“All the mankind loves the lovers”, said American philosopher, poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. That was not to be in the case of Manoj, 23, of Karoran village in Kaithal district, Haryana, who fell in love with Babli, 19. They got married on April 7, 2007 against the wishes of Babli’s family. A Khap panchayat (traditional village councils of male elders) of the village aggressively rallied against the marriage on the pretext that both were from the same ‘Gotra’ (sub-clan). The Khap leaders issued a Taliban like fatwa, following which the young couple was gruesomely killed in cold blood on June 15, 2007.
In another incident, Ved Pal Moan was brutally beaten to death in 2009 when he tried to secure his wife who was confined by her parents at her village. Ved Pal had married neither within his gotra nor within the same village. In this case, yet another absurd code was invoked by the khap: that the couple violated the custom of not marrying in the neighbouring village as it forms part of bhaichara (brotherhood). A khap congregation held in March 2009 publicly pronounced the death sentence for Ved Pal, and it succeeded in executing it in June.
Recently, a sessions court in Karnal in Haryana awarded the exemplary death sentence to five of those involved in the killing of Manoj and Babli- Babli’s brother Suresh, uncles Rajender and Baru Ram and cousins Satish and Gurde. The leader of Banawala khap, Ganga Raj, was awarded life sentence for hatching a conspiracy to kill a couple. The landmark judgement was a blow to the Taliban-style caste panchayats. Manoj's mother Chanderpati stated that "I want all killers to be hanged in public, so that nobody dares to take innocent lives in the future". Even today the village boycotts the family on the dictates of khap panchayat.
The fitting court verdict has not deterred the khaps, as more than 20 caste panchayats from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan congregated belligerently at Kurukshetra on April 13, 2010. They sought legal sanction for the khap panchayats to maintain “social order”. Further, publically they have declared their support for the murderers of Manoj-Babli, and resolved to collect funds to provide support to the killers. They also argued that marriages within the same gotra (clan within which men and women are considered siblings and hence cannot marry) is “unscientific” as it would result in consanguineous marriage with deleterious effects.
Influenced by this “scientific” argument, even those who otherwise disapprove of khap practices argue that there is a point in banning same gotra marriages. The science of genetics, they have argued, suggests that marriage between close relative is not desirable. From young foreign educated industrialist politicians like Navin Jindal to aggressive Hindutva parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party have buckled under the pressure of the khaps and are calling for revision of the Hindu marriage act to ban same gotra marriages on the pretext of science of genetics. Is consanguineous marriage really the culprit, as is made out to be?
Prevalence of consanguineous marriages
Marriages between near blood relatives such as cousins, and between the uncle and the niece are categorised as consanguineous. Almost 10.4% of world population today are couples related either as second cousins or closer and their progeny. The highest rates of consanguineous marriage occur in north and sub-Saharan Africa, the west, central, and south Asia. In India, according to the National Family and Health survey of 1992-93, 11.9% of marriages were consanguineous.
Unions between biological kin are rather uncommon in the northern, eastern and north-eastern states of India. Gothra and bhaichara system followed, in particular by the Hindu communities, in these areas contribute to this factor. Under this system, marriage of a man with the daughter of his father’s sister or of his mother’s sister, or of his mother’s brother is prohibited. Further, neighbouring villages are considered as to come under bhaichara (brotherhood) and marriages does not take place between men and women of neighbouring villages. On the other hand uncle-niece marriage and first-cousin unions between a man and his maternal uncle’s daughter (mother’s brother’s daughter) have a long tradition in South India. In the three southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, between 29.7%-38.2% of all marriages are consanguineous. Even in Maharashtra it is as high as 21%. Kerala is an exception, in part because of the strict avoidance of consanguineous marriage among members of the Christian Syrian Orthodox church and due to lower levels of consanguinity in the long-established local Muslim communities. While the highest rates of consanguineous marriage in South India are in traditional rural areas, less educated and poorest sections, it is significant and commonplace even in generally well off and educated Brahmin communities.
Consanguineous marriage and health impact
Consanguinity could lead to birth defects, blood cancer (acute lymphocytic leukemia), breathing problems for children at birth (apnea) and many other genetic diseases. The major impact of consanguinity is infant death (including termination of pregnancy, still birth and death in tender age). Studies show that consanguinity increases the incidence of many blinding disorders like retinitis pigmentosa, leber congenital amaurosis, Lawrence-Moon-Bardet-Biedl syndrome, Stargardt disease, Usher syndrome etc. Consanguinity could increase the risk of inheriting any one of the 4968 (autosomal recessive) genetic diseases.
Genetics, hereditary and genetic disorders
Why do consanguineous marriages result in children with genetic diseases? To understand this we need to look at our genetic composition and how we obtain it. All living organisms are made up of cells that contain a substance called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). DNA is wrapped together to form structures called chromosomes. In human body, every cell has 23 pairs of (that is 46) chromosomes.
Out of this, one set of the 23 chromosome comes from the mother’s egg, while the other set of 23 chromosomes through father’s sperm. A male child receives an X chromosome from his mother and a Y chromosome from his father; females get an X chromosome from each parent. Heredity is the passing of genes from one generation to the next. We inherit parents' genes.
