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Re-Reading Ambedkar’s Insistence on Inter-Caste Marriages

Inter-caste marriages reinforce casteist principles in insidious ways when lower caste spouses are forced to curate their lifestyle, food habits, and demeanour to match those of the dominant caste culture.

The prohibition or absence of intermarriage between castes—endogamy, was, according to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, central to the understanding of “the genesis and also the mechanism of caste.” He also wrote strongly in favour of social endosmosis—a society with varied and free points of contact with other modes of association. Endogamy, as Ambedkar pointed out, led to social evils like child marriage, Sati and widowhood. It was within this framework that he advocated inter-caste marriage as an antidote to casteist Hindu society. However, in our times, this insistence has often been distorted by civil society and caste Hindus to suit their designs that strive to preserve caste culture.

Inter-caste marriages reinforce casteist principles in insidious ways. The caste factor appears to mutate ostensibly. It bypasses endogamy but still retains its essence in toto because in today’s inter-caste marriages, the lower caste spouse is forced, even if not overtly, to curate their lifestyle, food habits, and demeanour to match those of the dominant caste culture. This assimilation goes against the very core principle of inter-caste marriages which is to allow both caste cultures to thrive and amalgamate in a conducive environment, thereby allowing social cohesion. But Manu-bolstered caste consciousness is still intact and the exceptionally minuscule number (barely 6% of all marriages in India) cannot be enumerated under the category of “progressive inter-caste marriages”. Without clearly comprehending the gravity of this issue, the annihilation of caste cannot be realised in the near future.

The tiny percentage of inter-caste marriages that take place in India is hardly a result of Hindu society acknowledging the worth of ideas like liberty, equality, and fraternity, rather they are “class-supplanting-caste marriages”. The well positioned, usually upper class, lower caste partners are selectively chosen by the parents in case of arranged inter-caste marriages. This phenomenon is most obvious in marriages where a lower caste civil servant (IAS officer) is accepted by an upper caste politician or a bureaucrat family. The class concept overtakes caste dynamics and the curation of habits of the lower caste spouse ensures the homogenisation of caste into the upper caste paradigm after marriage. In this marriage model, both class and caste factors are taken care of—the difference is leveled but it is only achieved by the erasure of the lower caste spouse’s cultural identity.

Today, more lower caste people are able to do better financially, to some extent, as a result of constitutionally mandated reservations, implemented after independence. Thus, the notion of inter-caste mingling has undergone tremendous change since Dr. Ambedkar and other social reformers started advocating it.

When inter-caste marriages are not arranged but are between people in love, they are often in the news for the “honour killings” of lower caste partners. In 2018, Pranay, a Dalit person was hacked to death in broad daylight by his upper caste father-in-law. Recently, a 23 year old man in Haryana was killed by his brother-in-law over inter-caste marriage. The crucial point here is that upper caste partners are not the ones targeted or attacked in such incidents. It is always the lower castes and mostly Dalits who bear the brunt of such apathy. The bottom line is: whether an inter-caste marriage is arranged or love-driven, in both cases, the lower caste spouse is eliminated either physically or culturally.

Equality, though a cornerstone of democracy, is the most abused concept in India. Though the judiciary is exhorting inter-caste marriages, society is still stubbornly caste-ridden. Laws that do not evolve out of social consensus have little chance to succeed, especially in the Indian context. The paradox can be seen if one takes a look at how Hindu society exalts the inter-caste subterfuge while opposing inter-faith marriages as demonstrated by the “love-jihad” law in Uttar Pradesh.

These contradictions have to be disentangled under the auspices of Dr. Ambedkar who had a different plan altogether. He offered us a vantage point from which caste is not always a “Dalit or an Adivasi thing”, rather it is an “upper caste thing” which emanated out of the Brahmin mind and has been propagated through Brahmin brainwashing. The “infection of imitation” affected the psyche of lower castes, implanting a sense of obeisance towards the priestly folk. Dr. Ambedkar, on the other hand, wanted a radical change in the conscience of upper caste citizens. The onus was on them to recognize the inherent importance of different caste cultures by providing some breathing space, allowing them to mingle in a liberal sense. It would be through this process that caste could lose its importance and wither away, paving the way towards the ‘annihilation of caste’ in the long run. In other words, inter-caste marriages that subjugate the partner from the oppressed caste to “convert”, adopt, or bend to their “new family’s” casteist culture isn’t a progressive step. It merely provides a ladder within the casteist social hierarchy without dismantling the system.

In a recent rendezvous I had with a newly inter-caste wedded couple, the groom quite wittingly declared, “I would like to replace her (the bride’s) blood with the upper caste one.” Such taunts are customary and betray real caste hatred. The lower caste folx who are busy serving their upper caste in-laws after such marriages, completely sideline the interests of their community and family members, whose struggles granted them upward class mobility in the first place. The politics behind these so-called inter-caste marriages has to be clearly understood by Shudras, Dalits, and Adivasis and they must stand their ground.

The upper castes were historically involved in writing, preserving, and passing down their culture to future generations. This philosophical backing of upper caste practices has created a sense of inferiority within lower caste groups. But a close look at the Vedic ritual system would reveal the unscientific nature of the cultural conditioning that led to casteist behavior being aggrandized. In contrast, the organic evolution of lower caste culture was a result of practicality coupled with individual choice. Thus, while it may not be scripture oriented, it is still perfectly valid. This awareness is crucial for lower caste souls to do away with the contempt they have internalized against their own selves.

Every inter-caste marriage proposal should not be looked at as an opportunity to escape social ostracism and to move up the so-called social ladder, especially if it comes at the cost of one's own culture. No amount of namesake inter-caste marriages can alter the status-quo unless every individual is respected in their own right.