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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Stand By Me: Defying caste diktats in Haryana’s heartland for a life together

How the journey hasn't been easy for this couple, from falling in love in an auto rickshaw to college to now, as young parents, still awaiting their parents' acceptance

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri | New Delhi |
Updated: February 14, 2021 7:38:15 am
Stand By Me: Defying caste diktats in Haryana’s heartland for a life togetherLove will keep us alive: Amit and Deepa with their son

At first, it was just an ordinary college romance. Amit (who goes by his first name) and Deepa Gagania, both BCom students at Pandit Neki Ram Sharma Government College in Haryana’s Rohtak, took the same shared auto rickshaw to college. Casual pleasantries led to conversations, conversations to longer meetings after college, and finally an admission of love. “We realised that we were just looking for excuses to spend more time with one another,’ recalls Amit, now 26.

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But time was something that he could ill afford. “My father was a driver, I had two other siblings. Making ends meet was tough. I had to take up a part-time job in my third year of college. I had never hidden our financial status from Deepa but I had no time left to see her,” he says.

So, a few days after graduation, Amit proposed marriage to Deepa, then 19, and still in her third year, “to sort out my life.” “She didn’t take long to say yes,” he says. Elated, Amit decided to ditch the shared auto and drop her back to her “big house” in Hisar’s Indira Colony, a mere kilometre from his home.

That was the first time the young lovers came up against a reality they had never acknowledged. Deepa belongs to an affluent OBC family while Amit comes from a Dalit family. “I thought no one cared about caste any more, but some of Deepa’s friends saw us and dropped hints to her family. When I spoke to her later, she said it doesn’t matter to her but her family would never accept our marriage,” says Amit.

The two were also aware of Haryana’s history of brutal honour killings of couples marrying outside their caste.

“I turned for help to my friend who had also married outside her caste. She and her husband took us to an Arya Samaj temple in Delhi to get married. Afterwards, they advised us to shift to one of the ‘safe homes’ in Rohtak,” says Deepa, 23, referring to the state-run “safe houses” set up in each of Haryana’s 22 districts in 2001 to shelter newly-weds who had eloped fearing violence and ostracisation.

From then on, all hell broke loose. “As per procedure, the policeman at the centre called up our families to tell them about our marriage. Deepa’s brother landed up, fuming, with a group of his friends. But because of the security there, we were safe,” says Amit. In a week’s time, the couple along with Amit’s family left Hisar and moved to a rented home in Rohtak. “We told everyone that we are moving to Uttar Pradesh for work, but I wouldn’t lie, I was scared,” says Amit, adding, “We have progressive views for others’ families. When it comes to our own, we are still very regressive. My family has now accepted Deepa after I constantly explained to them that caste does not matter. But her family is still holding on to old values. I am educated, earn well. I took her to Manali for our honeymoon, but my caste is more important to them.”

Over the next one-and-half years, Amit worked hard at his job in the operations section of Flipkart, while Deepa started tailoring clothes for a living. “I would break down often. When our son was born, I gathered my courage to call up my family. I sent them my son’s photo, too. But it’s been three years, they still haven’t come to meet me. My younger brother comes sometimes, that’s all. But I don’t regret what I did,” says Deepa.

Like every year, Amit will take his wife out for a meal on Valentine’s Day, “but her family’s acceptance would have been a better gift,” he says with a wry smile.

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