If we consider the chromosome as a pearl necklace, genes are the pearls- a segment or section of DNA carried on the chromosome. Individual gene or a collection of genes together determine the specific human characteristics, such as hair colour, hair characteristics (curly or straight hair). Some characteristics come from a single gene, whereas others come from gene combinations. Because every person has from 25,000 to 35,000 different genes, there are an almost endless number of possible combinations.
The DNA like any natural object is susceptible to corruption. Habits such as smoking, pollution; natural cosmic ray radiation, or even the process of aging could cause changes and variation in the DNA, and hence in the gene. This is called gene mutation.
Fortunately, cells usually recognize these mutations and repair them by themselves (called genetic proof correction). Sometimes such mutations have no appreciable effect. Other times, however, they can cause illnesses, such as some types of cancer. And if the gene mutation is transferred through the egg or sperm cells, children then inherit the mutated gene from their parents. For generations such mutations are passed on from generation to generation. Researchers have identified more than 5,000 diseases that are caused by genetic variants.
But having a genetic mutation that may cause disease does not always mean that a person will actually get that disease. Note that each parent has given us one chromosome in each pair, therefore we have two of every gene (except for some of the genes on the X and Y chromosomes in boys because boys have only one of each). Because we inherit a gene from each parent, the defective gene inherited from one of the parent is overridden by the ‘normal’ gene from the other parent. Every otherwise healthy person, including each of us, in fact has probably 5 to 10 variant or disease genes in their cells, however these genes become recessive as the other normal gene dominates and produces the normal protein we need. The benefit of having a pair of kidneys is that even if one becomes faulty we can still survive with the other. In like manner, one of the benefits of having pair of genes each inherited from one of the parent is redundancy.
People who have only one defective recessive gene are called carriers, and they are not affected by genetic diseases. However when two carriers have a child together, the child has a 1 in 4 (25%) chance of getting the recessive gene from both parents, which results in the child having the disease. Cystic fibrosis (a lung disease), sickle cell anaemia (a blood disease), and Tay-Sachs disease (which causes nervous system problems) are caused by recessive disease genes from both parents coming together in a child. Some recessive genetic variants are carried only on the X chromosome, which means that usually only males develop the disease because they have only one X chromosome. Female have two X chromosomes, so they would need to inherit two copies of the recessive gene to get the disease. X-linked disorders include the bleeding disorder haemophilia and colour blindness.
Due to inheritance, parents and children, and brothers and sisters, commonly share 50 per cent of their genetic make-up. Similarly uncles and nieces share 25 per cent and first cousins 12.5 per cent of their inherited genetic material as it originates from a common ancestor (grandparents/ great grandparents). Thus in the case of consanguineous parents, the chances are high for defective recessive gene being transmitted by both, and hence manifestation of genetic disease in the child is elevated. Nonetheless, consanguineous marriages farther than second cousins would not result in major genetic diseases. Also relatives who are not biological kin, such as wife's brother and husband's sister marriages are not consanguineous from the scientific point of view.
Indeed consanguinity could lead to mortality; but to what extent? The most recent mortality estimate is based on a multinational study of over 6,000,00 pregnancies and live births, in which 10 of the 38 populations studied were from India and nine were from Pakistan. This study shows that due to consanguinity, on the average 5.2 babies die before they attain five years old for every 1000 pregnancies. To place this figure in partial perspective, the rate of under-five-year mortality in India over a comparable study period was 109.3/1000. That is, at best, consanguinity contributes to just under 5% of total infant mortality in India. Hence, though every child death is an immense loss resulting in pain and suffering to the family, in particular to the mother, perhaps more will be achieved if we care to provide clean drinking water, maternal health care and mitigate hunger, than waxing eloquently over consanguinity.
Community genetics and genetic disorders
This is not to deride the importance of genetic disorders as such. The significant progress made in India in improving childhood nutritional status and combating infectious disease means that genetic disorders have assumed ever-increasing importance. In populations where consanguineous marriage is widely practiced, recessive genetic disorders will continue to gain greater prominence in the overall spectrum of ill health.
However the significant point to be noted is that studies are showing that consanguinity is in the wane. Increased urbanization, improved female education and the gradual shift to smaller family sizes impose constraints on consanguineous marriage in future generations. Increase in the average age of marriage, lowering of fertility has already considerably reduced the prevalence of uncle-niece marriages simply because of the unacceptable age differentials between the potential partners. While consanguineous marriages are seeing a downward trend, largely due to improved social status of women, another major contributor of genetic disorder, caste endogamy remains largely unchanged throughout India.
The population of India is composed of many thousands of subpopulations, divided by geography, language, religion and caste boundaries, with endogamous marriage the norm. Within the majority Hindu community there are an estimated 3000 major castes, 1055 scheduled castes and 572 schedules tribes. Each of them is divided into various sub-castes with strict norms that marriage takes place within the sub-caste. It is estimated that in effect there are 50,000 to 60,000 essentially endogamous subpopulations, each having total numbers from fewer than a hundred individuals to hundreds of thousands.
