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Intrigues of Indigeneity and Patriarchy in Khasi Society

V Bijukumar (vbijuk@yahoo.co.in) is at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Proponents of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Second Amendment Bill, 2018 see it as a mechanism to protect the indigenous culture of the Khasi tribal community. However, critics from within and outside the community are describing it as a regressive legislation which will distort the matrilineal values of the Khasi society.

The author acknowledges the anonymous referee for comments on the previous draft of the article.
 

The passing of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Second Amendment Bill, 2018 by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) on 25 July 2018 generated a lot of debate within Meghalaya in particular and the North East in general. The amendment of Section 2 of the principal act inserted a new subsection (r) after the subsection (q). The new subsection (r) defines “Non-Khasi” as “a person not belonging to indigenous Khasi Tribe classified as Schedule Tribe under the Constitution (Scheduled Tribe) Order, 1950.” After the existing Section 3(c), a new section 3(d) was inserted which states that

any Khasi woman who married a non-Khasi as well as her offspring(s) born out of such marriage(s) shall be deemed as non-Khasi who shall lose the Khasi status and all the privileges and benefits as a member of the Khasi tribe who cannot claim preferential privileges under any law.

Notably, in 1997, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act was enacted by the KHADC to protect the state’s indigenous identity and culture from the onslaught of non-tribals. The act, which was passed on 13 March 1997, defined a Khasi as a person belonging to a Khasi tribe who may be a Khasi, Jaintia, Pnar, Synteny, War, Bhoi, or Lyngngam following Khasi customs. The first amendment was effected in 2015. However, considering the peculiarities of tribal demography, the bill and its first amendment did not attract much attention.

The KHADC, which comes under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, aims to safeguard the identity, culture, and governance of the tribal community. To achieve this goal, it can make laws on marriage, divorce, and social customs under paragraph 3 of the Sixth Schedule. However, such laws undergo judicial scrutiny and they should be in consonance with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Perhaps, the most perturbing problem of the customary laws is that they re-establish traditional gender roles. Often, customary laws come into conflict with the ideals of gender equality in their interpretation and practices. When this happens, women are often the victims of social customs and practices. Even in some matrilineal societies where the condition of women is projected to be better than in other societies, deep-rooted patriarchal values are perpetuated by traditional institutions that neglect the participation of women.

Intricacies of Matriliny

Meghalaya’s tribal communities are known for their matrilineal system, in which family lineage is traced to the mother: family assets, name, and wealth pass from mother to daughter and not from father to son. In Khasi matrilineal society, the youngest married daughter inherits ancestral family property and her husband moves to settle with her family and look after her parents. Although such action safeguards old parents, their mobility and the personal choices of married daughters are restricted. Though Meghalaya is projected as a matrilineal society with great gender equality, the presence of deep-rooted patriarchal values prevents the socio-political empowerment of women. Matriliny, often controlled by patriarchal values and traditional institutions, fortifies the role of men. Such a situation involves unequal power relations between men and women. As Nongbri (2000: 367) argues, “matriliny privileges women in the organisation of the family [but] does not preclude them from gender discrimination.” Many studies have proved that gender-based insecurity prevails in the Khasi community, especially with regard to the possession of land and resources. Moreover, Khasi women face various forms of violence, including domestic violence (McDuie-Ra 2007: 359–84). While the number of cases of rape, molestation, kidnapping, and domestic violence against women is alarming, most of them are not reported to the police.

A Legitimate Solution?

In trying to build wider legitimacy for the bill, supporters argue that it is intended to protect indigeneity, safeguard culture, and uphold tradition. According to them, it will save Khasis from becoming a minority community. The bill is legitimised by asserting that it will protect indigenous people in the wake of illegal migration by non-tribals into the state. Further, the bill supposedly takes into account the controversy surrounding the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Supporters of the bill claim that the derecognition of around 40 lakh people from the citizens register will lead to their immigration from Assam to neighbouring Meghalaya, and that they will enter into marital relationships with Khasi women.

