Voices Caste Wednesday, May 20, 2015 - 05:30

Classified matrimonial ads are shady territory. They are the public(ation) space that Indians have used for decades now to openly display their sexism, racism, casteism and general hypocrisy. Calls for fair-skinned brides, who are beautiful but homely, educated but will give up working after marriage, and for grooms who earn a specified, fat income, belong to a certain caste have not just been put out by seekers in the marriage market, but have been published without question by newspapers.

Indeed, before the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, open calls for dowry were apparently common in these spaces. On a scale of Zero to Progressive, most matrimonial ads can be placed on the lower end without hesitation.

So the sight of a “Groom Wanted” ad put out by the mother of a gay son came as a pleasant surprise. The surprise, however, is pleasant only till one reads the entire text of the ad.

The ad seeking a groom for Harish Iyer, a gay rights activist, announced, “caste no bar, but IYER preferred”. Harish Iyer is a respected activist, and supporters of the gay rights movement admire him and his mother for the fight they have put up. They have battled hard to get the understanding and acceptance of his family for his sexuality. We should hold Harish’s mother in high regard, as she is clearly trying to be supportive of her son in "familiar territory", as Harish explains. That’s understandable. The problem is, it wasn’t just a matrimonial ad problematic like every other one. It was "activism" in Harish’s own words.

Activism for a liberal idea cannot be blind to other illiberal conservative diseases, such as the caste system, which ails our society. And when you make a statement, then you are standing with all parts of that statement. So, the ad screams, “My activism for gay rights is caste no bar, but IYER preferred.” We must give Harish’s mother the benefit of the doubt. As Harish says, she comes from a society where these ads are the norm. But the justification given by Harish does not sit well.

“There are many objections to the fact that my mom wrote ‘Iyer preferred’. If you look at matrimonial ads in all leading newspapers, they mention all sorts of things such as wheatish skin, fair skin, etc. Some ads even specify the type of figure they want the women to have. It’s so common to see all these discriminatory things in the papers. And suddenly, people are offended by the fact that my mom wrote ‘Iyer preferred’,” he told The News Minute.

In essence, what we get from that statement is, “This is the norm so we followed it”. If the tables were turned and someone made that statement about homosexuality, we doubt Harish’s reaction would have been the same.

There is no need for a personal attack on either Harish or his mother. Their intentions were good. But that ad represents a bigger problem at play: a horse-with-blinkers case of activism where urban, middle class, upper caste Hindus ignore every other problem in society as they concentrate on their singular battles.

None of these issues – whether of LGBTQI rights, gender discrimination, caste discrimination or religious intolerance – exist in isolation. While it is not possible to fight every battle, it is possible to be mindful of each of them while fighting one of them.

In a brilliant post at The Ladies Finger, albeit in a different context, Pallavi Rao raises some pertinent points on hegemony, sexual violence and the need for intersectionality while looking at gender issues. The same applies here, too. While it is awesome that Harish went after the newspapers to get an ad for a gay groom published, it is not so awesome that his ‘progressiveness’ stopped there.

Funnily enough, the liberal-minded Editor of Mid-Day, Sachin Kalbag, did not notice this jarring hypocrisy in the ad either. He says in the Buzzfeed article, “A marriage is a meeting of minds, of souls. At Mid-Day, we believe that human rights should be applicable to all, regardless of religion, caste, colour, sexual orientation, etc. Therefore, a mother seeking a union for her gay son is perfectly normal. Why should it be any different? In fact, why should we even be talking about it? In an equal society, which we all strive for, this should be routine.” He even mentions caste, and yet, the ad went out just like that. Perhaps he did not have a look at the full text of the ad before being published.

Can we as urban, middle-class, upper-caste Hindus, choose to ignore all other biases at play when we fight the good fight? And where do we go from here if we reinforce some of these biases as we go about the business of battling bigotry and hypocrisy? Activism – any activism – attempts to change the existing narrative on important issues. But can this attempt be successful if we practice selective liberalism, and then justify it? By being somewhat eager to buy into the existing structures that don’t ‘directly’ threaten our cause, are we simply taking one step forward and two steps back?

Update: Harish Iyer's mother Padma Iyer, who gave the ad on Mid-Day, has clarified on Facebook that she is not bothered about her son's partner's caste.