NEW DELHI, India — You'd think conservative politicians would favor marrying off poor, pregnant women as soon as possible.
Yet in recent weeks, officials in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh have been doing just the opposite: Requiring women to undergo pregnancy tests before they can participate in a government-sponsored mass marriage scheme, and banning them if they “fail.”
Urban feminists initially interpreted the move as yet another example of conservative India's attempts to restrict female sexuality and deny women control over their own bodies.
The state's social justice minister said the pregnant would-be brides were “scandalous and reprehensible” and said his department planned to make parents testify in writing to their daughters' virginity.
But it’s not as simple as that.
It turns out that most of the women barred from the ceremony were members of the local Gond tribe. Tribal groups claim that the move demonstrates a broader government agenda to encourage indigenous tribes that don't care much about virginity to adopt mainstream Hindu practices — a process sometimes called “Sanskritization.”
“The range of [local] customs is really vast,” said Ganesh Devy, a specialist on tribal languages and cultures.
“In Kinnour, Himachal Pradesh, a woman is allowed to have up to five husbands, not one after another but all at the same time. Among the Bhils in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the young girls and boys are encouraged to mix 'freely' prior to getting married so that they can choose their own life partner. Among the Gonds, the practice of keeping young boys and girls together in a community house, the Ghotul, is well established. This helps them in finding their life partners.”
These groups are irked by bureaucrats meddling in their bedrooms.
“The government either wants to destroy our traditions or simply humiliate us. Officials should study our social system before being sent to [tribal] districts,” tribal politician Gulzar Singh Markam told the Hindu.
“We will make this forced Sanskritization and insult of our women an electoral issue in the [state] assembly polls this year,” he said.
In Betul district earlier this month, Indian media reported that as many as 350 women seeking to be married under the state government's Mukhyamantri Kanyadaan Yojna or “chief minister's marriage plan” were allegedly forced to undergo pregnancy tests. (A local official later claimed the reports were false, and another told reporters the pregnancy test was administered to ensure that already married couples didn't go through the ceremony to receive about $300 worth of dowry-style gifts provided under the scheme.)
Nine tribal brides, found to be pregnant, were barred from the mass marriage ceremony and declared ineligible for the scheme — which is intended to prevent poor families from going into crippling debt to marry off their daughters, according to the Times of India.
Less than a week later, at least 50 women of Dindori district were allegedly required to undergo pregnancy tests before another mass marriage program. Five tribal women were barred from the ceremony, according to the Hindu.
Chances are that their parents weren't surprised.
According to local tribal custom, young couples live together for two years as the potential bride's parents evaluate the suitor.
So why do busybody bureaucrats care? It’s about more than the usual prudishness.
For decades, India's indigenous tribes have been pawns in a cultural-religious battle between Christian missionaries and right-wing Hindu groups, which see religious conversion as a threat.
Evangelical Christians have grown increasingly aggressive in their efforts to convert tribes and low-caste Hindus. In response, the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and, yes, Madhya Pradesh have passed laws restricting proselytizing.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing group affiliated with the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has launched its own so-called reconversion movement to convince tribal peoples that their animist traditions are actually confused versions of Hinduism.
Various evangelical groups have organized revivals across the country, sometimes resorting to faith healing ceremonies and other rituals that critics say take advantage of poorly educated tribal peoples. And, repeatedly, the conflict over belief has flared into violence — resulting in the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999, for instance, as well as riots that killed nearly 40 people in 2008 in the eastern state of Odisha.
Battling for believers notwithstanding, however, “Sanskritization” is often voluntary, said Devy.
“There is also a strong desire among the tribal communities in India at present to go through the process of Sanskritization so that they get acceptance in the 'caste-India,'” Devy said, via email.
“Most of the tribal families with even the slightest affluence have started moving to 'Hindu-style weddings' by getting a Brahmin priest to sanctify the weddings.”
Unfortunately, at least where some state officials are concerned, that comes with some unpleasant baggage.