By Jaimine Vaishnav
Artwork by @penpencildraw
It’s a necessity without which life is banal. It’s a feeling as well as a means to socialise with the people we sometimes end up with.
Valentine’s Day, arguably the worst day of the year to be single, finds us all reflecting on all the “what-went-wrongs” and “could’ve-beens'' in our romantic life. We’re often taught that the breakdown of relationships solely comes down to individualised problems, reasons which are centred around our personalities or lifestyles. Perhaps it’s not you, it’s me” is somehow a more palatable narrative than “it’s not you, it’s 1000 years of repressive elitist draconian social norms”. Because what if it's not you, or me, but something bigger? Stopping to consider external factors and the wider structures of our society that have an impact on our relationships, particularly in the South Asian context, we can’t help but notice that they sometimes play a hand in the reason relationships don’t work. Or, rather, aren’t given the space or conditions to work and to flourish. The culture of South Asian parenting, Bollywood movies, social anxieties, misogyny, classism and casteism are misguiding the way we are supposed to love.
Hands Up if the First Question is Always “And What is His Last Name?”
Last year, a friend was compelled to marry a man from her caste. She had been in a relationship with someone from the Dalit- Bahujan (lower caste) community for almost four years, something her parents found out about during the early phase of the lockdown. Around the same time, she also lost her job and became a ‘liability’. As she was trying to make it up by conducting tuition classes at home, her parents decided to marry her off and her dreams went up in smoke.
As a friend, I tried convincing her parents, but they paid no heed and instead mocked me when I spoke in favour of inter-caste marriages. When nothing worked, I pleaded with her to flee with the man she loved. But she felt helpless. She told me she was afraid that her parents and relatives would resort to ‘honour killing’ if she went against them. When I reached out to the man she loved, he told me that his family had already received a ‘threat’.
Even in today’s time and age, it is unfortunate that my friend’s family and many others continue to follow the system of anuloma, a Hindu traditional concept according to which one should marry within their own caste, as opposed to pratiloma which means marrying outside one’s caste. As per the 2011 census report, only 5.8 % of marriages in India were inter-caste. And yet people say casteism is only a thing of the past. Little do they realize that even today a Bahujan can be killed for sitting on a chair, wearing a shoe, growing a moustache, riding a horse, proposing to a Brahmin girl and whatnot.
These issues aren’t a symptom of the Hindu religion alone. Indian Catholics, Jains, Sikhs, Muslims, and Parsis are perfectly content to adopt the same. It seems that when it comes to finding love, the one thing every clan can agree on is the good old “someone from the community.” How ironic that especially in the context of love, the word “community” consistently gets used in such a carelessly punitive and nonchalantly exclusionary manner.
When Love Is a Crime:
If you were to analyse the National Crime Records Bureau data from 2019, you’d easily conclude that India is unsafe for Bahujan and tribal women. Compared to 2018, there has been a 7.3% increase in caste-based crimes against women from Bahujan communities. In a paper published by the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute in 2019, economist Deepankar Basu said that since 2014, there has been a 300% increase in hate crimes against minorities (including Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Christians).
The land of Kama Sutra has clearly forgotten the art of loving. Is it because our secular nation is on a mission to establish a Hindu Rashtra? Or are we being socialised to transcend hate over love and call it the ‘new’ brotherhood? There’s something inherently wrong in the way we perceive love in today’s time, isn’t it?
Love, today, has become consumerist in nature, and we inevitably buy into that from the constant targeting of adverts, social media, and everyone else around us doing the same. This manifests into materialism, reducing the concept of love to an economic transaction, a formality or a sexual contract, while at the same time distracting us away from the realities of whether love is real or not. How many aunties have happily chirped “hahn beta, the spark will come, but see what a nice *insert random gifting object here* he’s given you!” As though desiring a person could so easily be substituted with desirable objects.
This fixation on desirable objects transcends the niceties of gift-giving, having the larger effect of upholding patriarchal structures and norms, feeding into the power dynamics that already exist in many relationships wherein the man is entitled to hold the dominant position. “I provide x, therefore I am owed y” can be a dangerous gateway to compulsion and the normalisation of Intimate Partner Violence, domestic abuse, and marital rape - issues which India and the wider subcontinent struggles with at every level of society. India remains one of 36 countries where marital rape is not illegal but permitted by Exception 2, Section 375 of the constitution which exempts unwilling sexual intercourse with a wife over fifteen years of age. Yes, you read correctly, fifteen.
