Book Review: The Right to Choose if, Who and When to Marry

Review of: Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and
Patriarchy in Northern India
by Prem Chowdhry; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp 448, Rs 695.

Prem Chowdhry’s new book synthesises her
pioneering work (1994, 1997, 2004a, 2004b),
addressing gender violence pertaining to inter-
and intra-caste marriages in north India. Drawing
on historical, legal and archival sources,
popular culture and oral testimonies, the
interstices of gender, caste and patriarchy in
rural and semi-urban Haryana are examined in this
impressive, yet disturbing monograph. The title
Contentious Marriages: Eloping Couples refers to
self- chosen “love marriages” which contravene
the norm of caste endogamy, intra-caste alliances
that breach ’got’ and territorial exogamy, and
the remarriage of widows also perceived to be
contentious. The book’s cover is illustrated with
the author’s own paintings of a poor Haryanvi
couple which typify the shame and isolation
experienced by parents caught in the saga of
their children’s run-away marriages.

While elopements and love marriages, which often
elicit intense family opposition, are a prominent
motif in Indian cinema and have been
vicariously documented in media reportage,
serious academic contextualisation of shifting
marital practices, the eschewment of parental
matchmaking criteria and individualised agency
are recent investigative themes in gender and
sociological studies. Indeed, with the exception
of studies on alternative sexualities, a cultural
relativist approach that rigidly posits "Indian
arranged marriage and family values“against”western style love marriages" has thwarted
efforts to comprehend the nature of individual
desire and the choice of marriage partners.

Chowdhry contends that in Haryana, elopements,
especially those involving lower- and upper-caste
pairings, have escalated over time, thereby
challenging traditional caste, kin and community
authority. Thus Chowdhry’s principal inquiry (p
20) is to problematise the widespread phenomena
of gender violence and honour killings associated
with contentious marriages, whilst also
questioning the structural and ideological basis
of such crimes across caste, class, gender and
age, and crucially why the perpetrators of
violence are treated with sympathy and allowed to

Sequentially, the opening chapter inter- rogates
the colonial state, illustrating how marriage
became a target for social and judicial
intervention. Following this, four chapters on
post-colonial Haryana explore how traditional
caste panchayats, the modern state and the family
collude against couples asserting their marital
preferences. These key chapters delineate the
collusion between traditional and modern institu-
tions to wilfully obstruct love marriages, far
too often resulting in a tragic finale for
couples. The final chapters discuss the deep
socio-economic fissures and contradictions in
Haryana’s changing political economy to provide
the necessary backdrop for understanding the
present antagonism against inter-caste

 Increasing Intolerance

Contemporary Haryana typifies the extreme
rigidity in the interpretation of marriage rules
and alliances in northern India. In comparison,
Chowdhry points out how in the colonial era the
local populace exhibited a certain degree of
tolerance for inter-caste unions, which were
permissible under the custom of ’karewa’ (the
remarriage of widows, divorced or abandoned
women). Colonial interventions however brought
about increased strin- gency and cultural shifts
in indigenous marriage practices. The colonial
state endorsed and gave legal authentication to
inter-caste and inter-community marriages through
the Special Marriage Act of 1872. While the
state formulated progressive laws, a series of
colonial judgments contradictorily strengthened
caste endogamy by invalidating local customs such
as karewa, which was considered morally
reprehensible by the British. In practice the
approach of the colonial administration was to
adhere to the brahminical scriptures, which
strictly forbid inter-caste marriages.

