Despite Government Support, Inter-Caste Couples in India Still Face Violence in Their Communities

Rajeev Singh, left, is a Rajput, a landholding caste. His wife, Anita Pharti, comes from the Dalit caste, still known as untouchables. They have helped other inter-caste couples elope.
Rajeev Singh, left, is a Rajput, a landholding caste. His wife, Anita Pharti, comes from the Dalit caste, still known as untouchables. They have helped other inter-caste couples elope. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 22, 2008

NEW DELHI -- She was a gutsy student leader known for hunger strikes and provocative street theater at universities across the country, exposing the plight of India's beleaguered lower castes. He was a worldly gadfly with a passion for ending nuclear proliferation and exposing environmental crimes.

They fell in love in Iraq nearly 18 years ago while campaigning for peace before the Persian Gulf War. Their romance bloomed, and within three months they were engaged.

But their marriage a year later ushered in another war: In tying the knot, they openly defied India's deeply entrenched taboos against inter-caste marriage. Anita Pharti, now 42, came from the Dalit caste, still known as untouchables, the lowest in India's social order. Her husband, Rajeev Singh, 45, is a Rajput, traditionally a landholding caste that had for centuries ruled over Pharti's peasant community.

"My family was completely aghast," Singh recalled, sitting with Pharti in their cozy living room, where they have helped clandestine inter-caste couples elope. "My father said he wouldn't let it happen. But I felt so sure about Anita. We were able to fight back. But we were the lucky ones. Many still get murdered for this."

Even though India legalized inter-caste marriage more than 50 years ago, newlyweds are still threatened by violence, most often from their families. As more young urban and small-town Indians start to rebel and choose mates outside of arranged marriages and caste commandments, killings of inter-caste couples have increased, according to a recent study by the All India Democratic Women's Association.

In the past month, seven so-called honor killings have targeted inter-caste couples. In the latest incident, a Hindu youth in Bihar was beaten by villagers this week and thrown under an oncoming train because he sent a love letter to a girl of a different caste. The attacks continue despite decades of government decrees intended to dismantle the bulwark of caste, which is widely seen as the glue of traditional Indian society but is considered among the most corrosive features of the emerging new India.

"The recent rise in violence actually shows that the younger generation -- especially women -- are slowly gaining individual freedom in marriage. But the older generation still cling to the old ways where marriage is still a symbol of status, not emotional love," said Shashi Kiran, a lawyer in India's Supreme Court who married outside her caste and is handling several honor-killing cases. "It shows a society still in transition and wrestling with deep change."

As part of a controversial incentive for inter-caste couples to marry, the government recently began offering $1,000 bonuses. That's nearly a year's salary for the vast majority of Indians. Smaller cash payments first started in 2006 after a Supreme Court ruling in which judges described several high-profile honor killings as acts of "barbarism" and labeled the caste system "a curse on the nation."

"The government is again deeply concerned over the low rate of conviction and high rate of acquittal of those people involved in incidents of atrocities on people belonging to lower castes," said Meira Kumar, the minister for social justice and empowerment, who is from a lower caste. "This is not the only way to end the caste discrimination, but one has to start somewhere."

B.R. Ambedkar, the country's most famous Dalit leader and chief architect of the Indian constitution, called for an end to caste consciousness more than 60 years ago. He promoted inter-caste marriage as the most practical way to blur caste lines and render them irrelevant.

Despite India's egalitarian veneer, there remains an invisible separation between the country's upper and lower castes that lasts from birth to death. Meals are rarely shared between Brahmins and Dalits, the top and bottom brackets of the caste system, which also includes a constellation of in-between castes. Restaurants are often self-segregated along caste lines. Some Hindu temples are off-limits to certain lower castes. Even among minority Christians -- presumably a casteless religion -- some graveyards are stratified by caste.

For most Indians, opportunities in education, employment and marriage are still determined by the ancient social hierarchy of caste. Despite economic growth that has helped create a burgeoning middle class, sociologists say the caste system still represents the highest barrier to social mobility. Fewer than 5 percent of India's 1.1 billion people are Brahmins, while more than 70 percent come from lower-level castes.

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