Among the many faultlines that run deep in our society, the one engineered by the caste system is probably the most enduring and violence-prone.
The history of casteism is a story of oppression of the Dalits in the hands of the Brahmins and other dominant castes. It continues till this day, and finds expression in bloodshed, ostracism and various forms of discrimination.
Against such a backdrop, the news that inter-caste marriages involving the Dalits are on the rise is heartening. It shows that some of these old barriers, which people have taken for granted, are crumbling.
Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala are the top three states showing this welcome trend. At the top Maharashtra has registered a four-fold increase in inter-caste matrimonial alliances in the recent times.
The figures available with the Centre of this pan-Indian phenomenon in the past three years show a steady growth. From 7,148 in 2010 and 7,617 in 2011, it has gone up to 9,623 in 2012.
When compared to the population of India, these numbers are insignificant, but there is no denying that an age-old, oppressive system based on discrimination is showing cracks.
The trend in Maharashtra is encouraging. It peaked in 2012 with 2,296 marriages between Dalits and non-Dalits, after a period of decline with 563 marriages in 2011 and 628 in 2010. The sharp increase in 2012 can be attributed to the state government’s active role in encouraging such alliances.
It takes enormous courage for a couple to defy a regressive social order that goes out of its way, even leveraging violence, to reinforce age-old conventions.
The biggest enemy of inter-caste love and marriage are the khap panchayats who wield enormous influence in the villages of north India. These khaps operating without any legal sanction issue death warrants to young people who defy caste conventions.
Couples are tracked down and killed in the name of honour. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana there are no laws to counter their extra constitutional writ.
Even though the crimes they orchestrate should attract the harshest of legal penalties, the perpetrators can be booked only under the existing provisions in the Indian Penal Code and even the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, if the victim is a Dalit.
The Law Commission has sought public response to the proposed legislation Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliance) Bill, 2011.
The bill calls for one-year imprisonment and Rs10,000 fine for those taking part in khap meetings condemning inter-caste marriages. It also proposes upto two years of imprisonment and Rs20,000 fine for those found guilty of preventing such marriages; for criminal intimidation, a three-year jail term and Rs30,000 penalty has been proposed.
Since Maharashtra is yet to pass the Social Disabilities Bill, the state government will ask the police to book these self-styled panchayats under various sections of the IPC dealing with conspiracy, and promoting enmity between groups on ground of religion, race, place of birth, residence or language.
Tough laws and effective implementation will facilitate in breaking the backbone of these institutions. But the real game-changer will be a social movement to end all forms of discrimination. The positive trend of breaking caste barriers through inter-caste marriage must gain more momentum in the coming days.