An incident took place a couple of months ago in JNU, one of the most liberal and radical universities in the country: an undergraduate girl was axed by her classmate in broad daylight. Another recent incident: Ilavasaran, a dalit boy whose love for a Vanniyar girl was reciprocated, was found dead on the railway tracks in Dharmapuri. And the series of other violent events occurring in Haryana recently: all these seemingly disparate incidents raise many similar questions about the immaturity of our patriarchal and casteist society, its lack of preparedness in dealing with the intricacies of intimate relationships.
At a personal level, the obsession of possessing the other person gets expressed in extreme violence in the form of acid attacks, kidnappings, rapes and murders causing severe trauma in women.
Thus, it is the need of the hour to revisit notions of love and intimacy in our sexually repressed society. We must question our fundamental understanding of love. Why does it weaken our beloved instead of empowering, and why does it brutalize them physically and psychologically instead of evolving into a mature relationship for both? Why is it that one of the most enriching feelings suffocates the other person, at times?
It is time we realize that one cannot hold the other person captive for not reciprocating feelings with the same intensity or by similar gestures. Perhaps its time we accept that as people have a right to love; they also have a right to leave. If it’s not mutual, can there be a room to dialogue on how it can be dealt with? Opting for violent ways of demonstrating one’s feelings through abusing, acid attacks or murdering the other partner or any such acts takes one far away from an intimate feeling, translating it into gothic violence.
However, as an area of academic interest, I am keen on understanding what happens when people of different castes fall in “love” with each other. Further, I am also interested to learn about the push and pull factors that break or sustain their relationships over a period. Between caste and love, which one plays a pivotal role in defining intimate relationships? Or is it an amalgamation of the two that complicates intimate relationships? And lastly, how and when do these self-chosen relationships become a site of violence, either by the couples themselves or by society? Insult assumed to be caused by a couple “falling in love” is recouped by implicating the lovers, as seen in the case of honor killings (of either same or different castes), in murder, social boycott or levying of a heavy penalty or all of the above.
It is important that we start debating these incidents not as mere sites of violence but as a big ‘void’ between intimate spaces and society. Often issues of love, relationships, sex are considered to be ‘tabooed,’ and quickly hushed up. They are mostly considered trivial and a point of ‘distraction’ from other relevant issues in society. Is it because a right to choose one’s partner mocks endogamy? Is it because it makes a dent in the very foundation of the caste system? Is it because inter-mingling of people from different castes shakes the power dynamics within a family and society at large?
The quest of studying intimate relationships is therefore challenging as it reveals the naked intertwined manifestations of caste, power, family and society, bringing them under public scrutiny. In addition, intimate relationships subtly bring in the aspect of caste making people uncomfortable to talk about it. Publicly, an open dialogue about intimate relations is given the least priority. However, privately, most people justifiably seek a compatible other to fulfill their emotional or sexual needs.
Intimate relationships, one of the relevant sites of human interactions, are stuck between dilemmas of private or public debates, leading to unhealthy and difficult relationships. The Gender Sensitization Committee in the Universities often stands aloof from intervening in intimate relationships. As an institutional body, it finds it challenging to penetrate into what is portrayed as “intimate spaces” between individuals.
At the familial level, conservative, patriarchal control exercised by parents and relatives especially in cases of inter-caste marriages curbs the individual’s freedom to choose her romantic partner. The authoritative nature of family majorly dominates decision-making regarding the individual’s relationships. Most families detest personal choice to form intimate relationships with individuals outside caste. Instances where lovers form inter-caste romantic alliances are often abused, mistreated or boycotted by their own families.
To begin with it is important that we acknowledge and have a consistent open, critical dialogue on love, sex, family, marriage and intimate relationships with parents, within extended families and in the larger society. We must accept that the ambivalences of intimate spaces tend to have severe ramifications on the larger society. Debates to be initiated around “love,” (an act pigeonholed as bringing shame and dishonour to the family) must be articulated as a principle that encompasses individual right and freedom, equality within relationships, informed mutual consent to work within the family, respect and independence, as the thriving virtues for an egalitarian society.
The horrifying acts of ‘honor killings’ should be vehemently detested. Villages, under surveillance of Khap Panchayats, (community-sanctioned units of governance) known for their interference in ‘private’ affairs of individuals on the pretext of protecting clan’s ‘honour’ should be publicly disparaged.
An intimate relationship on a personal level is no less than a paradox. As much as it condemns barbaric, casteist and patriarchal nature of society, it also asks for self-critique and realization on a personal level; posing an immense, but pursuable, challenge.
Jyotsna Siddharth is pursuing her M.Phil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.