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Fighting stigma and poverty, Jharkhand tribal couples look for happily ever after endings

Press Trust of India  |  Khunti (Jharkhand) 

They met, fell in love at first sight, set up house and soon had a daughter. But there was no happily ever after for Kudungi Mundi and Kudrais Sanga, a young couple in the impoverished tribal belt of Khunti who simply couldn't afford to get married and silently bore years of societal rejection.

Kudungi was branded a 'Dhukhni', a woman who has entered a home without getting married, and their five-year-old daughter

Presee was not recognised by either community or law.

And then in January, it all changed when an NGO offered them a chance to legalise their relationship in a mass wedding.

"When we came to know of the mass wedding it was a dream come true and we instantly agreed. Now we are legally married and our child has legal sanctity," Kudrais told PTI.

Trapped in an endless cycle of loans, backbreaking labour and poverty, thousands of tribal couples like Kudungi and Kudrais don't get married because they don't have the money to host the mandatory community feast, a ritual as binding as any religious ceremony elsewhere.

Without the feast, a tribal community does not validate the relationship, leaving many couples and their children in Jharkhand's tribal villages to live and die without the family unit ever getting social sanctity.

The woman, labelled a Dhukni, is shunned even after death and is buried in the southern part of the village, not in the common burial ground where legally married women get a resting place, said villagers in the area.

'Dhuknis' are not allowed to wear bangles or apply vermilion (sindoor) and their children are not entitled to inherit paternal property, they said.

Todankel, a small village of 85 houses tucked away in Khunti, is home to Kudungi and Kudrais.

The couple said theirs was a story of "love at first sight" but grinding poverty was a stumbling block and they just started living together.

"Our biggest concern was no social recognition to our daughter. She could not get her ears pierced and her existence had no legal sanctity. We could not have gathered Rs 50,000 to feed the community even in our wildest dreams," Kudrais said.

"Chicken and 'handia', a locally brewed rice beer, are a must for the feast and the village comprises 85 houses, each on an average comprising five people. Where would we get the money for this," he asked.

Their life changed when Nikita Sinha, secretary of the non-profit body Nimitt, visited their village and others in Khunti district. Moved by the plight of the many couples, she said she overcame stiff resistance from tribal communities and has managed to solemnise the relationships of about 200 couples.

"I was shocked when I was approached by an elderly couple requesting me to arrange their wedding. They had children and grandchildren. When I started probing the issue, it was like the tip of the iceberg."

"There are 32,000 villages in Jharkhand. Even if there are three to four couples in a village, the number would be over one lakh," she said.

She said it took her years of work to identify the couples and arrange the mass weddings.

Sumitra Tuti, 24, and Kishore Munda, 26, who were living with their two children at Khunti's Kumkuma village said everything changed after Nimitt came into their lives.

Lalmuni Kumari, 65, said she chose not to get married at all.

"Who will give respect to a 'Dhukni'," she asked, emphasising that the government should intervene and usher in development works in the area.

Most people in the belt live in extreme poverty with agricultural labour or the odd jobs as domestic workers in homes the only avenues of employment.

"The government is feeding fish to the tribals but not teaching them the art of fishing," said a villager, pointing out that the story is the same in village after village, be it Ramandag, Sohdg, Alaundi, Todankel or Kumkuma.

In January, Nimitt was instrumental in solemnising the weddings of 132 couples, ranging from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. Of the 132, 76 were Sarna (worshippers of nature), 36 Hindus and 20 Christians, said Sinha.

Ramlal Munda, 55, and Sohodari Devi, 45, lived together for 22 years before getting married. Among those looking on as they got married was their five-month-old grandson.

In Jharkhand, the tradition of live-in relationships has been particularly predominant among the Munda, Oraon and Ho tribes due to poverty.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das told PTI: "We have undertaken massive development work in remote rural areas and things are gradually changing."

He said that there are a couple of government schemes to offer help. One such scheme is the Jharkhand Mukhyamantri Kanyadan Yojna, which is aimed at providing financial help up to Rs 30,000 for the wedding of a girl from a poor family.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, August 12 2019. 13:00 IST