Recent research by Amit Ahuja, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California — Santa Barbara, and Susan L. Ostermann, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of California — Berkeley, showed that more than half of the prospective brides contacted by the researchers through matrimonial websites expressed an interest in potential partners belonging to caste groups other than their own. Responding to an expression of interest from three men — one upper caste, one backward caste (BC) and one scheduled caste (SC) but with otherwise nearly identical profiles — 54% of upper caste women and 72% of scheduled caste women expressed an interest in a man outside their own caste. But nearly all the women who responded, including those who showed an interest in men of other castes, expressed an interest in men of their own caste.
Mr. Ahuja and Ms. Ostermann found that preference for “boundary-crossing” was higher among less affluent upper caste women and more affluent scheduled caste women, and conclude that “[t]he…findings point to the fact that in the urban, Indian, middle-class marriage market, a significant proportion of participants and their families is willing to consider crossing caste boundaries if it allows them to upgrade their caste or SE [socio-economic] status.”
The heads of some of India’s most successful matrimonial websites agree that there is a rising stated preference for partners outside the applicant’s own caste. “The majority of our users now state ‘caste no bar’ in their profiles. It would be around 60%, I think,” Gourav Rakshit, Chief Operating Officer of Shaadi.com told The Hindu. For bharatmatrimony.com, the proportion is around 20%, Murugavel Janakiraman, founder and CEO, Matrimony.com Pvt Ltd, said. Mr. Ahuja and Ms. Ostermann found that even in newspaper matrimonial columns, the number of those looking for partners outside their castes was increasing.
But there is a distinct gap between stated preference and action, said Mr. Rakshit, who takes a keen interest in shaadi.com’s data trends; people who say ‘caste no bar’ are looking at those within their own castes as well as others, their number show. When asked whether such people look for those of higher or lower castes than themselves, Mr. Rakshit preferred not to use the terms ‘upper’ and ‘lower’, but said, “They’re looking at a basket of castes, for people with a similar culture and shared traditions.” Moreover, while the option to not state one’s own caste exists on shaadi.com, just about 10% of users choose not to state their own castes.
This is consistent with both micro and macro data that seems to indicate that inter-caste marriage isn’t growing in India. Inter-caste marriages remained fairly constant at around 10% according to the last National Family Health Survey; the proportion is highest among Muslims. In 2009, MIT economist Abhijit Banerjee led a study of 783 families who had placed matrimonial advertisements in Bengali newspapers which showed that “the bride’s side would be willing to trade off the difference between no education and a masters degree in the prospective husband to avoid marrying outside their caste.” The Centre for the Study of Developing Society’s 2009 National Election Study of over 30,000 respondents showed that those who believed inter-caste marriage should be banned outnumbered those who supported it.
It also isn’t yet apparent that the hierarchy of the caste system has changed. In Mr. Ahuja and Ms. Ostermann’s study, the scheduled caste man was least likely to be contacted, despite all other variables — including educational qualifications, salary and even skin colour being nearly the same. These findings are strikingly similar to a 2010 labour market study by economist Sukhadeo Thorat, who is now chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, and sociologist Paul Attewell, who posted fictitious resumes in response to job advertisements for private sector companies, and found that the fictitious applicant with a scheduled caste last name was by far the least likely to be called for an interview, despite being qualified. While Mr. Thorat hadn’t studied the marriage market, his work in rural Maharashtra had shown nearly no change in intercaste marriage rates, Mr. Thorat said.