In Focus

Bill sabotages tribal women rights

Meghalaya, the north-east Indian state, is undergoing immense turmoil. Indigenous women of the state belonging to the Khasi tribe are protesting a bill that would deny them tribal status and inheritance rights if they marry men outside their tribe. The Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (First Amendment) Bill, 2018 was tabled in the state assembly on 25 October 2018 by Chief of Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) H S Shylla. “It is to put a stop to mixed marriages, as they are a threat to our tribe," he said. Earlier, in July, the bill was passed by the KHADC, governing body of the tribe that oversees matters of inheritance, land and forests management, etc., justifying it as an act to protect the tribe's indigenous identity.

Many tribal communities in Meghalaya, including the Khasi, are matrilineal societies where children take their mother's name and daughters inherit property from their mothers, a system that 'protects customary land'. However, the KHADC proposed bill lays down pre-conditions for a woman to qualify as a 'Khasi' and concurrently weakens their stand.

According to the bill, a Khasi should be governed by Khasi customs of matrilineal system, laws of consanguinity and kinship, laws of inheritance and succession and customs of marriage. The Khasi Custom of Lineage means a customary practice by which any Khasi person takes his or her clan from the mother and follows the matrilineal system. The Khasi Custom of Marriage involves two clans not related by any bond of consanguinity and both following the matrilineal system. An offspring of a Khasi woman or man who violates these two customs will not be identified as a Khasi.

The bill also mentions that any Khasi who takes the clan title of his father for himself or his children will not longer be a Khasi and he and or his children will be disqualified from all privileges, status and benefits as a Khasi. However, if the bill becomes a law, the affected can, within a period of six months, file an application to revert to the matrilineal system of marriage.

The proposed bill faces opposition from the indigenous Khasi women who fear that it will weaken their position further. Despite a matrilineal society, Khasi women do not have the authority to make important decisions such as that of transfer or sale of land. Activists believe the bill will put women in danger of more land being snatched from them and increase their ostracism from the community.

"The bill is sexist, unconstitutional and patriarchial and we are asking the state government to stop its passage," says Khasi activist and journalist Patricia Mukhim. Khasi women have, since long, been marrying men from outside the tribe but now their futures seem uncertain with the recent turn of events.