Invoking indigeneity, the protagonists further argue that the bill is protecting Khasi self-identity from the threat of interracial marriages. The chief executive member of KHADC, H S Shylla, defended the bill saying that its framing was aimed at protecting the community from the imminent threat of deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS through marriage with bus and truck drivers from outside the state and migrant workers, including drug addicts (Shillong Times 2018b). Shylla urged the Jaintia Hill Autonomous District Council to enact such a bill, claiming that Khasis and Pnars are the same community. Shylla also claimed that a large number of people misused the Khasi social customs of lineages for their personal advantages and self-interest, which has jeopardised and seriously disturbed the social and cultural life of the Khasi people.
According to him,

it is, therefore, expedient to provide a law for strictly following the prevailing Khasi Social Custom of Lineage to keep and preserve the traditional matrilineal system of society of the Khasis and for the protection of their interest. (Shillong Times 2018a)

However, others criticised these statements for inciting hate among communities and sought a public apology from Shylla. Supporters of the bill often ascribe the increasing cases of family breakdown in the Khasi community to Khasi women marrying non-Khasi men. According to the 2011 Census, Meghalaya is second to Mizoram in having the highest rate of separation and divorce in the country.

Proponents believe that the bill will prevent unscrupulous claims of Khasi status, which are made purely to obtain constitutional benefits, concessions, or privileges conferred on Khasis. Currrently, non-tribals who marry Khasi women enjoy all benefits extended to Khasis, including land and property rights. According to supporters of the bill, outsiders are taking away the properties of Khasi women by entering into marital relations with them. Marrying Khasi women allows non-tribals to obtain licences for trade and business, evade taxation, and conduct land transfers. According to this view, interracial marriages lead to the economic exploitation of Khasi women. In the past, many Khasi women married non-tribals and transferred their land to their husbands. In this context, many laws intended to protect the indigenous community were diluted. For instance, the Trading by Non-Tribals Regulation Act, the Meghalaya (Benami Transactions Prohibition) (Amendment) Act, and the Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act have not been able to protect the interests of the indigenous people. Moreover, it is purported that such marriages lead to changes in culture with the Khasi women and their children adopting their husbands’ personal laws and practices.

Growing Internal Criticisms

In Khasi society, internal criticisms are rarely explicitly encouraged since they may be interpreted by ethnic organisations as being against the sentiment of the community, leading to threats and intimidation. The bill, however, generated polarised debate within Khasi society, which is a rare occurrence. Many civil society organisations, women, and prominent personalities came forward to criticise the regressive values in their communities. Critics argue that the interests of the community create obstacles for the realisation of individual liberty. Preventing a Khasi woman from marrying a non-Khasi is gender-biased and often propagates a culture of hate. It is also in violation of the fundamental rights of tribal women and the rights of tribal children. The decisions of the KHADC are often seen as similar to those of khap panchayats.1 Critics have also added a religious angle to the bill, arguing that it prevents Christian tribals from marrying non-tribals of the same religion. The provisions of the bill also apply to Khasi women who marry men from other tribes. It was argued that the move was an attempt to control women’s bodies and choice.

Civil society in the state has been split into two, with organisations like the Khasi Students’ Union extending support to the bill, while the Civil Society Women’s Organisation and Thma U Rangli were critical of it. Many wondered how the KHADC, a group of 30 members, can formulate a policy affecting the interests of the whole community. In the largely tribal-dominated state of Meghalaya, the church plays an important role, having made immense contributions towards the social development of women, especially in education and health. However, it often takes an indifferent attitude towards gender inequality in the state. As Nongbri (2000: 383) argues,

despite the values of equality and social justice preached by Church, the involvement of women in its activities are confined primarily to subordinate and stereotypical feminine roles, rarely in the ministry.

Regarding this volatile situation prevailing in the Khasi Hills, the church has taken only a tenuous role, stating that more consultations are required on the bill.

