On Wednesday evening Govindi Gudilu was caked from head to toe in haldi and emerged dancing minutes later as the speakers blared a remix of popular Marathi number Zingaat. From the outside, it was 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, it was a wedding less ordinary and a historic first.
On Thursday, Govindi Gudilu wed Jayesh Wakhade, the partner she has chosen, with the blessings of the very men who ostracised her family five years ago for refusing to become a child bride for her cousin. Govindi, a software engineer and the first graduate in the community, was decreed as a toddler to be married to her cousin. In 2013, while still pursuing her education, she refused to get married, citing her continuing education and the boy’s lack of it. Inter-caste marriages are forbidden in the community.
The Jat Panchayat or Caste Council of the Vaidu tribe, to which the family belongs, ordered that they 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 harmful parctices prevalent in the community, supported by Narendra Dabholkar’s Andhashradha Nirmulan Samiti. The family registered a complaint with the police against seven members of the council for ordering their social boycott. “He was a drunkard and and used to sell medicine like older members of our community,” said Durga of the boy her sister rejected.
Incidentally, Govindi’s wedding comes two days after the Supreme Court had observed that any attempt by khap panchayats or other assemblies to prevent two consenting adults from marrying was illegal. A three judge bench also stated in its order that any form of torture by any individuals in the name of honour “cannot be allowed a moment of existence.”
The Vaidus are a Scheduled Tribe spread across Maharashtra who traditionally sell herbal medicines and concoctions in both rural and urban areas. The tribe has an estimated population of 27 lakh in the state, of whom nearly 26,000 live in Mumbai – in areas like Jogeshwari, Kurla, Sion, Vikhroli, Borivali, Virar and Kalyan. 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 during which the family faced ostracisation as “torture” for Govindi. The Council was finally disbanded in 2015. Since then, Durga has helped the former members find lawyers to fight the criminal trial.
“After that I think they finally felt that I was always right. 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 the fear. It will take some time for their thinking to change and for them to accept me,” Durga said.
The evening before, the sense of occasion was not lost on the women who line up the congested alleyways for the turn to smear haldi on Govindi. She too, said on Wednesday that she was nervous at her impending nuptials, with memories of having opposed the previous one still fresh.
Jayesh, who like Govindi is also 30 year old, and runs a painting and designing business, said that he was thrilled that their 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 siblings are hopeful that this marriage will spur other girls in the community to reject intra-caste pairings. “After this one, hopefully others will also be inspired. We will start seeing more such marriages,” she added. At the end of the short wedding ceremony in Bandra East on Thursday evening, it was Mukta Dabholkar who fittingly slipped in a line about how the couple had met. “Both Govindi and Jayesh are workers with the Andha Shradsha Nirmoolan Samiti and met at a protest March on August 20, 2013 after my father was killed,” said Mukta Dabholkar, daughter of the murdered rationalist Narendra Dabholkar.
Addressing the guests, Dabholkar added that Govindi and Jayesh had put the practice of child marriage behind them with their wedding. “Their families and other members of the community agreed to the wedding. But this did not happen overnight. 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 added.
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. It was very important for us to be here. 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 and support this wedding,” said Laxman Gudilu (35), whose father was a member of the Panchayat.
Dr. Swami Shirkul, another community leader, added, “We want people to live happily after they are married. So we do not oppose anyone marrying outside the caste.”