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'Caste no bar'? You've got to be joking

By Ashok Gopal

How much does caste matter to young urban Indians, as reflected in the preferences they post on the hugely popular matrimonial websites? For almost everybody who hopes to find a life partner via the web matrimonial route, revealing one’s jati identity is a prerequisite for getting enquiries. This is Part 1 of a 2-part article on caste in matrimonial portals


Read Part 2 of this article here

Recently, over several days and nights, I spent hours going through hundreds of profiles of women posted on some of India’s largest matrimonial portals.  

I wasn’t looking for a partner for myself, or anyone I know. I was trying to find an answer to a question that raises its head every now and then, as now, when people are debating the merits of enumerating OBCs through Census 2011:  

How much does caste matter today, especially among young urban Indians? 

Profiles posted on matrimonial portals can provide an answer.  

Unlike matrimonial columns in newspapers, matrimonial portals offer free access, to advertisers and readers. Anyone can post a profile for self, sibling or friend, and practically say anything in the space given for describing the profiled person, and the kind of person she wants to get married to. And you can do it free, from any internet-connected computer.  

How many profiles of women posted in matrimonial portals strictly specify caste specifications is a good indication of how tough the caste barrier continues to be, or whether it is disintegrating rapidly. Analysis of profiles can tell us how caste gets play across different social groups.  


But some riders are needed; such a study has inherent limitations. 

Firstly, the world of matrimonials ads does not obviously include people who want to get married by falling in love, and people who find partners through traditional routes like marriage brokers and relatives.  

Secondly, the content of matrimonial ads is evidence of preference, not action. It tells us about choices people want to make, not what they eventually choose.  

Additionally, the web-matrimonial space is limited to:

  • people who have access to internet
  • people who know English, the language most commonly used in web matrimonials.

A combination of the above two limitations strongly suggests a third limitation: People who post on matrimonial portals are largely from the big cities, where internet-access is easily available, and where there is a sizeable population of English-speaking young people. 

Notwithstanding these limitations, in absolute terms, the world of web matrimonials is quite large. And as disaggregated analysis of my basic sample showed, the world is not limited to big metros, or people who speak the Queen’s English. It includes people from cities like Jammu, Jaipur, Lucknow, Raipur, Ernakulam and Coimbatore, as well as smaller towns like Valsad, Jhansi, Samastipur and Bardhaman. 

Basic sample  

My basic sample comprised profiles (ads) of women posted on two popular matrimonial portals, Bharat Matrimony and Jeevan Saathi, which I will henceforth call Portal A and Portal B.  

The choice was not arbitrary. Both portals have a large number of profiles, are very user-friendly, and both provide data in a manner well suited for analysis by age, religion, gender, caste, income, education and several other parameters.  

On January 25, 2010, the two portals together had around 22.15 lakh profiles. Portal A had over twice the number of profiles (16.3 lakhs) as Portal B.  

The numbers keep increasing or decreasing every hour, so I will henceforth refer to percentages derived from absolute numbers at the time a particular calculation was done. The assumption is that though numbers may change, the percentages largely remain constant, as underlying trends do not change over weeks or months.  

Some of the basic trends are as follows:

  • Over 90% of the profiles posted are of men and women living in India.
  • Around 80% of the profiles are of Hindu men or women.
  • Over 90% of the profiles are of people who have never married before.
  • Over 95% of the profiles are of people between the ages of 18 and 40.

Hence, at the gross level, the basic sample adequately represents the universe of people in India wanting to get married through matrimonial ads.  

However, when one looks only at profiles of women, there is an important deviation: The number of profiles of women is only around a third of profiles of men.  

This could be because of the nature of the medium and traditional gender mores. A profile of a woman posted in a portal is a public way of seeking a life partner. The woman’s name need not be disclosed, but profiles without names are not common. In fact, around half the profiles of women are with photos. A matrimonial portal does not offer the privacy of a newspaper ad, in which identity is completely covered as a matter of routine.  

Another reason for fewer profiles of women could simply be that more men than women have access to the internet.  

However, among profiles of women, there is a significant deviation from traditional mores. Around 40% of these are posted by the women themselves—not by their parents, siblings or friends. This is much less than the percentage of self-posted profiles of men (75%), but it is still a sizeable proportion. 

Such ‘forward-thinking’ behaviour could be co-related to education and independent source of income. In Portal A and B, among all profiles of women under-40 and residing in India, only around 10% are not graduates and less than 30% are not working.  

Expectedly, there are variations by religion and caste. In Portal B, among profiles of Muslim women below the age of 40, around 40% report no income, and the proportion of non-graduates is also higher than the average, at 14%. On the other hand, in Portal A, among profiles of Brahmin Iyer women, only 2% are non-graduates.  

