Why a matrilineal Meghalaya wants to strip Khasi women of ST status if they marry non-Khasis

There is a possibility that a similar law would eventually be introduced for Khasi men as well.

 |  8-minute read |   26-07-2018
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In Meghalaya, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council has approved a social custom bill that will strip a Khasi woman of her ST status, and all privileges that come with it, if she marries a non-Khasi.

What lies at the heart of this social custom bill is Meghalaya's matrilineal system. But there is more to the story — a bunch of male "suffragettes", a political system mainly dominated by men, and the "purity" of race argument that surrounds the politics of indigeneity — the "dangers" that Khasis feel mixed marriages pose to the community.

According to the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second  amendment) Bill, 2018, that was notified on July 24, and hurriedly passed the very next day, even the children of a Khasi woman married to a non-Khasi will be "deemed non-Khasis".

khasi_072618074628.jpg Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes of Meghalaya practice matriliny. (Credit: AP photo)

KHADC chief executive member HS Shylla feels there is a "silent invasion" [of "outsiders"] because of mixed marriages and inadequate laws to protect the indigenous people in the wake of the long ongoing illegal immigration crisis that poses imminent danger to the community.

Shylla, however, maintains that he is not against love marriages/relationships since that's “a personal choice”. 

Matrilineal Meghalaya

Meghalaya is often described as unique because of its matrilineal society — where family lineage is traced to the mother — with family assets, name and wealth passing from mother to daughter, and not father to son. A family must adopt a girl if it has no daughter to provide for an heir.

"Handed down" would be a wrong word to use since the property "passes through" the youngest daughter — khatduh (in case of the khasis), or the nokna (Garos). 

Strangely, a matrilineal society is often confused with matriarchy, and Khasi women have been a victim of this strange patriarchy that often reminds them of their power, but doesn't allow them to wield that.

Even though Khasi society is matrilineal, the women aren’t as empowered as the rest of India would like to think.

Their role in the family is only that of a caregiver, they are not the "head" of the family in the real sense — a fact that is proved by their abysmal representation in the state's politics. Meghalaya is yet to elect a woman chief minister.

What's more, in the Assembly elections held in February, only 32 out of the 370 — less than 9 per cent — candidates were women.

caregiver_072618074741.jpgKhasi women, like their counterparts in the rest of the country, are seen only as a caregiver. (Photo: AP)

Yet, the men feel "suffocated".

For some time now, Khasi men have been waging a "quiet" battle against what they call "reverse control" — a system that's against the "law of nature".

But Khasi women often assert that there is a difference between inheriting something and being a custodian, which is what happens to these women in the absence of total rights and control over the property.

According to well-known editor Patricia Mukhim, although Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes of Meghalaya practice matriliny, to say that women "enjoy property rights in the legal sense of the term is a fallacy".

"The khatduh inherits ancestral property and is expected to be its custodian. Ancestral property is kept as a sort of corpus on which all members of the family can fall back on in times of distress. Administration of the property is usually in the hands of the maternal uncle. In matriliny, the husband’s earning becomes part of the matrilineal property. Among the Garos, the matrilineal head, or the youngest daughter is the nokna, but the property is administered by her husband, the nokma, who also is recognised as the headman," she says in this article.

Mukhim highlights some inherent factors, which makes this "inheritance" really complicated.

"As the youngest daughter, the woman may inherit one homestead only, or a house if in the urban area. She lives in that house because she has to care for her parents during their lifetime. Even her husband moves in to settle with her and her parents. As soon as daughters are born to the khatduh they, too, have some right over the property. Even in the most pecuniary of circumstances the khatduh would not be permitted to sell any part of the inherited property. If the khatduh has inherited more than one property and has several daughters, she is obligated to allocate property to her daughters as well, where they can subsequently construct their own homes. This has been the trend followed."

The 'demoralised' men

On the other side of the debate are a group of men who have been campaigning to do away with the system that is inherently "biased towards men".

A group called Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT) has been fighting this battle — often described as Meghalaya's own men's lib movement — for almost a decade now. But members of the group insist that they "do not want to bring women down," just want to "bring the men up to where the women are".

Khasi men believe matriliny breeds a culture wherein men feel useless. Many argue that it is because of matriliny that generations of Khasi men fell prey to alcoholism and drug abuse. They are quick to cite examples like "it's the birth of the girl child that brings joy to a Khasi family", unlike everywhere else in India where "it's a boy" that almost all parents wish for, irrespctive of social status or education. 

"If it's a girl, there will be great cheers from the family outside. If it's a boy, you will hear them mutter politely that, 'Whatever God gives us is quite all right,'" Keith Pariat, former president of SRT was quoted as saying in this article back in 2012. 

The men feel their grudge against matriliny is genuine because it's not just Khasi children take their mother’s surname, or sons have no right to property, but the fact that a man is expected to move into his wife’s home after marriage and live with his mother-in-law.

The bill and what women feel

Following the latest development, Khasi women are naturally perturbed and feel that no matter what, men will always control a woman's life, her choice, hey body. And the fact that this is happening in a matrilineal society busts the myth about power that Khasi women actually wield — the power that makes the men feel so demoralised. 

Many are questioning the cause behind introducing a such a bill targeted only at women.

What about men?

But if KHADC chief executive member Shylla is to be believed, such a law would eventually be introduced for Khasi men as well. “A time will come when we will have to do the same with Khasi men and not just women. By then, there will not be a need for tang jait (a ceremony to accept a non-Khasi woman married to a Khasi man to his clan)," he was quoted by the Shillong Times.

Another reason for the amendment, Shylla and others insist, is to prevent claims of Khasi status by unscrupulous persons purely for constitutional benefits and concessions.

According to Shylla, land can be transferred indirectly to non-tribals through marriage to Khasi women. He also argues that often "during inspection of shops, Khasi women would come forward to claim that it belonged to them whereas it belonged to a non-tribal". 

It is clear that at the heart of the decision — to strip Khasi women of ST status if they marry non-Khasis — lies economic concerns since property "passes" from women to women.

There is always a huge dilemma about inheritance — if it's wealth, everybody wants a share of it. If responsibility, almost everybody is glad to bequeath it.

Also read: Why Supreme Court’s recent verdict on women’s inheritance rights is significant

 

Writer

Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

Works at DailyO.

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