When a division bench of the Supreme Court (India's apex court) gave the landmark judgment in the Anjan Kumar case, in February last year, declaring that the offspring of a tribal mother and a non-tribal father cannot be treated as Scheduled Tribe (ST), it did not create much of stir in the predominantly tribal states of the north east. But now, voices of dissent are being heard as the judgement has begun to have an adverse impact, particularly on the matrilineal tribes of Meghalaya, where the effects are turning out to be nothing short of a socio-political earthquake.
Tremors of the judgement were first felt in the political arena, when citing the ruling, Kharumnuid, a voter from Sohryngkham constituency in East Khasi Hills District, wrote a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi cautioning her against giving a ticket to sitting party legislator, Charles Pyngrope, as the seat is reserved for the ST. Pyngrope's father is a non-tribal, while his mother belongs to the Pyngrope clan of Khasi tribe. Pyngrope takes his mother's title, as is the custom of the Khasi, a matrilineal tribe.
With Meghalaya going to the polls within the next nine months, the letter is an indicator of many more such letters to come, as a number of political leaders in the state, including the cabinet, come from a mixed parentage. **
More recently, the Income Tax department also created an upheaval by directing 450 tax deducting authorities to start deducting tax from those born of mixed parentage. In fact, they have been told to file their tax return for the current fiscal year to avoid imposition of interest or penalty. So far they had been enjoying income tax exemption under section 10 (26) of the IT Act.
Incidentally, a significant number of Meghalaya's successful business class falls under this category. When approached for clarification on the issue, the IT department denied exemption despite people producing ST certificates duly issued by the state.
Meanwhile, Income Tax Commissioner H. Raikhan said that as the judgement had not been challenged, his department had no option but to comply. "We also felt that it (the SC ruling) may not apply to Meghalaya, which follows matrilineal traditions, but we cannot go on without obeying it," he said.
These incidents have opened a virtual Pandora's Box in Meghalaya, where, even otherwise, the increasing trend of mixed marriages has become a major bone of contention among the local populace, some of who claim that this is bringing in demographic changes that are ringing the death knell for matrilineal tribes.
As they are perfectly within their rights as per the Khasi or Garo customs, people of mixed parentage have sought the protection of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC). H.S. Shylla, chief executive member of KHADC, said that they would file a special leave petition in the Supreme Court for the exemption.
However, many among Shylla's compatriots feel that the ruling should be seen as a blessing. Said K. Pariat, president of Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai (SRT), "We welcome the Supreme Court ruling. This is exactly what we need to save our tribe from being totally assimilated by the dominant population surrounding us. We feel that the honourable judges, particularly Justice H.K. Sema, knew what they were talking about. Justice Sema is a Naga and has lived in Shillong. He must have seen how the law is being misused by the dominant community." The SRT has been campaigning for changing the Khasi system from matrilineal to patrilineal claiming that matrilineal customs have rendered the tribe open to mercenary marriages wherein men of a dominant community have married Khasi women just for the sake of getting exemptions and enjoying other economic privileges.
Pariat admitted that not all such marriages can be called 'mercenary'. But added that there are enough examples of such marriages of 'convenience' where the non-tribal man has an 'asli' (real) wife back in the home state and a 'tribal' wife here for business convenience.
While the urbanites grapple with the problem, tribal village councils in the remote parts of the state have already taken steps to discourage the trend. Several village councils have passed resolutions forbidding local women from marrying non- Khasis. If any happen to do so, they have to leave the village. In the Jaintia Hills, where the rich coal mines have attracted a huge migrant population, the village councils have been forced to draw this line to stop the trend which, they say, poses a threat to the future of the tribe.
"Mixed marriages are definitely an issue," said Mihsalin Suchiang, a legislator from Jaintia Hills. He, however, says that most women, who marry outsiders are those who have been 'rejected' or left by their tribal husbands. "It's a deeper issue and we have to look into our own system to stop this trend," he said.
Even as the matrilineal tribes try and look for a way out of the situation forced upon them by the SC ruling, tribes that follow the patriarchal traditions may not show similar chaos; but they, too, are wrestling with the implications mixed marriages, which are seen to be 'physically' endangering the long term survival of the tribe's 'bloodlines'.
What title a child adopts is a personal choice. But it has deep social-economic- political impact on a small tribe when it happens in large numbers. The SC has passed many judgments affirming a child's right to be recognised by either parent's title. There is also a ruling, which upholds the right of the mother to be recognised as her child's legal guardian in case there is a dispute with the father. But all these rulings affirming gender equality do not seem to hold true if the offspring has a non-tribal father and a tribal mother. For now, the right of the tribal mother to pass on her lineage to the offspring has been curtailed by the SC.