By Sumarbin Umdor
The Khasi Lineage Amendment Bill of 2018 that was passed recently by KHADC has been presented by its supporters as a legislation that seeks to prevent the economic exploitation of the state’s land and its resources by unscrupulous non-Khasi men that are married to Khasi women. There has been much debate about the ramifications of the action by KHADC. In this column, we look at one such unintended implication of the Bill that may have far reaching consequences for the Khasi community in general and on the followers of the Khasi Indigenous faith in particular.
A newspaper item that reported about the purported division among the senior leadership of the Seng Khasi Body with regards to the Bill piqued my interest in trying to understand the likely implications of the Bill for this religious minority group that still practice the indigenous faith followed by the Khasi community before the advent of Christianity in these hills. For this, I looked up at the census on religious community in the state including the age wise data to better appreciate the likely impact of this Bill on young Khasi women and their ability to practice and follow the religion of their ancestors. As the title suggests, my position on the repercussions of the Bill is that, if enacted and implemented it will adversely affect the followers of the Khasi Indigenous faith, a conclusion I draw based on hard numbers; and they say numbers don’t lie.
In Meghalaya the percentage of people following Khasi indigenous faith and other indigenous religions and minor faiths categorised in the census as ‘Other religion and persuasions’ has come down by 8 percentage points from 17 percent to 9 percent from 1991 to 2011. In fact, the state had more people practising the local indigenous religion in 1991 compared to 2011, which is not so in the case of the six dominant faiths namely Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. In these two decades the number of Christians in Meghalaya has steadily increased from 65 to 75 per cent. Even followers of Jainism in the state had more followers in 2011 compared to 1991. Since the Khasi Lineage Amendment Bill of 2018 is only applicable to the Khasi people of Meghalaya claiming ST status,we focus our attention specifically on this group and more specifically on Khasis belonging to the Khasi Indigenous faith.
In 2011 the ST population in the state was about 26 lakh with the Khasi population- comprising of Khasi, Jaintia, Synteng, Pnar, War, Bhoi and Lyngngam- constituting the major tribe with a population of about 14.12 lakh representing 55 per cent of ST population of the state (or about 48 per cent of state’s total population). Census reveals that majority of the above ST Khasi population are Christians (about 11.74 lakh or 83 per cent) followed by ‘Other religions and persuasions’ (2.2 lakh or 15.4 per cent). One may note that in Meghalaya ‘Other religions and persuasions comprise mainly of the Seng Khasi and Naimtre(being the dominant local religious groups of about 2 lakh population) followed by the Sonsarek of the Garos and about 23 other local and minor religious faiths.
Now let’s look at the population of young Khasi women within the two main religious groups in Meghalaya. About 30 percent of the state population is within 18 to 35 years, which means that there are about sixty thousand young Khasi men and women in the Khasi Indigenous religion and 3.5 lakh young Khasi Christians. If we assume that 50 percent of them are married or have settled down, then we have thirty thousandand 1.75 lakh eligible young Khasi men and women in these two religions respectively. Since the Bill does not affect or curtail the freedom of men to choose their wives from outside the community, we concentrate only on the women and how the Bill would constrain and influence her decision in choosing her life partner from outside her religion.
The statistics quoted above show how the situation is stacked against young women belonging to the Khasi indigenous religion in as far as her freedom to choose a compatible life partner belonging to the same religious background is concerned. First and foremost, considering that the sex ratio among the ST population in the state is favourable to women (1013 female to 1000 men), there are more young eligible women as compared to men. Secondly, marriage in the Khasi community is regulated by certain social taboos that prohibit marriage within one’s clan. This further limits the choice of a suitable partner that a young Khasi woman practicing the faith of her ancestors can choose from within her own religious group.
If we now introduce other considerations such as traits that women generally look for in a life partner such as mutual attraction, education background, financial status (psychologists and sociologists have listed many more traits that attracts opposite sexes to each other and how these are changing over time), then the prospects of many of these young Khasi women of finding a suitable match from within their own indigenous faith further diminishes. What makes the task of finding a partner even harder is the unorganised nature of the marriage market (a term introduced by Gary Becker who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 1992)among the tribals. The search for a suitable life partner among the non-tribals is an organised affair involving parents, friends and relatives aided by technology and matrimonial websites which ensures a higher success of finding a suitable match. No such arrangements exist among the tribals.
In the present situation, Khasi women of Indigenous faith can opt for a Khasi partner from outside her religion or a non-Khasi partner without compromising on her official Khasi status and those of her future off-springs. However, should the Bill become a law then this situation changes. In the second case, if she chooses a partner from outside the Khasi community she loses her official status, which also affects all Khasi women irrespective of the religious affiliation. But what would happen should she choose a Khasi Christian partner, a group which holds the largest available pool of men of her own tribe, which therefore increases the probability of finding a suitable partner of the desired qualities other than religion?
There has always been intermarriage between the young people of these two religions with one of the spouses converting to the other’s religion or both choosing to maintain their own religion as per mutual agreement. With the enactment of the Bill, the pressure on a Khasi woman belonging to the Indigenous faith who chooses to marry a Khasi Christian man to convert to the religion of her partner will be much more and her power in such negotiation greatly diminished as her dependence on this pool of eligible Khasi partners would have now increased as marrying someone outside the tribe would lead to the loss of official ST status. Such conversions would only increase the pace of decline in the numbers of followers of the Indigenous religion among the Khasis.
The Bill would also affect Khasi Christian women in the same way it does to her fellow tribes-women following the Indigenous faith. The only advantage for the former is that given the much larger pool of eligible Khasi Christian men, the chances of finding a suitable match within the community is much brighter.
In this situation, we may find that many of our young women, followers of Christianity and Indigenous faith alike, who are unable to find a suitable match within their own religion or who are not ready to convert to another religion nor willing to forgo their official tribal status by marrying someone outside the tribe would opt to stay single. Given the minuscule size of the Khasi tribe, this situation would have an adverse impact on the long term growth of the Khasi population.