PHOTO: PRAVEEN P.N./GETTY IMAGES
Love and discrimination collided when a friend of mine ventured into the realm of dating apps with only one goal in mind — to find her a life partner. Little did she know that her search would lead her to a man who was everything she desired, except for one divisive factor. He was a Brahmin, she was a Dalit. The man’s family would never bring a Dalit bride into the family “because they didn't want to spoil their bloodline”.
Multiple friends have told me how their families have unleashed one decree upon them — they can never marry a Muslim. In their eyes, Muslims are deemed unworthy of their affections, their blood impure because of decades of “interbreeding and problematic family practices”. At the same time, Muslims are not free from similar prejudices. In many places in India, somebody who is a Syed will only marry another Syed — the same is often true for Pathaans, Sheikhs and Siddiquis. But why do Indians think of ‘blood purity’ when it comes to marriage, even if the idea has been disproved scientifically? The answer lies in our history.“The arrangement of marriage has always been political in India, and an attempt by families to bound within a tight set of boundaries the question of reproduction. Historically, marriage had been a way by which societies decided how they are controlling the transfer of women from one clan to another,” said Uma Chakravarti, a historian and leading scholar on women's and feminist history writing in the Indian subcontinent. Her books ‘Gendering Caste through a Feminist Lens’ and ‘Shadow Lives: Writings on Widowhood’ are considered some of the most respected academic writings on women’s history in India.
According to Chakravarti, this idea of ‘blood purity’ is closely linked to the concept of caste. “Here, caste becomes extremely important. In fact, I often say blood is caste and caste is blood. What is interesting and important is, at what point do you begin to feel that the bloodline has to be controlled to retain certain notions of purity across time. It’s primarily men who have been making these decisions, but women are also consenting agents in that whole process,” she said.
The concept that one can control the genetic quality of a population by reproducing only with those with desirable traits is known as eugenics — the primary idea behind this insistence on marrying with the ones who have pure blood or similar bloodline as their own. Eugenics has had a troubled history marred by its association with fascist ideologies of the twentieth century. In Nazi Germany, the state promoted selective breeding of "Aryan traits” to “improve” the German population, justifying involuntary sterilization and mass murder of the "undesirable" population, including Jews, homosexuals, transgenders and even disabled people.While the horrors of Nazi Germany's experiments may have made the world recoil, India's engagement with ‘blood purity’ is often disguised as progressive policies — supported by a legal framework that restrict inter-religious marriages through its ‘love jihad’ laws and social disapproval of inter-caste marriages. Often discussed in hushed tones at family dinners, the idea of blood purity, closely linked with the concept of caste in India, has silently woven itself into the fabric of society. Its impact is so widespread that scientists say it has even left its imprint on genetics of Indians.
“In our traditions, it's not simply the expectation that you need to reproduce, but you also need to get your women from outside of your own little reproductive circle! Then exogamy comes into existence, which means you must marry outside of your particular lineage,” said Chakravarty. “Managing reproduction at a political and social level is fairly rampant. It is also a way to ensure that the property is kept within the family or the social group,” she added.Another manifestation of eugenics in India can be seen in the cases of selective abortions. India has a deeply entrenched preference for male children. In many states in India, ultrasound technology, intended for medical diagnostic purposes, became a tragic tool for killing a girl child in the womb of the mother. In states like Haryana, it became so big that it began skewing the gender ratio.
If one looks at history, it’s evident how the idea of marriage in India, and to some extent, across the world, has been political. Recorded history has numerous examples of kings, princes and ministers using marriage as a way to increase their influence and power. Even in today’s times, the political discourse surrounding marriage in India exposes the underbelly of a society grappling with conflicting ideologies, gender inequality, and the interplay of traditional values with the winds of change.“Why marriage has to be so highly controlled in South Asia is because of interplay of the blood, land, and property. For instance, all communities don't have land. For them, blood is the deciding factor. For them, the purity of the marriage yields the purity of the blood, and so eugenics decides what is permissible and what's not,” Chakravarti said. “Overall, the woman is reduced to being a womb to be implanted by somebody. It's a combination of patriarchy, eugenics, bloodline, inequality and hierarchy,” she added.
The politics of marriage
Dipankar Gupta, an Indian sociologist and public intellectual, disagrees that eugenics is a factor but concurs that caste still controls the idea of marriage. “The last bastion of caste is marriage. Everywhere else, the idea of caste has taken a beating in terms of jobs and inter-dining restrictions. It has also taken a beating in terms of location of individuals, reducing segregation in many spaces,” says Gupta who has written several books, including “Revolution from Above: India's future and the Citizen Elite” and “Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society.” Gupta believed that caste still predominantly controls marriages in rural India, but its hold in urban India is diminishing with time. “In rural areas, everybody knows everybody and where everybody is, therefore that amount of surveillance on the lives of individuals is much higher. In cities, because of urbanization, people of different castes mingle and out of that marriages will happen,” he said.Chakravarti, on the other hand, believes this cycle will not be broken anytime in near future. “In India, the purity of a group is tied up in its traditional hierarchical systems. The mode of reproduction ensures that that hierarchy also gets reproduced at the end of the day. It is this hierarchy that controls reproduction that will ensure the perpetuation of this cycle keeps on going,” she said.
So, will marriages in India ever be free of these restricting factors? Gupta said this will eventually happen but it will take another 40-50 years. “With urbanization, what happens is that a boy can meet a girl under circumstances which cannot be controlled by their elders. They can’t determine who their neighbour is going to be, who their son or daughter will meet in the market, at the bus stop, in the school, college, or job. So over a period of time, you'll find that these restrictions fade away because of urbanization, and not because of people becoming advanced in their thinking,” said Gupta.Chakravarti believes it’s unlikely for these restricting factors to fade away in near future, but she is hopeful, from time to time, love will keep disrupting these shackles of society. “Falling in love, choosing your own partner, developing a feeling-based relationship or wanting to stay with them or deciding to marry them, will not be accepted anytime soon because it disrupts the structure. I believe that falling in love is the most disruptive thing in the world and it will remain this disrupting factor for a long time.”Follow Zeyad Masroor Khan on Instagram and Twitter