What does it mean to be a child of an intercaste union in modern India?

We often talk about intercaste couples and their challenges, but what about the children of intercaste unions? How do they grapple with the caste system, with the law, with identity?

February 06, 2021 04:22 pm | Updated 04:22 pm IST

If caste is to be compared to race in America, then how does the experience of intercaste people compare to that of mixed-race people?

If caste is to be compared to race in America, then how does the experience of intercaste people compare to that of mixed-race people?

The bhattas were deep in debate. They’d been asked to decide on a thorny question: the caste status of a diverse group of craftsmen — goldsmiths, silversmiths, carpenters, stonecutters, masons — calling themselves Rathakarar. The members of the learned sabha pondered. They pored over the dharmashastras . And finally, they came to a conclusion. The wheels were greased, no doubt, by a little political flexibility and a sprinkling of imagination.

The craftsmen were, the Brahmins agreed, primarily descended from a proper anuloma union between a higher-caste forefather and a lower-caste foremother, rather than the opposite, a despised pratiloma marriage where the woman’s caste was higher. Specifically, they were found to be the descendants of a Mahishya man — the son of a Kshatriya man and a Vaishya woman, as per the great lawgiver Yajnavalkya — and a Karani woman, the daughter of a Vaishya man and a Shudra woman. Therefore, the Rathakarar had the right to wear the sacred thread and perform certain rituals. So ruled the Brahmin assembly of Rajasraya-Chaturvedimangalam in 1118 CE, as recorded in a well-known inscription at Uyyakondan Thirumalai, in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirappalli district.

If the mythical ancestors of the Rathakarar were around these days, we might call them an intercaste people. Now, 900 years later, the status of intercaste children is still fertile ground for litigation. In September 2020, the Delhi High Court dismissed an appeal by an Indian Air Force officer who sought Scheduled Caste (SC) certificates for her children, based on her own caste rather than their father’s (her ex-husband’s) forward-caste status ( Rumy Chowdhury v. The Department of Revenue, Government of NCT of Delhi & ANR ). The court held that there was no evidence that the children had associated extensively with members of their mother’s community or suffered any hardships due to their SC ancestry. Their caste, therefore, was by default that of their father.

Underlying confusion

“There was a time when I used to respond, ‘I’m half-breed’, when people asked me, ‘What are you,’” says Dhanya, 41, a general manager at a production house in Thiruvananthapuram. Her mother is a Tamil Brahmin and her father is a Nair. “There was a long period when I identified myself as Tam-Brahm Iyer — I was closer to my cousins on my mother’s side. But the underlying confusion remains.”

What do history, tradition and religious law have to say?

What do history, tradition and religious law have to say?

What does it mean to be an intercaste child? Intercaste couples and the challenges they face are discussed, but who are their children? How do they grapple with the caste system? Where do they stand legally? What do history, tradition and religious law have to say? And how do they see it?

The law, in modern India, has generally favoured the father’s caste. As a 2011 Delhi High Court judgment states, “Indian society is [a] patriarchal society where the child acquires the caste of his father.” But this was far from universal. The Bihar government has said in the past that the children of an SC mother and a non-SC father would be counted as SC. Kerala held for decades that children could be counted as SC or Scheduled Tribe (ST) if either parent was from one of those categories. As late as 2009, the Madras High Court ruled that children born to one SC and one non-SC parent could be counted as belonging to either community.

It was a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s and early 2000s that moved towards uniformity in applying the father’s caste. In 2012, the top court added further nuance to its position with a momentous judgment in Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika v. State of Gujarat & Ors . The appellant, born to a Kshatriya father and an ST mother, had been deprived of his tribal certificate by a Scrutiny Committee, and consequently lost a Fair Price shop allocated to him on that basis. The Gujarat High Court upheld the committee’s decision, but the Supreme Court took a different view of its own previous decisions, finding that they had been based on the specific facts of those cases rather than an absolute principle in favour of the father’s caste. The judgment written by Justice Aftab Alam said the mother’s caste or tribe could be applied if the child was raised by the mother, as a member of her community, and suffered the attendant hardships and indignities.