Furthermore, we are informed that in the majority
of cases pertaining to marriage the verdicts of
the colonial courts were typically regressive and
blatantly dis- regarded women’s agency and
assertion in their choice of partner. In this
extensive chapter on the colonial state a
question that could have received more attention
is whether these regressive and paradoxical
verdicts from the Haryana region were also being
enforced in other parts of India. The chapters
on present day Haryana explicate the ubiquity of
the ideology of male guardianship, control over
female sexuality, idioms of honour and observance of caste endogamy which guide the social
behaviour of people across age groups. Couples
and families in violation of the norms of an
honourable conduct are brought before caste
panchayats dominated by higher-caste landowning
men who have unrestrained powers to authorise
economic and other sanctions, including the use
of violence. The latter includes executing the
couple (by burning them alive, administering
poison and electrocution in village “executions”)
and expelling their families from the ancestral
village, as well as destroying their property,
crops and house- hold goods. As stated by

The general opinion of people in this region,
cutting across caste and class, is that if a
lower-caste man is involved with a higher- caste
woman, he is invariably killed. And the girl,
whether belonging to the higher caste or the
lower, is also almost certainly eliminated. This
is observed to be the general pattern not only in
Haryana but in the whole of northern India
adopted by the landowning families and decreed by
the caste panchayat
(p 142).

Chowdhry draws attention to honour killings in
the rural hinterland as well as in burgeoning
urban areas such as Gurgaon. Through extensive
interviews with local inhabitants, concerned
families and news- paper readings, Chowdhry has
put together and reconstructed accounts of honour
killings and episodes of brutal violence. Given
the difficulties and sensitivities involved in
interviewing eloping couples, who often go
“underground” or are killed, personal experiences
of resistance and accounts of those who do
survive are unfortunately missing from these
chapters. We are hence presented with
painstakingly factual reconstructions of how
couples are forcefully separated and how their
marriages and relationships meet with
inconclusive endings, albeit these are not first-hand narrations from the couples concerned. This
leaves us with little insight into the emotional
trajectories of runaway marriages or the
subversive character of premarital love between
young people.

Chowdhry illustrates how caste
panchayats in Haryana have nullified intra-
caste arranged marriages through the extensive
case study of Ashish and Darshana from Jondhi
village (p 100), whose arranged marriage was
declared void after three years as the couple’s
families had apparently contravened the category
of prohibited got, thereby breaking a time
honoured tradition of a 500 year old incest
taboo. The panchayat converted the couple’s
marriage to a fictive brother-sister relationship
and Ashish was charged with the responsibility of
remarrying “his wife turned sister”. A series of
local events whereby the families raised
objections compelled the panchayat to reconsider
its extreme decision to nullify the marriage; but
its revised decree ordered that the couple should
be thrown out of their got and permanently exiled
from Jondhi village. Chowdhry accentuates the
absence of functional democratic institutions
able to effectively challenge traditional powers
such as the tremendous authority of the caste
panchayats. These panchayats are still widely
utilised in settling marital disputes, as the
courts are out of reach for a large proportion of
the rural population.

Yet it emerges that caste panchayat dictates are
highly arbitrary, with disparate injunctions
being issued in very similar instances. If
families are economically influential their
breaches are overlooked and uncritically
questioned, while the less powerful are savagely
punished. Besides the decrees issued by caste
panchayats, the author offers examples of how
families initiate violence against their
daughters in the name of honour and explains how
families not seen to be making attempts to
forcefully search for, separate or eliminate the
couple are also ostracised and taken to task by
caste panchayats.

We may ask why the recurrent
honour killings and outcastings bymale-dominated
panchayats over the years have not led to
concrete mobilisation by feminist groups or
alternative forms of justice, especially as
haryanvi women are barred from panchayat
attendance and low caste groupsquestion the
credibility of panchayat decisions. By way of
example, since the early 1990s feminist NGOs in
New Delhi have developed the concept of women’s
arbitration courts (’mahila panchayats’), an
alternative women-centred justice sys- tem
providing marital arbitration and in- formal
dispute settlement services to couples [Grover
2006]. These women’s courts have been devised by
lower caste activist women specifically to
replace urban caste (’biradri’) panchayats, which
are no- torious for meting out social boycotts,
fines and punishments. Women’s arbitration courts
give personalised attention to women’s grievances
and assist couples facing severe opposition from
their fami- lies. Caste panchayats in Delhi have
lost their efficacy as women and young couples
instead approach women’s courts and other human
rights organisations about marriage and
family-related matters.

