Saturday, December 7, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Haryana’s male-order brides
Raman Mohan

Haryana's male-order brides

MEET Haryana’s lesser husbands, lesser wives and lesser children. They are members of a growing community in which the husband isn’t sure whether he is truly the husband of the woman he married, the woman does not know whether she is the real wife and their children are not certain if they have any legal or social standing. Nevertheless, they are the leading players in farces being enacted in the name of marriages in several areas of the state where marriageable girls are becoming harder and harder to find due to an alarmingly low male to female ratio.


Saaliha is one such lesser wife. Born in a remote hamlet in Bangladesh 24 years ago, she was "purchased" for marriage four years ago by a 32- year-old man hailing from a village in Fatehabad district. The lesser husband in this case is Daya Ram — the youngest of the four brothers of a poor backward class family. After years of search for a suitable match, he knew bachelorhood stared him in the face. That was when a friend sold him the idea of buying a Bangladeshi girl and, thus, raising his progeny. It has been four years since he married Saaliha. They have a two-year-old son Balwant. But the two have not been living happily; the toddler, of course, is oblivious of the realities. Saaliha and Balwant share a thatched room adjacent to the animal shed. The three wives of Daya Ram’s brothers have proper rooms in the main section of the house. Saaliha’s shelter is a constant reminder that she is a lesser wife. Daya Ram lives in a separate room. Unlike his brothers who stay with their wives, he cannot keep Saaliha in his room. He makes only nocturnal incursions into Saaliha’s dingy room. Balwant hardly gets noticed by his uncles and cousins. Only Daya Ram’s widowed septuagenarian mother occasionally gives the toddler a peck or two when the other family women are not looking. Saaliha is not bothered about her status or future but Balwant’s problems torment her. His rejection by his uncles and aunts means just one thing — he doesn’t get the family name and consequently no share in the meagre family assets. The trinity is just one of hundreds living across Haryana.

The other category of lesser wives and their children is that of Indian girls bought for marriage from states like Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Unlike Saaliha, they are native Hindus, can speak Hindi and can, therefore, communicate with other family members. But that is not sufficient to grant them the status of properly wedded wives. They continue to be second-class wives and their children, the children of lesser gods. No family member recognises their family status. These wives live like outcasts in their marital homes, serving only as an object that satisfies their husband’s carnal desires. Their progeny is just a by-product of this role — nothing more. Like Saaliha, they are confined to the house, as their superior counterparts in the family do not allow them to mix up with fellow village women. These wives, invariably, come from lower castes, while their so-called husbands belong to relatively higher castes.

Societal changes due to a low male-female ratio have not left the men untouched. Forced to buy women due to paucity of suitable girls, these men do not enjoy the same status as other men in their homes. Inquiries show they are mostly the youngest male members of the family. In most rural families, they are traditionally dominated by the male elders. Very few of them, therefore, try to assert themselves. Under the circumstances, it is impossible to expect them to stand up and fight for their own rights and those of their wives or children. But, why are these family units treated so callously by their own kin? It is sheer greed, declares Raj Singh, sarpanch of a village which has three households with "purchased" wives. He says that the most unfortunate part of the problem is that this ostracisation is initiated by the wives of the elder brothers. "They do this by design and also force their husbands to join them for the sake of their children. By ostracising the wife of a brother-in-law, they plan to deny his children the right to any family property. This is yet to happen since such marriages are a recent phenomenon. But if they succeed in their plans, it will be most unfortunate," he says, adding that even the ongoing family boycott is nothing but torture for all affected. There is no social or legal remedy available to the victims of family apathy.

Dr Sisir Kumar, a Bengali who has studied the fate of girls like Saaliha, maintains there is hardly any legal option available to them since they are illegal immigrants and approaching the court or the police means definite trouble. So they choose to bear with everything. In some cases they even run away, leaving no trace behind, he adds. This does not mean the native women brought in from other states have many options. They invariably come from poor families and have no familial support to bank upon. Therefore they have little choice but to adjust to the life.

