Forced Cohabitation: Why Indian Couples Had to Live in Sin ... Until Now

Kelly Kislaya | Mar 6, 2019 | 8 min read


Defeating Dhuku: An Indian activist gets tribal women, children their inheritance

Kelly Kislaya

Ranchi: Back in January 2016, activist Nikita Sinha was approached by Budhu Nag, 30, with an unusual request---to help him marry the woman he loved. Assuming it to be a typical situation where the parents object to this union, she declined. However, after he pleaded she hear his story, Sinha was shocked to find him in a live-in relationship with a woman and their 10-year-old daughter.

This was the first time Sinha had heard of Dhuku.

Nag and his partner are among thousands of tribal couples who participate in Dhuku, an arrangement where couples live together without getting married---not out of choice, but compulsion. Throwing light on the issue, Sinha says, “When a couple gets married, they are expected to throw a feast for the entire village. But when they fail to do so, villagers do not permit them to get married and they start living as Dhuku.”

The custom left Sinha pondering about the rights of women and children in such relationships.

Discrimination rooted in poverty

In tribal tongue, the term ‘Dhukna’ -- from where Dhuku is derived -- means ‘to enter’. Women living in such relationships are called Dhukua or Dhukuni, which translates to ‘one who has entered a man’s house’. Several couples are forced to live in Dhuku because they come from poverty-stricken backgrounds. For them, making ends meet is a challenge, and paying for a grand feast for the entire village is close to impossible.

“The term itself is derogatory towards women,” says Sinha, explaining that women in Dhuku do not have any right to ancestral property. Moreover, if the men die young, women and children are left “empty-handed”.

Legal status of children born out of live-in relationships remains indecisive in Indian legislature, even as women in live-in relationships have found some redress through the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005. To fill this vacuum, the judiciary in several instances has ruled children born out of relationships where both partners have lived together for a considerable time as legitimate.

Girdhar Ram Gaunjhu, an expert on tribal culture from Ranchi University, says children out of these relationships have neither social nor legal identity and aren’t entitled to inheritance or maintenance. Moreover, society prevents these children from marrying until their parents legally marry.

There have been cases where two-three generations within a family have been living in Dhuku relationships. The Munda, Oraon and Ho tribes primarily practice Dhukna in tribal-dominated rural areas of Jharkhand. After carrying out extensive research on the trials and tribulations of these tribal women, Sinha decided to step in and help secure their marital and social rights through her organisation.

Rajni Kumari, 23, was living in Dhuku with Pradeep Lohra, 30, for five years; the couple has two kids, a boy and girl. Pradeep, a daily wage labourer and Rajni, who works a small piece of land owned by Pradeep and his brothers, amass just enough to afford basic necessities. Unable to throw a wedding feast to the village, the two were not allowed to get married by villagers.

As part of Dhuku, women and children are treated differently from other residents of the village. Rajni explains that women are not allowed to wear Sindoor (red vermilion that some women in India adorn on their foreheads as a mark of being married), which men use as an excuse to harass them. Moreover, children born out of Dhuku are not allowed to get their ears and noses pierced, which invokes in them a sentiment of being outcasts.

On January 14, this year, the two married at a mass wedding organized by Nimitta, in Ranchi. Now, Rajni says her children can legally claim the family land, which would help future financial security.

Her work, challenges and organisation

Under Sinha, Nimitta organized its first mass wedding on June 19, 2016 -- a few months after she met Budhu Nag---where 21 couples tied knots at a community hall in Khunti. In some cases, both parents and children married for the first time. The event, however, had to be cancelled thrice due to resistance from the village leaders who accused Nimitta of “tampering with tribal culture”.  

“Though it seemed that they were mostly upset because they were losing out on the free feast and booze,” mulls Sinha.

Convincing villagers to organize a mass wedding proved to be a herculean task in face of threats to their lives. “But,” Sinha claims, “what matters at the end is the will of live-in couples to get married”.

Sinha describes herself as an “under-confident and scared” teenager. Her transformation into a changemaker in society has not been an easy one. Coming from a family where science-based education holds a higher ground, her decision to take up humanities was taunted, the impact of which lasted through Sinha’s youth. “This etched so deeply within me that for a long time I believed that I cannot do anything,” she says.

While pursuing her PhD at Ranchi University in 1993, Nikita Sinha married N N Sinha, an officer in the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). She completed her PhD in 1996.

In 1998, Sinha’s life underwent major changes; she gave birth to a son, and her husband was transferred to Delhi from Patna, Bihar. She hit a low point in 1999 after a visit from her younger sisters -- “When I saw their lifestyle as working women, I realized that despite studying so much, I am not doing anything. It gradually pushed me into depression. It was a time of self-pity, self-cursing and crying,” says Sinha.

After introspection, she decided to look for a job that would allow her to balance work and family life. In 2000, Sinha took up a part-time job as a researcher at Delhi University. With the one-and-a-half-year-old child hoisted on her shoulders, she would travel from library to library for research. “During the entire period, I never left my son alone as my responsibilities as a mother were more important,” Sinha reminisces.

In 2002, the Sinhas moved to Baltimore, US, for a year, before returning to Jharkhand in 2003. After their return, she started working for various social organizations in a bid to help people in need. An epiphany led her to start Nimitta in October, 2009 -- “While we thought that we were working to help the needy, what we really were concerned about was that we get our salary on time. This got me thinking and I started my own NGO to actually work for people in need.”

Initially, Nimitta started organizing health camps in remote, Left-wing extremism-hit villages in Khunti district of Jharkhand. However, in 2016, after meeting Budhu Nag, Sinha and her NGO shifted their focus to mass weddings.

The weddings are organized annually once enough funds have been arranged. On January 14, 2019, along with Rajni Kumari and Pradeep Lohra, 131 other couples got married. In totality, 198 Dhuku couples have gotten married between 2016-19.

A major roadblock was securing funding from sources who were sceptical about the entire mass wedding concept. “The first wedding was organized because people I knew got together and pitched in with funds and we managed to convince a bank to fund us as well. The problem is we do not know whom to approach, or even if we do find people who want to fund a social cause, they do not find this convincing enough,” Sinha explains.

While the first mass wedding event in 2016 was organized at a ceremony hall in Khunti with only the couples present, the second event in February 2018 was held in the state capital, Ranchi, in presence of family members of 45 couples who were getting wed.

The third event, however, turned out to be a ceremony organized at the IAS Club in Ranchi on January 14, 2019, which witnessed participation of more than 2,500 people, including relatives of the 132 couples who were getting married.

The wedding venue was divided into three sections -- for Sarna weddings, Hindu weddings and Christian weddings. A grand feast with a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies was organized by Nimitta.

Evaluating the relevance of mass weddings in modern society, Girdhar Gaunjhu explains how a child and a woman’s rights are now protected -- “A legal wedding is important for not just legal but social legal inclusion and protection.” Moreover, he claims these mass weddings are beneficial towards inter-caste/religion relationships that are opposed by Indian society otherwise.

Five random questions:

1. What's the last book you finished?

A. Conversation with God by Neale Donald Walsch and The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J Siegel.

2. What do you worry about?

A. Nothing. I feel that I have found my path and I have to move forward, whatever may come.

3. What's the one thing you can't live without?

A. Without my passion and the thought to make a dent in this orthodox society we live in.

4. Who is your hero?

A. My husband and my parents who supported me in every decision I took.

5. What's one item on your bucket list?

A. To change the education system as much as I can.

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