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Love and longing in modern India

We are simply not prepared to grant daughters the right to choose their spouses, particularly in inter-faith marriages

columns Updated: Feb 09, 2018 18:23 IST
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Once again, we will be witness to a new generation of Indians ‘proposing’ to their chosen ones with red roses (Representative Photo)
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Once again, we will be witness to a new generation of Indians ‘proposing’ to their chosen ones with red roses (Representative Photo)(PTI)

In New Delhi, Ankit Saxena made the fatal error of falling in love with a 20-year-old Muslim woman.

In Kerala, Akhila Ashokan converted to Islam and, as Hadiya, married a man in accordance with her new faith. Convinced she had been brainwashed, her father got the Kerala High Court to annul the marriage. Hadiya has, since, told the Supreme Court that she wishes to continue with her studies and live with her husband. The court has granted part one of her wish.

Nobody has the right to interfere in a marriage between two consenting adults, the Supreme Court declared this past week. The court’s ire was directed at khap panchayats. Left unsaid is what it makes of the Kerala High Court’s observation that, as per Indian tradition, “The custody of an unmarried daughter is with her parents, until she is properly married off.”

India’s march to modernity might seem confusing to anyone who glances at matrimonial ads in newspapers and online sites where would-be brides and grooms — and, more likely, their parents — configure their requirements under religion and community divisions.

A new generation of aspirational women does dream of love, but it is a love that carries the stamp of family approval, the chain of custody passing from father to husband, unbroken and unchallenged.

“Love should be arranged,” 19-year-old Soni, the daughter of a fruit vendor in south Delhi tells me. One of five children, her three married sisters have all had arranged marriages. Soni, an articulate volunteer with an adolescent empowerment group, is doing her BA and dreams of a career with the police.

So, how is love arranged, I ask her. It’s simple: Papa tells you who to fall in love with, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a good husband — like her sister did, a man who allowed her to continue studying even after she got married.

The price of un-permitted love can be high — social ostracisation and even ‘honour’ killings. Ankit Saxena was killed allegedly by his girlfriend’s family; the plot involved a fake road rage incident and was reportedly hatched by the mother. You have to ask: How awful is the ‘dishonour’ of your adult daughter falling in love with the ‘wrong’ man for you to have to kill him in cold blood, knowing that you will probably end up in jail for the crime?

Saxena’s murder reverses the love jihad narrative in which Muslim men plot to marry gullible Hindu girls with the goal to convert them. It does, however, underline the horror with which Indian society continues to view interfaith marriages.

This is a society where a Facebook post — taken down since — lists 102 interfaith couples, calling openly for violence against the men. This is a society that continues to whip up fears of love jihad, the bogey that the Hindutva brigade uses to keep ‘its’ women in check. In September, a video of Sangeeta Varshney, president of the BJP Mahila Morcha, slapping a young Hindu woman for sitting in a tea stall with a Muslim man, had gone viral. An unrepentant Varshney told TV channels that she had done nothing wrong and would slap anyone who led ‘our Hindu girls’ astray.

But behind all the noise and fury lies one indisputable fact: an insistence by parents, societies and even institutions to ‘control’ daughters.

Cutting across religion, caste and community, there is an assumption that all women (or girls as we prefer calling unmarried women) are simply incapable of making rational choices.

The courts often subscribe to this belief with judgments from across the country peppered with moralistic observations about a woman’s proper place in society.

Somewhere she is told to be like Goddess Sita who unquestioningly followed her husband, elsewhere she is scolded for not taking care of her in-laws, a third judge rules that refusal to wear a mangalsutra amounts to cruelty and, of course, the greatest contempt is reserved for those women who judges refer to as ‘keeps’.

But sometimes you cannot hide your love away.

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Once again, we will be witness to a new generation of Indians ‘proposing’ to their chosen ones with red roses. Once again, we will see old India close ranks at these strange, alien customs. It’s Parent’s Worship Day, they will insist, or to use its more appropriate nomenclature, ‘matri-pitra pujan diwas’.

Roses may please kindly be sent to the correct and proper recipients.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

The views expressed are personal

Twitter: @namitabhandare