. In practice, officials in the courts and the police often enforce divisive social norms rather than enforcing the laws. They may discourage or intimidate couples who try to marry across caste or religious lines. Lack of government support in the face of family disapproval may be one reason why the India Human Development Survey found that only 5 per cent of marriages are inter-caste. Will any political party have the courage to take up support for inter-caste marriages as an agenda item?

Diane Coffey is a visiting researcher at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi; Amit Thorat is Assistant Professor at Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU. This is the first of a four-part series on prejudice.

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