Nevertheless, the basic sample is largely composed of women who are young, educated, earning. One would expect a large number of them to say “caste no bar”, when they search for a marriage partner. Do they? 

The answer is quite complex. 

‘Caste no bar’  

Portal A gives advertisers the option to specify ‘caste no bar’, and it also displays the term as a search category in the profiles categorised according to religious groups.  

Among around 3 lakh profiles for Hindu never-married women under-40, ‘caste no bar’ appears in around 20% cases. Among around 8.6 lakh profiles for men meeting the same criteria, the percentage is higher, at around 27%. 

This is a high proportion if one looks at prevalence of inter-caste marriages. Data on this is available in Portal A itself. It gives advertisers the option to specify their caste, among a large number of choices. Advertisers have the option of not specifying caste, or specifying ‘inter-caste’ (marriage of parents). Among profiles of Hindu women, less than 0.5% of advertisers report belonging to that category. 

Thus, it seems, Indian society is vastly different today than it was 20-30 years ago, when the parents of these women got married.  

However, a close look at profiles under the ‘caste no bar’ category quickly dispels this notion.  

It is evident that when they state ‘caste no bar’ most advertisers do not mean exactly that.  

Consider the profile of a 27-year-old woman from the Nair caste, posted by her parents, and specifying `caste no bar’. In the space given for specifying the preferred socio-religious background of the partner, the parents have listed a number of subcastes.  

Another example: In a profile of a 27-year-old woman software engineer from Pune, posted by herself, her socio-religious background is described by the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘96K Maratha’, which means ‘Shyanav (96) Kuli Maratha’, name of the highest-ranked among Maratha subcastes. In the same field, the woman has added: caste no bar.  

However, on scrolling down to the section for specifying the socio-religious background of the desired partner, the woman plainly states she wants to get married only to another 96K Maratha, or Brahmin of Konkanastha Chitpavan or Deshashta subcastes.  

So what do these people mean when they say ‘caste no bar’? 

Simply this: They are okay about marrying outside their caste or subcaste, within specified subcastes. In that sense, ‘caste’ is no ‘bar’. In many cases, ‘caste no bar’ actually means ‘gotra no bar’. 

Going through 100 randomly picked out profiles under the ‘caste no bar’ category, I found that no castes or subcastes are specified under partner preferences in only 20% of the profiles. Even among these, there could be instances of oversight, as some advertisers have entirely bypassed the section for setting partner preferences. In only a handful of profiles does one find an explicit ‘caste no bar’ statement like (caste) “does not matter”.

Hence it can be reasonably assumed that no more than 15% of the advertisers who say “caste no bar” actually mean that. Calculate this as a percentage of all profiles of Hindu women, and the figure of people who really mean “caste no bar” is only 3%.  

Thus, no major social change has taken place within the world of web matrimonials (a world that excludes love marriages). What has probably changed in this world is willingness to marry outside a specific subcaste or gotra. That is all that is generally meant by ‘caste no bar’.  

Advertisers who use the term in that narrow sense cannot be blamed for causing confusion; the confusion arises because of loose and incorrect use of the word ‘caste’ in the matrimonial portals. 

Terminology problem 

As several social scientists have stressed, on the ground, there is generally no such thing as caste in India. What exists, and becomes particularly visible during marriage negotiations, is jaat or jati, which is loosely translated in English as ‘subcaste’, and will henceforward be used without italics.  

‘Caste’ can be said to be a higher order of classification, akin to ‘genus’ in biology. Every organism belongs to a genus but cannot be meaningfully identified by genus alone; one has to name its species, or jati. Likewise, in Hindu society, a person necessarily belongs to a jati, which is always linked to a caste category.  

The analogy is far from perfect. At times, ‘caste’ acquires real shape and size, as when Mayawati reportedly ‘swung’ the ‘Brahmin vote’ in the last UP elections. Also, jati is not the last level of classification. There are jatis within jatis, and within some of those sub-jatis there are sub-sub-jatis…  

Further, jatis are not always clearly defined or categorised. Some jatis are attached to a particular caste category in one region, and to a lower or higher caste category in another region. Sometimes, the jati-name used depends on the user: A person of a jati linked to a high-ranked caste may identify a person belonging to a scheduled caste (SC) by her jati, such as ‘Mahar’, but the latter may identify herself as an ‘SC’, a group of jatis. 

Even so, jati, more than ‘caste’, is a concrete sociological unit, a unit “of thousands or sometimes millions of people with whom one may identify for such purposes as marriage” (Susan Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India, Cambridge).  

