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Meghalaya's mad men
The state's embattled men rally against traditions that have long marginalised them in tribal society
Males in Meghalaya's indigenous tribes are up in arms against customary laws that make them 'lesser' men. The matrilineal system followed by the Khasis, Jaintias and Garos deprives the male members of these tribes from their share of family property, rights over their children and even a sense of self-respect. This has apparently been driving many thousands of frustrated men to drug and alcohol abuse;and to early and lonely deaths. Now, under the banner of two prominent social organisations, these 'discriminated' males are pushing for change.
The matrilineal system in place usually means the youngest daughter of a family inherits all property with nothing going to her brothers or elder sisters. Also, all children take on the name of their mother's clan and the father is a virtual outsider in the family. After marriage, a groom goes to stay in the bride's house.
Traditionally, a man has no control over his children and is not expected to provide for them and his wife;this responsibility rests with a maternal uncle who is the guardian and provider of his sister and her children. "The maternal uncle, after getting married, goes to his wife's house every evening and returns to his mother's place to take care of his sisters' kids the next morning. This custom, called Thiah Shlur in Khasi, reduces the status of this man to that of a breeding bull, " says social activist Keith Albion Pariat.
Pariat, who heads Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai, an organisation that has been fighting for 'men's liberation' for the past two decades, also points out that there are clear links between men having no responsibilities and the alcohol and substance abuse that encourages many to lead a philanderer's life. Michael Syiem, who heads Mait Shaprang, another social organisation that has this issue on its agenda, says: "Actually, the youngest daughter was only the custodian of the property and could do nothing without the consent of her maternal uncles. But five decades ago, the Gauhati High Court ruled that the youngest daughter was the inheritor of her parent's properties under our customary laws. So we're actually not following our customs, but the High Court's interpretation".
This ruling has been economically ruinous for Meghalaya's tribals, contends Syiem. "There are no more government jobs around and with virtually no industries, the only opportunities exist in trade and commerce. But Khasi men cannot get loans from banks and financial institutions since they own no property that can be put up as collateral. The void is being filled up by businessmen from outside the state, many of whom also marry Khasi women and conduct business in their wives' names not only to dodge taxes (tribals don't have to pay income and some other taxes), but secure deals and contracts easily. "
Syiem says the solution lies in economic empowerment of all children of a family, irrespective of gender, and equitable distribution of family and ancestral properties. Another complexity also looms: When a man makes money and acquires assets through his own labour, he can will it to all his children in any manner he wants to, but his children cannot do the same with this property that they've inherited since it then becomes ancestral property that has to pass on to the youngest daughter. "For example, if a man has two daughters and two sons and divides his self-made property equally between all, his children will not be able to will their shares of this inherited property to their own children. Their shares of this inherited property will pass on to their youngest sister or her youngest daughter after the siblings pass away. This is grossly unfair and discriminatory, " said Syiem.
Pariat points out that the 'khatdoh' (youngest girl child) doesn't always lead a privileged life. "Many men marry her for her property, cheat her of it and then dump her. There are hundreds of such women, " he states.
Yet it's the plight of the male child that's a bigger problem. As Pariat details: "Even as a child, he sees how his father has no control over anything since he's staying at his in-laws' place. The child knows he will not inherit any property and after marriage, he'll also have to go and stay at his wife's place and live without any say. His children won't bear his surname and he'll have no control over them. " Syiem cites the traditional description of a man as a 'Rang Khadar Lama', or a man with 12 flags. "This means a man has 12 homes, " says Syiem, explaining that the underlying meaning is that a Khasi man is rootless.
Pariat's Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai has also been fighting a battle against the Lineage Act, 2005, passed by the East Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, a body set up under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution. "This act defines a Khasi as one born of a Khasi mother and a Khasi or non-Khasi father and who takes the mother's family name. Children who take the father's family name are not considered Khasis, are deprived of Scheduled Tribe status and can also be fined or jailed for five years. In case a child is born of a Khasi man and a non-Khasi woman, he or she has to undergo an elaborate cleansing ritual called Tang Jait and start a new clan with the prefix Khar (derived from 'Dkhar', the Khasi term for outsiders or foreigners) and the name of the locality of his or her father's village or locality becoming the suffix. This is a weird tradition that also needs to be abolished, " points out Pariat.
The first movement against this gender discrimination in Meghalaya's tribal societies was launched in the early 1960s by Darningstone Lyngdoh, a social reformer. It fizzled out due to strong opposition. But things are changing now. Both Syiem and Pariat say their efforts have begun to bear fruit. "Many men now stay with their wives and children as separate family units away from their in-laws and their children take on their fathers' family names, " says Syiem, who convinced his wife to abandon the traditional system. "I have taken my father's surname and am cool about it. No one from my mother's side has ever criticised me or has any problems about it. Taking on the father's surname is a growing trend among Khasi youngsters, " says Michael Syiem's fashion designer son Daniel.
Pariat's own children and those of his brothers and cousins have taken their respective fathers' surnames. But this, says Pariat, is a small skirmish and not the battle. "The bigger issue is that of inheritance and laws need to be changed. But right now, there's no political will for this".
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