I still remember my early childhood days when we used to get lessons on caste in our day-to-day lives. Coming from an upper caste family in rural Bihar, my siblings and I learned early on the privileges that come with being upper caste. Many elders in my family would often discriminate against others who were not like us. This meant people who did not look like us, did not wear clothes like we did and did not do things like we did. From childhood, I learned who I could talk to, play with, eat with and befriend. All these simple and routine tasks influenced our everyday behaviour. We grew up being taught to stay away from certain boys and girls, who turned out to not be from our caste. I think as a child it was very clear to me that I belonged to a caste which encouraged seclusion. We gradually internalized the expectation that our relationships should only be with upper caste people. I remember as a young girl I would maintain a distance from boys and girls of other castes. We grew up listening to people who assigned various characteristics and behaviours to specific castes, and this influenced our young minds to such a level that we did not intermingle with children from other castes.
Growing up, we knew the clear rules of inclusion and exclusion on the basis of caste. I realized later on that even after living in a village for years, I could not fully understand the rural realities. The role of family had a huge impact in my understanding of who we liked, who we were attracted to and what we found attractive. So many of the qualities I looked out for were also privileges afforded to cisgender heterosexual people. I also felt very guilty because I realized that I come from a community which had prohibited certain castes from engaging in the same social circle. We were like people living in two different worlds, even within our small community.
Even after 70 years of independence, the number of inter-caste marriages is low, with a small increase in urban areas. Ninety-five percent of Indians marry within their caste, according to a 2016 report from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), a New Delhi-based think-tank. Merely providing the legal right to inter-caste marriage has not encouraged Indian citizens to pursue it.
On account of our different backgrounds, in our region people from different castes did not have much opportunity to interact. Even when we got a chance, our interactions were overshadowed by our bias of caste superiority. After completing my schooling, I moved to Delhi for my higher education where a lot of my childhood experiences and understanding of the outside world were challenged at various levels. During this period I started to question my own choices, my decisions and my contribution to the prevalent caste system. However, my perspective on caste was so internalized that I could not move beyond being classmates and friends with my male counterparts.
While living in an urban area for the past few years, I found opportunities to interact with people from different castes. But I observed that caste still played a major role in people’s marriage decisions. It was not very surprising that a lot of love marriages happened between people of the same caste. Even while living in a big city like Delhi, I felt that caste-based discrimination still existed, but in a different way than in the village where I grew up. For the past five to seven years, I have seen some gradual changes among people from my community in rural Bihar. But even after being exposed to the larger world outside Bihar, the majority of young people marry within their own caste.
It is easier for a young man to marry a woman from another caste (upper or lower) and still be accepted by society. However, if a woman makes the same decision she is questioned, especially if her partner is from a lower caste. I wondered for the longest time why it was so important for my family that I stay within my own caste. I wondered what they were trying to protect and from whom they were trying to protect us. So far I have not heard of any woman from my village having an inter-caste marriage. In a few cases, I have seen young men getting married to girls from another caste.
Questions around my desires and fantasies were also always consumed by the reality of being upper caste. I was apprehensive and I was scared of how to talk to boys, which boys I should speak to and which ones to ignore. My fear of becoming attracted to anyone, especially someone belonging to another caste, was so strong that I could never let myself be open with my internal desires for exploration and wanting to be with someone. It took me years to break those invisible boundaries of caste and religion. Even after understanding the concepts of caste and society and working in a space where it was so apparent how the realities of caste affect people, it became challenging to imagine any person from another caste as a boyfriend or partner.
After completing my studies, I spent years working closely with young girls and teachers. During our training sessions, I confidently discussed caste-based discrimination, social structure, gender, democracy and our rights as citizens of India. I was acting as a role model for those young girls, working with them every day and trying to help them collectively understand why it was important to step out of our boundaries, and I also encouraged teachers to question our society’s structure. But I was also still struggling with internal conflicts and questions of my own. What is the meaning of equality in an Indian context? Why are people treated differently because of their caste? What is the meaning of democracy in Indian society? How is love perceived by our society? Even after conducting various thematic sessions from a textbook called Social and Political Life with the girls, I was left with so many questions.
