A couple take their wedding vows during their wedding ceremony in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, January 23, 2011.
Amit Dave / Reuters

The office of Truly Madly, an online dating app, sits on the dusty outskirts of Delhi, India. But inside, it could easily be mistaken for a hip start-up in San Francisco: young men and women in hoodies, skinny jeans, and sneakers lounge about on beanbags in the New Age office, which is nestled between art galleries and handicraft shops. In the two years since its launch in 2014, Truly Madly has raised $5 million in funding and amassed close to two million users.

Arshad, 22, who hails from the small town of Bhadohi, Uttar Pradesh, joined the marketing team of Truly Madly six months ago, after graduating from one of India’s top colleges. “My family is very conservative, and I wanted to break out of the shell and do something different,” Arshad told me. She has not told her parents about her new job. For Arshad, and many young Indian women, her family prefers that she settle down and get married, but Arshad moved to Delhi to pursue a free, independent lifestyle. She refuses to let her parents dictate her future or her life partner. “I’m a Sunni Muslim and my parents want me to marry a Sunni Muslim,” she said. “For me, everything depends on the person, not the religion.”

In the offices of Truly Madly, nearly half of the 40 employees are women; most are under 30 and have moved to Delhi from small towns in search of their fortunes. Many, including Arshad, have dated men of their own choosing.

A couple sits on the seafront on the eve of Valentine's Day in Mumbai, February 13, 2009. Security has been tightened in several Indian cities after threats by right-wing groups to disrupt Valentine Day celebrations, local media reported.
Arko Datta / Reuters

According to Sachin Bhatia, the CEO of Truly Madly and formerly the co-founder of one of India’s most successful travel start-ups, MakeMyTrip, his inspiration for the app was not Tinder per se but the cruelty of arranged marriages. “I saw so many intelligent, capable women getting conned into arranged marriages where they were forced to give dowries and pay for extravagant weddings,” Bhatia told me. “By founding Truly Madly, I wanted to give women the power and ability to choose their own partners in a secure environment. I’m an absolute feminist at heart.”

Another issue in India is that because of its conservative gender mores, young men and women have limited options in meeting one another. Although the majority of India’s education is coed, there are often strict rules on how the sexes can interact, mostly at the primary level but sometimes even in college. Examples include strict curfews, prohibitions on girls and boys entering or even going near each other’s dormitories, and gender segregation in public areas.

Although Truly Madly works similarly to Tinder with its swiping feature, Bhatia says that the app is meant to encourage building coed relationships rather than just hooking up. The platform also offers a more organic experience of social discovery among India’s youth and, for women wary about meeting strangers, provides a system of verifying the backgrounds of the male users. “We want to create a safe space for young Indians to get to know each other—something which doesn’t quite exist here.”

SINGLE AND READY TO MINGLE

The societal pull for young Indian women to find a husband—one picked by their parents—rather than pursue a career or pick their own partners, is still predominant, but as the popularity of dating apps shows, it is slowly weakening. In fact, many young Indian women are choosing to remain single. According to national census data, the number of unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 29 increased by 68 percent from 2001 to 2011, which suggests that more women than ever before are delaying marriage to study and pursue careers. According to the International Labour Organization, female employment in India grew by nine million between 1994 and 2010, but it estimates that the figure could have been double if women had equal access to jobs.

Bhatia is aware of these changing trends, and that is why his dating app has been so successful, as with other similar apps such as Woo, Hinge, ekCoffee, and Matchify. With millions of installs, online dating has caught on in India in the last 12 to 18 months, learning from earlier attempts by the likes of Vee and Thrill, which failed. “They were just Tinder clones matching only on location,” Bhatia explained. “We at Truly Madly offered verified profiles and compatibility matching, which differentiated us in the crowded marketplace.”

