Exploring the fears of Khasi society

Patricia Mukhim  


“The danger is that in times of crisis we look for a saviour”…. Pope Francis

The above quotation of one of the most vocal church leaders of our times needs deep refection. Khasi society is in a paradox, hovering between the much romanticised matrilineal society that ostensibly gives women and girls a special status and which many believe is gender just and the acrimony of men who feel deprived of their rights in the same society. There has been a simmering discontent underneath the flashy exterior of one of the last surviving matrilineal cultures. Men have publicly expressed their loss of masculinity because the children they father belong to their wife’s clan line. And this feeling becomes dominant because Khasi men no longer live in isolation. They compare their own statuses with men from patriarchal societies and as is the case with all human dystopia arising out of several reasons – the quick conclusion is that matriliny is the disempowering factor.

The other bugbear that threatens to explode at this juncture is the culture of inheritance among Khasis. Ancestral property passes through the youngest daughter (khatduh) who is also responsible for caring for the parents in their old age. The khatduh also has several other responsibilities towards her other siblings. But all this is conveniently forgotten in the quest for bringing gender justice in inheritance of property. What is also not based on research is whether the khatduh of the present generation actually inherits property or inherits liabilities? What if it is the latter?

But suddenly we have the Khasi Hills District Council (KHDC) moving an amendment to the Khasi Lineage Bill of 1997 which seeks to strips a Khasi woman of her Khasi status and her privileges as a member of the Scheduled Tribe if she marries a non-Khasi man. That disenfranchisement extends to her children too. The reasons advanced for the need for such amendment is that (a) Khasi women marrying non-Khasis allow themselves to be used for the unholy purposes of conducting business in her name and therefore being exempted from paying taxes and from acquiring a trading licence from the ADCs, in turn depriving them revenue (b) The non-Khasi acquires land in the woman’s name and also does business on that land (c) the pure Khasi race is being corrupted by inter-racial marriages (d) Khasi women and their children who marry non-Khasi men adopt the personal laws of their husbands and no longer conform to Khasi customary laws and practices but take advantage of their Khasi status. The KHADC, CEM HS Shylla specifically mentioned Khasi women marrying Muslims as his targets.

The real problems in Khasi society today are (a) economic pressure (b) pressure on land and landlessness (c) inability to compete in a very competitive world (d) inability of many to adapt to the pressures of working outside their homes (e) school and college drop- out rates on the increase (f) no strategies to provide large scale skills training of a sustainable nature to the youth based on the resources available in the state (g) drug addiction (h) dwindling government employment.

The ADCs are supposed to legislate on marriage, divorce and social customs, not to demolish what the ancestors and ancestresses put together in their wisdom and foresight. But the question is whether the KHADC has first problematised the current challenges of Khasi society and invested in ground based research with enough case studies to authenticate its claim that non-Khasi males marrying Khasi women are the bane of this society.

Economic pressure is real so how and why is the Iewduh, our traditional market where rituals are still performed, now taken over by non-Khasi traders? How did the ownership of the stalls pass over to non-Khasis? Iewduh is under the jurisdiction of the Syiem of Mylliem. It is the brief of the Syiem to ensure that stalls do not change hands without due process. It is hard to accept the allegations that all the non-Khasi men owning these stalls are married or cohabiting with Khasi women. There are other methods of transfer which the Councils should have used their wisdom to decipher.

Much rhetoric is flying around about how Khasi women have bartered away their land to their non-Khasi husbands. To establish the veracity of that claim the KHADC should have used a modern tool which those running the state government have resisted for a long time. The KHADC should have sought funds from the Centre for carrying out a cadastral survey of all land in Meghalaya. Only then will we all get to know (a) who owns how much land and where (b) how and when the person acquired the land (c) who is the first owner of the land and how many times has it changed hands?

Instead the Khasi male has now ganged up to spread malicious propaganda that those who oppose the Amended Bill are against the Jaitbynriew Khasi. There is an attempt even by the KHADC chief to demonise dissenters by use of provocative lingo. There is hatred spewed out on social media and threats of rape and murder of those who oppose the Bill. I never imagined that such hatred could reside in the Khasi mind. No wonder we have so many cases of rapes, murders and acts of violence against women and girls. Some people even cite Bible verses to vindicate their claims that inter-racial marriages are against the Bible, without of course paraphrasing those verses.

In the melee what we have all forgotten the scams in the KHADC. A few days ago PN Syiem was accused of spending about Rs 34 crores without any accountability and hence he was brought down. Now that part is forgotten. We are now ready to forego those crores and battle it out on another issue. This is how we are always misled.

It is not understood why a Bill with far reaching ramifications, and if I may say, one that seeks to unseat the much touted matrilineal culture, is not put to public debate. There are many stakeholders to this Bill and not just the KHADC. There are the kurs (clans), the rangbah kur (heads of clans), the Khasi men and women across religions. And no, this Bill cannot be just something organised for television audiences. It must be debated on logic and rationale and keeping the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution in mind.

To conclude I must again quote Pope Francis from an interview he gave to El Pais, a Spanish magazine on January 21, 2017. When asked on how to resolve crises across countries, he said, “Issues must be debated. Debating unites us. A debate in good faith, not with slander nor things like that.”

When asked to comment on the crises of growing inequalities and unending crises and leaders that capitalize on the fears of an uncertain future in order to form a message full of xenophobia and hatred towards foreigners, the Pope said, “Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933. After the crisis of 1930, Germany was broken, it needed to get up, to find its identity, it needed a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there was a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: “I can, I can”. And Germans voted for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power; his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk. In times of crisis we lack judgment.”

Pope Francis goes on to day, “In times of crises people say, let’s look for a saviour who gives us back our identity and let us defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other people who may rob us of our identity. And that is a very serious thing. That is why I always try to say: talk among yourselves, talk to one another. But the case of Germany in 1933 is typical, a people who were immersed in a crisis, who were searching for their identity until this charismatic leader came and promised to give their identity back, and he gave them a distorted identity, and we all know what happened.

There is a perceived crisis in Meghalaya too. In Police Bazar the pedestrianised path is clogged with hawkers selling garments, shoes and what have you. The Khasi ladies sell their fruits along the sides. No one knows where the non-Khasi hawkers in such large numbers have emerged from; where they stay and who they pay to sell their wares on the footpath. It’s the same along the road from Anjalee to Iew Mawlong. Why are these trades unchecked since these are revenue sources that the young Khasis can explore? Who controls this trade? We need to get to the root of this. It’s pointless making an issue of customary practices when corruption and failed governance are the real issues.

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