The decision to lift a ban on marriage between people from different castes has been hailed as a victory for love over tradition
One of India’s most influential tribal councils has lifted a ban on inter-caste marriages in a move hailed by campaigners as the start of a social revolution.
India’s more than 800 million Hindus are born into rigid castes which determine their opportunities in life and their social status.
Those who defy traditional barriers to marry someone from below their own caste are often shunned and occasionally murdered – there are more than 1,000 honour killings in India every year of those who cross caste and religious divides to marry for love.
Most of the killings have been in northern India where Hindus from the Jat tribe – traditionally regarded as peasant warrior – also forbid marriages between those from the same sub-caste or gotra, which they regard as incest.
In September last year a 23 year-old student and his 20 year-old girlfriend who had been in a forbidden relationship were lured back to their village where the young woman was beaten to death and her boyfriend beheaded in front of his family’s home
Jat tribal councils, known as khap panchayats, have defended their right to order honour killings and warned the Indian government not to interfere in local traditional punishments. The Jats are a powerful vote bank in India and few political leaders are prepared to challenge them.
Although their ban is illegal – Indian law does prohibit inter-caste marriage – few in remote villages dare to defy their families and elders.
The announcement by one of the most influential khap panchayats that it was lifting its ban on inter-caste marriages was unexpected and reflects a growing marriage crisis. The skewed sex ratio in northern India – which reflects families’ preference for boys – has meant more unmarried young men without a hope of finding a bride within their caste.
In some parts of India, agents have brought in potential brides from several thousands of miles away to meet the demand.
Jat leaders said they were more worried about the threat to their traditional culture from a decline in marriages and an influx of women from other parts of India that they rethought their objections to mixed caste marriages.
Inder Singh, head of the Satrol khap panchayat in Hisar, Haryana, said they had no option but to embrace change.
“The number of unmarried youth has increased in past few decades and people were forced to bring brides from outside the state. We decided to allow inter-caste marriages, provided both the families agree to the proposal”, he said.
The inter-caste marriage must be within the 42 villages which make up the local khap area and the ban remains on marriage within the same sub-caste, or to someone in the same or adjacent village, he added.
Dr Om Parkash Dhankar, coordinator of the Sarv khap council, said a number of khaps had relaxed their position on inter-caste marriages since 2006, but this latest decision “will certainly show the progressive outlook of khaps”. He denied elders had ordered honour killings.
Sanjoy Sachdev, founder of the Love Commandos group which helps mixed-caste and religion couples to elope, said he welcomed the change. “It’s a positive development. It’s a beginning. Rome was not built in a day. A love revolution is fast taking over the country,” he said.