My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary a few months ago.
They have a good marriage in many ways, but importantly, a balanced one. Balanced in the sense that my mother gets her way on many family issues. But it wasn’t like this when she got married. Theirs was an arranged marriage, in the classic Indian tradition, where the elders (read fathers) decide on one’s choice of life partner. When the news of the arrangement reached her, she had only two requests — not demands — of her father.
“The first”, she told me, with her usual smiling eyes, “was that I could finish my studies in music.” She was in her final year degree at Stella Maris in Madras, and was passionate about the subject.
“The second was that I didn’t want to pierce my nose!” she laughed at the seeming silliness of the request. But she was only 18 at the time.
She didn’t get either of her requests, unfortunately.
The practice of arranged marriages is common even today in India, where parents and elders decide the life partners for their children. Of course, many Indian families have moved to a form of “facilitated arranged marriage”, where the elders initiate the meetings, and then leave the actual decision to the potential partners. However, there still are hundreds of thousands of extreme arranged marriages, or “forced arranged marriages” in India, in which there is no choice available to the individuals concerned, often the woman.
I’m not going to dwell on the relative merits of these different forms of marriage. I want to focus instead on the extreme arranged marriage form where there is little or no choice, and look at it in a different context. What does this practice say about us as a democracy?
Given the nature of the term, there is no single definition for democracy. But the oracle of collective wisdom — Wikipedia — says, “‘Democracy’ is a form of government in which the supreme power is held completely by the people under a free electoral system.”
The stuff we learn in our civics books. But importantly, it goes on to state that there are “two principles that any definition of democracy include. The first principle is that all members of the society have equal access to power and the second that all members enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties.” Essentially, that each individual has the right to voice their minds on issues.
So, at the heart of the idea of democracy is the freedom to make choices. But when we talk of democracy and choices, we tend to confine these to “public” issues: should India sign the nuclear treaty, what should be the resolution in Singur, should we have reservations in our IITs? We hold different views on these issues. But we all agree that we have the right to express our view, and engage in constructive debate.
This is at the heart of democracy.
Over the past 60 years, Indians have shown that we are passionate about protecting these rights. Time and again we have shown that we cherish this concept called democracy and that we wouldn’t have it any other way, even if it means slowing our progress as a nation in material or economic terms.
So, how come we are so passionate about protecting our political rights — wanting to have a choice to make decisions about our roads and schools and hospitals — but so completely comfortable with giving up choice in the single biggest decision that impacts our lives — that of a life partner?
How come we hold different views on public versus personal choices?
Among the hundreds of blogs on arranged marriages, I found this interesting point made by a blogger called Shef:
“Arranged marriages can work and they can also fail. Love marriages can work and they can also fail. The point (is) the higher principle: Should people have a choice about who they marry? It’s a bit like democracy vs dictatorship — arranged marriages smack of ‘We know what’s best for you’. Sure, the results can be OK sometimes. But do those good days justify the system?” (To see the full thread, go to www.zackvision.com/weblog/2003/06/arranged-marriage.html)
There are clearly conflicts in the positions between arranged marriages and democratic choice. So, are we a schizophrenic society, in the sense that we live in compartmentalized worlds, comfortable with the contradictions in these positions?
Or, alternatively, should we see our grand adventure with democracy in a completely different light?
As a kind of escapist therapy to relieve the oppression that so many of us face in our daily lives. Maybe we see elections not as an expression of choice, but as periodic national healing sessions — the polling booth as counselling centre.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org