I realized that what I taught in class was based on what should be done in a democratic society, but my practical realities were quite different. That challenged me the most – trying to break out of my own boundaries. The process of conducting sessions with the girls helped me to reflect on my own personal life, behaviour, values and realities. I became confident in what I was teaching and decided to reflect on my personal biases and prejudices regarding various things like caste and religion. I cannot pinpoint exactly when these sessions started to give me another level of confidence to deal with my childhood fear. Through my classroom discussions with the girls, I learned to challenge my internal conflicts and fear. While doing this work, my personal life reflected my new learning. I decided to allow myself to explore the meaning of love, attraction, desire and happiness.
Unlike many young girls, my free explorations started late in life. I found someone special and explored the meaning of love without feeling guilty about getting into an inter-caste relationship. I tried to understand my relationship, desires and feelings without being controlled by the undefined boundaries of caste. In the beginning, we used to talk about development issues, regional challenges, religious practices, traditions and field experiences which motivated both of us to work with marginalised communities. He talked about his experience visiting orphanages and slum communities while working in a corporate office after completing his B.Tech. He also shared that his visit to the slum communities in Gurgaon and interaction with migrant families had provoked him to reflect about his own career and aspirations. Our discussions on several social issues and our personal approach towards life helped in bringing us together. We both started to enjoy our long discussions and conversations. Gradually, we became very close to each other and and our conversations continued with the same excitement about our desires, life and society. I could feel the internal excitement of breaking the caste boundary and also felt the anxiety of dealing with the consequences. I kept thinking about different ways to convey my feelings to my father. I decided not to talk to him directly but to share my views in some other manner.
After a few months of internal debate, I wrote my father a letter and explained my conflicting feelings about caste. I raised my questions about the two different worlds that coexist in our society and how I never tried much to explore the world around us, outside my caste. I explained to him that I could not show two different images of my own self. It was not possible anymore to discuss equality, democracy and discrimination within the classroom or during training sessions if I were to continue practising caste-based hierarchy in my own personal life. I told him that I had decided that my personal and professional lives could not coexist with such differences. After sharing my letter, I had a long discussion with my father regarding caste, marriage, relationship and society. Finally, he agreed with my views and gave his consent to my relationship. I consider myself lucky that after several rounds of discussions, he wholeheartedly accepted my relationship, overlooking the caste barriers.
Overall, it was one of the most difficult challenges for me to share my desires and relationship with my father, especially since he admired me as a ‘good daughter’. I always wanted to be like my father and become a teacher. Before this step, I did not take decisions that my parents would not approve of. Actually, I was also worried about the communication gap with my parents, especially my father, that would emerge due to such a decision. I had suppressed my desires for so many years to focus more on my professional goals to make my parents proud. Now, I was making a decision that would challenge their social status and would bring attention to my veiled desires. My father shared during our discussions that people from our caste would raise questions about my inter-caste relationship and they may socially boycott us, especially as our family was based in a rural area. He looked a bit worried about his own privilege that our upper caste status had provided. He also cited how he had faced a social boycott once before when he had invited people from the ‘untouchable’ community for lunch, which had caused an unwanted ruckus in the village.
From this experience, I realized that the stigma associated with inter-caste marriages and its effect on the social status of the family is considered more important than the happiness of young people. Inter-caste relationships challenge patriarchal structure and existing social norms. Many times, parents also have to undergo similar internal conflicts as I had experienced in my life. However, I feel that irrespective of our parents’ decisions we should break out of rigidly defined caste boundaries and create space for our veiled desires.
5 percent of Indian marriages inter-caste; in Mizoram, 55 percent. Business Standard, May 11, 2016. http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/5-percent-of-indian-marriages-inter-caste-in-mizoram-55-percent-special-to-ians-116051100348_1.html
I come from a Brahmin-Bhumihar community in Bihar.
Social and Political Life. Social Science Textbook by National Council Of Educational Research And Training (NCERT)