On Wednesday evening, Govindi Gudilu (30) was caked from head to toe in haldi, minutes before she emerged dancing as the speakers blared a remix of popular Marathi number Zingaat. It seemed like any other evening before the big day for a young woman in the city. Except that for 2,000 members of the Vaidu community settled in Jogeshwari and several lakh others across Maharashtra, the wedding was a historic first.
On Thursday, Govindi wed Jayesh Wakhade (30), with the blessings of those who had ostracised her family five years ago because she refused to marry her cousin.
Govindi, a software engineer and the first graduate in the Vaidu tribe, was as a toddler decreed to be married to her cousin. In 2013, while pursuing her studies, she refused to get married, citing her education and the boy’s lack of it. Inter-caste marriages are forbidden in the community.
The Vaidu Jat Panchayat ordered that the family be ostracised and imposed a penalty of Rs 3 lakh on them.
That spurred Govindi’s younger sister Durga to launch a campaign to disband the council and end other orthodox practices prevalent in the community, supported by Narendra Dabholkar’s Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti. The family lodged a police complaint against seven members of the council for ordering their social boycott.
“He was a drunkard and used to sell medicine like older members of our community,” said Durga about the cousin her sister had refused to marry.
Govindi’s wedding comes two days after the Supreme Court observed that any attempt by khap panchayats or other assemblies to prevent two consenting adults from marrying was illegal.
The Vaidus are a Scheduled Tribe spread across Maharashtra who traditionally sell herbal medicines and concoctions in rural and urban areas. The tribe has an estimated population of 27 lakh in the state.
In Sarvodaya Nagar, Jogeshwari East, which is home to the Gudilu family, there are 2,000 registered voters. “You will always find us staying in group of 30-40 households, never apart,” said Durga.
She describes the two years of her family’s ostracisation as “torture” for Govindi. The Council was disbanded in 2015. Since then, Durga has helped the former members find lawyers to fight the criminal trial.
“They have consented to this wedding out of fear. I am seen as a leader in the community now, but I only have their respect because of fear. It will take some time for their thinking to change and for them to accept me,” Durga said.
Jayesh, who runs a design business, said he was thrilled that the wedding would set an example for the Vaidu community.
“This is a big day for us. This is a very big wedding in our community. For the first time we will get to experience a wedding in which customs and rituals from the other side will be different from ours,” said Kavita Shivalu.
The Gudilu siblings are hopeful that the marriage will help other girls in the community reject intra-caste pairings.
At the end of the wedding ceremony in Bandra East on Thursday evening, Mukta Dabholkar slipped in a line about how the couple had met. “Govindi and Jayesh are workers with the Andha Shradha Nirmoolan Samiti and met at a protest march on August 20, 2013 after my father was killed,” said Mukta, daughter of Narendra Dabholkar.
Addressing the guests, Dabholkar said Govindi and Jayesh had put the practice of child marriage behind them with their wedding. “Had Govindi done this a few years ago, there would be a punishment. Today the Jat Panchayat members are present here and they should be applauded,” she said.
A few second generation community leaders gathered at the back nodded silently. “If we hadn’t come today then they would feel that we are against this marriage… My father and grandfather would oppose inter-caste marriages and couples would run away and be thrown out of the community. But those women who married within the community were not happy. We have left behind all these practices,” said Laxman Gudilu (35), whose father was a member of the panchayat.