The KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018 was destined and designed to fail and it was not a surprise to see that it did when it was rejected by the Governor and sent back. It was rife with inconsistencies which now the leaders of Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council claim that it will look to correct. It is a little too late for that now.
There are two arguments against the bill which were put forward by those that oppose the bill: it was anti-woman and undemocratic because it was passed without taking important stakeholders like the various clans that make up the Khasi community into consideration. There was a tentative acceptance from some of those who oppose the bill that certain problems like non-tribal men marrying Khasi woman for material benefits may exist. I believe that in some cases that might be true, more in exception than in rule. But there are certain things that have to be understood when such an argument is made. There is the concept of ‘gold diggers’ – people who marry other people for wealth rather than affection. So the question becomes can Khasi men also not be ‘gold diggers’? I for sure know some Khasi men who can be categorised as such. This is therefore not a unique of a situation.
So is the transfer of land and wealth to non-local through matrimony a problem? This again is not that simple. Land Transfer Act does not allow non-tribals, in fact, other tribals other than indigenous to Meghalaya from buying property in the State. So when confronted with the legal impossibility of such a transfer, the supporters of the Amendment argue about indirect control, i.e., Benami. But then is there not a law for that as well? If that is the case why bring a new law when there are already existing ones that need to be properly implemented, especially the second.
In light of these facts, The KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018 was nothing but a stunt for next year’s MDC/MP election. There is though another problem with the Bill. It is anti-jaidbynriew (to borrow the term from the local Right) and will weaken the community at a time when the danger from outside forces (political dispensation, economic system, ecological uncertainty) is going to become more severe.
The thrust of the Bill was to ensure that there is purity of race (a discarded concept) by forbidding marriages outside the community. But by leaving out Khasi men marrying non-Khasi women the cat got out of the bag. Racial purity (supposed) is going to be disturbed if any foreign element is brought in. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from the men’s side or the women’s. The answer to this dilemma was given by one of the panellists in one of the TV debate held on the issue. “The problem doesn’t arise because the seed comes from the man” argued by one who was in support of the bill. Not surprisingly it was a man who said it. I was wondering if that was true why doesn’t he trying mixing his seed with the seed of another male panellist sitting beside him and see if it germinates. If it does I will agree to whatever arguments are made in favour of the Bill. On a serious note though, this idea of racial purity is especially not applicable to the Khasis because the sub-groups within them have acknowledged the history of admixture. One of such groups is the Bhoi.
“A Bhoi is someone who takes the mother’s surname while a Karbi is someone who takes the father’s surname” – an elderly Karbi lady from one of the villages in Ri Bhoi tells me. This particular Karbi lady married a Khasi man and her children now have a Khasi surname. Though she still has a Karbi surname she hardly communicates in Karbi anymore. With the Karbi people from other villages also she converses in Bhoi (a dialect different than the Sohra dialect which the official dialect of the Khasi community) and she is not the only one. What is important to notice is that it is not language but lineage which according to her distinguishes a Bhoi from a Karbi. This could be because of the stark difference between the Karbi and Khasi based on lineage rules. However, in case both groups had followed the same system this distinction will not work. This situation is further complicated because some ‘Khasi’ customs are not followed by the Bhoi, like the tang-jait.
In the Bhoi region, there is a type of matrimonial alliance which is known as shim-bhoi. In case a family has only male children, in order to keep the property within the same clan brides are sought from the Karbi clans (who follow the patrilineal system) rather than the matrilineal Bhoi clans. The children get the father’s surname and if they in turn have female children of their own the matrilineal system is adopted. This is different from the upland Khynriem (a Khasi sub group like the Bhoi) custom of tang-jait where the children of a union between a Khasi man and a non-Khasi woman will get a new Khasi surname. This comparison illustrates the comparatively greater flexibility in the Bhoi region where the presence of a patrilineal system is used as a medium through which a particular clan continues to maintain control over the ancestral property. What is also noticeable is also how the term Bhoi is used to designate the members of Karbi population who follow a patrilineal system rather than the matrilineal system of the Khasis. The headman of the Karbi lady’s village stated that “the Bhoi actually are the Karbis who actually were called Bhoi by the other Khasi sub-tribes”. This is something which has been alluded to by the British when they first arrived in this region: “The people are known as Bhois in these hills, who are many of them really Mikirs (another name for Karbi), live in the low hills to the north and north-east of the district (United Khasi and Jaintia Hills), the term “Bhoi” being a territorial name rather than tribal” (PR Gurdon, 1914).
The equivalence of surname is another phenomenon which is present in the Bhoi region (Ramirez, 2014). Members from the different ethnic communities which are residing in the area are found to be sharing membership in more than one ethnic group. A surname among the Bhoi-Khasi is found to have an equivalent among the Karbi and the Tiwa another important ethnic group (see table). This performs two functions, viz., new members into a group can only be admitted into the clans that already have established inter-ethnic affiliations; and consequently, marriages also have the follow the same route, i.e., following the rules of endogamy marriages cannot take place within the equivalent clan across the ethnic categories. According to the Census records Karbis formed around 15% of the population in Ri Bhoi, but according to Karbi activists and commentators the number is much higher, more than 30% (Teron et al, 2008). The discrepancy could be due to the fact that the latter might have included all the surnames that have Karbi equivalence or its corruption as being part of the Karbi population, for example, Killing (Karbi) becoming Klein (Bhoi-Khasi). Done in this way the Karbi numbers will inevitably increase. However, such an approach is fraught with problems.
