Dadri’s first inter-religious marriage may have been one step forward, but it’s also meant two steps back.
“Biradari main naak toh kat hi gayi thi…izzat bachane ke liye karna pada,” said Yasin Saifi, who works in the construction business, a wiry man, possibly in his forties. (“Our honour in the community was already gone…to save whatever was left, we had to do it.”) He smelled of pan masala and sweat, and his face was dotted with despair and perspiration. For Saifi, the village of Chithera in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, has been home for generations. However, one marriage has changed everything for Yasin and his family.
Yasin Saifi smelled of pan masala and sweat, and his face was dotted with despair and perspiration.
The loss of ‘honour’ that Yasin was talking about comes from his eldest niece having Salma eloped with Manjit Bhati, a Gujjar youth from Chithera, last October. The two got married in Allahabad before returning home. It is this marriage that renewed the media’s attention in Dadri when it took more than six months to have this marriage registered.
Although Salma has converted to Hinduism and now goes by the name Sapna, hers is possibly the first inter-religious love story in Dadri, according to locals. It has all the makings of a Bollywood plot, complete with furiously-protesting parents, the threat of being forced to marry another man and eventually, a happy ending. For two of her cousins, however, the story is markedly different.
In February this year, Sapna’s sisters Meena and Karishma, aged 17 and 15 respectively, were married off on the same day and packed off to Bulandshahr, about 35 kilometres from Chithera. This was the family’s reaction to Sapna’s elopement. That these two girls are minors and to marry them off is illegal wasn’t a consideration. “When honour is lost, nothing is left to salvage,” said Saifi, adding that the family was planning to sell its property in Chithera and settle “somewhere else”. He sounded certain that the ‘precedent’ set by Sapna would only lead to the younger girls following in her footsteps, somewhere down the line. “We could not afford to risk a repeat of what happened,” he said.
Sapna’s decision to convert and marry Manjit has been a cruel blow to Saifi and his two brothers. Theirs is a close-knit family, with the extended family living in the same locality. “Her parents died in a road accident when she was still a kid,” said Saifi. “Since then, we brothers have looked after her. Who would have known she would play with the family’s honour in this manner, after all we had done for her?” he asked, his anger evident.
In Manjit’s part of the village, the reaction is more muted. “Ab jab miyaan biwi raazi tab kya karega kaazi?” said Jaggi Bhati, sitting inside the general store he runs in Chithera, breaking into a laboured laugh. (“When the bride and the groom are consenting, what can anyone else do?”) “Obviously, the family’s honour won’t be the same in society,” said Jaggi, referring to Manjit’s family.
A number of locals were gathered around the store and the marriage proved to be an easy conversation starter. “No one would tell them anything to their face, but people would definitely talk behind their backs,” said the shop-owner. “Ab hum kya batayein?” asked an elderly Gujjar man at the store. (“What can I say now?”) “The only thing which sets humans apart from animals is honour. When honour itself is gone, what is left?”
Although this Hindu-Muslim love story has raised hackles all over the Chithera, locals insist that there is no communal tension in the village otherwise. “We have co-existed in the village for ages,” said Jaggi. “Yet there are some boundaries that must be respected. Though love marriages have become common in this day and age, one has to think about the biradari (community).”
That’s not the only tie to a bygone era that Chithera holds on to, as Salma’s sisters’ fate indicates. Child-marriage is illegal in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, yet because of deep-rooted traditions, patriarchy, poverty, and weak implementation of laws, the numbers do not paint a rosy picture. There are thousands of Meenas and Karishmas across India. A 2014 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said a third of all child marriages in the world have taken place in India – about 240 million. UNICEF also estimates that in India, of all girls between the ages of 20 and 24, half got married between the legal age of 18.
All efforts to speak to Meena and Karishma failed, with the girls’ family refusing to divulge details. It was almost as if they did not want them to speak to the media. One wonders what the family was afraid of, what the girls would have divulged had they spoken to this correspondent. Is the family then afraid of committing a wrong by marrying off underage women? With the sense of control and bravado with which Yasin narrates the tale of the marriages, it does not seem to be the case.
Meena and Karishma’s story doesn’t raise eyebrows in Chithera, which suggests child marriages remain prevalent in the area. In fact, Manjit and Sapna may not have eloped had Sapna’s family not been planning to marry the 20-year-old off to another man.
They met because Manjit used to run a general store in the neighbourhood where Sapna’s family lived. They had developed a friendship over time, which gave way to love in two years.
“I used to go their house often. That is where I met her,” he said.
