Dil Mil, but Log Kya Kahenge?

The idea of community as represented on Dil Mil is indicative of the South Asian psyche. PC: Amish Thakkar, Source: Unsplash

South Asian millennials download the ‘Dil Mil’ app for something more serious than Tinder, and more importantly, to meet someone they can introduce to their parents. Dil Mil is not a dating app. It is a matchmaking service with the potential to oust that ‘rishtewali’ Aunty. It is marriage-focused as that is the conclusion of successful South Asian love stories.

Dil Mil puts the South Asian diaspora, especially those located in Australia, Northern America, and the United Kingdom, on a platform to find love. However, despite the offer to depart from traditional structures of courtship, the app ends up protecting the very same structures by upholding the sanctity of caste wrapped in the interface of a millennial experience.

Caste is oftentimes dismissed as a practice of the past. Within the South Asian diaspora in particular, it is treated with an unmistakeable Orientalist gaze as a practice back in our homelands. However, as the quintessence of South Asian society, caste goes wherever we go. Or, rather, we take it with us.

The World Conference Against Racism held by the UN in South Africa in 2008 was probably the first the international community was triggered to scrutinize the practice. International attention to caste has grown since then. In 2010, UK’s House of Lords recognized caste as race, thereby making casteism a form of racism – a resolution introduced at the World Conference, but vehemently protested by the then Government of India. In 2016, Equality Labs surveyed South Asian Americans and reported on physical and verbal violence experienced by Dalits. In 2018, the Australian Parliament acknowledged casteism as discrimination.

These examples from countries that represent Dil Mil’s primary market highlight the persistence of caste to the point it demands governmental intervention. Caste is neither a figment of the past nor a practice that excludes the diaspora.

The examples of legislation may feel distant from our everyday lives but might come into perspective when we introspect the constitution of our families. Marriages were arranged according to castes, and, if possible, sub-castes (gotra) with the purpose of maintaining purity. In this context, eloping was seldom about familial disagreements as much as it was about breaking social rules on whom to love. During a time when women had little-to-no choice over their personal lives (not that this has changed), caste was pure, and love was polluting.

Caste is not explicit in contemporary parlance, and is replaced with ‘community’, biradari, or zaat. Hence, along with the constitution of our families, it is worthwhile to think about their wishes for our familial future. While South Asians are challenging the fallibility of the age-old ‘log kya kahenge’, the option to look for a caste-appropriate partner surrenders to bygone ideas about love and marriage.  

Dil Mil is about ‘empowering South Asians to find love’. Indeed, choice, decision-making, and individualism – the crux of empowerment – are integral to finding love. But Dil Mil’s empowerment is wrapped in specificity. For example, under ‘Community’, the options represent languages/regions (Malayali, Punjabi, Rajasthani, etc.), religious sects (Shia and Sunni are the only categories), and Brahmin and Jatt. These options allow users to identify themselves and their probable partners. Since when is love so specific?

The idea of community as represented on Dil Mil is indicative of the South Asian psyche. On one hand, the idea of community repeats caste structures. The inclusion of Jatt and Punjabi as separate categories indicates irreconcilable differences between the two. Furthermore, the standalone Brahmin category forces a recognition of their supreme status.

Yet again, the separation of Malayali, Tamilian, etc. from Brahmin suggests that a proper Brahmin will not identify with another identity also occupied by other castes. However, since when are Brahmins a community? What does a North Indian Brahmin share with a South Indian Brahmin? Food? Literature? Traditions? There is only the historical oppression of lower castes.

On the other hand, the idea of community reinforces caste differences. The option to indicate a caste, and preference thereof, emphasizes importance. The desire for such preferences demonstrates that caste is a much-needed part of our community. This is not to suggest that other castes should be included alongside Brahmin. That is the continuation and normalization of caste.

If caste is a notion, then it requires notional change (Ambedkar’s argument from 1936). One way to address the persistence of caste is to remove the question of caste. Not just on Dil Mil, but in whom we love and marry.

While it seems that caste exists among Hindus and Indians, it cannot be stressed enough that caste structures all of South Asia. For example, in colonial Punjab, the lower castes who converted to Christianity became Masihi, those who converted to Islam became Mussali or Sheikh, and those who converted to Sikhism became Mazhabi or Ravidasia. Caste is not integral to these religions, yet these identities persist, and communities cannot shake off their historical designations.

The interlude to history in a conversation about love and marriage shows the political nature of our relationships. There have always been legal and social dictates on whom to love. The politics of relationships is especially palpable among upper caste, such as the Syeds across India and Pakistan, who merge families to maintain the status quo. Such unions form enclosed classes and endogamous units, much like the caste structure.

Caste is prominent as an Indian issue because of the acknowledgement at a political level. Outside Hinduism and India, caste is approached as an interpersonal issue rather than a social one. However, the non-acknowledgement does not make caste non-existent.

Caste is alive and well – in the present, in religious communities, and in South Asia and South Asian diasporas. At the end, we might think of marriage in two ways: the reproduction of an insecure idea of purity, or love. And, just in case, there is no love on Tinder.

Ryan Arron D'Souza

Ryan D'Souza earned his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of South Florida. He writes about South Asian media, and, when feeling extremely pretentious, high theory that makes little sense.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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