March 30, 2020
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The Hills Tied In Knots

A bill in matrilineal Meghalaya bars Khasi women from inheritance rights if they marry non-Khasis

The Hills Tied In Knots
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Khasi women and girls at a market in Shillong
Photograph by Getty Images
The Hills Tied In Knots

At the heart of two seemingly unrelated back-to-back events towards July-end in Meghalaya is what many see in this hill state as an assertion of ‘jaitbynriew’, the word used to describe Khasi nationalism. It has manifested in many forms ever since Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. The anger and mistrust against the dkhar, the Khasi term for an “outsider”, is in the open again.

First, an autonomous district council passed a bill that seeks to strip Khasi women of their scheduled tribe (ST) status and all privileges attached to it such as the right to inheritance, if they marry outside the community. A few days later, after the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published in Assam, activists of the influential Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) put up check gates on highways to prevent any possible influx of undocumented migrants fleeing the neighbouring plains.

The Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes constitute an estimated 80 per cent of Meghalaya’s 2.9 million people. They are accorded constitutional safeguards aimed at protecting the state’s unique tribal character. What makes Meghalaya special is its matrilineal society where children take their mother’s surname and property is inherited only by daughters, especially the youngest one. The Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill also seeks to bar children born of marriages between Khasi and non-Khasis from getting the benefits.

“Khasi women can still marry whoever they want to...but they cannot have everything.”
H.S. Shylla, KHADC chief

“There are many instances of non-Khasi men marrying Khasi women just to avail themselves of the benefits of land-holding rights and property. Meghalaya was given the status of a tribal state to ensure these benefits to the people…but such marriages defeat the purpose of the safeguards,” explains Hispreaching Son Shylla, the chief executive member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, the brain behind the bill. “Every society, big or small, has its own culture and norms…every individual must obey the rules of society. (But) some people are taking advantage through such marriages. We want to end this fraud…this is a question of our existence.”

This “threat” to existence -- which many say is highly exaggerated -- sits at the root of several recent events in the Northeast. Samujjal Bhattacharyya, the adviser to the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) mentions the same peril while defending the ongoing exercise to update the 1951 NRC. The Supreme Court-monitored NRC update is aimed at documenting Indian citizens living in Assam and identity the “lakhs of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”. AASU and other organisations are also seeking constitutional protection for the “indigenous” people. In Mizoram too, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl, an influential students’ union, decided last week to set up check gates along the border with Assam to stop “illegal migrants”. In Manipur, major groups are seeking introduction of the inner line permit, a travel document mandatory for any “outsider” visiting Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. These steps are apparently needed to save the region’s indigenous people from being swamped by “outsiders”, a term often used to refer to both illegal immigrants and people from other states.

Despite the assertions of Khasi nationalists, reaction to the bill was swift and divided -- sections of women opposed it, saying the move reeked of a “patriarchal mindset” and infringed on their rights. Social activist Agnes Kharshiing, born to an Irish father and Khasi mother, was extremely critical. “It paints Khasi women in a poor light…as if Khasi women are of loose moral character and can be lured or duped by unscrupulous men,” she says. “What about Khasi men? Why haven’t they been included in the bill? Many Khasi men also marry non-Khasi women.” She says the bill is faulty as it was passed without seeking the views of women, especially in a matrilineal society.

Samrat Choudhury, a commentator from Shillong, is also unsparing in his views on the bill. “If we view the issue as a communal one, then it is an internal matter of the Khasi community, and I, as a dkhar, should stay out of it. If we view the issue in human, legal or constitutional terms, then it is a matter that every well-wisher of fellow citizens and fellow humans should speak about. As a citizen of India and a resident of Shillong I find it deeply disturbing that politics of purity of blood is still mainstream in the place I call home. In the rest of the world, it largely went out of favour with the Nazis."

Several organisations, including women’s groups, however, support the bill that needs the governor’s assent to become a law. Felicita Majaw, 41, a former lecturer, is all for it as she feels it would address the problems arising out of an influx of outsiders. “Since ours is a matrilineal society, the bill puts the onus on women. But I think the council is working on it to make it gender-neutral,” she says.

Legal experts say the bill may not stand judicial scrutiny in the light of a recent Supreme Court judgment that ruled that choosing a life partner is a fundamental right and consent of family, community or clan is not necessary for marriage between two adults. Shylla is unfazed and denounces those opposing the bill as unworthy of being called Khasis. “This bill isn’t retrospective. There’s (also) no infringement on women’s rights. They can still marry whoever they want to…but they cannot have everything.”

KSU general secretary Donald V Thabah reserves his remarks on the bill, but he was clear on one thing -- the pressure on land and resources because of influx of “outsiders”, including immigrants from Bangladesh. Meghalaya shares a 443-km border with Bangladesh, nearky twice than the length of Assam’s border with the neighbouring country. “This continuous influx has resulted in communal tension and violence in our state. We have only this much land and we can only take this much burden…already, we (Khasis) are a minority in the Shillong municipal area,” he tells Outlook. “It is for this reason we are also keen on an NRC-like exercise in Meghalaya…to detect and deport illegal migrants.”

In June, the scenic, though congested, capital of Meghalaya witnessed violent clashes between Khasis and members of the Sikh community, sparked by a minor incident of assault on a local youth. Though the clashes were brought under control quickly, they exposed the deep and old faultlines in the state – between local and outsiders. The Sikhs, however, are not new entrants, having being brought by the British to work as sweepers. The KSU and other local organisations are demanding relocating the entire Sikh community from the ‘Sweeper Colony’ in the heart of the city.

“It’s all about land and resources. This piece of land is valuable real estate and they want us out of here,” says a Sikh whose father had migrated with his wife in the late twentieth century from a village near Amritsar. Such communal violence is not new to Shillong. In the 1970s, the sizeable Bengali-speaking community had faced backlash during a so-called “anti-foreigner agitation” led by the KSU. Many non-tribals – Bengalis, Biharis and Nepalis – were killed while thousands were displaced.

Shylla, however, asserts that once the lineage bill becomes a law such incidents will never occur again. “There is anger among the Khasi youth, who are losing their land and rights to non-tribals. This anger manifests in such incidents. Once the bill is passed, the non-tribals will get more love and respect in our society,” he says.

It is in this context that nationalistic organisations in the Northeast, including AASU and KSU, frequently refer to Tripura to justify their actions. “Look at the indigenous people of Tripura…they are now a minority in their own homeland, don’t have political power, don’t have economic power, their language and culture seriously threatened,” the AASU adviser says.  Official records show that tribals constituted nearly 53 per cent of the population in Tripura in 1901. But the number dropped to 31 per cent in the 2001 census. Since the 1940s, unchecked immigration from East Pakistan and present-day Bangladesh has changed the demography of Tripura.

“If we don’t take lessons from Tripura, won’t we, the Khasis and Garos, face the same fate?” asks KSU leader Thabah. For many people in the Northeast, it’s the biggest question of their existence.

For others, it’s chauvinism and racism hidden in a cloak of nationalism.

By Anupam Bordoloi in Shillong

A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print

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