A rare wedding hints at upward mobility for India’s Dalits
Inter-caste marriages are still unusual 70 years after ‘untouchability’ was banned
Indian weddings are occasions of spectacle and statement. That was clear in the December wedding of Isha Ambani, daughter of India’s richest man, industrialist Mukesh Ambani. The celebrations included a performance by Beyoncé, while Bollywood stars including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan personally served food to guests. The display of raw power and influence was the talk of India’s social media scene for days.
Last week, I attended another wedding that offers a more telling reflection of the subterranean social changes that are taking place in India — albeit far too slowly. On January 28, our nanny’s 30-year-old son, a music teacher at a private school, mounted a white horse, surrounded by frenetic drummers and dancing relatives, to start his trip across New Delhi to marry another young schoolteacher.
Grooms perched nervously on white horses are part of the standard wedding protocol in India’s capital — and no small contributor to the city’s notorious traffic during the annual wedding season. But this marriage was far from conventional. In a country where most marital unions are still arranged by parents, and spouses often do not meet before their wedding day, this was what is known as a “love marriage”, the culmination of years of covert courtship.
Even more extraordinary were the caste backgrounds: the groom and his family are Dalits, who stand so low on Hinduism’s hierarchical caste ladder they were traditionally considered “untouchable”. The bride was a Brahmin — the priestly class at the top of the caste heap.
Inter-caste marriages are still unusual in India. Their exact number isn’t known, as the government has declined to release the findings of the latest caste census, conducted in 2011. But researchers using other methods have estimated that less than 6 per cent of all Indian marriages unite spouses of different castes.
Inter-caste unions involving a Dalit face the biggest hurdles of all, given the historic stigmatisation of the community. Though India banned “untouchability” at independence, discriminatory practices — such as refusing to eat or share kitchen utensils with Dalits — persist in many places, especially in rural areas.
During and after the anti-colonial struggle, Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit activist and lawyer who led the drafting of India’s constitution, had urged Dalits to abandon villages and seek liberation in the cities, where he felt they could escape entrenched prejudices. Yet it is a telling reflection of the painfully slow pace of progress that, in 2013, the Indian government launched a scheme named after Ambedkar under which couples in inter-caste marriages would be eligible for a cash incentive of Rs250,000 (about $3,500) if one spouse is a Dalit.
The scheme is little known, and its cumbersome application process means few payouts are ever made. Our nanny, who is known by her nickname Lalli and uses no surname, and her family were unaware of it, and the new bride and groom are unlikely to benefit. But that hardly matters. For Lalli, this wedding was a major milestone in a long, arduous struggle for upward social mobility. A daughter of a sub-caste of Dalit cleaners called Valmiki, she was one of 14 children and never attended school, despite growing up in central New Delhi.
She was married as a young teenager to a village boy she’d never met, who subsequently did little to support the couple’s four children. As her family’s primary breadwinner, she saw to it by force of will — and with help from her employers — that her children were educated, enabling them to escape the poverty that she had known as a child.
Today, Lalli’s two daughters are married to educated men with white-collar jobs — one in the lab of a private hospital and one, who also comes from a privileged caste, in the middle management of India Post. Now she has a upper-caste schoolteacher as a daughter-in-law. Her family is an example of the upward social mobility of which Ambedkar once dreamt. And, as I joined the frenzied dancing of the baraat (or groom’s procession) before it was welcomed by the bride’s smiling family, I felt true cause for celebration. But the joy would have been even greater if such unions were not still so rare.
Courtesy: By AMY KAZMIN / Financial Times