While the bill intends to protect the indigeneity of Khasis who believe in Christianity, it does not address the anxiety and concerns of the Seng Khasis. An indigenous community among the Khasis, the Seng Khasis constitute only 8% of the population and are facing an existential crisis in the state. They belong to Niam Khasi, an animistic religion, and have retained their sociocultural and religious heritage, while
a majority of Khasis have embraced Christianity. While the Christian Khasi tribal community is expanding in length and breadth, Seng Khasis are in a state of virtual extinction. It is stated that

in Meghalaya, the percentage of people following Khasi indigenous faith and other indigenous religions and minor faith categorised in the Census as “Other religion and Persuasions” has come down by 8% points from 17% to 9% from 1991 to 2011. (Umdor 2018)

Since the provisions of the bill are only applicable to the Christian Khasis of Meghalaya claiming Scheduled Tribe status, the Seng Khasis are left out of the bill.

Dilution of Matrilineal Values

Critics argue that the bill is an explicit manifestation of the patriarchal values inherent in Khasi society and that matriliny is crumbling due to its provisions. A Khasi woman entrepreneur asserted that the bill unmasked the patriarchal truth of Khasi matriliny (Nongpiur and Nongpiur 2018). According to her, the bill is discriminatory, regressive, illegal, and violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Moreover, while the bill restricts personal choice of Khasi women in marriage, it is silent on the Tangjait tradition, which has existed in the Khasi community for a long time. This tradition allows tribal men to marry non-tribal women, sanctifies their marriage, and recognises the family as a new Khasi clan.

The chairperson of the Meghalaya State Commission for Women, Theilin Phanbuh, said that the bill was “shocking” as it prevents a Khasi woman from marrying a non-Khasi, but does not consider it a problem if a Khasi man marries non-Khasi women (Shillong Times 2018c). It has been further observed that the non-tribal husbands of Khasi women who marry and settle outside the state and abroad rarely use their wife’s lineage to acquire land and property. This contests the general perception and claims of non-tribals acquiring land in the state through marriage. An editorial in Shillong Times found fault with the lack of public debate and the hastiness with which the bill was brought. It argues that a body of 30 people had pushed the bill, evoking far-reaching problems in society. It goes on to say,

more than a genuine concern for the Khasi Society, it is self-serving politics of those in Khasi Hills District Council who will be seeking re-election in early 2019, which weighs more heavily. This is where the real problem lies. (Shillong Times 2018d)

Opponents of the bill argue that Khasi women have limited options in selecting their husbands since, being Christians, they cannot marry Seng Khasis. Moreover, Khasi women cannot choose husbands within one’s clan as it is seen as a social taboo. In many cases, Khasi women working outside the state find comfort in persons in the same profession who are non-Khasis. It has to be noted that Khasi women moving to other parts of India and abroad for education and employment marry non-Khasis. For some, marital relationships with non-Khasis offer economic empowerment and social mobility as opposed to the protection of so-called indigeneity. It is argued that the insistence on marrying “Khasi alone,” which restricts the choice of Khasi women, has been creating difficulties in finding suitable mates, resulting in women staying single throughout their lives.

This argument assumes significance in a context where there are an increasing number of unmarried young Khasi women and the Khasi population in the state is shrinking. Khasis consider marriage a social necessity that is important for the continuity of the clan. It has been asserted that

the bill is not only an attack on the traditional marriage system but it is an assault on the very fundamentals of Jaidbynriew and that is the clan system. It is against the clan system because it considers marriage to be a contract between two persons and also ignores the important role of the maternal uncle. (Mohrmen 2018)

The bill would affect Khasi Christian women in the same way it affects her fellow tribeswomen following the indigenous faith (Umdor 2018).

