Newsletter May - Aug 2003

We organised a meeting titled “Contesting Traditions: Inter-caste Relationships in Contemporary Haryana” on 9th August 2003. Having completed twenty-two years of our existence, it was an opportunity to consolidate our alliances and take forward our work with a deeper understanding of issues. This meeting was part of our increasing concern of the visible rise of communalism and casteism over the past two decades, alongside an attempt to create a pan-Hindu identity.

Political parties, particularly the BJP, working with right-wing organisations like the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal, have attempted to consolidate political power. The consequent combination of State power with institutionalised religion has had a deep impact on women at many levels. On the one hand, women have been pushed into more conservative roles, where the notion of the Bharatiya Nari (or women as the repositories of culture and religion) is promoted along with a jingoistic national project. Women are being forced to conform and any deviance (from dress code diktats, exhibition of religious symbols, or norms of choosing a partner) is met with severe reprisal, even murder. On the other hand, as we have seen during the violence following the Babri Masjid demolition, and in the Gujarat carnage, women from the majority community are actively participating in what is perceived to be a “defense of religion” (also in the name of defense of the nation).

The specific nature of patriarchal violence and control on women of different castes and communities has not been sufficiently addressed by the women’s movement. As a women’s group, we have been feeling the need to go more deeply into the role and impact of the structures of caste and patriarchy on women’s lives.

With this in view, we invited Prem Chowdhry, Fellow at the Teen Murti Memorial Library, who has researched extensively on Haryana, especially on inter-caste relationships. Her long-standing, in-depth inquiry is based on a variety of interesting sources like folklore and oral history as well as statistics, case records and other archival resources. Through several case studies from Haryana and the Jat belt of Uttar Pradesh, she analysed the crucial inter-connections between caste, class and gender. She described how breaching taboos of caste endogamy (marriage within the caste) and village exogamy (marriage outside the village) was met with violent reactions, particularly on women. The case studies, over the past decade or so are illustrative of the violence used to maintain social codes.

In her account, Asha, who belonged to the numerically and economically strong Saini caste in Nayagaon village in Haryana, was brutally killed by her kin. Her lover Manoj, from the Ahir caste, was murdered along with her. However, alliances outside the caste were not the only prohibited relationships. There are equally strong structures against relationships with persons deemed to be part of the family. In Khedakul village of Narela in north Delhi, Poonam, a Jat girl, was shot dead by her uncle for having an ‘illicit relationship’ with another Jat boy of the same village. Several villagers were witness to this crime, reportedly committed because Poonam had “soiled our honour and our pride”, and death was the only punishment.

In village Khandravali in Muzzafarnagar district of western UP, Sarita, from a lower caste, was hacked to death with her husband Satish, who belonged to her own caste group. He was from a neighboring village, and was distantly related to her. In this case too, the punishment was meted out in public, to ‘teach a lesson’ to others: the whole village witnessed the couple being beheaded in the village chaupal.

The control of female sexuality, and the invoking of claims of tradition, culture and honor, has particularly gruesome repercussions on young women attempting to break out of these confines. Community approval for ‘teaching a lesson’ to those who violate social norms, verdicts of patriarchal caste panchayats and the resultant enforcement of community codes – social boycott, public humiliation, stripping and even murder – shows how the concept of izzat or honor seems to be stronger than parental love or human sentiment.

Citing a recent example of a semi-urban situation in Gurgaon near Delhi, Prem described how community pressure could be more overwhelming than the decisions of parents. A retired army officer who ran a school, acceded to his doctor daughter’s suggestion that she marry one of her classmates, a non-Brahmin man from the Bania community, since there were no compatible grooms within the community. However, once she got married to this doctor the entire village boycotted the family. The Jat Panchayat in this Jat dominated village supported the boycott (although none of the parties were Jat) because of a general disapproval of marriage outside the caste. The father is now facing a financial crunch because of the boycott of his school.

The inaction and even collusion on the part of the state machinery is prominent. The local state agencies effectively support gender and caste codes in a manner in which perpetrators of violence are allowed to go scot-free. Prem drew attention to the complicity between the perpetrators of violence and the police about ‘justice’ in the name of ‘honor’. The police force in the Jat belt, drawn heavily from the upper caste groups, is not only casteist, but also criminalized and corrupt. The possibility of upholding the rule of law and getting justice for weaker castes in this situation is a challenge.

