The Desperate Housewives of Haryana

Gender

The Desperate Housewives of Haryana

Illustration: Akshita Monga

O

nly in Haryana can the campaign call of “Bahu Dilao, Vote Pao” and the Twitter-ready “Selfie with Daughter” exist side by side. In the state that routinely brings up the rear of India’s child sex ratio list (879 girls against 1,000 boys, according to the 2011 census), women are important enough to become election planks – but not important enough to be allowed to be born.

But female foeticide is not a new story in Haryana. It is a generational challenge. So rampant is the problem that lakhs of men in Haryana, for whom there are no brides, have had to form the Avivahit Purush Sangathan or the Unmarried Men’s Union. Their WhatsApp groups reach out to this desperate community of unmarried men, which, according to some estimates, could be as many as 3.5 lakh. The organisation’s long-term goal is to correct the sex ratio, but in the short term, their aim is to promote cross-cultural, inter-caste, and inter-state marriages.

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Over the last few years, the state’s conservative families, notoriously hung up on gotras and caste purity, have had to look beyond Haryana’s borders to find brides for their men. If a family lucks out and finds a bride within the state, it is often on the promise that the groom’s family will marry their daughters into the bride’s family. Most families are unable to fulfil that condition, so it is now not uncommon to find women from Bengal, Assam, Uttarakhand, Bihar, and even Kerala, populating the dusty lanes of Haryana’s villages.

But even this roundabout short-term solution has its pitfalls. These distant brides – from completely alien cultures, bred in different languages and contexts – are forced to parachute into villages where there is no comfort and no familiarity. Unable to adjust, they seek the refuge of their own homes, and often want to return. And in this struggle against gender imbalance, neither sex emerges the winner.

A couple of decades ago, Raj Kumar* would not have found it difficult to get married. The youngest of two brothers, Kumar is 22, a matriculate, and works on a two-acre farmland on the Jind-Bhiwani highway. Despite his family’s best efforts though, Kumar was unable to find a wife in his state.

With no family to reach out to, they are made to work like animals. Their physical appearance is ridiculed; their lack of fluency in Haryanvi is exploited.

Kumar’s family then approached a matchmaker – scores of whom are active in Haryana these days, having facilitated dozens of such alliances – to help him find a spouse from another state. Touts across Haryana “arrange” for lower-class, lower-caste women from Uttarakhand and Nepal because their fair skin is always in demand. Kumar’s family shelled out ₹50,000 to a matchmaker, and another ₹1 lakh in gifts and cash to Ritu Devi’s* family in Uttarakhand. His farmer parents sold half an acre of farmland to scrape together the hefty amount. To quell questions in their village, they told everyone that Ritu was a distant relative.

“Unlike others who ‘procure’ wives illegally, we were married according to Hindu rituals,” says Kumar. But Ritu, who was had not even finished high school, deserted Kumar within six months. She went back to her home in the hills in January, promising to return, but never did.

Kumar appears as clueless today as he was a few months ago. His neighbours stopped asking questions after a week or two when it became apparent that Ritu was not going to return.

For the initial couple of months, Kumar and his wife appeared happy. His neighbours told the writer that Ritu had started complaining about the unhygienic conditions and the domestic chores that were being forced on her. This is a fate that meets many women who come in from other states: With no family to reach out to, they are made to work like animals. Their physical appearance is ridiculed; their lack of fluency in Haryanvi is exploited.

Haryana

Kumar’s family shelled out ₹50,000 to a matchmaker, and another ₹1 lakh in gifts and cash to Ritu Devi’s* family in Uttarakhand.

Hindustan Times / Getty Images

But Kumar rubbished these theories. He wondered if she did not like being corrected, or that she wasn’t happy about not being allowed to socialise with the neighbours. “We are a conservative family,” he told me. “Women should stay home and do chulha-chowka.” He says that all he wanted from Ritu – despite everything he has endured – was a son.

Ritu’s refusal to return home finds resonance in the dozens of brides that are brought into the state. According to Karminder Kaur, child marriage and prohibition officer at the Rohtak Women’s Police Station, the number of cases of domestic violence and dowry harassment reported from the district have gone down in the past few years. But this isn’t something to really cheer about.

She believes the complaints have decreased because these wives from distant lands have no recourse to the law. “Such women are very vulnerable,” she says. “They are uneducated, do not understand the language; they can’t even read signage,” says Kaur. Recalling a 2015 case, Kaur says the victim narrated “harrowing details” of her stay at her husband’s house but was not ready to lodge an FIR against her in laws – her only plea was that the police arrange her return to her village in Assam.

It is unlikely that the state will be able to find an easy solution to Haryana’s sex ratio problem in the coming few years. Until then, the state’s half-brides and half-grooms, will continue to lie in limbo.

* Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

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