Caste in the matrimonial Net

SOCIETY

Matchmaking has always been big business in India and the virtual world is exploiting its commercial potential to the utmost. With over five million Indians seeking their perfect spouses on the Internet, matrimonial websites are bankable propositions, even in recession.

Some observers say these sites are indicative of a trend towards a more democratic institution, not dictated to by feudalist patriarchy. This ‘marriage mall’ is said to have all the free market characteristics: individual choice, laissez-faire arrangements (here non-intervention of families) and a ‘flattened out’ social order.

But do these websites indicate a real change or is this free market too a manufactured myth? The latest National Family Health Survey (2005-06) statistics show more than 50 per cent Indian women are married before the legal minimum age of 18. Among women aged 20 to 49, the median age at first marriage is 17.2 years. It is true that women today are waiting longer to marry. In the late 1990s, the median age at first marriage was 16.7 years, six months earlier than it is now.

A cursory visit to any of these websites confirms a continuing conformism. The individual does exert a ‘choice’, but this choice is often largely influenced by prejudices borne out of a deeply discriminatory social structure. How else does one explain the existence of a Brahminsmatrimony.com where you can find a Kandramanicka Brahacharanam bride or a Naidrupa Kashyapa gotram bridegroom?

“I have noticed of late these sites are quite unabashed about facilitating same-caste marriages. This is a mechanism that not only reinforces caste but also allows further filtering. While European postmodernists lament the death of the ‘real’ in this increasingly virtual world, in India, the virtual world reifies the reality of caste. Who creates these websites? It is people who want to preserve the status quo,” says S Anand, publisher of Navayana.

Some might argue that people need to ensure they are making a safe investment. Caste-based searches therefore are merely a process of risk-elimination by scouring for people-like-us. But this is where the problem arises. It is not the popularity of these websites, which function on a demand-supply basis, but our unquestioning acceptance of the divisions they represent which calls for attention.

If caste is becoming inconsequential, as some urbanites like to believe, then why don’t these sites reflect this? Why do they point to quite the opposite situation? Anybody looking for information on various castes, sub-castes, sub-sub-castes need only click and our clannish concerns expose themselves in a jiffy.

A prominent cultural critic says this packaging of caste, as a made-to-order commodity you can pick and choose from is indicative of the perpetuation of caste as a gene-pool patrol; a direction the human genome project too seems to be heading towards. According to him, “What seemed like a megalomaniac fascist’s dream is now a market possibility.”

But, you might ask, wasn’t GDP growth supposed to be the ultimate leveller, neutralising caste and class divisions? Not according to Elitematrimony.com. The homepage declares: “EliteMatrimony is a premium service to help celebrities, aristocrats and the upper crust of society find meaningful and loving relationships that will last a lifetime.” This premium service from Bharatmatrimony.com manages to ensure ‘potential matches are willing to marry you for your personality and not your social status’.

“This kind of segregation is not healthy,” says Brinda Jayaraman, a Chennai-based family therapist. “What is the qualification for being an ‘elite’? I find the terminology very threatening,” she adds.

The qualification says a relationship manager at Elitematrimony.com is a minimum annual income of Rs 1 crore. The recently launched site already has 75,000 members, with over 400 paid members. If you are lucky enough to find your privileged partner in three months you pay Rs 50,000. If it takes six months, you pay one lakh.

Kalpana Sharma, a prominent columnist on gender issues, says she is surprised a younger, more urbanised generation of Indians is not just sticking to old norms but going even further back. “Today apparent freedom seems to co-exist with ultra-conformism. They should be willing to question even if they end up making predictable choices,” she says.

“It is surprising because in most other societies there is a breaking down of barriers with a liberal or modernised education, at least some chipping away at the edges. But here it is just becoming more solidified, not just with the Haryana Caste Panchayats but in Bangalore, Tamilnadu, everywhere,” she adds. For a country, which seems to be preoccupied with marriage, the lack of research in the area is inexplicable.

Dr B R Ambedkar in his essay ‘Castes in India’ (1917) refers to endogamy as “the only thing that can be called the essence of caste.” Why is there so little debate and discussion on the continuance of this exclusionist practise? Surely its prevalence should serve as a caution sign amidst all the hype of India emerging as a global ‘superpower’? The resulting answers may unsettle some, but the present silence serves nobody.

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