Prem’s presentation sparked off an animated discussion that touched many crucial aspects. It began with a reporting of incidents that groups in Delhi have been engaged in. Deepika from PUDR shared some of the experiences of recent fact-finding missions. Jhajjar in Haryana and Narela in Delhi are both sites where inter-caste relationships/marriages have met with severe disapproval. In Jhajjar by death and Narela by social boycott and false cases being registered against the Dalit young man and his family who ‘dared’ to marry a Jat woman. In both cases, the connivance of police and administration against Dalits has been a common feature. (Our response to these incidents from Delhi and the formation of the Dalit Atyachar Virodhi Samanvya Samiti of which Saheli is a constituent organisation has been discussed in a separate article in this newsletter.)

The situation in Uttar Pradesh is not very different. The Women’s Alliance for Mobilisation and Action (WAMA), a network of women’s groups in Uttar Pradesh, has been involved in various such incidents. Madhvi from WAMA talked about a recent case in Muzaffarnagar where severe reprisals were meted out to a young couple from different castes. The outcome of inter-caste marriages – the creation of new castes, linked with issues of reservation, are creating new dynamics in UP, she said. Women’s groups in UP today are demanding a cell to prevent inter-caste violence.

The discussion also elicited accounts from personal lives. Sharda Behn in Action India who has been active in the autonomous women’s since its inception reminisced about her parent’s inter-caste marriage more than half a century ago – where her Brahmin father would refuse to eat food cooked by her Kshatriya mother, and declared that the children were Kshatriya. She pointedly asked, “Do adults have the right to get married to whoever they want, and be protected by law?”

Caste hierarchies also often intersect with economic power, especially in the landowning castes. Runu from Jagori raised a point in the context of Jats, who, despite not being the highest caste, wield immense social power in northern India primarily due to their economic power. Sharda Behn added that the class dimension added to caste differences makes this kind of oppression more severe.

A point that came up in the course of the discussion was, “if the violence and social pressure on inter-caste marriage was removed, would marriage still be considered the only way for women to express sexual desire?” While discussing inter-caste marriage, it is also important to consider how marriage continues to be the only institution to legitimize the man-woman relationship. We need to be critically aware of the oppression within the institution of marriage itself. The relationship of marriage, conjugality and intimacy were discussed briefly.

Janaki from the Forum Against Sexual Harassment, Delhi University (DU) brought up the case of suicide by Archana. Archana was married only since a year to a Dalit friend against the wishes of her parents. Her loneliness thereafter and the brief but intense struggle within the marriage have left a deep impact on us. This incident pointed at the stress and strain and isolation within relationships that do not follow the norm. The responsibility of groups around such women also came up, as did the pressure to be in a coupled relationship. Janaki also suggested the need for positive campaigns such as the “Right to be Single”, which was seconded by many.

Another question raised was that of extra-marital liaisons between different castes vis-à-vis marriage, which involves property relations. Prem responded that while sexual liaisons outside marriage can find space outside public scrutiny, social exchanges i.e. marriage become a problem, especially when it comes to children and inheritance. Post independence, the enactment of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, made it possible for daughters, sisters, widows and mothers in Haryana to inherit land. Daughters and sisters, who have the potential to introduce fresh blood and descent lines, are therefore to be kept from exercising their inheritance rights. As a result, the most virulent objections to breaches of caste/community taboos come from the powerful land owning castes like the Jats.

The experience of women’s groups in places where the Dalit movement has a long history is uniquely different. Anuradha, speaking about her work with the women’s group Snehidi, shared how in Tamil Nadu, the anti-Brahmin movement has set a context whereby discussions on gender and caste are inseparable. Snehidi’s involvement with civil rights groups, women’s interventions at family courts, counseling centers and all-women police stations reveal the all-pervasiveness of caste in all these institutions and highlight the need for women’s groups to intervene. Family counseling centers themselves become the grounds for conflicting caste assertions on a daily basis. (A summary of a talk delivered by Anuradha on the anti-Brahmin self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu has also been included in this newsletter)

Uma Chakravarti, articulating the consensus that patriarchy and caste cannot be separated, urged for a campaign to challenge the very notion of ‘honor’ killings, as women’s groups in Pakistan have done through huge rallies with the slogan that, “There is no honor in killing”.

This meeting was only a small effort toward critically examining our social reality and the overwhelming challenges it poses for the women’s movement. The increasing impact of right wing ideology and practice, reinforcing culture, tradition and religion linked closely with the Hindutva agenda, is most threatening for both women and Dalits. The long felt need for women’s groups to work more closely with the Dalit Women’s Movement is most urgent today. Engaging directly with the crucial connections of caste and class on women’s lives, having discussions, and developing support networks with other movements can help in strengthening our ideas to work for a more liberated society.