Rohit and Neha met while working in the same office in Noida, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. They fell in love, but Neha’s parents did not approve due to the couple being members of the same clan, which meant they were regarded as almost siblings. When Rohit and Neha decided to marry, her family refused to grant permission.
So the couple – whose names have been changed to protect their privacy – married in a temple near their village last month and have been on the run since.
Like many of India’s runaway couples who elope to escape social pressures, Rohit and Neha turned to a chaotic, semi-legal network of service providers that includes lawyers, agents and priests. Whether fugitive lovers need legal certificates, wedding photographers, rented garments or a safe place to hide from angry relatives, everything is available from these “marriage shops” – for a price, of course.
“We had to flee because our families are opposed to our marriage,” said Neha, 28. “Even though we’re both adults, our relationship wasn’t acceptable to them because we belong to the same gotra (clan).
“We eloped to Meerut and got married through an agent who organised a lawyer and a priest for us for about US$250 (S$340). We hope to have a better life together once the court provides us with the relevant papers.”
For these marriage shops, business is booming. The big fat Indian wedding may have been pared down due to the economic devastation wrought by Covid-19, but agents are currently raking in the cash thanks to pent-up demand from couples forced to delay their nuptials during the pandemic.
It’s particularly busy in the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana, where societies are dominated by caste and community. Marrying for love alone may be regarded as rebellion, which leads to alienation, or even “honour killings” in some cases if a family’s disapproval turns violent .
Pratiksha Parikh is a Delhi-based civil rights lawyer who has represented many couples who defied societal norms to marry. He helps couples obtain “no objection” marriage certificates, which make their unions legal. The process can take months without facilitators like Parikh and the certificate is required by law before Indian couples can legally live together.
“Most of these couples have fled from their villages and neighbourhoods as their unions have been opposed by families and relatives,” Parikh said. “They want to hurriedly tie the knot, collect proof of marriage and approach the court for protection.”
According to Parikh, these illicit weddings have become even more common under Prime Minister Narendra Modi ’s Hindu nationalist government, as interfaith marriages – especially involving Muslims – contravene the Hindutva agenda. Parikh described a “growing intolerance” that has created a “climate of fear”.
“Several Hindu celebrities including Bollywood actor Kareena Kapoor Khan and many others have been trolled for marrying Muslim men,” she said. “To avoid attracting unwanted attention and censure, many lovers are increasingly opting to elope and conduct clandestine weddings.”
Depending on the type of marriage – whether intercaste, interfaith or involving non-resident Indians – brokers offer a variety of packages with prices ranging from 7,000-21,000 rupees (S$128-S$384).
“We assist the couples in organising every document required for their petition [to marry],” said Ram Sevak, an agent from Panchkula in Haryana, who runs a grocery shop on the side for more regular income.
Sevak has been organising such weddings for more than 10 years. Couples come to him by “word of mouth”. He operates alone and has no company, website or staff.
“We conduct 70-80 weddings in a month [during peak season] and manage everything within two days as we have contacts across the board,” he said, referring to his network of clerks, shop-owners and priests who help him organise weddings at short notice.
The most basic package from brokers covers the ceremony at a local temple or gurdwara , as Sikh shrines are known. More expensive packages include photography and a lawyer to help the couple obtain a wedding certificate before filing a protection plea.
For a little extra, some brokers will even provide accommodation at a safe house, where the newlyweds can hide from relatives until the legal paperwork is complete. The demand for these “clandestine weddings” has grown so intense that many of these government-run shelters have been overwhelmed and forced to turn couples away.
One front office manager at a “protection home” in Panchkula said more than 200 runaway couples made contact in the past year.
“However, we had to turn down several requests as we’re always overbooked,” the manager said.
India’s legal customs are at least partly responsible for the phenomenon. District courts require couples to show they are both aged 18 or older and to give 30 days’ notice to the marriage registrar, who is obliged to display a notice publicly lest there be any objections.
Although several high courts have questioned the validity of marriage certificates issued to runaway couples by temples, gurdwaras and other shrines, the practice continues due to the demand.
Geeta Luthra, a senior advocate at India’s Supreme Court, blamed the country’s complex legalities and patriarchal culture for driving couples to seek help from facilitators who operate in a legal grey area.
“There are various courts in India which, for the better part of the day, just handle petitions for protection of these fugitive couples,” Luthra said. “This is despite the fact the Indian constitution grants freedom to all adults to marry as per their choice.
“Not allowing consenting adults to marry is not only undemocratic but also violative of human rights … The High Court has even ordered that if local cops don’t protect such couples, they will be considered complicit in their harassment. But clearly not much has changed.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Neha, although she hopes her family’s opposition to her marriage will eventually soften.
“Good girls from middle-class Indian families never choose their spouses,” she said. “I think what riled my relatives most was the assertion of my independence. But I’ve always been independent and I find it difficult to believe that people still believe in medieval mumbo jumbo like clan and caste.
“I hope our parents get the message that love will ultimately triumph. So it’s better if they respect their kids’ choices rather than lose them forever due to their outdated beliefs.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.