As a child, Priyanka Tamaichikar remembers feeling confused about weddings. At some weddings in her Kanjarbhat community in Pune, Maharashtra, biryani would be distributed to every household in the neighbourhood the morning after the ceremony. Other mornings, the bride would be beaten up.
It was not until she was a teenager that she realised the meaning of the biryani and the beatings. As part of Kanjarbhat caste tradition, every bride is subjected to a virginity test on her wedding night: if bloodstains are found on the white sheet of the wedding bed, the family celebrates her premarital chastity; if she does not bleed, she is declared “khota maal” or “spoiled goods” and subjected to various humiliations. The test is overseen by members of caste panchayats who receive hefty sums of money for it.
“When I realised all this, I decided I would not allow this ritual at my wedding,” said Priyanka Tamaichikar, 26, an executive at a real estate company in Pimpri, a township near Pune. “I knew that someday I would have to fight this practice.”
The fight has finally begun with a new generation of young, educated Kanjarbhats speaking out against the virginity test and taking on their powerful caste panchayats. The movement started three months ago when Priyanka Tamaichikar’s cousin Vivek Tamaichikar started a Whatsapp group called Stop the V-Ritual to bring together community members who want to end the practice.
The group, which has more than 50 members, hit the national headlines on January 22 after three of its young members were assaulted by a Kanjarbhat mob at a wedding in Pimpri. The police have registered a First Information Report against five people, charging them with rioting, causing hurt, criminal intimidation and unlawful assembly. Four men were arrested but released on bail later.
Activists from Stop the V-Ritual, however, want the police to add charges under the Maharashtra Protection of People from Social Boycott Act, 2016, which prohibits caste panchayats from boycotting and discriminating against any community members. “The caste panchayats are the root cause of all these rituals and social boycotts in our community,” said Vivek Tamaichikar, 28, a law graduate and a student of regulatory governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
On their part, Kanjarbhat panchayat members admit that virginity test rituals do take place, but claim the panchayats have nothing to do with them. “It is the families that do it as an ancient tradition, the jaat panchayat is not involved,” said Mukesh Minekar, a Kanjarbhat panchayat member and politician in Pune. “These youngsters [from Stop the V-Ritual] are spoiling the name and honour of the community and our women with their lies.”
Members of Stop the V-Ritual are undeterred by such accusations, saying they are determined to help reform their small Kanjarbhat community.
Who are the Kanjarbhats?
The Kanjarbhats are a denotified tribe that migrated from Rajasthan to other parts of India around three centuries ago. In Maharashtra, the caste group has around two lakh members and they speak the Kanjarbhati language, which is closer to Marwari than Marathi.
Traditionally, the Kanjarbhats were engaged in the brewing and sale of country liquor. Today, a large number have left the illegal liquor business and many are employed in public and private sectors.
The Kanjarbhats’ community life, though, is still strictly governed by caste panchayats. In 2000, the community’s panchayats from across the country published a 150-page law book, Sahansmal Jaat Panchayat Kayda-Kanoon. This “Kanjarbhat constitution” is given to the heads of all the main clans and details the rules and regulations governing the community’s rituals and the structure of its private – and illegal – judiciary.
‘Families wait outside the door’
Minekar may insist the caste panchayats have nothing to do with virginity tests, but the Kanjarbhat law book clearly defines their role. In the section on wedding rituals, the book lays down that “gun jiti”, or character test, of the bride must take place on the night of the wedding, in a lodge. But the bride and groom can be given up to three days to finish the ritual if they are unable to do it on the first night.
“Typically, after the wedding ceremony, the caste panchayat members sit in a circle with the families to discuss the price they will take for the virginity test,” said Siddhant Indrekar, 21, an arts student and member of Stop the V-Ritual from Pune’s Kanjarbhat Nagar.
The bride and groom’s families each pay Rs 300 as a token amount, but Indrekar claimed the panchayat then asks them to pay more of their own volition. The bride is stripped of all her jewellery and the couple are taken to a sanitised room in a lodge. “Often, the families wait outside the room and keep knocking to ask if everything is going well,” said Indrekar. If the couple are unable to perform, they might even be shown pornography. At the end, the white bed sheet is displayed before the families and the groom has as to declare whether his bride proved to be “khara” or “khota”, pure or spoiled.
“Most young people follow the ritual for the sake of maintaining their parents’ honour and for fear of social boycott,” said Indrekar. “Many young girls are not even aware that women do not necessarily bleed when they have sex for the first time.”
A bride who is branded “khota” could either be beaten or humiliated by her husband’s family, socially boycotted or made to identify the person she had premarital relations with. At times, Indrekar said, families with the means “settle the matter” by paying off the panchayat.
