Should caste get in the way of marriage?

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 09, 2013 05:55 hrs

The love story that put Ramadoss' PMK back in the headlines for the first time since their election debacle with the torching of more than 250 houses belonging to Dalits and the suicide of a parent has finally ended.

And it has ended in the murkiest of ways, with the death of Ilavarasan, and the belated discovery of a purported "suicide note" he left for his wife, Divya.

Ilavarasan's death is believed to have been caused by an injury to his head. None of the drivers of the trains on the track from where his corpse was recovered reported seeing his body. Until his death, the youth insisted Divya was being forced to live away from him.

The tragedy has raised the issue of caste clashes again. It is a pointless debate. As long as political parties exist, vote bank politics will exist. As long as vote bank politics exist, there will be caste, communal, and cultural clashes.

However, we do need to look at how relevant the issue of caste is in the context of marriage. Most arranged marriages use caste as their first filter. Among people who belong to the same socio-economic class, this shouldn't technically matter – caste barely even dictates food habits in this generation.

If we were to look at our circles of close friends, most of us would find that there are very few with whom we share gender, religion, ethnicity, language, and caste. Our social circles are dictated by our personal leanings, our professional choices, and our geographical and cultural exposure.

But, when the question of marriage crops up, caste suddenly becomes a pertinent point. Historically, people's castes were assigned on the basis of their inclinations. At some point, we began to inherit caste, along with all our other baggage.

While our politicians, intellectuals, and textbooks wax poetic on the coloniser's divide-and-rule policy, we haven't come up with a viable solution to end the divisions between us. We continue to reinforce these divisions through the institution of marriage.

How is the exclusion of certain communities from matrimonial eligibility, based on caste, religion or any other label, different from the two-tumbler system?

When two people have made a choice to stay together, there is quite obviously a level of compatibility between them that renders all other concerns irrelevant.

Unfortunately, in India, caste divisions are cemented by the two institutions that are most empowered to defeat them – marriage and education.

Over the last few decades, the reservation in educational institutions for people of "backward classes" has increased in Tamil Nadu, to the extent of being unconstitutional. Even more insidiously, the word "class" has been used interchangeably with "caste".

Across the world, India is held up as a model of harmony – within our borders, we find people of all the religions one can think of, wearing diverse clothes, speaking tongues that become incomprehensible within a few hundred kilometres of each other, worshipping Gods with contradictory dogmas, all of which contribute to the slogan we so pride ourselves on: Unity in Diversity.

The truth is, there is no unity in diversity. In all these years, we haven't learnt to celebrate our differences. We have only learnt to categorise each other, and compartmentalise our interactions with each other. All these spates of riots, bomb blasts and revenge attacks later, we are still swayed by the idea of the ‘Ram Mandir'. All these clashes, murders, and tragedies later, we are still held captive by caste.

I don't think of ‘caste' as an evil. I believe one's caste is as much a part of one's identity as one's religion or ethnicity or nationhood. We derive a sense of history from these labels. But should these labels dictate who we are, or whom we choose to be with? No.

It is a commonly held opinion that caste is a crucial issue in marriage for precisely the same reason it gives us a sense of identity – that it ties us to a larger community because of the shared history, shared rituals, shared food habits, shared passions. In several cases, this may be true. But this doesn't mean the converse holds – that a marriage between people who don't share this history, these rituals and these food habits will not work.

The case of Divya and Ilavarasan has become high-profile because of the ramifications caused by its politicisation. But, everyday, there are similar stories, most of which end in separation, suicide, or murder – most of which are recorded with a stub on the inner pages of local newspapers.

It is shameful that a country that claims to be a melting pot of cultures cannot protect people who buy into this idea. It is shameful that caste transcends all other concerns, and permeates religions that claimed to be free of such a hierarchy.

The relevance of caste in our social engine will eventually have to fade from all its manifestations. But we need to start actively removing it from the institution of marriage.

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