Thursday, 19 April 2018

Truth and Fallacies about the Matrilineal Society in Meghalaya

Heart of the Matter

In my last blog, I tried to look back at the origin of Matriliny in Meghalaya. For an average Indian woman, who has been born and brought up in a patrilineal world; the arrangement where the Husband follows his wife to her home and children share the maternal title is like a dream come true. This may lead many of us to believe that the rate of crime against women would be nil in the 'abode of clouds' (Meghalaya) and so would be the prevalence of corruption in public life. But sadly, that is not so. Yes, the cases of rape, molestation and sexual abuse are in fact minimal, but the number of single mothers and/or divorcees is also equally high. Read my blog titled THE LAST SURVIVING MATRILINY IN MEGHALAYA on

What is further difficult to believe is the fact that even after repeated legal rules and notices about registration of marriages by the apex Indian courts, there are very few marriages registered in the state. Similarly, the land and property dealings are also shady as nobody pays any registration/maintenance fees/taxes for their ancestral, I mean maternal properties.   

The facade of complete superiority of daughters over sons and mothers over fathers could be used as an excuse to keep the feminists and human rights commissions happy. In reality, the dominance of the Khasi women in all familial matters leaves the Khasi men with not so much to do during the daytime but drinking the local rice beer, roaming around the hills and being a tool of procreation at nights. The very fact that there are some Khasi Male Rights Groups existing in the state makes it clear that all is not as rosy as it looks in the land of "Mother Rulers".

Essence of being Khasi = Scheduled Tribe= Matrilineal?

If you ask the non-tribal locals, they will say the secret behind the continuation of matrilineal society in Meghalaya even in modern times is  the autonomous rules of a self-governing body of the KHASI HILLS AUTONOMOUS DISTRICT COUNCIL called KHADC. According to the rules of KHADC, if one doesn't follow the matrilineal society, one ceases to be a Khasi. In short, if one doesn't remain a Khasi, one won't enjoy the status of a member of a Scheduled Tribe community. As a result, one may lose all the privileges one gets in finding a house, a job and many other tax benefits. You may find a lot of Khasi tribals going to the Church on Sundays and following the dictums of Christian religion, but they will still remain Khasi by origin. Many Khasi men have been angered by this dictum and have fought for their rights, equality and more power in familial matters but the women have their rights firmly cemented into the Khasi society. The men have to abide by them or face persecution.

The British Interpretation

The  total absence of any written records related to the intricacies of the customs and traditions of the Khasi society during the pre-Independence Era must be another reason for foreign administrators such as the British officials entrusted with land records to try to equate the Khasi society with what they had seen in their country. This might have led to documenting only those aspects of the matrilineal Khasi society which were in contrast with a Patriarchal society as theirs. This oversimplification of the details of a Matrineal Fighting tribe would have led to abuse by further Indian administrators who were also equally ignorant about the dynamics of the Khasi culture.

KA KHATDUH as the sole heir

  The maternal uncles and brothers' contribution used to vital whenever the farms needed to be burnt and be made ready for sowing the crops. Similarly, no KHATDUH (the youngest daughter) could sell/ lease /rent out the ancestral property without the opinion of the maternal uncles' and brothers' consent. But with onset of nuclear families, the maternal uncles no longer stayed with their nephews and nieces and so did the elder siblings of the family. This led to the increase in the authority of the KHATDUH in matters related to land, property and inheritance and ignorance of the collateral authority of uncles and brothers.
Many male rights groups claim that one of the reason for the early deaths of Khasi men is the instability and extreme alcohol dependency due to the negligible role in families. Although you will find that very few Khasi men abandon their mothers/homes in search of jobs outside the state.They prefer being a helping hand in their mother's or wife's business. This is also because many men still feel their real role according to old traditions and customs of Khasi society is to be the main guardian, keeper and certifier of the rights of women.

The Problem of Mixed Marriages 

My childhood skit's dream became a reality for many penniless paupers who dreamt of landing with the rich, romantic and naive youngest daughters.  It is felt that there is an increase in the number of marriages taking place between Khasi women and men from other states such as West Bengal, Bihar and Assam. This can be seen as another phase of growing dominance of the Khasi women as they have started to dictate their marital/sexual preferences in addition to the social and economic preferences.This has made them easy tools in the hands of  crafty fortune-seekers and the footloose adventurers from other parts of the country.

One of the strongest reason for the growing anger amongst the Khasi men is the preference given to men from other states by the khasi women. Every Khasi knows that it is still a serious problem because the mixed marriages lead to the non-khasi men forcing the khasi women to follow their own patrilineal system . It is also felt that the Khasi maternal uncles have been replaced with the non- Khasi men, but most often to the disadvantage of the Khasi women. Surprisingly, what hurts the Khasi community men is the happy abandon and great ease with which the Khasi women barter away their titles, rights and traditions.

Concluding Thoughts

Matriliny, some social scientists believe is based on the principles of abundance and unrestricted access to resources. On the other hand, Patriliny is based on scarcity and restricted access to resources. But today in Khasi society, there seems to be a perception that Matriliny has led to the scarcity of land, scarcity of resources and opportunities for the young Khasi men. This scarcity has given rise to serious competition for the use of resources among the users of the resources.

Modern education and new occupations have brought forth a new class of Khasi people. A large number of Khasi people are coming in contact with the world outside the Hills of Meghalaya. This interaction is leading to a conflict between different cultures and social arrangements such as patriliny and matriliny. This conflict has led to the reduced clan solidarity and increased temptation to imitate other cultures. As the different cultures interact with each other, the more dominant one seems to exert greater influence on the less dominant ones. 

Nobody knows what is wrong or right, what should continue and what needs to be done away with, but I am sure about one thing and that is like human organisms, cultures and societies do need to change according to the times. A redefined identity and an equitable distribution of property would definitely give the mother-loving Khasi men a new reason to keep protecting their unique culture. Finally, one has to accept that there is no growth without change.