Five per cent of Indians report they are in intercaste marriages. This often results in the casual observation that caste drives matrimonial choices. Traditionally, marriage outside caste has not found social approval, as honour killings continue to be reported across the country.

However, in urban, middle-class India, young people are no longer limiting their search for partners within their own caste.

Deceptive outcomes

Social outcomes do not necessarily reflect people’s actual preferences and are an unreliable indicator of social attitudes, as illustrated by the case of black and white marriages in the US. Today, the percentage of black and white marriages remains close to 1 per cent of all marriages in the US, but the social acceptance of these marriages has increased dramatically.

Evidence suggests that, in India, interest in intercaste marriage is higher than the actual reported rate. The 2004 Indian National Election Study, conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, asked a sample of 27,000 respondents if intercaste marriage should be banned. Sixty per cent approved of such a proposition. Urban residents were less enthusiastic, with 47 per cent in favour of a ban.

A study of more than 10,000 matrimonial advertisements that appeared across major national dailies between 1970 and 2010 found that the requests for within-caste proposals fell from 30 per cent for the decade of 1970-80 to 19 per cent for 2000-10.

To better understand the motivations that drive interest in intercaste marriage, Susan Osterman and I studied the preferences of Dalit (untouchable) and upper caste women in the urban, middle-class arranged marriage markets in three large Indian states: Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu.

We focused on women’s behaviour because the taboos against intercaste marriage are stronger for women than men. Intercaste marriage is more consequential for women since they adopt the caste of their husbands.

Besides many other proposals, each of these women received expressions of interest from three potential high-income, high-status matches who were similar in height, age, skin tone, and, educational status. They differed only in one respect; each belonged to a different caste — upper caste, backward caste, and Dalit.

Out of the 1,070 women we studied, 62 per cent were willing to look beyond their own caste to find suitable matches. Seventy one per cent of Dalit women expressed interest in intercaste matches. Among upper caste women, only 54 per cent did the same.

Women approached marriage with a view to upgrade either their economic class or caste status. But like any other market, the marriage market works on the principle of exchange; to get something, one has to be able to offer something in return.

A middle-class upper caste woman can use her higher caste status to improve her class status by considering marriage to a wealthier lower caste man. Similarly, a lower caste woman from a wealthy family could aspire to a higher caste status by leveraging her class status.

Among Dalit women, the wealthier women were more likely than lower middle and middle-class women to respond to the two out-of-caste matrimonial interests.

Although an expression of matrimonial interest does not necessarily translate into a marriage, in the context of caste, even considering an inter-caste match is transformative.

Driven by a desire for upward mobility, a significant number of people in the marriage market consider crossing caste boundaries, but the stigma associated with Dalits ensures that discrimination against them remains strong. Among upper caste women, 52.1 per cent responded to an interest from a backward caste groom and only 28.7 per cent responded to an interest from a Dalit groom with an almost identical profile.

What does the future hold?

Urbanisation undermines caste. The relative anonymity of an individual’s identity in a city makes it difficult for rules of purity and pollution to be observed and enforced in the public sphere.

Fewer activities are then mediated by an individual’s caste identity. And urbanisation will continue to increase. By 2030, 40 per cent of Indians are predicted to live in urban areas.

The urban middle class, once a preserve of the upper castes, has become more diverse with gradual entry of backward castes and Dalits.

The marriage market reflects this change. In 1970, only 1.5 per cent of matrimonial ads published in the national dailies belonged to backward castes and Dalits. This number had increased to 10 per cent by 2010.

In cities, the search for partners differs from that in villages. People in the middle class shift from family and caste networks to friends and professional networks, and rely on technology. Already 250 million Indians own smartphones.

Today, even as some online matrimonial websites bundle caste information with personal profiles, the new dating apps are moving away from such a practice.

These enabling factors and a fierce ambition for upward mobility will increase interest in inter-caste marriage in the ranks of the urban middle class.

But significant obstacles remain. Families still police marriages through the threat of humiliation, boycott, and, in extreme cases, honour killing.

Beyond the family, caste-based political parties and caste association leaders stand to lose influence if caste boundaries weaken; they are opposed to intercaste marriage. But theirs is a losing battle.

What needs to be done

The state must act to protect individual freedoms to marry. Thus far, the state has encouraged intercaste marriage by providing cash rewards to intercaste couples. To add to these incentives, it can also provide these couples preferential access to government programs.

By acting swiftly against the threat of honour killings and its instigators, it will deter such acts. Public campaigns in favour of intercaste marriage will also lower its barriers. Dr BR Ambedkar devoted his life to reflect deeply and movingly on the caste system and its maladies.

In 1936, he had the following to say on caste divisions and marriage: “I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling — the feeling of being aliens — created by Caste will not vanish. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste.”

Ambedkar’s observation had a simple message: rules of caste and marriage were socially constructed, and what societies can build, they can also undo.

Genetic studies show the practice of intercaste marriage was common in the Indian subcontinent until 1,900 years ago when it disappeared.

The demise of the caste system is not imminent. Caste fault lines remain strong in social and political life.

But caste relations are not set in stone. Openness to intercaste marriage reflects a silent transformation in social attitudes that is no longer confined to the public sphere, but has begun to extend into the private sphere in urban, middle-class India.

The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California at Santa Barbara. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania