Couple, Bimla Devi, and Jai Kishen Pardhiya from Bamarja village got married On February 26, 2022, by participating in a community marriage in Khunti district of Jharkhand.
The Sarna (tribal) couple has three children and has been living together for decades. Similarly, on March 5, the Hindu couple of Jyoti Devi and Dipak Kumar Nag from Jamhar village, parents of two children, solemnized their marriage at a community marriage in the same district. Community marriages for couples living together under the dhuku tradition were held on two days in the last week of February and two days in the first week of March this year, where 263 couples entered wedlock in accordance with their religious traditions.
The practice of living together or dhuku is prevalent not only in Khunti district but across several districts of the State. In tribal societies, both men and women have equal rights, including the right to choose their life partner, and a woman could get into a live-in relationship (called a dhuku marriage) with her male partner without getting married.
A complex set of socio-legal-economic compulsions lead a sizable number of poor tribal women with almost no or little education to live with their male partners and give birth to children without formal marriage. Generally, these women (called dhukni in Jharkhand) do not have legal rights over property and other assets due to lack of social recognition of their relationship, and the need to feed the village if they want to get it socially sanctioned.
Over the past few years, community marriages like the one held at Khunti, of couples living together under the dhuku tradition are being organised in Jharkhand. These community marriages, where couples, both young and old, and with and without children, are being organised by a non-government organisation, Nimitta, and facilitated by various district administrations along with Coal India Limited (CIL) and its Ranchi-based subsidiary, the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute (CMPDI).
Nikita Sinha of Nimitta, who has been instrumental in organising community marriages for dhuku women, said that the biggest challenge was the silence that surrounded the practice, that nobody was willing to talk it.
“A live-in relationship can only work when there is social and economic equality between man and woman. When the woman is dependent on the man financially, as in the case of dhuku, it becomes exploitation. Moreover, not only are women deprived of their social rights, even the children from such marriages suffer in the long run,” Ms. Sinha said. The social activist said that a man can chose to exit from the relationship at any point he chooses, while the woman and children cannot exercise any legal right.
District Collector (DC) of Khunti, Shashi Ranjan, said that with the intervention of Nimitta, community marriages for dhuku women have become a “movement” and “now couples wait for when there are such ceremonies, where they can participate”. Mr. Rajan said the district administration serves as facilitator for community marriages and ensures that venues for such occasions are available free of cost. “After the marriage, we ensure that they are legally registered and the legal rights of the couple are ensured. The administration plays an active role in such issues,” the DC said.
According to Ms. Sinha, she has been getting dhuku marriages registered since 2016 and so far, over 1,950 couples who were in live-in relationships have entered wedlock in accordance with their respective religious beliefs in Hinduism, Sarnaism and Christianity. An analysis of the marriages performed so far reveals that 85% of the couples had children at the time of their marriage. Also, the social breakup of the couples shows that 85% of the couples belonged to the Scheduled Tribes, 4% to the Scheduled Castes, and 5% to the Other Backward Castes (OBC).
Commenting on the initiative, B. Sairam, Executive Director (Corporate Social Responsibility), Coal India, said, “We sincerely believe that economic deprivation is the root cause of social discrimination. We expect this small contribution to bring meaningful changes in the lives of women covered under the project.”
The intervention does not end with a marriage. In collaboration with CIL, Nimitta is also providing skill training to the couples to enable their economic empowerment.