The interplay of caste and faith

While faith often overshadows special marriages, experts talk about how caste and religion both influence this social institution

Caste Violence
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“Where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking caste is intermarriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of caste,” Dr. B. R. Ambedkar wrote this in his speech ‘Annihilation of caste’.

For better or worse, these words by Ambedkar remain relevant in 2022, albeit the forms of these “intermarriages” are fast overlapping.

At the start of this year on January 22, an interfaith couple got married near Hyderabad. The husband Billipuram Nagaraju intended to convert to Islam as a way of convincing wife Syed Sultana’s family. However, this was not to be as in May the media reported how Nagaraju was allegedly killed by the family. The case was called an instance on honour killing wherein a Dalit man was murdered by the Muslim wife’s family.

The case became more gruesome as media reports (acknowledged even by the National Human Rights Commission) called the husband a Dalit. The victim of the brutal murder, 25-year-old B Nagaraju had married 23-year-old AshrinSulthana a.k.a. Pallavi on January 22 this year, after having known each other for years, stated news reports.

While the incident led to many heated discussions on whether Sultana’s brother allegedly killed Nagaraju due to his caste or religion, the incident also raises the question of whether caste does influence an interfaith marriage more than faith does.

Role of caste in interfaith unions

When asked her views on the issue, Muslim feminist writer Ghazala Wahabagreed that the two social elements of caste and faith hugely impact marriage. Further, she said a Dalit person is likely to be more at-risk of honour killings in such a situation particularly because of two layered aspects of Indian society.

“One is patriarchy. If you bring a woman from another background, the girl will convert her caste/ religion. But if a woman marries someone independently, it shows a will to exercise her opinion. Families can’t accept this move. So, if a girl marries without permission, then the couple is in danger. And if the person is Dalit then that risk increases manifold because of the overall social vulnerabilities of caste,” she said.

Taking the example of the Hyderabad incident, she talks about how the woman later tried to dismiss the cause of the killing being entrenched in caste. However, Wahab stressed that the person’s caste and religion are still equally important, especially considering the boy was willing to convert.

“Mostly conversion settles the issue. But here even that did not placate the family. So, the problem must be the caste. The reason may be that Muslims do not like to accept or acknowledge the caste reality. Muslims caste system is not pronounced as compared to Hindus. But in marriage this is often seen (and opposed) because marriage is a rigid system.”

Dhanak of Humanity Co-Founder Asif Iqbal emphasised that caste has an even greater role after marriage. For nearly 17 years, the organisation has been working on helping couples overcome social barriers, be it relating to caste, faith, stigma related to the LGBTQIA+ community. During this time, they have helped many people ensure a civil marriage via the Special Marriages Act (SMA).

However, of the 400 runaway cases the organisation received directly annually, at least 32 percent involve inter-caste unions. The rest are only inter-faith marriages.The organisation ensures that those seeking help follow due procedure under the SMA in availing a marriage certificate. Further, members ask people to remain in contact with Dhanak after marriage to ensure the family remains safe.

However, more often than not, Iqbal said that inter-caste couples lose contact with the organisation after marriage. As an inter-caste marriage is eligible for a religious marriage, many couples opt for that rather than waiting for the longer administrative procedure.

This is a cause for concern because the issue of caste is much more prominent in post-marriage situations where families either oppose the union or accept the couple but ask about caste.

“After marriage, a fear for life remains in both situations. Honour killings are common in inter-caste marriages especially in rural areas where the practice is less permissible than inter-faith marriages,” he said.

Generally, the issue is also female-centric where a woman’s caste is more important than the man’s caste. In such situations, the husband also has to be proactive about the family’s enquiries, said Iqbal.

Reforms to protect SMA unions

Wahab pointed out that while there are already laws to protect inter-caste and inter-faith marriages, the SMA still requires reform in certain aspects. For example, under the SMA there is a public notice issuance that threatens people’s anonymity.“Majority SMA couples have run away from home. So their information being on the public domain puts them in more danger,” she said.

Wahab also pointed out how there are biases in both Hindu and Muslim communities that people should only marry within their religion. Due to this, when SMA is not feasible, couples try religious marriages and temporary conversion. This further complicates matters for the young couples, she said, with questions of who will convert.

Love is most important

Dalit feminist writer Urmila Pawar said that more than anything, what determines the impact of these social differences are the persons involved in the marriage.

“Love does not see caste. But we live in a jaati-pradhan country. To an extent, it is true that each caste has a unique behaviour lifestyle. The success of a marriage depends on their resolve as well. A subconscious bias is always there. But people have to move forward believing humanity is the dharma,” said Pawar.

She pointed out that there are many issues that people face in marriage other than caste. However, a person believing in such an “unnatural system” will not be able to sustain the marriage.

Regarding the idea that people consciously marry outside their community, Wahabdimissed it saying such a thinking would support love jihad.“People marry for love. There are many cases like Hyderabad. One thing to consider is whom you can access. Some ask why do Muslim girls marry inside the community. This is because Muslim boys can meet non-Muslims at work and colleges. Girl Muslims do not have this exposure. School education is lesser, college education is lesser. The same logic applies with Dalits as well,” she said.


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