 Inadequacies of the Law

Chowdhry presents startling insights into how
state intervention into runaway mar- riages not
only delegitimises but also criminalises
individuals who choose unconventional alliances
(2007: 174). Rather than affording couples legal
protection in accordance with the Special
Marriage Act, the state unequivocally impedes the
efforts of eloping couples, displaying a strong
adherence to patriarchal values and no- tions of
honour. The state enters the frame when,
following an elopement, the girl’s parents file a
criminal complaint against the boy/her husband
alleging abduction, kidnapping or rape. From the
moment such a complaint is filed (p 173) the
couple become state fugitives and are persecuted
and hunted from place to place, the police
issuing posters with photographs in daily
newspapers with captions such as "Search for
kidnapped girl" (and kidnapper). If caught, the
boy is usually imprisoned, and if the case is
brought before the courts, the focus shifts
towards the scrutiny of the age of the girl in
order to ascertain the legal status of the
marriage. That couples may have acquired an
appropriate marriage certificate is not a salient
factor in legal proceedings. Upholding the
colonial ideology and legacy of male
guardianship, if a girl is below the age of 18
and has chosen her own marriage her choice is
overruled by the courts. Yet if her male guardian
arranges her marriage, irrespective of her age,
the marriage is deemed valid.

The outcome of many
court cases covering runaway couples is that the
girl is pressurised by her family to label her
husband a kidnapper while she herself is either
eliminated or promptly married off. Even in the
few cases of verdicts sympathetic to the couple
the law has often been unable to safeguard the
girl from violence by her natal kin in the
aftermath of a court verdict. The final chapters
illustrate Haryana’s changing political economy,
marked by political democratisation and a
liberalised economy, new laws which allow women
to inherit property and the economic advancement
and upward mobility of the lower castes, all of
which engender much anxiety among upper-caste

An inter-caste marriage constitutes a
major threat to the resources, unity, strength
and structural position of a caste in the local
hierarchy. In this regard, one of Chowdhry’s main
contributions is that she shows how caste and
class divisions are being altered, redefined and
contested in a society in rapid flux. Too often
these emerging challenges are resolved through
the use of violence at the family and community
level and are framed and legitimised by
discourses of culture and tradition. It is a
compelling paradox that many families themselves
subvert traditional got prohibitions in response
to a very constrictive marriage market that is
tied to escalating dowry demands, an adverse sex
ratio and high male unemployment. The book’s
epilogue reflects on the underlying nature of the
intolerance of inter-caste love marriages;
despite the advent of modern egalitarian laws the
perpetuation of caste through endogamous
marriages remains the norm, endorsed by both the
state and the local population.

A more informed
debate based on comparative ethnography examining
how families, communities and caste groups are
contesting and incorporating inter-caste
marriages can clarify further whether these very
serious transgressions in the north have
parallels elsewhere in India. In the bigger
picture, the Indian women’s movement has much to
gain from Chowdhry’s book, which provides the
necessary stimulus for activists who need to
urgently address the fundamental theme of women’s
(and men’s) right to choose if, who and when to

Email: drshalinigrover


Chowdhry, Prem (1994): The Veiled Women:
Shifting Gender Equations in Rural Haryana,
, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

- (1997): ’Enforcing Cultural Codes: Gender and
Violence in North India’, Economic and Political
, 32 (19), pp 1919-28.

- (2004a): ’Caste Panchayats and the Policing of
Marriage in Haryana: Enforcing Kinship and
Territorial Exogamy’, Contributions to Indian
(ns), January-August, 38 (1-2), pp 1-42.

- (2004b): ’Private Lives, State Intervention:
Cases of Runaway Marriages in Rural North India’,
Modern Asian Studies, 38 (1), pp 55-84.

Grover, Shalini (2006): ’Poor Women’s Experiences
of Marriage and Love in the City of New Delhi:
Everyday Stories of Sukh aur Dukh’, unpublished
DPhil thesis, University


* From Economic and Political Weekly, June 16, 2007. Circulated by .

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