Given the complexities of the Hindu-Muslim relationship, the two were well aware of the odds facing them. But they were quite certain that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. When the family got whiff of the affair, they let Sapna know in clear terms that this was a match that was not to be. A suitable match in the community — a man in his 30s — was found for her, well away from Chithera and Manjit.
That was when Manjit and Sapna decided to elope. On October 19, 2015, they rode off on a motorbike. Two days later in Allahabad, she converted to Hinduism at an Arya Samaj temple in the city, and assumed the name ‘Sapna’. Is it just a coincidence that the name she picked translates to “a dream”? Was it suggested to her because it’s phonetically close to Salma? Whatever the reason, the newly-christened Sapna followed her dream and got married, according to Arya rituals, to Manjit, in the same temple. Would Manjit’s family have accepted his bride had she not converted to Hinduism? “It was not important for me,” said Manjit. “But, there are certain things we do keeping the society’s honour in mind.”
The piece of document that stands testimony to Manjit and Sapna’s matrimonial alliance.
The couple’s challenges had barely begun. Sapna’s aunt, who lives in Meerut, filed an FIR against Manjit, stating Sapna was a minor — an objection that was riddled with irony when you consider she’d been considered old enough to marry within the community and the ages of her sisters who have since been married. Fortunately for Manit, subsequent medical tests revealed Sapna’s age to be around 20. She also recorded a statement in front of the Additional Civil Judge, Meerut, Farida Begum, stating that she had proved that she was an adult, and wished to live with Manjit, and not with any of her family members. She wrote in her statement that there was a threat to her life if she were sent back to her family.
District officials dithered on registering the marriage fearing a communal backlash against the move. However, within a week of the news reaching the national media, the marriage was finally registered by the authorities on April 27 this year.
Sapna looked like any other young, Hindu bride when we met her. A red pallu covered the top of her head, with faint sindoor (vermillion) peeped out of her middle-parted hair. She was wearing a sacred Hindu thread on the wrist of her right hand. Colourful glass bangles tinkled when her hands moved. “I am happy to be with Manjit, and I do not want to go back to my relatives,” she said.
Manjit (L) with Sapna (R)
There’s a sense of security and confidence in her voice, but it’s one that she’s claimed at significant cost. Going from Salma to Sapna life has meant assuming a new name, a new religion and losing an old life and identity. It’s also claimed a few precious years of freedom from her sisters’ lives. “They alleged that I was a minor and Manjit kidnapped me,” said Sapna, her voice soft, but firm. “But, when you meet them, do ask them if my sisters were not minors, when they married them off.”
Her uncle Saifi has his own justification for the marriages of the minor girls. “Once the family’s name and honour got defiled due to Salma, we decided that Chithera was no longer a safe place for her sisters, so we married them off,” he said.
For Sapna’s family, her and Manjit’s wedding is not an elopement but a kidnapping. “Woh ladka bhaga le gaya,” they kept saying, dismissing the fact that Sapna, though young, was perfectly within her rights to decide the man she would marry. To this date, Saifi fails to see their marriage as a voluntary choice and persists in his belief that Sapna was brainwashed into going against the family by Manjit. As a consequence, the family ended up marrying off her younger sisters. If there’s any fault here, it lies at Sapna’s feet as far as her old family is concerned.
“Hum usko bakshenge nahi. Dekh lenge. Usko bhi aur ladke ko bhi,” Saifi said, his face red with rage. (“We won’t spare her. Neither her, nor the man.”) In his fury, what is sharply evident is how acutely he feels his minority status.“Humara thoda sa aur dabdaba hota yaha, toh hum chup nahi baithte, laashe bichha detein,” he declared. (“If we had a little more say here, we would haven’t have sat quietly. We would have lined up corpses.”) Perhaps it’s empty posturing, but it offers some sense of the kind of opposition that Sapna faced.
Elopement in Chithera is not just a simple, rebellious move, fuelled by the ‘throw-caution-to-the-winds’ mindset of youth, as romanticised by Indian movies. It is a serious decision that comes with serious consequences, the most fatal of which could be death. A move like elopement in Chithera is a challenge to patriarchal authority, questioning the collective wisdom of the village that believes two girls being married off is the only way to hold on to tradition. Sapna and Manjit could have ushered in change. Instead, their happy ending is a warning. It comes with consequences.
In Chithera, honour is a talisman that’s filligreed by patriarchy. It’s precious, vague and fragile — shattered by Sapna’s rebellion, pieced together again by two teenage girls losing precious freedom. Would Chithera have reacted the same way if a Gujjar woman had married a Muslim man? Nobody is willing to answer that question. The most the Gujjars can manage is, “Humare biradari mein aise nahi hota.” (“We don’t do this in our community.”)
This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.