In case you’re wondering, this is a comment that somebody typed out under a post on my timeline. People behind many such comments have set ultimatums for us: “You can marry whoever you want. We aren’t dictating the personal choice. BUT… marry a non-tribal and you would have betrayed your community.”
I watched as other men and women came forward to oppose the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Second Amendment Bill 2018, placing their arguments on the table to be considered. Yet, those supporting the Bill did not seem to care because while the Bill is hasty and immediate, the idea is not. It is a mere continuation of the outpouring of an age-old rage about tradition and gender roles, which is unfortunately and terrifyingly going to affect REAL people.
Although the amendment Bill has been returned by the Governor, we have become betrayers: for simply asking for a re-consideration. We haven’t even taken a non-Khasi spouse yet. From personal attacks to violent threats… we don’t need to delve into the dark web to find a bunch of people abusing and threatening one of their own.
Not only do we become Judas of the Jaitbynriew, we also lose all our titles and privileges. At least Jesus was a little more forgiving.
The abuse made its way offline as well. Which brings me to the panel discussion that took place on Monday when women activists were heckled and constantly cut off when trying to make their case.
Curse words were hurled at them, so steeped in vulgarity that even my grandmother fumed with raging disappointment: “Kane ka dei akor Khasi seh? Ban ym sngap shuh ia kaei kaba ki rangbah bad ki kynthei ki ong.” (Is this what you call Khasi manners? Not even lending your ears to what elders and women have to say?)
I try not to think about the Bill too much. After all, it is not in place yet, right? Yet it feels as though the abuse that those opposing the Bill receive online and off is just a fragment of what is to come. Imagine what they would do if the Bill actually gets the Governor’s assent.
What is even more disheartening is the fact that they genuinely believe that the problems that plague our Khasi society could be solved if women just refrained from any kind of romantic or sexual agency with a non-Khasi.
Here are a few arguments being made by the pro-Bill brigade, minus the rape-murder-violence threats:
1. ‘We’re not restricting a woman’s choice to marry anyone. She can marry whoever she wants.’
The Bill, despite claims from pro-Bill activists, does not give the women freedom of choice. If the repercussions of the decision to marry a non-Khasi are so severe and hold so much weight, will a woman choose to let her family bear the brunt of her decision? Let them be incarcerated for her choice? The Bill, as we all know, not only strips the rights of the woman but also that of her kids. Her kids will be excluded from educational and employment reservation within the state as well as outside the state. Wouldn’t a mother want to choose what is best for her children? How is it freedom of choice if you’ve got a knife hanging over your head? It’s almost a collective dare: “Khie leit kein. Iathoh ia u bar jylla” (Go ahead. Marry a non-Khasi).
2. This is about our existence. We want to preserve Khasi culture and tradition unlike you the anti-Khasi, ‘hi-fi’ (elite) bunch.
This is self-contradictory. If we wish to preserve your culture, how can we do away with its very core? On approval of the Bill, KHADC CEM Shylla also announced the Council’s plans to scrap ‘tang jait’ (a ceremony to take in a new title for men’s non-Khasi wives). Why should we denounce our titles only because we’re not pure of blood and why should we scrap an age-old accommodating, inclusive tradition? To quote Miss Agnes Kharshiing in her article, ‘ KHADC attempts to turn Khasis into Khap Panchayat’:
Not only has H S Shylla left the traditional heads from discussions of the Bill that interferes with customary law, he also said that he would write to them not to be part of the Grand Council of Chiefs, which to our surprise (not really) contradicts his own notification issued in 2005. The notification gives recognition to the Seng Khasi (Seng Kmie) body in the interpretation and codification of the Khasi Customary Laws.
This, thereby, makes it look like the KHADC is attacking the tenets of Khasi society than saving them, with this Bill.
Then comes the usual
(‘Our youth are so modern, they can’t even speak their own native language anymore, they only speak in a foreign language).
Can we really blame the generations of children who have been made to go to an English medium school for half of their lives for not speaking ‘proper’ Khasi? We have all been taught subjects in a foreign language and we even get punished for not speaking in the language on campus. We worship a foreigner’s god. We wear the foreigner’s clothes.
It is a globalised world that has evolved so much. The average Khasi family is an assimilation of innumerable traits of the modernised world. Of course, we don’t want our tribe to burn. All we want is for the KHADC to consider and study all factors – the changes the Khasi people, the Khasi land and the Khasi customs have undergone over the years – before making such a radical decision.
3. ‘Khasi women want everything. They already have the surnames, the power, the properties and now they don’t want to miss out on non-Khasis.’
This is widely misconstrued. Our society has no problem announcing our matriliny to the entire world with pride but have only jeers and complaints to give about it in our own backyard. We both idealise and scapegoat our women.
While the Khasi Hills Autonomous District ( Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) Act 1997 gives the khun khatduh (youngest daughter) the right to the ancestral property, the woman is merely a custodian of the property, bound by responsibility to consult her brother on any decision she wishes to make over it.
When we speak of the Khasi matrilineal society, we often exclude the role of the man in socio-cultural and socio-political spheres. We do not mention the role of the kñi (maternal uncle) who wields immense influence in the Khasi household. Dorbars (village councils) also don’t have women in decision-making positions. We forget that women have for a long time been excluded from even the election process of a Rangbah Shnong (headman) under the provision of Section 16 (3) of the Khasi Hills Autonomous Council (Appointment and Succession of Syiem, deputy Syiem and Rangbah Shnong of Mylliem Syiemship (Act) 2007 and rule of the Administration of Mylliem Syiemship, 2015, which only allows a Khasi adult male to participate in the affairs of village administration.
Women’s representation in the political sphere is also abysmal. Take for instance, the February elections. Out of a total of 370 candidates, 32 (that is 9%) are women. Meghalaya is also yet to send a female parliamentarian to the Lok Sabha.
Historically, men have always been the decision-makers in society. So, yes, what we have is responsibility masked by material benefits. We have the responsibilities – of our family, of our land, of our entire race- but we don’t have the power.
We’re not simply terrified of missing out on a marriage to a non-tribal or what the outside world has to offer us on relationships. Not as much as we’re terrified of losing something more profound – we really are a unique matrilineal tribe, known for being warm and inclusive, a race that respects man and God (tip briew tip Blei) and one of the last few remaining on Earth. We fear the bill will do more harm than good. We fear that it is but a general ‘solution’ to a specific problem which will bring in more complications than remedies.
We’re not discrediting the problems of the tribe. We’re acknowledging them, which is why we’re speaking out as concerned citizens.