As one of the main tribal groups of Meghalaya, the Khasis are safeguarded by the Indian Constitution which allows them the autonomy to carry out governance per their local practices. In sharp contrast to most parts of the country, Khasis have matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent. This implies that in Khasi society, the family is rooted around the residence of the woman, and family property is also mainly devolved through the female line. The women in Khasi society play significant roles in terms of contribution to the household. Women constitute the majority of the labour in the cultivation of common land, and have been accorded relatively greater occupational freedom as compared to the rest of the country. This is perceivably reflected in the inheritance patterns in Khasi Society as well.
The source of the matrilineal system among the Khasis is not clear. Based on the yet unproven opinion that the Khasis came from South East Asia or Cambodia, where there is no sign at all of the existence of this matrilineal family system, some scholars are of the opinion that the Khasis adopted their matrilineal family on their way in the past to these hills. They believe that the Khasis did this in order to tide over some unexpected exigency that might threaten their very existence and survival. The esteem and preference for this matrilineal system has now become entrenched into the Khasi practice very deeply. The matrilineal system is important for the establishment of the kur or clan, as all Khasis descended from the same female ancestor are considered to be members of the same clan. This system is based on the Khasi view of reproduction: they hold that the mother who bears and nurtures the child should have rights over the child.
The main elements of the matrilineal system of the Khasis include inheritance by the youngest daughter in the family, called the Ka Khadduh. The property in the Khasi system devolves upon the youngest daughter. If she does not have any daughter surviving her, her next elder sister inherits the ancestral property and after her, the youngest daughter of that sister. Failing all daughters and their female issues, the property goes back to the mothers’ sister, mother’s sister’s daughter and so on. If the khadduh has no daughter, further, her son living in the same house may be selected as the ka nongrap ling, or the adopted female member of the clan to continue property devolution, though normally the above system is followed. There is also scope for the mother to make a pynkam or bequest, leaving some property to her other daughters apart from the khadduh as gifts after death, though most of the property still devolves upon the khadduh. However, the custom of devolution via pynkam is applicable only in case of transfers occurring within the customary line of succession. The Khadduh continues to live in the ancestral home with the brothers, and is given the right of ownership, though not control, over all the ancestral property. The right has been described as a guardianship of sorts, and in case any member of the clan falls into dire straits and requires the use of the property, the chief uncle may deliberate and instruct the youngest daughter to share such property. The Ka Khadduh’s property is actually the ancestral property and so if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.
While this may all seem highly empowering, it is worth taking a pause to look into the actual nature of how this property is controlled – does matriliny in fact lead to a matriarchy? Well. Not quite. In this system, the maternal uncle remains the pivot around which the whole family revolves. He is established as the centre of authority over the whole clan or over one particular branch of the family. The uncle’s authority over his sisters and her children is supreme and undisputed. They do not have the autonomy to act independently without the uncle’s knowledge and consent. In the ancient times, the uncle was even considered to have power over the life and death or his sisters, nephews and nieces: the uncle could beat even unto death his nephews or nieces who committed the incest by marrying within the clan. This authority was supposedly given to him in order to safeguard the purity of the clan. Further, this authority of the uncle was life-long, and valid even in old age. The uncle had the power of administering all property, movable or immovable as well. The uncle has a religious role as well, as the priest, teacher and performer of rites for the well-being of the clan. Traditionally, in a Khasi family, the eldest sister must get married first. Generally, when such a sister’s children become capable of earning their livelihood, partition of property (Mih iing) may take place. The elder sister moves out, and it is deemed the responsibility of her brother to ensure that she has sufficient means to live on. However, this comes from the self acquired property of the woman, her children and her brother, while ancestral property continues to remain with the family which lives together. The influence of her brother continues despite such a partition. This process of partition continues in a family, stopping only at the youngest daughter. Because of this unique economic practice of the Khasis’ matrilineal system there were few indigent persons among them in the past. The blind, the deaf, the incurably sick and the orphans of the clan could rely, in the past, on the usufruct of the ancestral property and hence they were never left abandoned or neglected. The last sister or the last daughter, as the guardian of the ancestral property, had the strict obligation to welcome and look after the members of the clan that were in dire and real need.
A person could be excluded from inheritance on grounds of marriage to a member of the clan within prohibited degrees, immoral character, or illicit sexual intercourse. Illegitimacy of the youngest daughter is not generally a ground of disqualification from being made a khadduh. The ancestral property has to pass down to the daughters alone; the mother did not have the right to mortgage or sell any portion of the source of income if it came from ancestral property.
