KHAPs are informal local councils in north-western India. They meet to lay down the law on questions of marriage and caste, and are among India’s most unflinchingly conservative institutions. They have banned marriage between people of different castes, restricted it between people from the same village and stand accused of ordering honour killings to enforce their rulings, which have no legal force. India’s Supreme Court once called for khaps to be “ruthlessly stamped out”. In April 2014, however, the Satrol khap, the largest in Haryana, one of India’s richest states, relaxed its ban on inter-caste marriage and made it easier for villagers to marry among their neighbours. “This will bring revolutionary change to Haryana,” said Inder Singh, president of the khap.
The cause of the decision, he admitted, was “the declining male-female sex ratio in the state”. After years of sex-selective abortions in favour of boys, Haryana has India’s most distorted sex ratio: 114 males of all ages for every 100 females. In their search for brides, young men are increasingly looking out of caste, out of district and out of state. “This is the only way out to keep our old traditions alive,” said Mr Singh. “Instead of getting a bride from outside the state who takes time to adjust, we preferred to prune the jurisdiction of prohibited areas.”
The revision of 500 years of custom by its conservative guardians symbolises a profound change not just in India. Usually dubbed the “marriage squeeze”, the change refers both to the fact of having too many men chasing too few brides and the consequence of it in countries where marriage has always been nearly universal. Sex selection at birth is common in China and India. The flight from marriage—with women marrying later, or not at all—is long established in Japan and South Korea. But until recently, Asia’s twin giants have not felt the effects of sexual imbalance in marriage. Now they are.
The marriage squeeze is likely to last for decades, getting worse before it gets better. It will take the two countries with their combined population of 2.6 billion—a third of humanity—into uncharted territory. Marriage has always been a necessary part of belonging to society in India and China. No one really knows how these countries will react if marriage is no longer universal. But there may be damaging consequences. In every society, large numbers of young men, unmarried and away from their families, are associated with abnormal levels of crime and violence.