It’s an open secret in India that no matter how progressive Indian families claim to be, most would prefer their children to marry within their caste and community. The institution of endogamy - which is custom of marrying only within the limits of one’s caste or community - reinforces the caste system. The popular perception remains that better education leads to more liberal outlook which counters caste biases and is welcoming of inter-caste marriages, especially in urban, financially stable households.
However, a study has found something quite surprising.
Whose Education Matters? An Analysis Of Inter-Caste Marriages In India by researchers Tridip Ray, Arka Roy Chaudhuri and Komal Sahai found that education of the couple has very little to do with the likelihood of the marriage being an inter-caste one. The most prominent variable which influences the rate of inter-caste marriages is the education of the groom’s mother, the study found.
In fact, the study says that an increase in the groom’s mother’s education by 10 years would increase the probability of an inter-caste marriage by 1.86%.
The researchers have used data from the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS). It is a “nationally representative household panel survey conducted in 384 districts, composed of 1420 villages and 1042 urban neighborhoods across all states and union territories of India.”
The study also uses data from IHDS-II, conducted in 2011-12. This survey had “detailed socio-economic and human development related questions for a household as a whole, for young children in the household and for one ever married woman in the age group of 15-49 years in each household.”
The institution of arranged marriage
The researchers found that these conclusions in the Indian context were quite contrary to those found in the western countries where spouses choose their own partners. This is because marriage works differently in India where a majority of matches are arranged by the parents.
And at the centre of this deeply entrenched institution of arranged marriage lies caste, or as the researchers put it, “Endogamy is to caste what caste is to the Indian society.” Both are self-reinforcing.
73% of marriages in the study’s sample were found to have been arranged by parents. Further, almost 70% women said they had not met their husbands before the day of the wedding.
“This pattern, quite surprisingly, holds for the inter-caste marriages as well: close to 63% of those who said they were in an inter-caste marriage reported their marriages to be arranged by parents,” researchers found.
The data shows that arranged marriage remains the overwhelmingly predominant practice of matchmaking in India.
The likelihood of inter-caste marriage in India
The rate of inter-caste marriage has remained quite low in India for the past four decades. Between 1970 to 2012, it hovered around 5%.
The research found that Brahmins have the highest rate of out-of-caste marriages, followed by Other Forward Castes (OFCs). Meanwhile, the rate of inter-caste marriages was lower in OBC and SC groups.
However, it should be noted that the rate of exogamy (the custom of marrying outside caste) for Brahmins is not significantly different from any other caste categories, the study notes.
The study also says that the reason for OFCs having a higher rate of inter-caste marriages may be because “OFC is a very broad administrative category comprising of many castes which may be more open to marrying among themselves, compared to other caste categories.”
What influences the rate of inter-caste marriages in India?
Researchers took into account several variables to see how likely they were to encourage an inter-caste marriage. These variables were the ones we generally perceive to be conducive to a liberal mindset about exogamy – urban setting, economic status of the families, and education of the spouses and their parents.
This is where the researchers draw the most interesting conclusions, which contradict popular beliefs.
For instance, they found that metropolitan areas have the lowest rate of inter-caste marriages among urban areas: 3.84% and 5.41% respectively. In rural India, developed villages have a higher rate (5.72%), and less developed villages have a lower rate (4.86%) of inter-caste marriages.
The numbers clearly bust the perception that urban areas see significantly more inter-caste marriages than rural areas. “No difference is observed here irrespective of whether the husband's family had the same, better or worse status than the wife's family at the time of their marriage,” the study says. It also found that the “rate seems to go down as one moves up the asset or income quartiles.”
When it comes to education, the education of the spouses or of the woman’s parents or the man’s father were found to have little effect on the likelihood of the families seeking an inter-caste match. It was only the education of the man’s mother which was concluded to have a significant influence on the same.
The significance of an educated woman in the household
Concluding that parents remain the “main players of the marriage market in India”, researchers explained why an educated mother on the groom’s side held the most decisive power on the likelihood of inter-caste marriage.
Firstly, educated women have more bargaining and decision making power in the household. Secondly, it makes the household more gender balanced. Thirdly, the study says, there exists plenty of literature to suggest that mothers are more responsive to the needs of their children in developing countries, compared to the father.
“Provided with the resources, a mother is more likely to utilize them in the best possible interest of her children,” the study notes, whereas the father is more likely to use them for consumption goods.
Considering that parents continue to be the main decision makers when it comes to marriage in India, researchers state that an intra-caste marriage could be a preferred option by the father who is driven by prestige and reputation, rather than the best outcome for his son.
They argue then that an inter-caste marriage is more likely to happen when an educated mother “can overcome this constraint and implement the best outcome for the son, empowered by her increased bargaining and decision making authority in the family.”
The study also explains why the education of the man’s mother plays a significant role compared to the woman’s parents. This asymmetry arises because in a patriarchal society like India’s, the bride’s family bears more stigma and cost than the groom’s. For anecdotal evidence, the study says that in most cases of honour killings in India, it is the woman’s family which opts to punish a couple who have deviated from endogamy, because the stigma is greater for them.
Finally, the researchers conclude that “education works through giving more voice to the mother in the household to implement the best outcome for her child, if the stigma or cost of an inter-caste marriage is not too large. Given that the bride's family disproportionately bears the stigma of an inter-caste marriage, education of only the groom's mother has a positive association.”