Winds of change

“It was a very progressive judgment,” says senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, who appeared for the appellant. Suraj Yengde, a scholar of caste and a fellow at Harvard University, agrees, saying the key factor is “to understand the experiences and history of one’s subjugation. I think it’s a progressive way of interpreting the law. It challenges the Hindu model of patriarchy.”

The Naika judgment set a new standard that has been crucial in Chowdhury and other cases. For example, in April 2019, the Bombay High Court sent a case back to a Scrutiny Committee for reconsideration, potentially allowing a daughter to claim her mother’s Other Backward Class (OBC) status rather than her father’s SC status. The judgment cites the Naika decision, adding “Our society has not adopted matriarchal society. But now winds of change have arrived.”

Most recently, the controversy over Rohith Vemula’s caste made waves. Born to an SC mother and an OBC father, later estranged, the issue of his Dalit identity was politicised after his suicide in 2016. His brother was quoted in a news report saying, “We lived like Dalits. We were raised in a Dalit community. Yes, my father was from a Backward Class, but whatever we know is from our experience of living like a Dalit.” But many, including Union ministers, claimed that Vemula was not a Dalit. A one-man judicial commission agreed, in a finding that seemed to fly in the face of the Naika decision.

(From left) Lakshmi Sahgal with her mother Ammu Swaminadhan, sister Mrinalini, grandmother A.V. Ammukutty Amma, and brother Govind Swaminathan.

(From left) Lakshmi Sahgal with her mother Ammu Swaminadhan, sister Mrinalini, grandmother A.V. Ammukutty Amma, and brother Govind Swaminathan.

Nevertheless, a strong principle has been established by Naika and mostly followed over the past decade. Is it perfect? “It is not equitable, it is subjective. The question is, how far can it be refined,” says Hegde. What would he suggest? “I think that you should in some cases allow the child to take a call. Especially where he was totally isolated from the father’s company and caste.” Yengde, meanwhile, appreciates the principle of looking at experiences, but is apprehensive about how those experiences may be defined in practice. He sees Chowdhury as setting a dangerous precedent. “Does it mean that if you are not treated utterly terribly, you have not undergone the experience of being SC?”

Paternal lineage

The courts don’t have any specific law to go by in such cases, and Hegde thinks that’s unlikely to change — “simply because there will be great resistance from the reserved category people themselves. Nobody wants to expand the eligible group.” And legislation, he fears, might put it in a straitjacket.

The presumption in favour of the father’s caste is a powerful one and its consequences are clear. Aravind, 29, is a doctor from Thiruvananthapuram. His mother is Ezhava (OBC) and his father is from an SC community. After his postgraduate entrance examination in Kerala two years ago, his rank was withheld. “It’s usual for intercaste students. We have to prove that it’s our father who is SC,” he says. “They even asked for my grandparents’ school certificates.” It involved officials actually visiting his grandmother.

Why the father’s caste? It takes its cue from social practice, says Hegde. “Everybody traces their lineage and gotra through the paternal line.” This can be seen even in intercaste contexts, especially among the strongly patrilineal peasant-pastoralist communities of rural north India. One example is the practice of karewa among Jats. This term now mostly refers to widow remarriage within the clan, but in the past also encompassed taking wives from other communities. “The Jats had very fluid marriages. They entered into relationships with women from other communities and castes, including Dalit castes. Their children were seen as part of the clan,” says Nonica Datta, associate professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Forming an Identity: A Social History of the Jats . Other communities such as Rors, Ahirs and Gujjars had similar practices, says Datta.

M.C. Pradhan in his 1966 book The Political System of the Jats of Northern India writes, “The accent of society is on the paternity of the child rather than on the maternity and this helps a great deal to obliterate differences in the social status of the children from various kinds of marriage.” Such practices became rarer as caste identities were codified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Half-caste kids

The counterexample to patrilineality would be the sambandham ‘marriages’ in Kerala between Nair women and higher-caste men, such as Namboothiri Brahmins, Tamil Brahmins and Kshatriyas. The offspring were considered Nairs — ‘Shudras’ by the Brahmins’ reckoning — whose touch could pollute their fathers. The system continued well into the 20th century. Hegde gives the example of the famous family that included Captain Lakshmi Sahgal, Mrinalini Sarabhai, and their two brothers. All were children of Subbarama Swaminathan, a Tamil Brahmin, and his Nair wife, Ammukkutty. They registered their marriage in London to avoid making it a sambandham , but socially, their children were never treated as Brahmins. Sahgal’s daughter Subhashini Ali has written of how her grandmother found out one day that her Brahmin in-laws were making her “half-caste” children sit on the floor at mealtimes.

