When ‘Honor’—and Bureaucracy—Stand in the Way of Marriage

Indian Law Protects Intercaste and Interfaith Unions. But Many Couples Still Can’t Wed

Despite having marriage rights since the 1950s, interfaith and intercaste couples still face considerable challenges, socially and bureaucratically. Caste scholar Khushbu Sharma explains why this issue persists. Courtesy of Ruchi Arjun Solanki/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

In May 2022, a video depicting a 25-year-old man in Hyderabad being publicly murdered by his wife’s family members in retaliation for the couple’s interfaith relationship went viral on social media in India. In March 2023, a similarly shocking incident made headlines: In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a man of the Nadar caste had killed his 27-year-old son and injured his daughter-in-law out of disapproval for his son marrying her, a woman of Scheduled Caste, often known as Dalits.

Beyond these two particularly gory cases, there are innumerable others in which individuals who have chosen partners across religious and caste boundaries have been harassed, humiliated, excommunicated, and murdered. A recent report by the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network showed that in cases of intercaste marriages, violence is commonly perpetuated by powerful caste groups toward the marginalized Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes—official terminology employed by the Indian government and used commonly.

In a society that remains deeply divided along caste and religious lines, the stakes are high for young men and women in India who dare to transgress the socially-defined boundaries of love and family alliance. While Indian law gives all citizens the right to choose their partner, in practice, state actors often play a violent role in upholding conservative social norms. Caste, homophobia, patriarchy, religious bigotry, and state norms all nourish one another and accentuate the danger to the lives of non-normative couples.

Caste is a hierarchical system in which individuals are assigned an identity based on the social group into which they are born, and each caste group oppresses those below them while being oppressed by those above them. The caste location of an individual affects almost every aspect of their life, from their friendships to their educational opportunities, their job prospects to their voting behavior. The system operates through both force and consent, and Hindu religious scriptures support it.

Castes maintain themselves through the principle of endogamy, in which people belonging to a group are restricted in terms of their choice of partner to others from the same group. Any love or marital alliance that defies this boundary is seen as transgressing the institution. Historically, some forms of intercaste marriages have been dealt with more stringently than others. Hypergamy—marriage between a man of “higher” caste and woman of “lower” caste—has remained relatively acceptable, at least in India’s rural agrarian regions. This has never been the case with hypogamy—marriage between a man of a “lower” caste and woman of an “upper” caste—which is seen as a pollution of the bloodline and social standing.

While religion is not always birth-based in the same way as caste, discouraging social reproduction outside one’s religion is likewise a quintessential mechanism through which religions maintain their boundaries. Desiring the “other,” falling in love with them and marrying them has never been a regular feature of social life in India, and the idea of it has always been a cause of distress and animosity among caste and religious groups.

The allegiance of the people sitting at the helm of power and running state institutions lies more towards their social identities, in other words, their caste and religion, rather than in favor of fair and equal rights.

At a basic level, then, acts of violence against intercaste and inter-religious couples stems from anxiety within social groups about losing control over women’s sexual and romantic choices.

The Indian state condones and even facilitates the violence against couples who cross these socially-sanctioned lines. Legally, this shouldn’t be the case. When India gained independence and drafted its constitution in the 1940s, it established citizens’ right to choose partners beyond caste and religious boundaries. In 1948, the Hindu Code Bill enshrined for Hindu women the rights of divorce and property and the right to marry a partner of her choice. Subsequently, the Special Marriage Act (1954) and the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) were passed to realize these rights. Several state-sponsored programs have offered financial support to socially transgressive marital unions, and in some Indian states, courts have ordered the creation of shelters where vulnerable couples can seek police protection from angry relatives and community or religious groups.

Yet in practice, the state does not guarantee these rights. The bureaucratic process required to take advantage of the Special Marriage Act is onerous. One male partner of an interfaith couple told me that the process was so difficult that it seemed clearly designed to discourage inter-religious marriages. “We [have been] making rounds from one government office to another for months now,” he said. “Every time, they come up with a new loophole in our documents. This time, when nothing was left, they made an excuse out of the pixel size of our photographs.”

Another way that the state creates barriers to these relationships is through policing. In order to escape from the hostility of family members and others, couples often choose to elope and run away to seek state protection elsewhere. But a 2003 report by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights argued that more often than not, the state institutions charged with providing protection in such situations—particularly the police—side with the families of the eloped women. In some cases, state actors help families forge false cases against the couple, or bring couples out from hiding and hand them over to their families. The patriarchal ideology of “honor” and its “loss” holds sway over all social groups and compels members of the police, bureaucracy, and courts to have sympathy for the women’s parents and relatives.

Why does the state play this regressive role? India’s state machinery is predominantly represented by people from “upper” caste groups. The allegiance of the people sitting at the helm of power and running state institutions lies more towards their social identities, in other words, their caste and religion, rather than in favor of fair and equal rights.

Addressing these cultural and bureaucratic barriers is becoming all the more important as India faces a new political struggle: the nascent LGBTQIA+ movement’s efforts to seek recognition of same-sex marriage. In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India scrapped Section 377 of the colonial-era penal code, which criminalized homosexuality; a historic moment for Indians outside the country’s heteronormative social and legal orders. Now, the LGBTQIA+ movement has begun to seek the recognition of same-sex marriages through petitions to the country’s Supreme Court based on the Special Marriage Act. Yet even if those petitions are successful, same-sex couples might face similar obstacles to realizing their right to a relationship with the partner of their choice as current intercaste and interfaith couples have encountered.

To make life more viable for all, India’s state needs to address these structural barriers. The state needs to improve the process of registering a marriage under the Special Marriage Act, and to sensitize its bureaucratic agents—in particular, the Registrar of Marriages and the police. Couples who ask for police protection citing danger to their lives should be protected immediately, irrespective of whether they have obtained a marriage certificate or not. Protecting basic life choices of its citizens can be a small yet important litmus test for India’s democracy.

Khushbu Sharma is a research scholar at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who works on caste and marriage in India.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Talib Jabbar
Explore Related Content
, , , , ,


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.