PUNE, INDIA // He is handsome, she is pretty. They met through a common friend at a gathering, stealing glances at each other through the crowd. Sparks flew, romance blossomed. But in order to marry, they were forced to elope. The couples' families are vehemently opposed to union - not because the girl is rich and the boy poor, but because they belong to different castes.
Shree, the husband, 26, belongs to the Gurav caste - an upper caste of priestly Hindus who have historically been revered as temple managers. Rajini, 23, hails from the Mahar caste - who lie at the bottom rung of the social ladder and are denounced as "untouchables". The thought of mingling, let alone marrying someone from another caste, was anathema to both families. But despite the opposition, the couple married in September.
"All I know is that she is made for me and I am made for her," said Shree, putting his arm around his wife. "The social reverberations of inter-caste marriage - the fear of being judged by society, of being mocked and jeered for defying traditional beliefs - held our families back." Shree and Rajini are not the only couple to transcend caste barriers; 5,862 Indian couples had inter-caste marriages in 2009, up from 3,945 in 2006. The numbers may be small in a country of 1.2 billion, but not insignificant, observers say, given how entrenched caste divisions still are in Indian society.
The trend, observers say, is emblematic of how a rapidly modernising India is slowly trying to move beyond the legacy of an ancient system that once tied social status to birth, though enduring prejudices continue to hold sway. "Inter-caste marriages are the ultimate sign of the loosening grip of caste," said Chandrabhan Prasad, a leading Dalit intellectual and writer. "India's caste order is under great strain."
For centuries, "casteism" has been one of the biggest maladies in India's hierarchical social order. The caste system traces back thousands of years in India, when people were compartmentalised into four broad classes - Brahmin, or priestly caste; Kshatriya, or warrior caste; Vaisya, or merchant caste; and Shudra, or manual labourers and scavengers. Also known as Dalits, the lower castes, mainly the labourers, were considered "unclean" and historically treated as less than human. The upper castes avoided skin contact or dining with them or drawing water from the same well for fear of "spiritual contamination".
Bhim Rao Ambedkar, one of India's most iconic Dalit leaders, promoted inter-caste marriages as a practical way to end caste-consciousness in his lifetime. He died in 1956. Less than five per cent of India's population are upper-caste Brahmins while more than 70 per cent hail from lower castes. After independence, the caste system was abolished under India's constitution, but many of the prejudices remained.
At least in the cities, caste divisions seem to have become somewhat blurred, if not erased, by more apparent class divisions spawned by the country's torrid economic boom. High-caste Brahmins may well be served by a Dalit waiter in swanky restaurants and members of the lower castes occupy high government posts. Meira Kumar, the current speaker in India's lower house of parliament, is a Dalit. "Thanks to the new economic order, and global interconnectivity, so many caste-neutral occupations are coming into being," said Mr Prasad.
To speed up dismantling the rigid caste divide, the government in Maharashtra began offering a cash reward of Rs 50,000 (Dh3,978) - nearly a year's salary for many Indians - to couples opting for inter-caste marriages. Many other states introduced a similar bonus in 2006. But despite the incentives and India's economic progress, at least in its urban centres, large swathes of rural India remain entrenched in the indignities of caste. Sons or daughters who rebel against prevailing caste norms are sometimes banished, disowned or worse by family members. The punishment for inter-caste marriages is often death. In some cases, families avenge marriages between different castes by resorting to "honour killings".
In October, an inter-caste couple in the Bijnour district of Uttar Pradesh were physically assaulted and slapped with a fine of Rs 5,000 by hostile elders from the panchayat, or village council, and ordered to separate. When they refused, they were paraded around the village naked. "In the vast spans of rural India caste rules the roost," said Anil Kumar, a professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Change in Bangalore. "It is wishful thinking that by opening up the economy and increasing its economic pace we increase the pace of social change."
But this is not necessarily an urban-rural divide. Even in cities, scan the matrimonial section of any Sunday newspaper and the importance of same-caste marriages becomes apparent. In a nation where more than 90 per cent of marriages are still arranged, adverts reflect people hunting for eligible "Brahmins", "Gujjars", "Meenas", "Aggarwals" - all surnames whose caste linkages are immediately obvious.
According to a 2006 survey by the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 74 per cent of Indians said they were not in favour of inter-caste marriages. "The institution of caste survives, flying in the face of history and progress, mainly because the various segments remain confined to their separate social ghettos, policed by a host of deep-rooted taboos and interdictions," said Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu scholar. "We need to heal Indian society of this social leprosy."
Shree's mother, who lives in his hometown of Sholapur in Maharashtra, has still not accepted his bride. She bristles with anger whenever he telephones her and talks of bringing her to live with him. Instead, she tries to sway him to dump Rajini. "'How can you marry an untouchable, someone who eats meat?' she tells me," Shree said, emphasising that for his caste, eating meat is strictly forbidden. "I tell her, 'wake up and smell the 21st century. These are all man-made divisions.'"