“That family had made it very clear that if they [Neetu’s parents in-law] wanted my cousin brother to marry their daughter, I would have to marry their son,” said Neetu.
She was studying in Class 12 when the exchange was fixed, and she was married off against her will. “I was around 16 and really wanted to study further, but I was married off under a very weird setting,” recalled Neetu, now a working woman of 30 who hails from Churu, currently living in Jhunjhunun district of Rajasthan. “It was a Tirkuta Aata Saata.”
According to this custom, a family marries their daughter to someone in the family of their son’s or nephew’s bride. “Tirkuta means triangular, so in this case Aata Saata would be followed among three families, and three couples would be married in exchange for each other,” Neetu explained.
This age-old custom practised in Rajasthan works like a barter system and has several negative consequences. Rajan Chaudhary, founder of the Jhunjhunun-based non-governmental organisation Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti, told IndiaSpend, “It is one of the most widespread malpractices of Rajasthan, where human rights are violated in several ways. Women as young as 19-20 are married to men as old as 50 and 60. Most of such girls’ families are economically poor.”
Locals confirmed that most of the time, under this practice, girls are married to much older men. Neetu, for example, was given in marriage to a man 15 years older than her – and illiterate to boot, while her own mother had completed a bachelor’s in education. “My mother studied after getting married and giving birth to me,” she said. “I have a younger brother and a sister too. Mummy had tried her best to delay my wedding, but my uncle (father’s brother) pressurised my father to get me married so that he could marry his son to a girl from my in-laws’ family.”
Neetu’s cousin Ankit, thus, is married to her husband’s sister Rekha while Rekha’s uncle has married Ankit’s maternal aunt, all as part of the agreement. “I know it is difficult for you to understand in one go,” she laughed, “but even children know about this. It is a very common practice here.”
Marriages under this custom always happen within the same caste, economic background and village of residence; it is the exchange of women within two (or more) families following a mutual understanding between the two families, reducing the chances of dowry and wedding expenses and related issues.
Today, Neetu is mother to a 10-year-old son who studies in Class 4. She holds a Master of Arts degree and works at ChildLine, a non-profit in Jhunjhunun. However, her journey thus far has been a roller coaster ride and also illustrative of the evils attendant to this traditional practice.
Challenges for brides
“Problems started right after my wedding,” Neetu said. “A few months after the wedding, I spoke to my husband about studying further, and he said I could if his parents permitted it. It took me a whole year to convince my in-laws, because their own daughter, now married to my cousin, had dropped out after Class 5.”
In 2011, the latest year for which census data are available, the literacy rate in Churu district was 66.8%. It is lower for women (at 54%) compared to men (78.8%).
“Why do I need to study if their daughter isn’t willing to, my in-laws asked me. Eventually, they agreed on the condition that all expenses relating to my education should be taken care of by my parents. Luckily, my parents were fine with this,” said Neetu.
Funding her education was a relatively easy hurdle to surmount. “My husband would drink every evening and would not help with the chores or take care of our only child,” Neetu said. “Eventually, his drinking habit got worse, and he was always unemployed. He would ask me for money, and if I didn’t give it, he would abuse me and beat me up.
“Another huge problem, which continues even now, is his habit of doubting everything. Since he cannot read or write, he doesn’t know who is calling or sending me messages and assumes it is someone I am having an affair with. We used to have serious fights, until I finally stopped living with him and came back to my parents home with my son. Today, we are practically separated.”
Defending the tradition
The custom is age-old, said Vikas Kumar Rahar, coordinator at Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti. “This practice is prominent in Shekhawati region which comprises Churu, Jhunjhunun and Sikar.” Research shows this practice is present in Pakistan too.
Raghav Lal (57) is a strong believer in the virtues of this tradition. “There are certain reasons behind doing this,” Lal said. “See, if our girl faces any problem at her sasural, we know what to do with their daughter here, who is married to our son or nephew. Jaisa karoge, waisa paoge (As you sow, so shall you reap).”
In practice, though, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as the story of Basanti, a resident of Asloo village in Churu, illustrates.
Anirudh married Basanti in 2021 as part of a deal where their siblings were also married to each other. However, the marriage of Basanti and Anirudh did not last for more than two years before she was sent home. “Because I didn’t conceive in the first year of our marriage, my mother-in-law would taunt me,” Basanti recalled. “I couldn’t take it, so I spoke to my husband about it, and that led to a huge fight. This became routine for a few months, so I came back to my parents’ place for a while.”
“My husband never came to meet me,” Basanti said. “So since then, I have been living with my parents.”
“We sent their daughter back because our daughter had come back,” added Basanti’s mother, who firmly believes in the tradition.
Basanti is childless, but her husband’s sister, who was married to her brother, has a one-year-old son. In sum, because one of the couples who were part of the barter had problems, the other family was broken up as well – and that is one of the biggest issues with the tradition.
A police officer in Rajasthan said, under condition of anonymity, “If the man does not have a government job, the chances of him getting married are lower. That is when the daughters of the family are seen as boons, because they can be bartered for a bride for the boy. There isn’t any direct law against the custom but often while resolving a suicide or a case of domestic violence, we discover that the marriage happened under the Atta-Satta custom.”
In 2021, Rajasthan’s women and child development minister, Mamta Bhupesh, had told the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar that the government was studying the Atta-Satta practice and would bring out a law against it, in addition to having teams to dissuade people from following this tradition in the areas where it was most common.
Mridul Kachawa, superintendent of police in Jhunjhunun, told IndiaSpend, “District police department has no information about any special teams or laws being drafted against the custom yet.”
One big problem with attempting to find solutions to this problem is the lack of proper information. “There is no data at all depicting the number of people or couples married under atta-satta,” said Chaudhary, the founder of Shikshit Rojgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti. “There is not even any law against this tradition that could stop families getting into such complicated relationships. These are two prominent reasons why five to 10 couples in every village are married in atta-satta arrangements.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.