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The Caste of Marriage

A story of two marriages

 

The Internet is flooded with images of Sonu M S and Nikesh Usha Pushkaran, two gay men who married each other and are seeking legal recognition of their marriage. They have approached the Kerala High Court to declare certain provisions of the Special Marriage Act, India’s secular marriage law, as unconstitutional since its gendered language does not allow the gay couple to seek registration of their marriage. Their pictures are published by many websites where they are garlanding each other in traditional attire or wearing matching clothes. One of the pictures of the couple is with Pushkaran’s mother indicating her acceptance. Overall, the story of Sonu and Pushkaran’s marriage is that of hope for making marriage more egalitarian by including gay men. It is also a story that furthers LGBT progress understood in a linear sense – decriminalisation first, marriage next. In other words, if Navtej Johar is our Lawrence v Texas, the decision that decriminalised homosexuality in the US, we are ready for our Obergefell v Hodges, the decision on marriage equality by the Supreme Court of the United States.

While the aspiration of marriage has fast caught up with mainstream Indian LGBT activists and advocates, the violence against young inter-caste couples does not become central to LGBT activism. While Sonu and Pushkaran’s image becomes central to the imagination of what is next for LGBT Indians, the image of newly-wed Kaushalya and Shankar in a garland unaware of the violence that awaits them evades mainstream LGBT imagination. Shankar was a dalit man and his marriage with Kaushalya from a dominant caste was opposed by Kaushalya’s parents. In 2016, Shankar and Kaushalya were attacked in broad daylight by hired men; Shankar succumbed to his injuries. Recently, the Madras High Court acquitted Kaushalya’s father, one of the accused in the murder. Kaushalya has gone on to become an anti-caste activist and has been vocal about the violence faced by inter-caste couples.

In the quest for marriage equality for LGBT persons, we must not forget the role that caste plays in shaping and sustaining marriage in India. Mainstream LGBT activists recognise the regulation of sexuality by lack of recognition of same-sex marriages, but they fail to address the role of caste in regulating sexuality to maintain caste purity and the economic inequality that results from it. The imagination of a future for LGBT persons in India must include the annihilation of caste. Mere formal recognition of same-sex marriage is insufficient and will leave out the marginalised within LGBT identities. A vision of legal reforms for LGBT struggle post-377 must aspire to annihilate caste and address material maldistribution.

The Marriage Project

 

In April 2020, Menaka Guruswamy, along with Arundhati Katju, two of the lawyers in the legal challenge to section 377 made an address at an Oxford Union event. In her address, Guruswamy declared that India, from the global south, is a “marriage country”. She added that though it can be critiqued, the reality is that “we are a kin-based society, a family society”. She concluded the address by stating that “the marriage project is the future of LGBT rights in the world’s largest constitutional democracy”. While she located the project of gay marriage in India historically in line with inter-racial marriages in the US and contemporary struggles around inter-caste marriages in India, she failed to acknowledge that marriage is fundamentally premised on caste and offered no suggestion to annihilate it. Instead, she succumbs to the idea of India being a kin society.

One of the criticisms in prioritising gay marriage in the LGBT struggle is that it takes away the focus from more pressing issues like employment and housing. In addition to this, the marriage project does not offer an alternative vision of marriage or acknowledge the institution’s casteist premise. Can marriage, an institution honed to perfection for maintaining caste purity in India, be reclaimed to annihilate caste? Or will same-sex marriages merely reproduce caste like heterosexual marriages in the country? Given that ‘the marriage project’ succumbs to the logic of India being a kin-based society that places a premium on marriage, it is unlikely that same-sex marriage in India will act as an antidote to caste.

Inter-caste marriages

 

It could be argued that there can be inter-caste same-sex marriage which could dilute the stronghold of caste on the institution of marriage. In Annihilation of Caste, a published undelivered speech, B.R. Ambedkar makes a compelling case for inter-caste marriage as an important step to dissolve caste. He says,

“I am convinced that the real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling—the feeling of being aliens—created by Caste will not vanish.… The real remedy for breaking Caste is intermarriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste”.

This suggests that once individuals start associating with members of different castes through marriage, it will lead to the annihilation of caste. The Supreme Court of India has formally recognised the right to choose a partner as a fundamental right not just in Navtej Johar v. Union of India but also in the cases of Shafin Jahan and Shakti Vahini. However, this formal declaration by the court will not be sufficient to remove caste from decisions in choosing partners. As Ambedkar himself notes in Annihilation of Caste, the real question is why a large majority of Hindus do not inter-marry. He responds to Jat Pat Todak Mandal who were promoting inter-dining and inter-marriage and notes,

“There can be only one answer to this question, and it is that inter-dining and inter-marriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred. Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from commingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind [emphasis added]. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change”.

Formal pronouncements and formal equality granted by the Supreme Court presumes that left to their own devices, people will choose partners who are from a different caste. However, this is not the case These formal declarations do not change the notion, the state of mind that caste is. As Akhil Kang, Dhrubo Jyoti, and others have written, desire, intimacy, and romantic relationships are deeply embedded within caste, the grammar of desirability is coded in caste. In his essay in the book ‘eleven ways to love’ (Penguin India, 2018), Dhrubo writes, “caste broke our hearts and love cannot put them back together” – I suppose, neither can marriage. A demand for marriage equality that does not address caste will only lead to same-sex marriage mimicking heterosexual marriage.

LGBT struggle to annihilate caste

 

LGBT struggle must be an anti-caste struggle. This requires us to go beyond thinking of caste and sexuality as merely an intersecting point which may be occupied by some within LGBT identities. It is not just a question of double marginalisation, it is about creating and working towards an anti-caste future. It is to imbibe an anti-caste lens to think about a just society. This will require going beyond mere tokenism and using phrases like ‘anti-caste’ ornamentally and being uncritical of caste in our visions of LGBT futures in the country.

 

The Madras High Court’s decision in Arunkumar v. Inspector General of Registration which upheld the marriage of a transwoman and a cis man is a welcome move. The court recognised the inter-caste marriage and directed financial incentives to the couple under the Tamil Nadu government’s scheme for social integration through inter-caste marriage. More recently, the Odisha High Court and the Uttarakhand High Court have observed that two persons irrespective of their gender can live together. All these are a welcome change but we do not have to stop with these.

 

In June 2019, I met a young gay couple at a pride event. They were looking for legal advice and I met them with another volunteer from Orinam, a Chennai based gender and sexuality collective. One of them was outspoken and laid out their troubles clearly, the other was shy, and it took him a while to start talking. They faced troubles back home, a small town in Tamil Nadu, from the family of the one from a dominant caste. The police were well connected to the family of the man from the dominant caste and asked him to stay away from his partner. His partner, a dalit man was slapped by the police and was asked to ‘mend his ways’. While the gay man from the dominant caste spoke with the newfound fearlessness of a post-377 India, the dalit man was reluctant, perhaps he knew that their homosexual love though strong, cannot transcend caste. If we wish to truly transcend caste, we must radically rethink our priorities, succumbing to caste-based kinship and marriage cannot be the first step.

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Cover Image: Unsplash

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Article written by:

Gowthaman Saroja Ranganathan speaks Tamil and Gibberish to cats and dogs. He loves cycling and likes to be in a classroom as a facilitator or as a student. He holds an LLM from the University of Texas at Austin where he was a Fulbright scholar, an LLM from the Azim Premji University, and an undergraduate degree from the National Law School at Bengaluru.

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