There are other subtle changes in the rural society of Haryana brought in by the dwindling sex ratio. The paucity of prospective brides has definitely enhanced the status of girls in their families. Their parents realise there will be plenty of marriage proposals. They now get almost the same treatment from the family as their male siblings. This change has cut across caste lines. However, this newly acquired status is like all good things in life just a passing phase. Once the girl is married, she reverts to the traditional second grade citizen status accorded to women in the rural society. "This is to be expected. There has been no change in mental attitudes both among men and women. An unmarried girl may enjoy a better status now in her family, but once married she is likely to be like any other woman in the husband’s household. She loses her market value. Minus that a woman is once again a mere woman and a lowly human being at that in the eyes of men," Manisha Malik, a school lecturer working in a village, says, adding that women themselves are not doing much to save their own kind.

Haryanavis are now open to marrying their sons in other neighbouring states, especially Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and to some extent Punjab. Earlier, the ruralites preferred marrying their children in families residing near their own villages. But this change in attitude is restricted to the so-called high castes only. "Earlier, we considered families from our own caste but living in neighbouring states inferior to us. This is not the case now. We have to consider more options now that girls are hard to find," admits Mukhtiar Singh of Mundhal village in Bhiwani district. However, these marriages pose no problems as the spouses come from the same caste and social strata. Most people consider this as a welcome development.

Another positive aspect is that the very tradition of dowry that led to large-scale female foeticide over the years is now just beginning to be a trifle less important. This is not to say that the dowry system is on its way out. However, an important change is that whenever a boy’s parents broach the topic of marriage, they make it a point to emphasise that dowry is no consideration. And this is not just a meaningless statement any more. It is said with a certain amount of sincerity. Sudesh Dhawan, a senior college lecturer in a women’s college in Kaithal, describes this as "a small step for individuals but a giant leap for society." However, she says that this small development should not be over rated. The fact is that there has been no noticeable change in the mental attitude of Haryanavis, especially men. The urbanites are more to blame for this since they are comparatively better educated. Yet they are the ones who are encouraging evil practices like female-foeticide and dowry, she says. All said and done, the fact remains that the very institution of marriage in the Haryanavi society continues to face a serious threat. Marriages with purchased women and their consequent maltreatment boils down to just one stark fact —— these are a mere farce and serve only to provide men with a living sexual toy to satisfy their biological needs. These marriages cast no responsibilities on them as a family man and there is no emotional bond between the spouses. Women activists describe these marriages as an "immoral solution to a serious social problem under which men acquire a woman for spending a lifetime in an exclusive brothel for one individual in the safety and privacy of a home."

So, where does Haryana go from here? With no serious efforts to improve the sex ratio in sight, is the land of the Mahabharata heading for polyandry? Unfortunately, most concerned social analysts say that unless serious efforts are made both at the level of government and NGOs, this may well be the only option open to Haryanavis as early as 2020. Dr Shamim Sharma, Principal of a leading women’s college in Hisar and a keen observer of social changes in Haryana , however, does not see this as any solution. "It will break up the institution of family itself. With men of the family competing for affections of one particular woman, the safety of family members will be at stake. It will generate insecurity among men leading to crime against family women in a bid to stave off rivals even if they happen to be real brothers. Most importantly, home and family will no longer be haven for women. I don’t think polyandry will ever be acceptable," she says.

She appears to have hit the nail on the head. The very mention of this likely scenario evokes angry and spiteful responses both among young men and women of marriageable age. "It will be a shame for society. Personally I would like to kill myself than be a wife to several men. Sharing a physical relationship with a number of men even if it had social sanction is unthinkable for me," says Nandini Gupta, a faculty member in a computer education centre. The reaction among boys is no different. "It will be a catastrophe. The entire social structure will collapse. The family will lose its entity. It will be a march to the stone ages. No, no I would never like to be a part-time husband. Marriage is after all a meeting of hearts and not two human bodies fulfilling each other’s physical desires", said Rohit Gulia, a student preparing for the civil services examination.

Debates on this issue fail to give any definite idea of things to come. This itself is a dangerous situation. When no one knows what will happen, perhaps it is best to go by ancient wisdom and root out the problem itself — restore the male to female ratio. Are Haryanavis ready for it?

*Some names have been changed to protect the identities of individuals.