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Development’s new ally in tribal India: Sabka Vikaas, Sabka Vivaah

Several tribal communities have a long history of live-in relationships where couples cohabit out of wedlock and even have children. Most of these arrangements have thrived on gender equal norms where tribal women enjoy a degree of freedom and bargaining power.

Written by Swati Parashar |
March 1, 2018 1:35:25 pm
Chief Minister Raghubar Das presided over a mass public wedding of 51 tribal couples of Sarna and Christian backgrounds, who were already in ‘live-in’ relationships. (Source: Twitter/@dasraghubar)

It is the wedding season in India and while wedding expenses know no bounds for the wealthy and have skyrocketed for the middle classes, the poor can barely afford it. Beyond families and communities, weddings have also become the business of the state in some parts, all in the name of development. Mass weddings are common in several states and many couples from poor, underprivileged backgrounds are married off in public ceremonies supported by state funds under the Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna, often presided over by state officials and representatives.

In addition, various communities aided by local NGOs organize weddings of their members who are from economically weaker sections of society. This is a display of altruism to support couples without means and to foster stronger community ties.

However, a unique event was witnessed in Ranchi, Jharkhand last weekend when Chief Minister Raghubar Das presided over a mass public wedding of 51 tribal couples of Sarna and Christian backgrounds, who were already in ‘live-in’ relationships. The weddings took place at a public ground in Ranchi on February 23, sponsored by the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society (JSLPS) in collaboration with an NGO, NIMITTA with the sole objective of bringing ‘social recognition’ to poor tribal couples. Both the CM and the organizers involved expressed enthusiasm about integrating tribals into the ‘mainstream’ through this proclaimed humane gesture.

Meanwhile, the mass weddings of live-in couples are being celebrated with the hashtag #NewJharkhand in the social media. This is being peddled as a unique attempt to bring modernity and development to the tribals suffering under poverty and the weight of outdated traditions that supposedly bring shame and disrepute to the couples and their families.

Prior to the event, the organisers had issued public advertisements and media campaign, claiming the humanity and altruism behind the attempts to marry off those who had been living together and were too poor to bear wedding costs.

The CM also promised Rs 11,000 to every marrying couple to start their lives and tweeted about the need to end old fashioned thinking and orthodoxies among the tribal population. This embracing of modernity and mainstreaming tribal culture and lives in the garb of development is not new.

Scholars and researchers on tribal lives and customs have long argued against Sanskritisation processes that are damaging progressive traditional practices and social interactions, sexual modes of being and erotic exchanges among tribal communities. In fact, several tribal communities in different parts of the country have a long history of live-in relationships where couples cohabit out of wedlock and even have children. Most of these arrangements have thrived on gender equal norms where tribal women enjoy a degree of freedom and bargaining power.

Couples in the Garasia tribe from Rajasthan whose livelihood depends on farming and labour cohabit together, holding weddings only when they have enough savings. There is no social stigma or ostracisation and it has been reported that crime rates against women are significantly lower. Tribals of Bastar in Chhattisgarh also cohabit in live-in relationships known as Pethu and udhalka vivah. Bastar and Jharkhand have a system of dormitories called the Ghotul or the Dhumkuria (currently in decline and often looked down by non tribals as primitive and immoral) for the youth who spend time together learning about their customs and traditions, while engaging in erotic exchanges and healthy sexual relationships.

The mass weddings of live-in couples in Jharkhand signal an increasing intolerance towards tribal cultural life and practices seen as backward and unrefined. The issue of poverty due to the depletion of forest and land resources that affects traditional livelihoods, and the increasing social pressures on tribals for lavish weddings also requires attention.

Weddings across the spectrum are a highly performative, commercialized and profitable venture for all sides and are especially unaffordable for the poor. It cannot be denied that several couples who would otherwise prefer a traditional wedding ceremony, are unable to do so because of the lavish spending that is expected by their families and communities. The weddings must include three days of bhoj or feasting for the community along with the traditional exchange of gifts.

The practice of dowry is also prevalent among the tribals and contributes to the existing violence against tribal women. Patriarchy has deep connections to the loss of livelihood and poverty among the tribals. Many tribal couples, thus, may prefer to cohabit in live-in relationships, not as a matter of progressive choice always but out of the compulsions of poverty.

Moreover, we have nonexistent laws to protect the rights of individuals in live-in relationships where no legalities and formalities exist on paper. City dwelling live-in couples in high profile jobs have enormous difficulties in matters of child custody and inheritance and not to mention the consistent social pressures on them to conform. The plight of poor tribal live-in couples in the remote areas of Jharkhand is bound to be much worse in the absence of effective legal implementation and access to resources.

However, the solutions to these problems do not lie in state interventions of the kind we have seen in Jharkhand, where governments and NGOs get to decide what ‘progressive’ social norms and acceptable forms of relationships should look like and which couples deserve financial help.

The mass weddings of live-in tribal couples in Jharkhand indicates the extent to which the state’s development agenda includes the civilizing mission to bring tribal communities into the perceived social mainstream. This narrative of development includes the regulation of the conjugal order where traditional and existing live-in relationships would have to make way for marriages where unequal gender roles can be firmly established and women’s honour in particular can be restored.

On the other hand, the way to resist the growing social demand for lavish and extravagant weddings among the tribals is not to organize mass weddings with state support. Providing financial assistance to tribal couples as they set up homes is a terrific idea but does it necessarily have to be through undermining their existing social arrangements and making marriages mandatory?

The state government never tires to publicise that in the last three years Jharkhand has witnessed unprecedented development. After these weddings, is the slogan now sabka vikaas, sabka vivaah (development for all, weddings for all)?

Swati Parashar is a Senior Lecturer in Peace and Development Research, Gothenburg University, Sweden. She tweets @swatipash  

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