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Caste walls divide modern India

Nearly 57% declared that neither they, nor their children, would marry into lower castes, reports Soma Wadhwa.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2007 02:55 IST

As we enter 2007 with some celebratory counts — over a billion people, 540 million youth, Sensex approaching 14, 000, a never before eight per cent plus GDP growth rate — there are still some numbers that just don’t add up.

For instance, the largest chunk among those polled in our survey, at 46 per cent, chose Mahatma Gandhi as the “India’s Best Brand Ambassador”.

Yet, 57 per cent of these people also declared that neither they, nor their children, would marry into castes considered lower than their own. Just 28 per cent, in fact, thought it all right, for them and their children, to wed outside one’s caste.

The Mahatma — a clear favourite with those who seem uncomfortable with inter-caste marriage — had proclaimed that in his Sevagram Ashram he would celebrate only those weddings where one of the spouses came from the ‘untouchable community’.

But then survey statistics often show up inconsistencies that we are made of. What else would explain our respondents, from four metros and four large cities, educated and forward-looking, so given to archaic affinity for caste and community?

Surf the country’s matrimonial websites, and most profiles posted are as upfront about being Vaishnav Vanik, Iyer Brahmin, Bengali Kayastha, Jat Sikh, Muslim Sunni and Christian Jacobite as they are about being engineers, managers, teachers.

“Seventy per cent of those looking for life partners incorporate caste in their search,” verifies Sanjeev Bikchandani, CEO of jeevansaathi.com, “Though the medium used for seeking a bride or a groom has become modern, the users are still looking at caste and community as safe premises, at least to begin negotiations.”

Perhaps that is why experts monitoring changes in our society are not surprised by incongruities in our survey’s responses. “Our expectations associate our cosmopolitan modernity with some kind of new values,” observes sociologist Yogendra Yadav of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, “But the fact is that our values have remained the same because modernity came to us enmeshed in certain privileges, embedded in the caste structure; the upper-caste, the English-speaking, for instance, had more access to modernity than others.

So, till we accept that caste is a reality in our modernity, we won’t be able to weed it out.” Social anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan goes even further, saying liberalisation has in fact reinforced caste: “Caste is now a local membership in a globalised society. In a world that’s opening up so much, and to so many uncertainties, it helps to have roots and networks that anchor one’s identity. Thus, endogamy’s still the ideal.”

Nothing has changed, argues Dalit activist Kancha Illaiah: “Even economic class hasn’t overtaken caste yet. A poor Brahmin is still a better prospect for marriage than a rich Shudra.” Choice in marriage, Illaiah insists, is a fallacy, “Because even in love marriages, youngsters choose keeping in mind what society has taught them about caste and community.”

Last September, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment suggested financial incentives of Rs 50,000 to people who marry into the lowest of castes. Many states already do so, but the amount differs. In Gujarat, a couple gets Rs 50,000, while in West Bengal about Rs 5000.

The government says it wants the sum to be standardised throughout India. Small change for mindsets to alter, but a beginning, maybe.