Forced Cohabitation: Why Indian Couples Had to Live in Sin … Until Now
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Nikita Sinha is taking on a culture of cohabitation that can leave women in India with nothing.
In January 2016, Budhu Nag, 30, approached activist Nikita Sinha with an unusual request — to help him marry the woman he loved. Assuming it to be a typical situation where the parents object, she declined. After he pleaded she hear his story, Sinha was shocked to find him in a live-in relationship with a woman. The couple had a 10-year-old daughter.
This was the first time Sinha had heard of Dhuku. Nag and his partner are among thousands of tribal couples who participate in the arrangement where couples live together without getting married — not by choice, but by compulsion. “When a couple gets married, they are expected to throw a feast for the entire village,” Sinha says. “But when they fail to do so, villagers do not permit them to get married, and they start living as Dhuku.”
Women living in such relationships are called Dhukua or Dhukuni, which translates in tribal tongue to “one who has entered a man’s house.” Typically from poor backgrounds, these couples struggle to make ends meet, and paying for a grand feast for the entire village is close to impossible.
This leads to a real legal problem: The women do not have any rights to ancestral property, and if the men die young, women and children are left “empty-handed,” Sinha says.
The solution? Mass weddings.
Sinha, 49, has helped hitch nearly 200 couples so far, with more to come as she puts a dent in this pernicious practice common in rural Jharkhand, though little known to the outside world. Sinha says that as the news of her initiative spread, she was informed that similar traditions are followed in other states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. “Research on this issue needs to be taken up so that we can understand this social problem better,” she says.
All this from a woman who once was an “under-confident and scared” teenager growing up in Ranchi, where her father was posted before she went to an all-girls residential school in Rajasthan. Science education was paramount in her home, so she was taunted for taking up the humanities. “This etched so deeply within me that for a long time I believed that I cannot do anything,” she says. But she pressed on, earning her Ph.D. in international relations from Ranchi University in 1996 — three years after marrying N. N. Sinha, an officer in the Indian Administrative Service.
It seemed that they were mostly upset because they were losing out on the free feast and booze.
In 1998, she gave birth to a son and her husband was transferred to Delhi from Patna, Bihar. She hit a low point after a visit from her younger sisters. “When I saw their lifestyle as working women, I realized that despite studying so much, I am not doing anything,” Sinha says. “It gradually pushed me into depression. It was a time of self-pity, self-cursing and crying.” She rebalanced work and family by taking a part-time job as a researcher, toting her toddler on her shoulders from library to library.
After a one-year stint in Baltimore, in the United States, where her husband was pursuing a course on public health during a sabbatical, the family returned to Jharkhand in 2003, and Sinha started working for various social organizations to help people in need. But, as she realized that life should not just oscillate between paychecks, Sinha started her own NGO, Nimitta, in 2009.
Initially, Nimitta organized health camps in remote villages in Khunti district of Jharkhand that had been the victim of left-wing extremism. That is, until she heard about Dhuku.
The Munda, Oraon and Ho tribes primarily practice Dhuku in tribal-dominated rural areas of Jharkhand. It spills down generations, as children whose parents have not married are barred by society from marrying themselves, says Giridhar Ram Gaunjhu, an expert on tribal culture from Ranchi University. “A legal wedding is important for not just legal but social inclusion and protection,” Gaunjhu says, adding that Nimitta’s events help foster typically taboo weddings across religious or caste lines.
It’s not easy. The first mass wedding in 2016 had to be canceled three times due to resistance from village leaders who accused Nimitta of “tampering with tribal culture.” Sinha had her doubts. “It seemed that they were mostly upset because they were losing out on the free feast and booze,” she says.
The events have been funded mostly by Sinha’s friends, and it’s been hard to convince charity donors that weddings are a worthy cause. But she’s raised around $42,000 to throw three weddings thus far.
Rajni Kumari, 23, was living in Dhuku with Pradeep Lohra, 30, for five years; the couple has two kids, a boy and girl. Lohra, a daily wage laborer, and Kumari, who works a small piece of land owned by Pradeep and his brothers, amass just enough to afford basic necessities. Unable to throw a wedding feast, villagers refused to allow the two to marry.
As part of Dhuku, women and children are treated differently from other residents of the village. Kumari explains that women are not allowed to wear Sindoor (red vermilion that some women in India adorn on their foreheads as a mark of being married), which men use as an excuse to harass them. Moreover, children born out of Dhuku are not allowed to get their ears and noses pierced, which can make them feel like outcasts.
On January 14, the two were among 132 couples tying the knot at a mass wedding organized by Nimitta in the state capital of Ranchi. The venue was divided into sections for Sarna (an indigenous religion), Hindu and Christian ceremonies. The nonprofit paid for a grand feast for 2,500 guests, with a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies.
More important than the party, Kumari says, is that her children now can legally claim the family land back home.
OZY’s Five Questions With Nikita Sinha
- What’s the last book you finished? Conversation With God by Neale Donald Walsch and The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel
- What do you worry about? Nothing. I feel that I have found my path and I have to move forward, whatever may come.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Without my passion and the thought to make a dent in this orthodox society we live in.
- Who is your hero? My husband and my parents, who supported me in every decision I took.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To change the education system as much as I can.
Kelly Kislaya is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.