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The Amendment To The Khasi Hill Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom Of Lineage) Act,1997 Reflects A Troubling Sense Of Male Domination In Historically Matrilineal Community

Khasi women who marry non-Khasis are being deprived of their Khasi status. But Khasi men can continue to marry non-Khasi women without losing their Khasi status.

In this globalised world, the question of identity has become a fundamental one. Who we are, our place in the world, and what sets us apart from others is determined through the concept of ‘identity’. In the national arena, the question of “who is a Hindu” is occupying a major part of the discourse. For a community that makes up about 80% of India’s population, it is interesting that there is a sense of disquiet amongst certain members of the Hindu community. What happens when we look at a community that is much smaller? What does living in a 21st-century reality mean for a tribe as small as the Khasis?

The amendment to the Khasi Hill Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act, 1997 has divided the Khasis into two camps – for and against. The amendment deprives a Khasi woman who marries a non-Khasi man of her Khasi status. Children born out of such a union will not be allowed to avail Khasi status either. This amendment, in one fell swoop, deprives the people falling under it of the ST status (under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution) and all the benefits and protection that come with it.

This move is legally, customarily and ideologically unsound. The first legal challenge to the amendment will come under Article 14 of the Constitution – the right to equality. The right to equality provides for equality amongst equals. It allows for a differentiation between groups of people, provided there is a reasonable basis. For example, the distinction between a juvenile and an adult is on a universally accepted sociological and scientific basis.

But, on what basis has the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) differentiated between Khasi women who marry non-Khasis and Khasi men who marry non-Khasis? Why have only Khasi women been made to lose their Khasi status should they marry outside the community? The ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’ only notes that this amendment is to “strengthen the Khasi social custom of lineage by way of codification.” Irony just died because the reason that the Khasis are celebrated outside their home state of Meghalaya, is because of the community’s matrilineal structure. The Khasis trace their lineage through the female line, children carry their mother’s surname, a woman is not expected to move out of the family home and move into her husband’s. In fact, Khasis are also matrilocal. It is the man who moves into the wife’s home after marriage (especially if he marries the Khatduh, the youngest daughter of the family).

Hence, if lineage is traced through the woman, how can the child of a Khasi woman not be Khasi? For the entire history of the Khasis, it has been the woman’s name that is passed on to the child, making the offspring a part of the maternal clan.

Reading the original Act gives us a better understanding of how this amendment discriminates against Khasi women. The original Act has such a provision for both Khasi men and Khasi women who marry non-Khasis. They retain their Khasi status but the children are given the Khasi status only if they fulfil the criteria in sub-clauses (i) to (v) of Section 3(b) – if they can speak Khasi, have observed the matrilineal system of the tribe, have not voluntarily renounced their Khasi status, have not adopted the customs of the non-Khasi spouse or parent, or have not been deprived of their Khasi status by a judgment or order or under any provision of the act. There is no distinction between Khasi men and women who marry outside the community. The same criteria applies to both. 

The original Act goes further and has a sub-section (under Section 3) that pertains exclusively to with non-Khasi women who marry Khasi men. As per the customs practiced by the Khasis, the non-Khasi woman can undergo a ceremony where she is given a ‘jait’, i.e., a clan name. She then becomes a Khasi with her clan name bearing the prefix ‘Dkhar’ or simply ‘Khar’, signifying that she was once a non-Khasi but is now part of the Khasi clan system.

This part of the original act has not been touched by the amendment and will continue to function and as before. This means that Khasi men can continue to marry non-Khasi women without losing their Khasi status. The children born of such marriages will also not lose their Khasi status. Why then, have Khasi women been denied the same privilege, especially since the Khasi clan name is carried through her and not the man? Is it not logical to assume that according to the custom of matrilineality, the child of a Khasi woman, regardless of who the father is, should automatically become a Khasi carrying the mother’s clan name? Why the emphasis on a patrilineal determination of identity when, by custom, the Khasis have a matrilineal system of determination of identity? This move by the KHADC reflects a troubling sense of male domination in a community that has been marked by the ability (in some important areas) to give the woman equal importance.

‘Khasi’, according to the original act, is defined as ‘Khasi, Jaintia, Pnar, Synteng, War, Bhoi, and Lyngngam’. All these tribes are recognised by the original act as falling under the Khasi tribe. The trouble arises when a Khasi woman marries a non-Khasi man who is part of an ST community that is not Khasi like the Garos, the Mizos, the Bodos, etc. Does she lose her ST status but the child of such a union gains the ST status of the father? Each of these tribes has its system of marking identity which may or may not be prejudiced against a woman from outside the community and her offspring. It becomes more complicated when the Khasi woman divorces her non-Khasi spouse. Does she get her Khasi status back? Or once married to a non-Khasi, you will be an outcast for life, in the eyes of the law?

In March this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry who we choose is a fundamental right protected by Article 21 of the Constitution (the right to life and personal liberty). Under what authority can the KHADC decide who it is that a Khasi woman marries and what the consequences of such a union will be? This is akin to indirectly coercing women into marrying only the men deemed fit by the KHADC, which is a gross violation of both the right to equality and the right to personal liberty. Formed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – that provides for the setting up of Autonomous District Councils for protection of tribal rights in the states of Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura, and Mizoram – the KHADC cannot decide who is “Khasi” and who is not. Its job is to promote and protect tribal interests and not to decide on the eugenics of Khasi identity.

This amendment is not well thought out. It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction by male chauvinists who believe that only women should be held accountable for the customs and traditions of the tribe. As is the case in patriarchal societies worldwide, it is the woman who is the vessel tocarry symbols like honour, purity, and tradition. Men can do as they please and never have their honour and purity questioned. It is a sad state of affairs that a people, who take pride in themselves for being “better” than others because they provide a semblance of respect for women, are falling into the trap of toxic masculinity that tries to control the choices and actions of women.

The writer is a political researcher with the Congress Research Department and Think Tank.