Despite the influence of the Christian Church in Meghalaya, the customary practices continue to prevail. Culture and religion are still shrouded in ambiguity. Khasi beliefs appear to be still deeply rooted in Khasi consciousness. Christian teachings have not been fully internalized, despite extensive proselytisation. Further, kinship ties, in the final analysis, are for the most part are still stronger than congregational ties. Even today, Christian converts from non-Christian families continue to face opposition from their maternal kinsmen. This is especially so in families where the kur and the power of the maternal uncles are strong, and in those clans where the converts in question are the youngest daughters. In 1918, the Government ruled that Christian converts should be allowed to inherit the ancestral property, implying therefore that property was to be divorced from religion
Due to influences of urbanization, modernization, and greater interaction with neighbouring patriarchal cultures, there is a perceivable shift in the status of the matrilineal system in Meghalaya. As of now daughters are mostly found to move out to form neo-local families, the family property is either divided or given to all the daughters or else it is given to the son if he stays with his parents at home. It has been found in most of the cases that the property is kept in contact by the parents and it is only the youngest daughter in most cases who enjoys all rights which has also caused a great setback in the position of women, which contradicts the myth that Khasi matrilineal systems indicate a greater degree of gender parity. A case study in this respect showed that women’s absorption in professional field leads to more shifts towards transited groups, with changes in the matrilineal pattern of inheritance, whereas in case of non-professional women workers and their husbands who are engaged in agricultural sector, there exists a higher probability of following the age-old traditional systems of matrilineal inheritance.
Commenting on the inheritance of ancestral property, Patricia Mukhim points out that in actuality only a few clans have large properties, which means, for most Khasis this right derived from the right to lineage is actually of little significance. While the youngest daughter is less dependent on their husbands, all other daughters are heavily dependent on their husbands for material well-being. Despite men’s restricted access to property ownership, their rights (as a gender) of control over that property, on the one hand, and their access to public bodies, on the other, has often enabled them to consolidate social prestige and political power.
The issue against matriliny was raised when the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council attempted to codify the matrilineal system into law, to heavy opposition from civil society actors, most notably the Ka Syngkong Rympei Thymmai (SRT) and the Khasi Students Union (KSU). The SRT argue that authority over children should be given to their father, that children be included into the clan of the father, that parents should be cared for and live with their sons, but most crucially; if a daughter marries a non-Khasi then she should lose her right to property and the children will be unable to benefit from the Sixth Schedule and the reservations for tribals. The KSU and SRT argue that the matrilineal system allows too many people to be able to pass as Khasis, and if the matrilineal system is allowed to continue then the Khasi tribe will be extinct in 10 to 15 years. They have argued that allowing the children of a Khasi woman and non-Khasi man to be considered Khasi and part of the clan will encourage inter-ethnic marriages compromising the economy, land, and the identity of Khasis.
What seems to have escaped the attention of such scholars is that, in the name of protecting the ethnic purity or the Khasi and the interests of ‘pure blood’ (Khasi paka) they overlook the interests of the vulnerable family members who are reduced to the status of outsiders. The only note of caution came from the Meghalaya Women’s Alliance, who posed the question of whether there was a readiness to reject kith and kin when they commit such a “breach of conduct” and deprive them of their rights. . The entire discussion was otherwise dominated by those who viewed a woman’s marriage to a non-Khasi as a slur on the image of the community An unchallenged assumption that runs through the debate is that women married to outsiders are unpatriotic, devoid of any sentiment or attachment to their culture and tradition.
On the face of it, the Khasi system of matriliny seems to appear as being more favourable to women than other systems of inheritance. It cannot be denied that devolution through the female lineage, protection to the vulnerable members of the clan, and the rights of the widows inter alia make the Khasi system more equitable. However, the problems of such a system of inheritance must not be overlooked. As numerous scholars have suggested, there is very little control allowed over property as the actual powers over alienation, partition and other decisions pertaining to the property are vested in the hands of the matrilineal males. Further, in the Khasi system, the notion of gender equality can be questioned, given that the youngest daughter is given priority over the rest, disadvantaging other women in the family. It has also been argued that many responsibilities vest upon the youngest daughter which in turn takes away from her autonomy of using the property.
The husband’s role in his wife’s family seems minimal, as he is seen as being first and foremost a member of his own kur, and therefore his rights of devolution of property were restricted earlier. However, with the enactment of the Succession Act in 1984, the right of the wife over the self-acquired property of the husband has been restricted, if not over ancestral property, where the role of the maternal uncle continues to be very important. This indicates that changes in the succession law have only contributed towards disadvantaging women apart from the youngest daughter. With the coming of urbanization, and interaction with external communities, there have been demands for changes in the succession law. Movements, as discussed, have proposed a shift to a patrilineal system where the role of the husband would be enhanced. However, these proposals have not yet been taken up for serious consideration by legislators. The existing system is deeply entrenched in Khasi society, and there is little desire to change it.
Therefore, it is proposed by the researcher that initiatives towards reforming the Khasi inheritance system ought to include devolution by succession of some property to all the members of a family, as opposed to merely the youngest daughter. The existing mechanism for allowing the vulnerable and the destitute members of the family to fall back on the joint family property allows for the holistic development of the clan, and hence ought to be retained. Further, such rights should be extended to people who marry outside the community as well.
Given the focus on clan and family in Khasi society, it is desirable that any reforms take into account the need to harmonise the interests of the community. Hence, the researcher believes that the best way forward is to retain Khasi matriliny while at the same time taking steps to make it more gender sensitive and equitable.
You can read more of the author, Padmini Baruah’s work here
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