Is The Khasi Matrilineal Society In Danger ? 

IF THIS BILL SAFEGUARDS THECOMMUNITY THEN WHY ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING AGAINST IT ?

Written by Mannat Dutt

 Illustrated by Purvi Rajpuria

  Being a relatively small community, the tribe continues to feel threatened by the influx of outsiders and the economic exploitation they might face.

In a country with the domination of patrilineal society, few communities follow matrilineal principles. The Khasi tribe is one of these communities which follows the matrilineal principle of descent, inheritance and residence. Based in north-east India, Khasi people are an indigenous ethnic group from Meghalaya with a significant population in the bordering state of Assam, and in certain parts of Bangladesh. In the Khasi tribe, a woman traces her lineage from her mother's side; the husband moves into her house and lives with her family. Along with this, the tribals get numerous benefits of land, tax exemptions and protection of rights. Recently, these benefits have been misused by the people outside the community for profitable gains.  Being a relatively small community, the tribe continues to feel threatened by the influx of outsiders and the economic exploitation they might face. To protect the community, they introduced a bill in 2018, which has been debated over the recent years. The bill has been widely protested by the younger as well as older generations for several reasons. The main question here is, why would they protest something that protects their own community? 

Khasi society is matrilineal but not matriarchal, a woman traces her lineage from her mother, but she still doesn't take all the family decisions.

Any Khasi woman marrying a non-Khasi outside the community shall lose her Khasi status and all privileges attached to the Khasi community.

Not only identity, but it also questions the equality of men and women in society.

Khasi society is matrilineal but not matriarchal, a woman traces her lineage from her mother, but she still doesn't take all the family decisions. A Khasi woman is responsible for taking care of her mother and family, but all her decisions are influenced by the consent of their brothers and other male members of the household. She is a mere custodian of the property. The male members remain the heads of the family as they influence all important decisions. Upon marriage, the elder daughter moves out to set up her independent family, whereas the younger one stays back and takes care of the parents. After she marries, her husband moves into her home, where she is the primary caretaker. The bill introduced by the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) in 2018 says that they can deprive Khasi women of their tribal status and all accompanying privileges if they marry outside their tribe. This is highly problematic for many reasons, especially in the Khasi society, as, unlike most Indian communities, arranged marriage does not exist among Khasi people.

“It has never happened, even in our imaginations. There hasn't been anyone I know who has had an arranged marriage”, says Nikita, 21-year-old graduate Khasi student from Shillong.  They don't have the concept of an arranged marriage; they only follow the principle of a love marriage. If you fall in love, then you get married; otherwise, you remain single. “The bill does not say that love marriage between a Khasi woman and a non-Khasi man is forbidden; however, it does come with its consequences”, says Rachael, a 22-year-old student studying in Shillong. In this case, the consequences would be to stay single or partake in an arranged marriage. Arranged marriages would start becoming more prevalent as a parent would never curb their children from having their identities stripped of or their ancestral property taken away. If seen from this perspective, is the bill doing any good to society? 

 

The bill clearly states, Any Khasi woman marrying a non-Khasi outside the community shall lose her Khasi status and all privileges attached to the Khasi community. She or her children from this marriage cannot claim any preferential privileges under any law. Some people look at this bill as a step forward towards the protection of the community. The Khasi tribe is a minority community, and the influx of outsiders can gradually threaten the community. “It is a very simple bill to put a stop to mixed marriages as they are a threat to our tribe. It will not be retrospective and won't affect mixed marriages that took place earlier”,  claims HS Shylla, chief executive member of KHADC. The marriage for love can also be tricked into a bond for economic gain as the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council protects their laws, the taxes are lower than anywhere else in India, the land is set aside for their use in tribal zones, and a quota system operates for higher education and civil service jobs. “In today's times, we have seen people marry for money, and this money doesn't benefit the tribe or the region; it goes out anyway”, says Hazel, a 52-year-old working woman from Shillong. This economic exploitation can dilute the tribes, threaten Khasi lands and rights. But what about the fundamental right to freedom and equality? Why are only women stripped of their identity?

This has been the strongest argument against this bill. It threatens the constitutional right of freedom, the freedom to choose whoever they want to marry and live life the way they want. More than that, it strips the Khasi woman's identity, takes away her family name and ancestral property just for marrying someone of her choosing. Not only identity, but it also questions the equality of men and women in society. Men aren't stripped of their identities when they marry into some other community. Instead, Khasi men marrying outside the tribe have a special ceremony for the inclusion of their children in the matrilineal set up which is not the case for the women. 

 

Majorly, the younger generation is opposing the bill because they don't want their identities to be taken away and want to fight against the inequality inflicted upon them. In a matrilineal society, men play a vital role in society, and there have been instances where Khasi men demand the female-oriented set up to be transformed into a patrilineal one. Post the bill, patrilineal societies will tend to become more prevalent as one would want their future generation to carry their family name and inherit their ancestral land. It might be an assumption that all older adults support the bill; in reality, most of them oppose the bill in lieu of preserving their culture.

There can be numerous arguments on the issue, but it is essential to understand both sides as they have a different perspective on the bill. This bill is going to affect and shape the lives of many women. There is no definite conclusion to the bill as of now, but one can surely draw inspiration from the women's determination to object these injustices and safeguard their rights while also protecting their lineage.