People look for gifts at a shop at a market ahead of Valentine's Day celebrations in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, February 13, 2007.
Amit Dave / Reuters

According to Shaifali Sandhya, who wrote a book on the rise of love-based marriages in India and the decline of arranged ones, the number of love marriages has risen from just five percent of all Indian marriages a decade ago to 30 percent today. Some polls suggest an even higher rate in the metropolitan areas.

Traditionally, the caste system and strong social divisions created the need for arranged marriages, but the centuries-old tradition is breaking down as the country becomes more educated and urbanized. Although caste was once crucial to arranged marriages—since it enabled the pairing of two people with similar cultural values and backgrounds—most of India’s youth today do not consider caste an important factor for marriage. In modern India, caste no longer dictates lifestyle, interests, or even values. India is moving toward a society in which education and wealth determine social status.

The dating apps reflect this cultural change, in part, and also help to speed it along. For one, dating apps do not include a space for mentioning caste. On the other hand, matrimonial websites, which help facilitate arranged marriages, do. But even that is changing. The scholars Amit Ahuja and Susan L. Ostermann recently discovered that more than half of the prospective brides on matrimonial websites that they had reached out to expressed an interest in potential partners belonging to caste groups other than their own. According to Gourav Rakshit, chief operating officer of Shaadi.com, India’s largest matrimonial website, “The majority of our users now state ‘caste no bar’ in their profiles.”

The breakdown of the caste system is apparent not only within marriage, but in politics, too. The political success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who comes from a low caste, reflects the declining importance of this divisive social system, which once played a crucial role in politics.

The dating apps reflect another positive trend as well. Typically, in an arranged marriage, power lies in the hands of the man and his family, who dictate the dowry, which the bride and her family pay in the form of a lavish wedding or expensive wedding gifts. On dating apps, the power lies with the woman, because the average female-to-male ratio on dating apps is one to ten. For Truly Madly, 30 percent of its users are women; and women swipe right for 15 percent of their matches while men swipe right for around 80 percent.

Because the relationship is more modern, involving only the two people concerned rather than drawing in the family, dowry is usually not in the picture. For example, Priya (who asked not to disclose her last name) ended her engagement with a man she met on a matrimonial website because of his hefty dowry demands. She later met a man named Rahul on Truly Madly and they were married a year later in a wedding that was jointly financed by their families.

YOUNG AND RESTLESS

By 2020, India will be the youngest country in the world. That year, the average age of the 1.25 billion–strong Indian population will stand at 29. For Indian youth who have grown up with Bollywood and Western holidays such as Valentine’s Day, love and romance are a top priority. In fact, in India, particularly in cities, there is as much enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day as there is in the West, perhaps even more. Restaurants, beauty salons, hotels, and spas advertise special deals, vendors flood the streets with heart-shaped balloons, and couples can be seen celebrating all over the city: inside coffee shops, at marketplaces, and in public parks.  

An activist from hardline Hindu group Shiv Sena burns a Valentine's Day card in Calcutta, February 14, 2005. Hardline Hindus have vowed to disrupt Valentine's Day celebrations in the Indian states, including the central state of Madhya Pradesh, saying the Western love festival was a violation of India's traditional culture.
Jayanta Shaw / Reuters

No change is without conflict, however, and India’s young lovers often find themselves subject to harassment. In February 2014, a Hindu nationalist party in western Uttar Pradesh announced that they would force dating couples seen out on Valentine’s Day to get married and asked lovers to replace the holiday with “Parents’ Worship Day.”  In more disturbing cases, in what are known as “honor killings,” couples are murdered by their families and by village councils for marrying out of caste.

For a nation that has been blighted by archaic caste systems for centuries, the breakdown of caste and arranged marriage is a positive change. Although Mahatma Gandhi was the one who launched the first anti-caste campaign, it is now the dating apps that are keeping his movement alive—changing India not at cyberspeed, but slowly, one swipe at a time.

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  • IRA TRIVEDI is a New Delhi–based journalist and author. Her latest book is India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century.
  • More By Ira Trivedi