Table Examples of equivalent surnames
Source: Phillippe Ramirez (2014)
The stability of such a system of inter-ethnic commonality points to the fact that such a process has been a two-way traffic. The method of identifying the population of a group (Karbi) by also counting its surname equivalent in another group (Khasi) is based on the assumption of a flow towards only one direction, i.e. of the latter. However, as observed in a case where an entire village was converted from Garo to Karbi through a ceremony it is clear that this is not the case (Ramirez, 2014). The British administrations have also recorded cases of non-Karbis being assimilated in such a manner during 17th Century (Teron et al, 2008). Therefore the assumption of unilateral flow is not tenable. In case of mixed marriages, the problem becomes more complicated. For example, a child borne out of a marriage between a Bhoi (matrilineal) and a Karbi (patrilineal) can be claimed by both the ethnic groups. Therefore, the real numbers will vary depending on who is counting them. In an environment where demand for ethnic homelands is quite endemic amongst the various groups in the region, inflating numbers can be a very useful strategy. This allows a group to lay claim on additional territories as well. Of course this does not go uncontested.
From the Karbi side the argument can be made that in a Khasi dominated landscape the trend is primarily assimilation towards the latter rather than the former. The Bhoi region had been under the influence of Jaintia (Pnar – another Khasi sub-group) kingdom and the Nongkrem (Khynriem) Syiemship in the past and is presently a district on the Khasi-dominated part of Meghalaya. For socio-political reasons it would make more sense for the Karbis to assimilate within the Khasi rather than the other way around. However, this is not assimilation where the minority community’s identity gets completely lost within the dominant community. Here vestiges of the previous identity are still intact and in fact it is these connections that guide the process. This allows the incoming group to still maintain connection with the group they left. It is these connections that allow some of them to try and regain the previous identity. There are cases of people who having been born with a Khasi surname chose to leave it for a Kabri surname. The dominance of a community cannot be looked only from the macro scale of a district or a state but at the micro level of village as well. Also, individual decisions based on factors other than politics has to be considered.
Bhoi can be understood as both ‘border’ as well as ‘people of the border’ (Ramirez, 20147) and like all border areas shows a great deal of diversity in terms of ethnic and linguistic composition. This identity like Gurdon (1914) remarked could be more of a geographic nature than an ethnic category. The line of argument can be advanced regarding the identity of the different sub-tribes among the Khasis as well. The seven sub-tribes of the Khasis can be identified with specific geographic locations (see figure 1) which could be the initial criterion for differentiation. This later got ossified into a restrictive ethnic category where lineages became the defining criterion rather than location. However, many on the ground still cling to the original design. When asked about their ethnicity people (from different ethnic backgrounds) in the village identified themselves firstly as Bhoi and then on being further prodded as Bhoi-Khasi or Karbi. Coming to myself, my grandfather was a Pnar, my father is a Karbi and my mother is a War (another Khasi sub-group).
The Khasi community can be divided into seven sub-groups, viz., War, Jaintia/Pnar, Lyngngam, Maram, Diko, Khyriem and Bhoi. These groups can be identified with certain geographical locations (see figure). Collectively they are called as Khasi. However, this nomenclature is not accepted by others, especially the Jaintia who prefer to refer themselves as Jaintia or Pnar. Another term which has been attempted to identify the community is Hynniewtrep after the origin myth. So if the Bill is accepted it would mean you have to remove the Bhoi and the Lyngngam (who have been acknowledged as being a mixture of Khasi and Garo) out of this scheme for the simple reason that they are not pure. Not just a single parent, both the parent were most probably non-Khasi. So there is no Hynniewtrep anymore and we have to find a new word to define the community which is acceptable to the remaining groups.
The more correct way of looking at the Khasi is that they are not a race but a people who follow different customs and traditions but have chosen to identify as Khasi based on similarities like the lineage system, language and other cultural markers. As more work is done on other groups especially the War (to which I belong) more diversities will be unearthed. The story of the Khasi is the story of different groups coming in the past and assimilating making the community making it richer in diversity and history. This does not mean there is nothing called the Khasi. When I cross into Ri Bhoi from Assam I know I am home among my people. When the time comes I will stand shoulder to shoulder with my brethrens to make sure that our homeland does not become another Tripura or Sikkim-Darjeeling. This land has been the abode of the Khasi for thousands of years and will continue to remain so in the future as well. But at the same time, the history of my community saves me from falling into the trap of prejudiced hate and unjustified animosity. This for me is the beauty of being a Khasi which no Bill will ever take it away.
Philippe Ramirez (2014). People of the Margins: Across Ethnic boundaries in North-East India. Spectrum Publication, Guwahati, Delhi.
P.R.T. Gurdon (1914). The Khasis (2nd edition). London: Macmillan And Co., Limited St. Martin’s Street.
Borsali Teron, Dharamsing Teron, Elwin Teron, Morningkeey Phangcho and Robindra Teron (2008). Karbi Studies. AnGik Prakashan, Guwahati.
Census of India (2001). Meghalaya. Data Highlights: The Scheduled Tribes. http://censu