However, matrimonial portals use ‘caste’ as a synonym for ‘jati’, and sometimes even for what many would say is a ‘sect’. For example, in the ‘caste’ listing under the religious group ‘Muslim’, Portal A lists Bohra, which many would say is a sect, as also Qureishi, which is a jati.    

One way out of all this confusion is to use terms like ‘community’ or ‘group’, but these do not connote the hierarchy that defines relations between the groups—a hierarchy based not on economic status or numerical strength, but ancient notions of pollution and purity.  

The term ‘jati’, found in all major Indian languages, is used daily with that connotation, which is often also spelt out (‘neech jati’). And though the argument for jati hierarchy may be found only in Hinduism, jati is not unique to Hindus. As noted in several studies and evinced in profiles posted on matrimonial portals, jatis exist in other major Indian religious groups also.  

With this clarity, let us see how jatis get play in the web matrimonial space.

Jatis in the web matrimonial space 

All Indian matrimonial portals give much importance to jati, in the way they allow advertisers to describe themselves and specify partners, and in the way descriptions are categorised and displayed.  

But not all jatis are represented, and some jatis are represented much more than others. 

Under its ‘People of India’ project, launched in 1985, the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) identified 4,635 ‘communities’ across India. Of these over 3,000 are Hindu jatis.  

But going by the listing in Portal A and Portal B, and in, which claims to be [the] “world’s largest matrimonial service”, there are only around 380 jatis in the web matrimonial space. Of these around 350 are Hindu jatis, and as many as 50 are Brahmin jatis.  

Listing of jatis in the portals shows that they follow a system of jati-grouping. Hence you can search under a broad category called ‘all Brahmin’ (jatis). Grouping is also done at a lower level: You can search among ‘all Patel’ or ‘all Nair’ jatis.  

The grouping is based on number of profiles per jati. Brahmin jatis with very few profiles get lumped in a category like ‘Brahmin-Others’. Grouping also appears to be demand-driven, and demand varies by portal.  

For example, Portal A has greater demand than Portal B among South Indians—45% of all persons whose profiles have been posted in Portal A specify a south Indian language as their mothertongue, as against 16% in Portal B.  

Perhaps for this reason, Portal A does not list ‘all Brahmin’ jatis as a search category, whereas Portal B does—in the matrimonial arena, ‘any Brahmin’ does not make much sense in south India, not at any rate as much sense as it makes in the north. 

Looking at jati-wise distribution of profiles, one sees that hardly any jati accounts for more than 5% of all profiles and most account for less than 1%. However, when one looks at jati-groups, the picture changes. Also, numbers per jati are not directly related to numerical strength of the jati. Some jatis enjoy a disproportionate share. It is a reflection of their clout or standing in the world defined by the web matrimonial space—a world largely limited to educated people in urban India.  

In Portal A, which has a south-tilt, jatis and jati groups with relatively high numbers include Kayastha, SC, Nair, Ezahava, Iyer, Maratha, Rajput, Vishwakarma, Agarwal, Yadav, Arya Vysya, Naidu, Arora, Reddy, Nadar, Saraswat, Vana Kula Kshatriyar, Lingayat, Vaishnav, Bania, Pillai, Chettiar, Christian-Roman Catholic, Christian-Born Again, Christian-Church of South India, Kamma, Mudaliyar and Muslim-Sheikh. 

There are no surprises there, except perhaps the presence of SC. It should be viewed against the long history of reservation in south India. And qualifications are necessary.  

Profiles of women who chose the ‘SC’ jati-group to define their social identity account for only 2.5% of all profiles of women under-40 in Portal A; in the north-tilted Portal B, the share is less than 1.5%. In contrast, while Brahmins account for only 3-5% of India’s population, in both portals, the share of profiles of women from the Brahmin jati-group is around 15%

Jati as marriage-choice determinant 

How much does identification of the self and desired partner by jati matter in the web matrimonial arena?  And how does it get play across jatis and jati-groups? 

As explained earlier, use of the term ‘caste no bar’ is not a good indicator of indifference or opposition to jati considerations. A better indicator is the number of persons who choose not to specify jati in their profiles—some portals give you that option.  

The number of people who exercise that option is insignificant, across religious groups. In Portal A, among profiles for never-married Hindu, Muslim and Christian women below 40, caste/jati is not specified in 0.36% , 4% and 1.5% of profiles respectively.  

Clearly, for almost everybody who hopes to find a life partner via the web matrimonial ad route, revealing one’s jati identity is a prerequisite for getting enquiries. However, importance of jati as a criterion for selecting a life partner varies across groups, as we will see from a disaggregated sample, to be discussed in the second part of this study. 

Infochange News & Features, June 2010