In the middle of June, while addressing the Uttarakhand Jan Samvad virtual rally, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said: “India-Nepal ties are not ordinary, we are bound together by ‘roti-beti’ and no power in the world can break it.” Singh’s comments came in the wake of the government of Nepal’s decision to draw a new map depicting disputed areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as Nepalese territories. 

Soon after the Nepalese government completed the process of redrawing the country’s political map, Nepal proposed to amend its Citizenship Act that would require a foreign woman married to a Nepali national to wait seven years for naturalised citizenship. Nepal’s main opposition parties decried the move, saying it would inconvenience people living in Madhes as cross-border marriage is prevalent there and could also affect the “bread and bride” or roti-beti relations that Nepal has had with India for ages. The Madheshi are the inhabitants of the Terai region in the south of Nepal at the foothill of the Himalayas on the border with India in Bihar. The Indian Express reported that although no official data has been compiled, most villages on either side of the international border have marriage relationships, own plots and even houses on the other side. 

The sentiment has been echoed by people on both sides of the porous border who have enjoyed free movement for years, as reported by The Times of India. In fact, families on Uttarakhand-Nepal border said they were worried that escalating tensions could affect their “roti-beti” contracts that had remained intact for centuries. “For years, we have looked at those across the border as our own. Cross-border marriages are common. At least 60 families out of 250 in our village are related to those living in villages are related to those living in villages on the other side by marriage,” said Harish Chandra Haisiyat, a resident of Sailani Goth village in Champawat district.

Root of the Roti 

The geo-strategic importance of Nepal, which is nestled between India and China is significant. A study paper by EFSAS (European Foundation of South Asian Studies) points out how India’s relations with Nepal are deep-rooted in ancient social, cultural, economic and political linkages. While the “proximity and natural affinity” paved the way for the Indo-Nepal 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship opening up their borders, it further sealed the old ‘roti-beti ka rishta‘. 

One thing that remains constant in all the sentiments and shared anecdotal references is the clubbing of daughters/daughters-in-law/brides or “betis” with roti or Indian traditional bread, essentially a commodity. Chapati, roti, phulka—the variegated Indian flatbread, native to the subcontinent and made from stoneground wholemeal flour, according to some theories traces its culinary roots to the Harappan civilisation and also cross-cultural roots with the Arab world. Although roti is popular across India, this dietary staple wears a North Indian (also Western and central India) signature. It is as much a source of strength and succour as is an economy in itself where every household has its own roti-making rituals. Since the “ritual” is mostly performed by women of the household it is perfected by breaking sweat through gendered domestic labour. It transcends from being mere bread to a meal in itself or the gesture of eating/inviting to eat, so when someone says “roti khake jaana” (share a meal with us before you leave) in Hindi, she is not referring to the bread alone but a complete meal. In this regard, roti encompasses the sentiment of the host. Further, coming back to the hearth that is ready with a heartening platter of roti/meal is also an image unavoidably dipped in productive economic labour, a task that is traditionally performed by men; the implication being it is hard earned. Who can forget the iconic Manoj Kumar film Roti Kapada Aur Makaan (1974), drawing from the Hindi phrase popularised in the late 1960s by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao campaign call? 

Daughters in the Discourse of Mercantile Exchange   

In the diplomatic parlance, roti is the symbol of continuing trade linkages across borders. And in this performative economic and cultural matrix beti is the tie that binds; the glue that fosters kinship bonds. Raised and nurtured as a product to be traded off at marriage, a girl enters into a transactional mode of exchange early on. She is valued and prized by a system that is parochial and feudal as it runs on the assumptions of an outdated order favouring caste/religion-based pride and laws that were cut out for landed gentry in the past. A dowry sum is set aside for her and this primordial barter economy posits beti as the value gate-pass. Beti becomes that flagbearer of virtue upon whom the virtue card building of polite and non-outrageous diplomatic talk builds up. She is the bait and the game just like in the time of monarchies and kingdoms, wherein daughters were traded off in marriage alliances to save kingdoms, foster peace and safeguard progeny. 

The roti-beti dialectic draws its dough from the same concept of patriarchal pride that is manifested in families where the patriarchal heads prohibit women to choose their own partners outside acceptable communities of caste and religion. Conversely, “giving” a daughter in marriage is to buy a protective shield for oneself, one’s land and people.  

The roti-beti trope negates the rights-based approach of feminism that galvanise women’s voices in economy, polity, law, governance and society. Shifts in geopolitical positions and laws governing such positions affect people caught on both sides; it is worth considering how such shifts impact civilian rights, children’s rights, minority rights, relations with land, rules of marriage, migration, dispossession, and the loss of cultural and emotional capital and memories. 

True, the dynamics of roti-beti can’t fully be fathomed though the lens of contemporary gender lens; it runs along a deeply cherished and shared association. It also runs on the tacit understanding that both sides have “given” their daughters and any tectonic shift in this naturally evokes strong sentiments and resentment. 

However, by resorting to outdated and regressive symbolic talk, a modern-day diplomatic dialogue ends up weaving an “old rhetoric” that reprises the outdated modus operandi of pride/honour. Such a rhetoric fails to take into account the evolution of women’s movements and the larger ground work done by women as independent entities, as equal-stake partners in economy, law and politics and above all in the marriage economy. Such a rhetoric is at loggerheads with the need for and the emphasis on and advocacy for girls’ education, health and hygiene. Such diplomatic speak where the beti’s face-name-voice is obliterated in favour of an omnipotent voice that it seems has the do-gooder will of a father and the stratagem of a statesman does nothing good for image or intention. It’s time to let the bread and the bride be.  

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