‘It’s not a test, it’s culture’
Asked about the virginity test, Minekar admitted that panchayat members do take “token amounts” of Rs 300 each from the bride and groom’s families, but insisted that it is only to perform a ritual in which the bride is declared to be “paraya dhan”, or somebody else’s property, as she switches to her husband’s gotra or clan. “These children [activists] are lying and claiming we take lakhs of rupees from the families,” said Minekar, a member of the Nationalist Congress Party.
But even as he denied the role of caste panchayats in the virginity test ritual, Minekar emphatically defended the practice. “You should not perceive it as a test,” he said. “It is just culture that we have been following for centuries. Any father will want his daughter to have good character, and you have to understand panchayat members are also fathers. But the law cannot do anything to us, because the panchayat is not involved in this test. It is a family affair.”
Minekar insisted that the virginity test is necessary because “we don’t want India to turn into America”. Besides, he claimed, it is also a test for grooms, in a way. “Some men turn out to be gays, you know? Hijras,” he said. “So this test is also a way to see if the boy can perform.”
He further claimed that instances of a bride failing the virginity test are quite rare. “And if the girl is not pure, it is completely false that she is beaten or that her marriage is cancelled,” he said. “The panchayat just explains to her how she should live her life in her marital home. And the boy is explained that no matter what other fights they have, he cannot torture his wife for having had relationships in the past.”
At 99% of the Kanjarbhat weddings, Minekar claimed, the brides pass the test. “Our girls keep their character intact because they know they cannot ruin the honour of their parents,” he added. “So the test is just symbolic.”
‘Only we know what we go through’
For Kanjarbhat women, however, undergoing the ritual is far from symbolic. The women in Siddhant Indrekar’s family – who support Stop the V-Ritual and have faced social boycott because of it – pointed out that a bride’s experience of the virginity test is often traumatic and terrifying.
“I got married at the age of 17, when I did not know much about sex or the ritual,” said Anita, Indrekar’s mother. “At the time of my wedding I was explained that I would have to do whatever my husband said and I was very scared.”
If the bride is afraid to consummate the marriage, Anita claimed, the relatives often enter the room and explain how it is supposed to be done. “Then they stand outside the room and force the couple, saying they have to do it,” she said.
Anita’s sister-in-law Leela said the fear they might not bleed often traumatises prospective brides. “There is a lot of pressure because parents talk about how the whole family’s honour lies in the ritual and in her virginity,” she said. “Only we women know what we go through.”
‘Difficult to take legal action’
Though the Indrekar family has been outspoken about many caste practices over the years, no young woman or couple from the Kanjarbhat community has filed a police complaint against the virginity test ritual so far. According to Stop the V-Ritual activists, this is partly why it has been so difficult to take legal action against the virginity tests and the caste panchayats.
“The police want evidence in the form of personal complaints from couples,” Siddhant Indrekar pointed out. “But who would file a complaint against their own parents and against these powerful panchayats?”
In November 2017, two days after witnessing the caste panchayat discuss the price for the virginity test at a wedding, Indrekar filed a complaint at Pune’s Vishrantwadi police station. “Instead of arresting anyone, the police just called the panchayat members for a counselling session and asked them to stop the practice,” said Indrekar, who is still waiting for the case to move forward and for an FIR to be filed.
Officials Vishrantwadi police station claimed no such complaint had been filed even though Indrekar has a copy, which he shared with Scroll.in.
“The Pune panchayat has financial and political muscle, so they can manage the police if they want,” alleged Priyanka Tamaichikar.
‘I will keep fighting’
For now, Stop the V-Ritual has adopted on a two-pronged approach to end the virginity tests: gather evidence about the practice to file legal cases and spread awareness in the community. “We get a lot of support from people online but in December we had our first face-to-face meeting in Pune with 12 members,” said Vivek Tamaichikar, who is leading the movement despite opposition from his parents.
The activists are also getting support from Maharashtra’s anti-superstition rationalists and the media. But the increasing attention has led the panchayats and other conservative Kanjarbhats to aggressively counter the activists.
While speaking to Scroll.in, for instance, Minekar cast slurs on the women in the families of Priyanka and Vivek Tamaichikar and Siddhant Indrekar. He also alleged that several Kanjarbhat weddings in Pune have been stalled for “fear of trouble” from the activists. “Because of them, our caste’s girls are being teased in college,” Minekar said. “Students are waving white handkerchiefs with red ink stains in front of them.”
On February 5 and 6, Kanjarbhat panchayats from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh will meet in Kolhapur to discuss the “attacks” on their “ancient rituals and culture”. Minekar claimed the panchayat plans to sue the activists and many journalists for “defaming the community”.
“My family and I have been unofficially boycotted, my brother has not been allowed to play in the community cricket tournament and they have called me a ‘call girl’ and all kinds of names,” said Priyanka Tamaichikar, who sought police protection last week after hearing that some women in her colony planned to assault her. “But I am not afraid of them,” she said. “I will keep fighting.”