As the population had remained isolated for thousands of years because of marriages within castes, India is genetically not a single large population, instead it is best described as many smaller isolated populations. It should be noted that in the past for many thousands of years not only the population size was small, repeated epidemics would have had a heavy toll. Thus those few who survived of each of these endogamous populations are the “founders”; only their progenies survive today. It means that today’s genetic composition of an endogamous group is founded on a handful of individuals. If by chance the surviving “lucky” (not necessarily fit) individuals had say, specific genetic makeup, then it would became the foundation on which the future generation of that endogamous population and more and more individuals in the group will acquire the specific genetic composition (allele) in subsequent generations (called founder effect). In a small population with high endogamy [where people marry within the population], the mutation persists and spreads to more number of people (called genetic drift in scientific parlance). After a point of time, a large number of people have the recessive gene and this increases the chance of a child receiving a recessive gene from both the parents and thus becoming diseased. Under these circumstances whether or not the parents are known to be consanguineous, a recessive founder or de novo mutation of chronic effect can rapidly increase in frequency within a particular community or sub-community, resulting in the birth of an affected child.
The smaller the community the greater the probability that the “founder effect” and “genetic drift’” will exert a significant influence on the distribution patterns of specific mutations. Even couples who regard themselves as unrelated may exhibit high levels of homozygosity. Therefore, even in the absence of preferential consanguineous marriage, genetic isolation often results in the increased frequency of community-specific genetic diseases. This fact is commonly overlooked, with the consequent general assumption that where an autosomal recessive disease is present in a family or community at high frequency consanguinity is necessarily implicated.
The effect of caste could be seen readily in a study that looked at the prevalence of deaf-mutism, resulting from inherited genetic disorder, amongst 13 Hindu and two Sikh castes and 17 Muslim communities using the information collected in the 1921 Census of (then undivided) Punjab. As practiced in northern India, among Hindu communities consanguineous marriage was prohibited, while males in Muslim biradiris favoured first cousin marriage. Yet in Muslim communities the relative prevalence of deaf-mutism was lower, whereas in Hindus 46.8% of observed variation was inter-caste. That is despite consanguineous marriage the deaf mutism was low in Muslim population as compared to Hindu population that followed the gotra system. From a wider disease perspective the results obtained with the Hindu community indicate the significant genetic differentiation associated with caste endogamy.
By comparison the lower level of inter-biradiri variation among Muslims in probably indicative of the dissolution of pre-existing caste boundaries and the resultant gene pool mixing that followed the large-scale conversion of Hindus to Islam during Muslim rule in North India the 13th to the 19th centuries. In like manner, in numerically small and highly endogamous Arab Israeli communities, high frequency of autosomal recessive disease genes have been diagnosed. Thus prevalence of strict endogamous marriage is far more threat today than even consanguineous marriages.
Marriage of choice and community genetics
Population geneticists say that mixing of previously separated breeding groups would result in marked reduction in the global prevalence of rare autosomal recessive disorders. Though over time, “random” mating of non-consanguineous carriers of recessive mutations would result in random progeny with genetic disorder, the current levels of excessive recessive diseases would drastically come down. A recent study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad on the genetic profile of various Indian communities notes that “Allele frequency differences between groups in India are larger than in Europe, reflecting strong founder effects whose signatures have been maintained for thousands of years owing to endogamy” and warn that as a result “there will be an excess of recessive diseases in India.” Various other studies have shown that susceptibility to infectious diseases like TB, leprosy are also high among certain caste population essentially due to endogamous marriage system.
Careful scrutiny will show that while some of the diktats are against couples who married within their gotra, the Khaps create a false impression that all marriages of choice between young couples are incestuous. The practise of khap and murderous attacks on young couples, who fall in love, cannot be attributed to mere lack of “development”, “poverty” or “backward” thinking. In fact Haryana which is fast becoming the “honour killing state of India” has the second per capita income in the country. Nevertheless, for every 1000 boys in the age group of 0-6, there are only 821 girls in Haryana, indicating rampant female foeticide.
In the South, though khap type violence is not rampant, subtle pressure is created on girls to bow to tradition and dictates of patriarchy. Quite opposite to the situation in northern India, many films in the South (Tamil and Telugu in particular) glorify and valourise uncle-nice marriages and marriage between first cousins. Tradition, family values and kinship it is claimed would be strengthened by such marriages. In such traditional communities the sex ratio is coming down drastically, indicating female foeticide.
As indicated earlier the real trend is encouraging- consanguineous marriages are in a state of decline. On the other hand marriage of choice shakes the very foundation of caste, with its hereditary based membership. The enragement of the caste patriarch, both in northern Indian and in southern India, appears to be provoked by the challenge that marriage of choice places before them. Thus the act of khap is in fact an act to control women's sexuality and thereby perpetuate caste divisions. It is a desperate attempt to hold on to the patriarchal caste domination in the face of changing social scenario. It is hence the right to choose a marriage partner, especially by women is vehemently denied by these khaps. On the other hand if the real objective of well intentioned people is to reduce the risk of genetic disorders in the population, then hitherto endogamous populations should mix – that is the way forward.