Democratic Rise of Love Marriage among Hindu Maoists in Nepal’s Himalayas
Humla is a northwestern Himalayan district, widely considered the most remote of Nepal’s 75 districts. While young Humli women have little trouble finding partners due to their reputations as hard workers (Figures 1-2), marriage has always been a tricky business for Hindu men of the district. Village exogamy is strongly preferred yet difficult to arrange, due to the “backwardness” associated with Humla District and the heavy workload rumored to virtually enslave Humli women. Women from more developed regions of the country have little incentive to marry Humli men and live where they have heard there is no electricity or high society, and where the work never stops. However, local conceptions of marriage are changing, seemingly to adapt to an increasingly restricted economy. Currently, “love marriages” (Bhagi bibaha) are popularized on the radio and television, formal education provides status opportunities even for the poor, and Maoist and development rhetoric denounce the inequalities inherent in Hindu rites, particularly those associated with caste and gender discrimination. Dowry and other costly rituals and customs associated with traditional Hindu marriage are increasingly abandoned as villagers turn to the less costly, more modern, and more flexible practice of love marriage.
Traditionally, brides were often identified as men traveled along the formerly vibrant trade routes leading through Thakuri caste enclaves in western Nepal. However, this practice is fading, as today’s young men are much more likely to look eastward to the capital, or southward to the plains in search of economic and social opportunity. Market trends, an increasing emphasis on sending young children to school rather than to shepherd, and the insurrection all have had a devastating impact on the population of smallstock in the region. Because almost all trade relied upon smallstock (goats and sheep) as beasts of burden, this reality has all but closed the Humli trade routes. One effect of the virtual closure—along with drastic increases in costs of the traditional method of procuring brides and commemorating marriages—is that new methods of finding brides are now employed.
The rise of Nepali democracy, global media and the development industry since the early 1990s has presented new marital options to Humlis. Bollywood DVDs have made their way to Humla District in recent years, depicting love marriages as alternatives to traditional Hindu arrangements, characteristic of a wealthy and developed society (cf Uberoi, “The Diaspora Comes Home”, 1998) to which most Humlis can only hope to aspire. In Humla District between 1991 and 2010, when three NGOs grew to 177, development agents also have espoused caste-undermining sentiments of equality and self-determination alongside development initiatives, ideologies that Humlis have begun to incorporate into many aspects of life, including marital relationships.
Building on these developments, the Maoist conflict (1996–2006) opened a window of opportunity for Humli men by increasing their social and geographical mobility through conscription processes. Globalization and access to transportation have changed the landscape of exchange in Humla, but it was the Maoist campaign’s political turmoil that forcibly brought Humlis into the political economic discourse of the eagerly developing nation of Nepal, physically and ideologically. The Maoists required each household in our field site to devote one person to the campaign between 2001 and 2006, enabling many to travel outside of their typical spheres. Forced conscription also encouraged the expansion of women’s roles and mandated travel not previously sanctioned by local Hindu norms. Maoist propaganda denounced caste and gender inequalities, providing impetus for Humlis to avoid costly Hindu requirements for marriage, and reducing the importance of arranged marriage (magi bibaha).
Nepal scholars tend to focus on the Maoist recruitment of women and the ways in which participation in conflict altered female gender roles. But, for Humli men, who were disproportionately conscripted into Humli cadres (88 males versus 17 females in 128 households in our study site), the conflict allowed access to higher-status marriage partners. For instance, education is now highly prized in marriage partners in caste societies (cf Caldwell et al, “The Causes of Marriage Change in South India”, 1983). The few Thakuri households in which women had higher levels of education than their husbands were significantly more likely to have had active (p=.04) and long-term (p=.003) conscripts during the conflict. In addition, households in which conscription terms were the longest were more likely to have procured brides from farther-away districts (p=.03), suggesting that the geographic mobility, altered roles and relaxation of traditions during wartime all contributed to men’s abilities to gain access to desirable marriage partners. Indeed, our data show a trend emerging where younger, poorer couples today choose to elope, foregoing all traditional trappings of marriage, including the elaborate familial arrangement,negotiation phase, dowry exchange, and wedding festivities altogether. Exposure to new ideas through the region’s insurrection-related travel and social opportunities, interaction with the recently mushrooming population of development workers (most of whom are Nepali), and the media probably accounts for this shift (see Figures 3-6).
Since the conflict ended, young men’s expeditions in search of marriage partners in novel territories have become a popular phenomenon in Humla District. These expeditions afford the opportunity to explore other regions of Nepal, and to escape, however briefly, a “backward” home district. According to young men in our field site, these same reasons motivated them to join the Maoist conflict and engage with development organizations. Searching for a wife in new locales off the trade route, resisting the government, and learning new development techniques around and outside the district were all described to us in the same vein. These were each a different way of renegotiating the same thing: the social roles and ceremonies practiced by generations of Humlis that are perceived as too confining and expensive for young people in this rapidly developing district. The relationships forged by up-and-coming Humlis may be shorter-term associations unrelated to marriage, and may not provide the kind of insurance they once did.
Catherine Sanders is a PhD candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Montana-Missoula who specializes in mountain livelihoods, decision making, risk, and conflict in South Asia. The National Science Foundation funded her dissertation fieldwork in Humla District, Nepal on responses to change agents in the region.
Kimber H McKay is the research, monitoring and evaluation manager for ISIS Foundation’s development projects in Nepal and Uganda. She is graduate advisor and professor of medical anthropology at the University of Montana, and has conducted research in Humla District for the past fifteen years.