India slowly expands protections for ostracized interfaith, mixed-caste couples

In 2018, India’s Supreme Court recognized honor killing as a serious problem and issued guidelines to prevent it, including setting up safe houses.

Intercaste couple Nikita, left, and her husband, Abhijit, at the safe house run by activist Shankar Kanase in the Pimpri village of Maharashtra, India, June 3, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

MAHARASHTRA, India (RNS) — At the beginning of June, Abhijit and his wife, Nikita, ran away from their village south of Mumbai to seek shelter in a safe house for interfaith couples in Pimpri, about 50 miles away.

“I belong to the upwardly mobile Maratha caste with political clout, but my wife is from a backward caste,” said the tall, reflective Abhijit, 30, who married Nikita 23, in a secret ceremony four months ago, after the two fell in love a year before. “Our families would never have accepted our union, so we ran away.”

In Pimpri, the couple contacted Shankar Kanase, an activist who runs the safe house on his 2.5-acre farm. Since 2019, Kanase has sheltered couples ostracized by their families or caste-conscious communities in a three-room house surrounded by sugarcane fields, and has provided practical and psychological support.


In India, to marry across caste and religious difference is often life-threatening. When interfaith and intercaste marriages occur, family members of the higher caste see themselves as ritually polluted, and their standing in the religious hierarchies of Hindus as well as their social status can suffer.

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the number of reported honor killings in India rose from 25 in 2019 to 33 in 2021, but it is suspected that actual numbers are much higher.

The perpetrators of these crimes, in most cases close family members of the victims, see the killings not as murder but as a necessary restoration of caste purity that will prevent the family from falling in the eyes of the social class they belong to.

Social activist Shankar Kanase holds a magazine with stories about interfaith couples, at his safe house in the Pimpri village of Maharashtra, India, June 3, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

Social activist Shankar Kanase holds a magazine with stories about interfaith couples, at his safe house in the Pimpri village of Maharashtra, India, June 3, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

In 2018, India’s Supreme Court, based on government data on honor killings, ordered India’s state governments to set up safe houses like Kanase’s, laying down guidelines “to meet the challenges of the agonizing effect of honor crime,” referring to boycotts, threats and verbal and physical attacks by families on their relatives who cross faith and caste lines to marry.

But compliance has been slow. Though the northern states of Haryana and Punjab have already founded their safe houses, the government of Maharashtra, in western India, only last December instructed local officials to establish safe houses in the state. 


The Maharashtra government’s support “gave me the confidence to shed the secrecy around its existence,” said Kanase, who has worked since the 1990s with Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, an anti-superstition organization founded by the late scientific rationalist Narendra Dabholkar.

In 2013, Dabholkar was shot to death, allegedly by members of a fringe group who objected to his sweeping campaigns against superstitions and self-styled holy men who claimed to perform miracles on their followers. Last month, a court in Pune charged two of the suspects with murder and conspiracy and acquitted three other suspects for “want of evidence.”

Like other MANS activists, Kanase was drawn to Dabholkar’s campaigns against caste and religious superstitions. He went from village to village marrying intercaste and interfaith couples in ceremonies in which the bride and the bridegroom recite self-written vows in front of wedding guests, prioritizing love, conscience and goodwill over orthodox rituals. These rites are inspired by 19th century Indian social activist Jyotirao Phule, who founded the Satyashodhak Samaj or Truth Seekers’ Society that protested the domination of upper-caste Brahmins in socio-cultural ceremonies.

Psychiatrist and social activist Hamid Dabholkar, who is spearheading the safe house project, at his office in the Satara district of Maharashtra, India, June 4, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

Psychiatrist and social activist Hamid Dabholkar, who is spearheading the safe house project, at his office in the Satara district of Maharashtra, India, June 4, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

But Kanase also wanted to do more to protect couples who’d broken with social convention and to stop honor killings. He turned to Hamid Dabholkar, Narendra Dabholkar’s son, who has been carrying forward his father’s zeal to challenge caste as a baseless superstition.

“Our anti-superstition work comes out of a constructive criticism of religion,” said the younger Dabholkar, a psychiatrist and MANS state working committee member. “We are part of the broader progressive movement to walk on the path of India’s constitutional values.”


Dabholkar believes their interfaith work is closely tied to the desire to promote a scientific temper in society. He draws inspiration from the saints of the Warkari spiritual tradition, who since the 13th century have rejected discrimination based on religion and caste and stressed compassion and peaceful coexistence. Dabholkar’s safe house project is an extension of his broader humanitarian and caste annihilation work.

When the Maharashtra government gave the order for safe houses last year, both Dabholkar and Kanase hoped their work would be boosted by police protection to the couples.

“Over the last 12 years more couples have been seeking MANS’ help,” said social activist Uday Chavan, who has received emergency calls from couples responding to MANS’ newspaper ads and social media. “But now with state sanction, we feel more confident about getting police support in providing safety and convincing resistant parents.”

The first three weeks after they elope are particularly critical for the couples. Not only are they most susceptible to violent attacks but they are often unsure of where to turn next.

“We never leave them alone during this time,” said Kanase. “I get them involved in kitchen and farm work, and counsel them on how to deal with police and family pressures.”

If a complaint is lodged against a couple at a police station, the volunteers trace the complaint and approach the district superintendent of police, who then contacts the family.


Amit, a low-caste Hindu, and Umaima, from an upwardly mobile Muslim family, eloped two years ago from a small village in Maharashtra where interfaith marriages are unheard of. “Even though our families knew each other, they were against our marriage,” said Amit. “When pressures became unbearable, we sought shelter in the safe house for eight days.”

In Pimpri, Kanase counseled the couple, provided guidance on how to manage social and familial pushbacks and prepared them for the challenges ahead of them.

Later, a meeting between the families was arranged at a police station in hopes of smoothing over the animosities. Umaima’s parents, however, refused to accept the marriage.

Inter-caste couple Rohit and Ashavari took refuge at the safe house run by activist Shankar Kanase in the Pimpri village of Maharashtra, India, June 4, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

Intercaste couple Rohit, left, and his wife, Ashavari, took refuge at the safe house run in the Pimpri village of Maharashtra, India, June 4, 2024. (Photo by Priyadarshini Sen)

In many cases, couples are abandoned by their families and communities for years. Rohit, who’s from a marginalized Hindu tribe, fell in love with the petite Ashavari from a high-caste Hindu family at a law college in the Satara district of Maharashtra, only to realize that Ashavari’s upper-caste family would never accept him.

Early last year, they eloped, married at a temple in an adjacent city and pledged loyalties. “We don’t go out much and have been abandoned by friends and family because of our decision,” said Ashavari. “My family has even threatened to kill Rohit, but we’ll not cave.”


Sometimes interfaith couples take extreme steps out of loneliness and desperation. “Last year a Hindu-Muslim couple who likely did not have a proper support structure committed suicide in Satara district,” said Dabholkar. “We want to prevent such extreme incidents by working with the police.”

The Satara superintendent of police, Sameer Shaikh, said that police, along with state and local government officials, have taken the onus of protecting couples against all threats and persecutions, so that the civil society’s role becomes a more advisory one. But for now, the couples in Maharashtra rely on one place where they know they will be taken care of.

“This is our oasis in an unaccepting society,” said Nikita. “I may never fit into Abhijit’s family because they are politically and socially powerful, but our love will triumph over all odds.”

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!