Conclusions

The rationale for the bill emerged out of the growing anxiety of losing the community’s distinct identity in the wake of Khasi women marrying outside their tribe. However, in the process of protecting indigeneity, women’s rights are being sacrificed. In fact, the legislative action and political mobilisation for protecting indigeneity have often turned to be outrageous and harmful for the state’s women. As Nongbri (2000: 381) put it,

what seems to escape the attention of many is that in the name of protecting the ethnic purity of Khasi and the interest of “pureblood” (Khasi Paka) they overlook the interests of the castigated women and vulnerable family members who are reduced to the status of outsiders.

The so-called indigenous assertions are elite craft to divert the attention of the common masses from the real problems confronted by them. In other words, it is a cover-up for elite exploitation. The growing inequalities and anxieties among the unemployed youth are diverted to indigenous issues. As Mukhim (2018) rightly argued, “it is pointless making an issue of customary practices when corruption and failed governance are the real issues.” It may be recalled that, on an earlier occasion, a hue and cry was raised over the safeguarding of indigenous culture from the onslaught of migration by non-tribals into the state. This led to a demand for the Inner Line Permit (ILP). During the fierce agitation for ILP, fearmongers often invoked the imminent “extinction” of the Khasi community because of the outsiders migrating to the state. The construction of the tribal versus non-tribal binary is often a deliberate attempt to hide the clashes within Khasi society between the elite and the poor masses. The elite ignore the pervasive corruption and misgovernance in the state by promoting ethnic consciousness and the values of indigeneity. Although the customary laws and practices of the tribal communities are protected by the Constitution, they must work within the spirit and ideals of the modern Constitution. Traditional institutions should also work within that framework. When traditional institutions invoke customary laws to protect the community’s indigeneity, the causality is gender equality and women’s rights. Feminists contend that in order to ensure gender equality and abolish control on women’s sexuality and choices, laws and institutions should be made gender neutral.

Note

1 An informal assembly of male members of the village based on caste and community exists in North India which enforces age old traditions and customs, and pronounces stringent punishment for those who violate it. See, Shillong Times (2018c).

References

McDuie-Ra, Duncan (2007): “The Constraints on Civil Society beyond the State: Gender-based Insecurity in Meghalaya, India,” Voluntas, Vol 18, pp 359–84.

Mohrmen, H H (2018): “Uprooting the Tree to Remove the Disease,” Shillong Times, 6 August, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/08/ 06/uprooting-the-tree-to-remove-the-disease/.

Mukhim, Patricia (2018): “Exploring the Fear of Khasi Society,” Shillong Times, 3 August, http: //www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/08/03/exploring-the-fears-of-khasi-society/.

Nongbri, Tiplut (2000): “Khasi Women and Matriliny: Transformations in Gender Relations,” Gender, Technology and Development, Vol 4,
No 3, pp 359–95.

Nongpiur, Dalariti and Pilarisa Nongpiur (2018): “Unmasked: The Patriarchal Truth of Khasi Matriliny,” Shillong Times, 27 August, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/08/02/unmasked-the-patriarchal-truth-of-khasi-matriliny/.

Shillong Times (2018a): “Khasi Woman Marrying Outside Tribe Lose ST Status, Benefits,” 26 July, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018 /07/26/khasi-woman-marrying-outside-tribe-to-lose-st-status-benefits/.

(2018b): “KHADC Yet to Receive Lineage Bill from Government,” 27 July, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/08/27/khadc-yet-to-receive-lineage-....

(2018c): “Women Denounce KHADC’s ‘Gender-Biased’ Lineage Bill,” 27 July, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/07/27/women-denounce-khadcs-gender-....

(2018d): “KHADC Khasi Lineage Bill,” 28 July, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/07/28/khadc-khasi-lineage-bill/.

Umdor, Sumrbin (2018): “The Khasi Lineage Amendment Bill of 2018 and Survival of the Indigenous Faith in Meghalaya,” Shillong Times,
9 August, http://www.theshillongtimes.com/ 2018/08/09/the-khasi-lineage-amendment-bill-of-2018/.

Updated On : 12th Mar, 2019

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