Is Matrilineal Lineage under question?

By Albert Thyrniang

Eric Clapton, the British musician and singer, was the son of Patricia Molly Clapton and Edward Walter Fryer. He took his mother’s surname. Ryan Giggs, one of Manchester United’s best midfielders ever was born Ryan Joseph Wilson but legally adopted his mother’s surname.  Edie Adams, an American actress and singer was born Edith Elizabeth Enke but later decided to take her mother’s maiden name. Wikipedia has a long list of people in the West who have matrilineal surnames having defied the old-aged tradition for different reasons.

In patriarchal India too there are people who choose their mother’s surname. There are some who take both father’s and mother’s surname. There are parents who include also the mother’s family name in the names of their offsprings. Tennis star Sania Mirza and Pakistani Cricketer Shoaib Malik have named their first son Izhaan Mirza Malik.

Obviously in the conservative sub-continent people who choose their mother’s surname do not get societal approval. In 2015 the Facebook page, “Humans of Bombay” narrates the story of how a girl who went against the norm by adding her mother’s middle name often got her into trouble in school and college for not being normal.  She justifies, “Both parents have an equal part in bringing up children, so why should only the father’s name be used in their identity?” Netizens who agree with her laud her for challenging stereotypes.

Meghalaya is a matrilineal society. The two major tribes, the Khasis and the Garos follow the matrilineal lineage system in which the family name and ancestral property is passed on through the female line of descent.  Among the world’s 500 matrilineal societies the Ki Hynniew Trep and the Achik tribes (3 million) are said to be one of the largest surviving matrilineal cultures in the world. The Minangs in Indonesia with a population of over 4 million are perhaps the largest tribe that are akin to us.  In India we could pride ourselves as the only practitioners of matriliny as the social custom was terminated by law among the Nairs of Kerala in 1925.

The latest discussion on matriliny was propelled by the notification of the Social Welfare Department on November 17, 2020 reportedly directing the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) of East Khasi Hills and West Khasi Hills to expedite the applications for Schedule Tribe (ST) certificates including those who have assumed the father’s surname. This led to a row with organisations and individuals rebuking the minister and the government for daring to go against the time-immemorial-customary practice that has become a law via The Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act, 1997. The incident is deemed fit for the MDA government to be accused of demolishing the foundation of the matrilineal social system. The Social Welfare Minister Kyrmen Shylla had to clarify that his Department’s letter was not a diktat to the concerned authorities to issue ST certificates to the ‘father descent’ applicants but simply to remind DCs to process all applications expeditiously.

In 1990 the Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT) was founded to impress upon all to do away with matriliny and establish patriliny in the Khasi society. Claiming that matriliny is not working SRT has been advocating equitable distribution of property to all children, male and female. Changing a system that dates centuries back is looked at with disdain. A story is told of an incident in 1961 when women chased three-dozen men with knives in Cherrapunjee market for proposing that patriliny should replace matriliny. Members of SRT and those who favour change say matriliny has failed. It gives no identity to men. Men are not owners in the in-laws’ dwellings. They don’t belong. They are basically suffragettes. They become irresponsible. This leads to broken families, alarming instances of single mothers, economics instability and drunkenness among males.

The issue to be highlighted here is whether ST certificates can be denied to individuals who take their father’s surname.  No doubt the 2005 gazetted KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act, 1997 is in place. An amendment to the Act may be introduced in the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council soon to give more teeth to the Act. But will the Act stand the test of time? More importantly will it stand legal scrutiny? If someone goes to court (it looks likely) the Act may collapse. A custom is voluntary and temporary. It is not legally binding and permanent. Many customs that were once considered sacrosanct have gone out of use. There have been already precedents of Khasis taking their father’s title. Were they not issued ST certificates? Do not past actions impact the present? It might even be possible that MDCs who directly or indirectly benefited from decisions of the past might be debating on the proposed amendment and may strongly advocate for preserving the matrilineal practice at all cost. It does not look fair to the present generation.

Article 21 of the Indian constitutions guarantees personal liberty to all citizens. There might have been no court judgement. But it is presumed personal liberty includes the right and freedom to choose any of the parents’surname. Meghalaya is under the Sixth Schedule which is governed by ADCs. But can personal liberty be exempted in Scheduled Areas? How can one be denied an ST certificate and be branded as ‘non-Khasi’ just because he decides to inherit the father’s clan name? If a court declares that choosing father’s surname is part of Article 21, what will become of KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act? ST certificates have to be issued to all tribal applicants.

One word about the ‘Kur’ and ‘Kha.’The trait has also been undergoing changes. In the western part of Khasi Hills ‘Iashongiatur’ was forbidden. For example, the Thyrniang males marry Marwien females. The Thyrniang clan (Kur) are ‘Kha’ and Marwein clan is ‘Khun.’ It was a taboo for a Marwien to marry a Thyrniang. But recently there have been cases where males from the Marwien clan have been given in marriage to Thyrniang clan. So now ‘Kha’ are ‘Khun’ and ‘Khun’ are also ‘Kha’. Some of my female relatives are married to Myrthong men. Thyrniang men have also married Myrthong women from a different ‘kpoh.’ What was once a taboo now has been normalised. Life adjusts itself. Eventually, probably provided the rule of the country (and the Church) are kept alive we have to adapt to changes.

Within the ‘Thongni clan’ there are the ThongniRit, Thongni Bah and ThongniIong. These three clans intermarry with each other. Probably once upon a time marriage within the ‘Thongni clan’ was prohibited. Someone defiled the ban giving way to ‘three sub clans’ to emerge.

It is told the Tiwa or Lalung were once a matrilineal tribe. But today the ethnic group has become a patrilineal society. Though many matrilineal features disappeared they have not lost their identity.

The Khasis being a matrilineal tribe are no doubt unique. We take pride in the rarity of matriliny. But does it mean we tolerate no deviation? Just as in patriliny individuals inherit the mother’s surname, should we not permit it to be the other way round here? The majority still want the uniqueness to be preserved but minority may desire a change. Should they be shunted? Should they be ostracised? Should they be denied ST certificates? Should they be deprived of reservations and quotas? Should they benefit no scholarship? Should they fall under the general category for jobs, employment and admissions in schools, colleges and institutes?

It is imperative to note that the Khasi tribe is matrilineal and not matriarchal. The decision makers at all levels are not women but men. Women are not heads of the family. Uncles, at least in rural areas, are influential in the family. The headman and his executive members in the Dorbar are men. Heads of clan lands (Lyngdoh) are men. Ki Dolloi are men. Ki Syiem (chieftains) and members of his council are men. The land may belong to women but the ‘governors’ are men. In the modern democratic set up men dominate all institutions. There are hardly any women Members in the District Councils (MDCs) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs). All leaders of NGOs and pressure groups are men and views of women are unsolicited.Therefore, is matrilineal only a name, while the practice and outlook is patriarchal?

It is ironical that women have little to say on preserving the system of which they are supposed to be the custodians. They are in the backseat striving to keep the foundation of the society of which they should be at the forefront. To preserve the unique matrilineal system women leadership has to be promoted by reforming all traditional institutions. Otherwise the essence of matriliny is missing. A matrilineal society sans empowerment of women is meaningless. In the meantime proponents of patriliny may have a valid point that might ultimately be heard in court and subsequently by the government and the whole society.

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