Thus, it’s clear that historical practice varied. So did theory — some traditional lawgivers in the dharmashastra tradition favoured the father’s caste (if the mother was from the varna immediately below), others the mother’s caste. And some, like Yajnavalkya, created new castes. That most infamous lawgiver Manu outdoes himself in Chapter X, laying out an entire taxonomy of jatis created by the mixing of varnas . “He exhausts all possibilities,” says Kesavan Veluthat, former professor of history at the University of Delhi. For example: “From a Kshatriya and the daughter of a Shudra springs a being called Ugra, resembling both Kshatriya and Shudra, ferocious in manners and delighting in cruelty.” He reserves special venom for the offspring of pratiloma marriages; the child of a Shudra man and a Brahmin woman is “a Chandala, the lowest of men”. He even explores possible second-order combinations involving old and new castes: “The son of a Nishada by a Shudra female becomes a Pulkasa by caste, but the son of a Shudra by a Nishada female is declared to be a Kukkutaka.”

Judges in the colonial era knew their Manu and Yajnavalkya. The Bombay High Court in Nathu Natharam v. Chhotalal Dajibhai Mehta (1930) discusses Mahishyas and Karanas in much the same spirit as the bhattas of Uyyakondan. But whatever the relevance of the dharmashastras , how do the flesh-and-blood children of intercaste unions see their identities? Have they confronted caste issues or faced discrimination?

The law, in modern India, has generally favoured the father’s caste.

The law, in modern India, has generally favoured the father’s caste.

“I don’t see myself as having a caste identity,” says Aravind. For him, it’s something imposed by society for official purposes. “Most people don’t know I’m intercaste; I got into medical school on the SC quota. Of course, there is discrimination and people make comments about reservation.”

Picking a side

Dhanya has heard of some marriage negotiations that fell through because of her mixed heritage. “My dad does not wear a sacred thread; he cannot do all the rituals. Some staunch Brahmins didn’t want their sons married to me,” she says. Now, since her daughter’s father is Nair, she leans to that side. “For her to understand, it was important for me to pick a side.”

Parshwati, 41, a PR professional from a Bengali family settled in Delhi, has barely felt caste in her life. Her father is from a Vaishya trading community and her mother is Kayastha. “There was no question of discrimination. People are not even aware. In my family, everyone is intercaste.” The only issue she can think of is a conflict in food habits.

Food has also been central to Kapil’s (name changed to protect identit y ) experiences, but in a less benign way. The 33-year-old, an artist from Assam, was born to a Brahmin father and SC mother. He takes his father’s Brahmin surname but he is also discriminated against. “My aunt eats in our neighbour’s house when she visits, because of my mother’s caste,” he says. And remembers how as a teenager, when serving food at a wedding, many upper-caste relatives didn’t eat when he served.

“There are many hierarchies; I cannot define myself,” he says. I fight with my family because they want me to marry a Brahmin, but it’s also difficult to see myself as a Dalit. I’m neither here nor there.”

The personal responses are as varied as religious texts and the law. To be intercaste, then, is not one thing — it is lived in ambiguities and largely absent from the popular imagination. It calls for serious study, from these angles and others, and needs its own intellectual toolkit. Yengde, for one, is interested. “There must be intergenerational trauma. We don’t have studies,” he says.

Is modern-day jurisprudence equitable? Is it consonant with “the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens”? And if caste is to be compared to race in America, then how does the experience of intercaste people compare to that of mixed-race people? Is pratiloma parallel to the heightened fear of miscegenation when it involves a black man and a white woman? Many questions arise and it’s time to try to answer them.


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