The trouble here is that in South Asia, very little of what we’ve been told to believe about love is actually about love at all. This void of discussion leads us to believe that love is about anything but caring, concern, respect for one another, affection. Rather, love gets tagged as the composite frankenstein of religion, economic viability, entitlement, ownership, duty, and of course - caste.
How strange then, that in a culture which places so much importance on “protecting the value of marriages,” the value of love itself is rendered null and void. Is it any surprise then, that those same marriages built on this foundation result in some of the strangest social experiments any of us have the joy of encountering? (Take a quick mental poll of your whole extended family. How many of the married couples have relationships one might call “healthy”, let alone “happy”?) So, what does that say about the dynamic of our perception of love? When caste is an issue worth killing over, but consent isn’t even worth a judicial charge, and ‘community’ is wielded like a weapon? What space is left for love?
To add to the woes, the recent ‘love jihad’ law has been legislated so that individuals don’t dare to marry outside their socio-religious boundaries. Violence towards inter-caste marriages runs rife. Attacks on young couples were found to be particularly common in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, with a lot of “runaway couples” needing support and shelter. According to the Tribune India, while only six couples had sought protection in 2010, within four years, there were 1,465 such couples housed in protection homes in Haryana.
For a nation like India, social osmosis is very important. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of Indian constitution, emphasised exogamy (marrying outside your caste, community or clan). At a time when we should be discouraging endogamy and overruling homophobia, here we are, still asking each other: “Who should we marry?” Such new laws will undoubtedly do more harm than good in the long run. Never ever, in any period of social history, has a parochial mindset such as this helped any community grow.
If we factor in, often unconsciously, hundreds of things before getting into a relationship, the feeling, however genuine it may be, cannot be called radical love. Heterogeneous nations like India really need to make space and encourage radical love, a love that knows no boundaries, to flourish. But the state, on the other hand, seems more interested in sowing seeds of hate.
Buddha’s teaching of Mettabhavana – the idea that cultivation of kindness and love is the way to heal our mental health – is perhaps what we need to survive in today’s ‘new’ India. The principle of his message also teaches us that one can love others when there’s no self-hate. People around us crave love because their cognition is/are inured and designed with afflictions, infatuations, hate and ignorance. With such a state of mind, loving – and that too unconditionally – is genuinely impossible. The void of love’s absence becomes that much more obvious, and at the same time, that much more impossible to change.
Love with the Lights On
In journalist Ravish Kumar’s book Free Voice, there is a chapter called ‘How We Love’, where he succinctly and very boldly says:
“Not everyone is in love. Nor does everyone have the courage to love. In our country, most people only love in their imagination. I wouldn’t know how it is in other places, but in India, to love is to battle with innumerable strictures imposed by society and religion. Love is a forbidden subject even within the four walls of our homes.”
As it is known, charity begins at home and a lot of homework needs to be done. Kumar continues:
“Our politics too cannot imagine a love that smashes the barriers of caste and religion. There are some Muslim leaders whose wives are Hindu. There are some Hindu leaders who are married to Muslim women. These were love marriages, but such couples do not display their love in public. They fear their voters’ displeasure. But is society really like that? Yes, it is, but it is in exactly such a society that possibilities emerge for revolutionary love. People bring down the walls of caste and religion. Sometimes they do so and stay alive.”
Valentine's day may very well be a holiday created by Hallmark, but let’s consider for a moment the opportunity it gives us to really look at love. Who we love, and how. It’s not too late to turn this around. And if our world wants to tell us that there’s no space for love anymore, on this valentines day, let us just say - we’ll make space for love.
About the author:
Jaimine Vaishnav is the author of this article. He is a lecturer based in Mumbai, India. He blogs on the areas of Hindutva, Buddhism, Society, and Free Speech. He tweets at @jaiminism without seeking permission from the government, unlike Godi Media.
This article was originally published in The Live Wire.