The Centre’s decision on the eve of Babasaheb Ambedkar Mahaparinirvan Divas to lift the income ceiling on its scheme that provides Rs 2.5 lakh to every inter-caste couple — in which the bride or bridegroom is a Dalit — is a welcome gesture. The intent of the Dr Ambedkar Scheme For Social Integration Through Inter-caste Marriage, introduced in 2013, is clear: People who marry outside their caste often face social ostracisation and in such instances, financial help from the state can help the couple to rebuild their lives independent of traditional social institutions. While such schemes — state governments have similar initiatives — serve a purpose in financially supporting inter-caste couples, they seem to have had only limited success in encouraging inter-caste alliances: As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III) (2005-6), inter-caste marriages constitute only about 11 per cent of the whole.
The preference of a majority of people to marry within their own caste is a disturbing sign of continuing social orthodoxy. It also points to a failure of politics. The institution of marriage is crucial to the preservation and perpetuation of caste. Hence, Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote that “the real remedy for breaking caste is inter-marriage”. “Nothing else,” he said, “will serve as the solvent of caste.” Mahatma Gandhi, who started as a supporter of the varna system, would in his later years allow only inter-caste marriages to be conducted at his ashram. The founding fathers of the republic were clear that caste must go. But how was this to be achieved? Anti-caste philosophers from Sree Narayana Guru to Ambedkar, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and Rammanohar Lohia felt the political empowerment of the oppressed communities was a necessary first step towards the destruction of caste.
Anti-caste political movements emphasised the necessity of lower-caste assertions and projected them as progressive anti-caste political mobilisations. In this fight against the caste system, inter-caste marriage was seen as an important instrument. However, somewhere down the line, the assertion and empowerment of the oppressed castes lost its higher sense of purpose. With electoral politics increasingly becoming a marketplace of competing identities, the followers of Ambedkar and Lohia now invoke caste mainly in numerical terms, as a bargaining chip.
The expansive imagination that distinguished lower-caste assertions of an earlier period has now ossified into mere caste pride. It has reaffirmed caste as a closed system fearful of any transgression. This is why the promotion of inter-caste marriages is not on any mainstream party’s political agenda. Worse, politicians increasingly prefer to stand with the conservative view on the matter, which is the protection and preservation of caste identity through marriage within the caste.