Last March, 29-year-old G Ramadoss and 20-year-old U Nandhini jumped onto the path of an oncoming train in Vellore. They belonged to different castes and their parents had refused to accept their love. In May, 24-year-old Rahul and his 22-year-old wife Rani, committed suicide in Bengaluru because their parents refused to accept their love. Rahul was a Hindu and Rani was a Muslim. These four young Indians join a long and growing list of lovers who preferred to die than bow to the structural oppression and violence which have kept us divided for millennia. These divisions are so profound that the virtual absence of marriage between castes and communities has left indelible signatures on the genetic footprint of over a billion people. Path-breaking research on the genetic ancestry of Indians demonstrates that while there was plenty of mixing going on from the earliest days of human settlements on this soil, this suddenly came to a halt about 2,000 years ago when the caste system became solidified.
No other society has been so rigidly stratified for as long a period in the history of human civilisation. Those who dared to love across the forbidden boundaries of caste and community faced not only being ostracised by their own families but death at their hands. If there is one marker of Indian exceptionalism that is without parallel, it is the cruel history of division of our own people, first by caste and then, by religion.
Two thousand years of division is a formidable burden of history for young lovers to contend with, and despite generations of vigorous efforts towards social reform, the vast majority of marriages in India continue to be governed by these ancient, primitive, rules. But what has challenged these diktats in recent times is the dramatic social change that has accompanied urbanisation, education and economic liberalisation, transforming the hopes and aspirations of young people. This torrent of freedom is further fuelled by unprecedented access to mass and digital media, which beams the lives and opportunities of others into the privacy of your phone in an instant. Suddenly, you can see how young lovers in most other places and, of course, in movies and soap operas, fall in love and marry the person of their choice. The fundamentally human need to pursue love, once forbidden beyond the confines of a marriage arranged so as to be acceptable to a family trapped in the cage of orthodoxy, was let loose.
But the self-appointed custodians of morality and ethnic purity have not given up. The recent passage of the so-called “love jihad” laws in three states of the country, imposing harsh penalties on “forced conversions” under the pretext of marriage, represents a new and daunting challenge to love in India. At its core, the intent appears to be to instil fear in the outcast community of our times and, in doing so, it joins the long lineage of similar legislation which sought to protect the supposed racial purity of the dominant community, in particular its women, who apparently have no agency to resist the wily men from the other side. Those who champion these chilling laws are not only building on our own home-grown vintage record of denying the freedom to love but also in the notorious footsteps of Nazi Germany, which criminalised marriage between Jews and “Aryans”, and white supremacists, who debarred marriage between blacks and whites in the US and South Africa. But our version is probably the first such legislation to be enacted in the 21st century anywhere.
From my vantage point of a scholar who has devoted his career to understanding youth mental health, one thing I know for sure is that significant sections of India’s youth are in despair and angry at the growing loss of freedoms and poisons seeping through an increasingly fragmented society. Suicide has been the leading cause of death in young people for the better part of a decade. The government reports that more than two-thirds of Indians who killed themselves in 2019 were young people, amounting to over 90,000 deaths, an increase of 4 per cent from the previous year. Many of these suicides are precipitated by the loss of hope or rage at a perceived injustice or failure to realise a dream. The terrorising of young people advocating for causes as diverse as climate change, environmental protection, inequality or the farmer’s protests will undoubtedly add more fuel to the fire of despair.
And this is why Rahul, Rani, Ramadoss and Nandhini killed themselves, along with tens of thousands of other young people each year. Make no mistake: They died because they were marooned in a society that refused to let them live the life of their choice and crushed their desire to enjoy the most basic freedom of all — to pursue a cause or person they were passionate about. The uphill struggle for young Indians to love just got a lot steeper. As our judges decide on the multitude of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the “love jihad” laws or the charges of sedition against young Indians pursuing dreams of a more just and sustainable country, I hope they will pause for a moment and reflect on their own youth, when challenging oppression and championing progressive ideas was the essence of life. If nothing else, I hope they will note that demonising the freedom to love will contribute to the growing suicide toll of young people in India.
To the casual observer, India is the most amazing experiment in multiculturalism in the world, far grander and much older than the European Union or the countries created by European settlers after murdering most of the indigenous peoples. It is a land which scores of populations with distinct identities, languages and customs call home, a land which effortlessly assimilated its invaders to enrich its melting pot, a mind-bogglingly diverse country trying, while still a work in progress, to achieve an audacious civilisational feat. And yet, history teaches us that this diversity is only skin-deep for we have studiously prohibited loving across caste and religion for two millennia.
Contrary to the canard that the youth of this country by choosing whom to love and marry are falling under the spell of a corrupt “foreign” culture, the truth is they are only following in the footsteps of star-crossed lovers who, across the centuries, have fought orthodoxy with courage and, sometimes, with their lives. They are inspired by the mellifluous voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing lyrics that arouse gooseflesh in every Indian who has pursued their own love: Jab pyar kiya to darna kya/pyar kiya koi chori nahi ki/chhup chhup aahein bharna kya/jab pyar kiya to darna kya (why fear if you’re in love, it’s not a crime to be in love, why should we hide and sigh, why fear if you’re in love).
Indeed, it is these brave lovers who are not only building the foundation of their own lives, but of a country confident in its diversity and identity.
The writer is the Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School, and a member of the Lancet Citizen’s Commission on Re-imagining India’s Health System