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What happens when love is stronger than caste?
NEW DELHI — Not long ago in the south Indian city of Hyderabad, television viewers
were treated to a real-life soap opera as newscasters interrupted the regular TV programming to broadcast the elopement of 19-year-old Sreeja Konidela and 23-year-old Shirish Bharadwaj — just one of the millions of Romeo-and-Juliet couples who are hammering cracks into the foundation of Indian society.
Because the youngsters came from different sub-castes and different economic backgrounds, Sreeja's father — a hugely popular South Indian film star named Chiranjeevi — had forbidden them from dating and kept Sreeja under virtual house arrest for more than a year.
But Chiranjeevi's untold wealth, police connections and implicit authority as a superstar were nothing compared with the power of love.
They didn't catch a glimpse of one another for all that time, but Shirish and Sreeja kept the flame burning by exchanging notes, passed once a month through a friend. Then Shirish popped the question. After Sreeja's father forced her to drop out of college, there was no longer any reason to wait.
"When she was coming to college, we never thought we could marry for another three or four years," Shirish recalls. "But once she was house arrested, we knew if something had to be done now. Through the letters, she communicated that she was getting marriage proposals [for arranged marriages]."
It wouldn't be easy. In India, the fundamentalist thugs who terrorize young couples every Valentine's Day aren't the only forces aligned against romance. With the traditional institution of the arranged marriage under pressure — threatening to break down the boundaries of caste and creed — teachers, neighbors, the police and even sometimes the courts conspire to make sure young people follow their parents' wishes.
Though intercaste and intercommunity marriages have been legal since 1872 — almost 100 years before interracial marriages were legalized in all 50 U.S. states — over time the law designed to facilitate these civil unions, known as the Special Marriage Act, has come to be used to prevent self-arranged marriages. Thanks to a 1954 amendment, the couple must announce their impending nuptials, provide the names and addresses of their parents, and wait 30 days while the police verify with their families that neither person is already married. The delay helps parents locate runaway couples and retrieve them by filing false kidnapping and abduction cases (which have grown 30 percent faster than other crimes against women since 2002).
The police track the couple down, throw the groom in jail and return the bride to her parents. The courts, too, are often complicit, as judges reject the girl's own testimony as proof of consent and reject the usual legal documents as proof that she is of marriageable age. Among communities that place a high premium on their izzat, or honor, like the Jat caste of rural Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, the reaction is stronger still. "If a lower-caste man is involved with a higher-caste woman, he is invariably killed. And the girl, whether belonging to the higher caste or the lower, is also almost certainly eliminated," says Prem Chowdhry, author of "Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India."
Shirish and Sreeja knew all about the obstacles they would face. But they also knew that sometimes, love does conquer all. Through their secret communiques, the couple made plans to elope. Sreeja would tell her parents that she was going to her aunt's house, but instead she'd
meet Shirish on a nearby street corner, abandon her car, and go directly to the temple to get married. That wasn't all, though.
Because parents often use false abduction cases against grooms to recapture runaway brides, the couple used Chiranjeevi's fame against him and called the news media to their wedding ceremony. The live broadcast made the marriage indisputable. But it also alerted Chiranjeevi and his passionate fans to what was going on. "We actually wanted to go to the registrar's office after we were married at [the temple]," says Shirish. "But there were lots of people and
police waiting there." Frightened, the couple kept driving — first across the country to Goa and then all the way north to Delhi, where they sought court protection from "the illegal and malafide actions" of the girl's father.
Slowly, public opinion began to shift in their favor. Progressive editorials in local and national newspapers argued that the youngsters were both adults and had married by mutual consent, so any actions to stop them violated their rights. The Delhi high court — following the lead of a 2006 Supreme Court judgment in favor of protecting love marriages — also expressed its support. Eventually, the young couple were able to return to their lives in Hyderabad, where today they live with Shirish's family.
But it's not entirely "happily ever after." Many months after the elopement story had died down, one of Sreeja's close relatives passed away. Word came that her father had decided that she could attend the funeral, but Shirish would have to wait outside. As more than an hour
passed, he grew more and more worried that — like many families — his in-laws had decided to keep Sreeja prisoner until she agreed to an annulment. Finally, though, she reappeared, looking flustered and upset, at the entrance of the wedding hall. Shirish gave a sigh of relief. She'd been forced to endure an hour and a half of browbeating. But she'd stood up for herself. "They kept saying, 'We don't think it's right. It's time to realize for yourself. If at all you realize, we'll always welcome you back — alone," Sreeja recalls. "They just tried brainwashing. So I got out of the situation."
With or without the sanction of the film star and his family, Sreeja and Shirish say nothing will drive them apart. "All these obstacles have made us even closer," Sreeja says.
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