The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council – which administers Meghalaya’s Khasi hills according to customary laws under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution – has passed a Bill that seeks to declare Khasi women who marry outside the tribe as non-Khasi and strip them of their Scheduled Tribe status and the constitutional protections that come with it. The same would also apply to children born of such marriages.

The Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill, passed unanimously by the council on July 25, states:

“Any Khasi woman who marries a Non-Khasi as well as her offspring[s] born out of such marriage[s] shall be deemed as Non-Khasi who shall lose the Khasi status and all privileges and benefits as a member of the Khasi Tribe who cannot claim preferential privileges under any law.”

The Bill defines a non-Khasi as “a person not belonging to indigenous Khasi Tribe classified as Scheduled Tribe under the Constitution (Scheduled Tribe) Order, 1950 (Part III – Rules and Orders Under the Constitution) Part XI – Meghalaya”.

All 30 members of the council, cutting across party lines, voted in favour of the amendment. The three women members of the council also expressed their support.

‘Antithetical to the foundations of Khasi society’

Khasi women in civil society organisations and even bodies like the Meghalaya State Commission for Women have voiced their dissent. Activist Angela Rangad said the Bill was antithetical to the “very foundations of the Khasi society” it claimed to protect as it went “completely against the matrilineal structure of the Khasis”. In the Khasi matrilineal society, children take their mother’s last name and customary laws say that all the wealth or property of parents should be inherited only by daughters.

Rangad added, “If the council really wants to protect Khasi culture, they should strengthen local self-governance institutions at the grassroots level and check the control of a small section of tribal elite over land. Instead they are targeting women.”

Theilin Phanbuh, chairperson of the state women’s commission, concurred. “The matrilineal tradition has been there since time immemorial in Khasi society,” she said. “To change it suddenly without public opinion is just gender discrimination as it targets just the woman and her children.”

Agnes Kharshiing, president of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation, was scathing. “The tribal protectors have been selling away our forests and natural resources,” she said. “How can they even think of ostracising a woman like that on the basis of whom she has married?”

Even Michael N Siyem, a staunch and long-time advocate of “equitable distribution of property” among men and women, said the council should have put the draft of the Bill to a “public debate” before passing it. “I don’t want to comment much on it, but it is a tricky situation,” he said.

‘This is about our existence’

However, the Khasi council’s chief executive member Hispreaching Son Shylla, who introduced the Bill, defended it, insisting that it was a long-pending initiative to “save the tiny Khasi tribe that is on the very verge of extinction”. Shylla said, “Inter-community marriages have eroded the basic structure of the Khasi society. Many outsiders marry Khasi women only to bypass all legal safeguards that protect the tribal society. This is about our existence.”

Non-Khasi men, Shylla alleged, used marriage as a “multipurpose certificate” to avail of benefits accorded by the Constitution to tribal people. Shylla was also dismissive of the opposition to the Bill. “We don’t need the opinion of women who feel ashamed to be Khasis and think of themselves as too forward,” he said.

In 2017, the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council had sought to declare the children of 'mixed couples' as non-Garos. (Credit: Vishma Thapa/Wikimedia images [Licensed under CC by 4.0])

Concerns about legality

There are also concerns over whether the Bill will stand up to legal scrutiny. Congress legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh said she supported the Bill “emotionally” as children born of mixed marriages often do not retain the “spirit of being Khasi”, particularly if they grew up outside the state. But she was sceptical if the Bill would hold in a court of law.

Kharshiing pointed out that it was the state government that issued Schedule Tribe certificates according to the provisions of the Constitution. “Does the council have the powers to override those Acts in the Constitution?” she asked.

Shylla, however, said the office of the deputy commissioner worked closely with the council when it came to issuing such certificates. “Usually, a ‘Khasi pride’ certificate is issued by the council on the basis of which the deputy commissioner issues the formal Scheduled Tribe certificate,” he said. After the Bill is approved by the governor, the council will stop issuing Khasi pride certificates to women married to non-Khasi men and their children, he added.

Detractors of the council have also accused it of passing the Bill with an eye on the Lok Sabha elections next year. It “looks like a 2019 elections gimmick”, said Kharshiing. Rangad said it seemed the Bill was passed to “foment trouble and confusion” ahead of the elections. “They are all trying to prove they are worthy because they have Khasi interests in mind,” she added.

‘People opposing are anti-Khasi’

But there are constituencies of support for the Bill. Many see it as a move to secure land within the community. The transfer of land to non-tribals is strictly regulated in Meghalaya, but the state’s people have often complained that non-tribals are increasingly acquiring de facto control over land by marrying tribal women.

Donald V Thabah of the nationalist Khasi Students’ Union said the outfit “whole-heartedly accepts the Bill”. He said, “The Bill will curtail the designs of those non-tribals whose sole objective is to do business in the Khasi hills using the name of their Khasi wives. I doubt there will be anyone, with the exception of a few people who are always anti-Khasi, who will oppose the Bill.”

Keith Pariat, who has been at the forefront of a “men’s liberation movement” in Meghalaya for years now, called it a “good step that will protect our minuscule population”. He, however, said the Bill may be a tad harsh on Khasi women. “If she was born to Khasi parents, I think she should be allowed to retain her Khasi status,” he explained, adding that it was only fair that her children, born out of her marriage with a non-Khasi man, not be considered Khasi as they would not have “100% Khasi blood”. He went on to say, “Many men who marry Khasi women have hidden agendas, they make use of tribal concessions. So, their children cannot be called Khasis.”

A culture of patriarchy

This is not the first time that a controversy over who qualifies as a tribal has broken out in Meghalaya. In 2017, the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council had also sought to declare the children of mixed couples – defined as the union of a non-Garo man and a Garo woman, or a Garo man and a non-Garo woman – as non-Garos, even if the child took the family name of the parent belonging to the tribe. The Garos also follow a matrilineal system. Then too, Garo nationalist groups had alleged that non-tribal men married Garo women only to further their commercial interests.

Social scientist Walter Fernandes said a culture of “strong patriarchy” was building up in the North East, traditionally known to have more gender-equal social structures. “My thesis is that modernisation without preparing the community strengthens patriarchy and class formation,” he said. “It is an elite among men with monopoly over land and the society in general that is using the modern law to promote this.”