By Arnav Das Sharma Feb. 08, 2018
In Rajasthan, a Dalit man was beaten to death for having an affair with a Muslim woman. In UP, a Muslim man was assaulted for wanting to marry a Hindu girl. What is it about inter-faith love that warrants brutal repression and repercussion in our country?
It’s safe to say that the subcontinent is familiar with the idea of star-crossed lovers. We’ve grown up reading and watching countless adaptations and indigenisation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the folktales of Laila-Majnu, and songs featuring Farhad and Shirin. Lovers that are not meant to be, seem to be our enduring obsession, second only to cricket.
But perhaps the reason these refrains of love, which transgress known boundaries of religion, class, and caste, have endured in India more than anywhere else in the world is because we know for a fact that these popular representations of star-crossed lovers are not just mere fantasies. They are borne of reality.
There is an instance in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things that describes the very rules of love in India; unwritten codes about who should be loved, by whom, how much and in what fashion. I was reminded of this earlier last year, by the heinous murder of Delhi-based photographer, Ankit Saxena. I was reminded of this yet again after a 25-year-old Muslim man beaten up at a court in Ghaziabad, for wanting to marry a Hindu girl. And after a Dalit man was beaten to death in Rajasthan’s Barmer allegedly for having an affair with a Muslim girl.
While the events gave rise to the usual debate on mob culture, the question we forgot to ask ourselves is: What is it about love that warrants brutal repression and repercussion in our country?
Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling
Whether it is in the backwaters of Haryana, where inter-caste couples are hounded and killed by khap panchayats, or the issue of Hadiya in Kerala, where, via the court of law, a woman’s right to choose a partner is questioned, the basic theme is the same. The “purity” of a community is contingent upon marriage, and when that marriage seeks to transgress established communitarian norms, brutal repression follows.
Even our educated, urban, middle-class lives are not immune to this sentiment. A dear friend, a Muslim, was in a decade-long relationship with a Hindu girl. Speaking to him on the eve of his marriage, I couldn’t help but ask the one question he must have long been tired of: Was it easy to take this leap?
No. It wasn’t.
The preeminent question that dominated his and the girl’s family wasn’t so much the nature of an inter-religious marriage, but what religion would their future grandkids have. As my friend explained, it seems the reason such an alliance is considered disruptive is because it sets into motion, a certain kind of intermixing which flies in the face of all those who seek to uphold the “purity” of their community – a claim that is mythical, to be kind.
This was the reason Babasaheb Ambedkar, especially during the last years of his life, after the Hindu Code Bill controversy, tried his best to initiate a dialogue on inter-caste marriage. The bill was basically an attempt by the framers of the Constitution to remove regressive customs in Hindu personal law and replace them with a common constitutional law. And the only way out that Ambedkar saw, was to annihilate the idea of caste.
In one of his most famous addresses, he asked, “Ask yourselves this question; Why is it that a large majority of Hindus do not inter-dine and do not inter-marry? Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind.”
Ambedkar’s idea might have been radical then – and probably still is – but we’ve reached a stage where it now feels necessary. His arguments about caste can be extrapolated and applied in the context of inter-religious marriages. Much like caste, religion too is a state of mind, a form by which the idea of a community is constructed. This is soon followed by mythical notions of purity, for every community wants to see itself as not only separate, but also “pure”.
But what happens when we meet in the middle, outside the circumference of religion and the baggage that it comes with? What if you can’t tell the religion of one person from that of another? What if, like my inter-faith couple friends, the religion of your child became an active choice, not something you were born into and saddled with for the rest of your life? Inter-caste and inter-faith marriages seem to be the way to break the shackles of the systemic hatred that has percolated India’s body politic.
To disrupt this myth of blood and community purity that defines our subcontinent’s culture, we first have to realise that these claims have no basis in historic and popular reality. For example, the Mughal Empire was vastly multi-ethnic, as historical records bears out. And, contrary to popular perceptions now, inter-religious marriages were the basis of everyday reality back then.
To go back to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that we love so well, the play makes an astute observation on the binariness of communities. The character of Mercutio, being neither a Montague nor a Capulet, mixes freely with both the houses. At his death, he utters the famous line which captures the anguish of not belonging, of trying to transgress already hardened boundaries: “A plague on both your houses,” he cries.
In India, which increasingly resembles a Shakespearean tragicomedy of everyday proportions, it is an apt description of our times. We’re in 2018. It is absurd to continue holding on to mythical values, when the matters of the heart seek to find a way forward.
Arnav Das Sharma is an independent journalist and a doctoral fellow at the Delhi School of Economics. He writes on cinema, literature, caste politics and music. He is currently working on his first novel.