Tribal societies: Trapped in jargons and definitions


Patricia Mukhim  

So a conference called, ‘Land Rights of Indigenous Women in NorthEast India,’ was organised at the Martin Luther Christian University on January 30. We live in a world of jargons which the world of the non-government organization (NGO) is adept at. If you can memorize some of these trendy terms and brandish them at a conference, especially in Delhi or even better outside the country you will become the darling of the NGO confreres that lap up those jargons without making it a point to demystify the terms and go to their etymology.  The word ‘indigenous’ is now a part of common vocabulary but what does it really mean. What are the markers of indigeneity? Has anyone done an exercise for the ordinary person in the village to help her understand what rights does being indigenous confer on her? Do women automatically enjoy rights over land?

So let’s unbundle the world “Indigenous.” There are many who have tried to define this word and as usual we have tried to fit into that mould like puppets. Indigenous people are (a) natives of the land or the first settlers (b) they have a shared history, culture and language (c) their resources – rivers, water sources, forests, minerals etc., are considered ‘Common Property Resources’ (CPR) to be used by the community (d) individual rights are subservient to the collective good (e) indigenous people preserve traditional ways of life. (e) land is held as a trust and not owned   Hence the entitlement to land ownership is a modern construct. Indigenous or tribal communities in the north east defy the principles of indigeneity because they were never egalitarian in the first place.  They have all been oligarchies ruled by chieftains who also controlled land administration. They might not have been powerful or affluent when they started off but today they are all well-placed and more often than not act arbitrarily in matters of land distribution. Indigenous societies are also not necessarily gender equitable. Rather they are all embedded in patriarchy.

The questions that arise therefore are (a) Did the Khasis of yore all own land? (b) Do we know from any written accounts if at least the head of the family owned land? We are not very clear about that at least from all the books I have read. If there is information to the contrary I would like to be enlightened by our renowned scholars of the Khasi Department, NEHU. Do we know if there were poor Khasis? Of course we do from our folk tales. ‘Ka Likai’ a lady whose story is macabre and depressing, worked in an iron smelting unit in Sohra. We can imagine how difficult it is for a woman to be doing that kind of work. Her husband on the contrary looked after the home and Likai’s child (his step-child). Likai’s story does not reveal what happened to her first husband, the father of her child. But apparently abandonment (not necessarily understood as such since a man is said to be rang khat-ar lama or free to sow his wild oats) was rife even at that period of Khasi history. Did Likai live in her ‘own’ hut or was it leased to her? Why was there no one to help her out of her predicament when she realized she had eaten the flesh of her own child? Where were her clanswomen/men? We don’t know of that either. Much of our history is silent on how the concept of ‘land’ was understood and much less about how it was later administered by the traditional heads.

Since we are talking of land ownership by women, for starters, please visit some of the areas of Shillong where poor women abandoned by their husbands/partners and with several small mouths to feed live their daily existence. Would they even dream of owning land? Just two square meals is a monumental  challenge to overcome day after miserable day through much sweat and toil. The kids obviously cannot attend school and soon become child labourers. Does anyone care? Does the state have the statistics of such single women leading their soulless lives? Where are the clans and are they actually geared to meet these modern challenges? Or are the clans only interested in banal social gatherings where clan members are introduced to one another to avoid incest?

One of the things that Khasi society does not do too well is to question past history and to document whatever is remembered of that history by wise elders. History and memory are integral to our understanding of our past and the past is important because we draw our life skills and survival skills from them. When we abandon the past too quickly because of a new influence we lose a lot of our societal values. Tribal societies across the North East don’t seem to have had a strong connect to their roots hence indoctrination into a western religion – Christianity – was fairly easy for the British and German missionaries. Let’s not discuss here about whether the advent of Christianity was a boon or bane. Let’s keep that for another article.  But the point that the inheritors of the Seng Khasi indigenous faith often point out about Christians is that they have abandoned their cultural practices, because Christianity demanded that of them. This may not go down too well with the church elders but I am here to analyse my roots and I apologise if I tread on tender corns.

So let’s come back to the issue of ‘land.’ What is land to the Khasis? It’s termed as “Ka khyndew, ka shyiap” which literally translated means “the soil and sand.” Land was never connected to wealth until the British came to these hills and realised they needed land for building roads and infrastructure. That was when commodification of land started in right earnest. After that there was no going back. Land in the Khasi annals was divided into different categories many of which are baffling. The Khasi society was not a democratic one by any stretch of imagination and just because some British chronicler said so does not make us democratic. A society that owes allegiance to a chieftain is by definition oligarchic. Is Khasi society today democratic? Is there participatory decision making in the traditional institutions? The answer is a definite “No.” Traditional institutions too are top-down institutions and only men can take decisions. The Dorbar allows for a Seng Kynthei (women’s group) under its fold which is ‘allowed’ to operate under a definite mandate assigned by the Dorbar. They cannot exceed that brief. So to speak of ‘land rights for women’ in such a society is a bit far-fetched. And to believe that Khasis today have seamlessly transitioned into modern democracy as we know it today is delusional.

The Khasi thought process is still embedded in oligarchy.  Yes the Khasis have strong clan systems but there are only a few privileged clans today that own hectares of land while other clans own nothing. True there is the Ri Raid where the Syiem or Bakhraw allots land to residents of that village but a lot of Ri Raid is today converted to Ri Kynti (privately owned land) by manipulation of the traditional heads. That’s how cement plants in Jaintia Hills have come up. Capitalism entered this society not after liberalization in the early nineties. Capitalism happened when the British converted land into a transactional commodity.

The only clarity about Khasi society is in its culture of inheritance. The youngest daughter (Khatduh) remains the custodian of ancestral property which might be just a small house or a hut and the debts incurred by parents during their lifetime. So the much glorified “Khatduh” presumably seen as the inheritor of wealth is a dwindling entity and is reduced to a diminishing section of Khasi society.

That is why the socio-economic-caste survey, 2011 which finds that 75.98 % of rural Meghalaya is landless tells a sordid story of the realities in Khasi society. Poverty is growing; so too the number of female-headed households. Many may argue that the SECC has glaring defects and that the NFHS survey places landlessness at 56% but does that make us feel better?

The strength of a society comes from a system of checks and balances. Do we have checks and balances in traditional institutions to prevent the commons from being privatized? No, even within Shillong city catchment areas and water sources are today privately owned and no one can do a thing since the respective Dorbar Shnong/Dorbar Raid allows that to happen! There is land gluttony today which is rapidly progressing, not just within the suburbs but in distant villages too.

I wish to put this searching question to all the Khasi Syiems and Myntris; to the MLAs and MDCs as well. Why does Meghalaya resist a cadastral survey? What are we afraid of finding out? Please go to Ri Bhoi and find out how many local people still own land and how much of the land is owned by the elite in Shillong? We will have got our answers. It’s the same in other Khasi villages as well. So we should stop talking about ourselves as if we are pristine tribal societies and indigenous people. We are not. Period!    The culture we wax eloquent about protecting is all superficial. The Khasis don’t want to deep dive into anything lest the ghosts of the past confront us. But that’s precisely why we have academic research and universities. Alas! Universities have become vacuous employment agencies!