The popular adage and interpretation that the Khasi people give or take the title from the female is absurd. Therefore, in Khasi custom, taking or giving the title from the man, be it a father or husband, is sacrilege. It is disrespectful and derogatory of the wisdom of the forebears. On the one hand, the mother or woman is eligible to participate or lead the community provided she is mature in age and season in thought; while on the other hand, an elderly man without an iota of maturity in his intellect may be debarred from the Dorbar, not to mention of representing or leading the maternal family or community.
The post-colonial period witnessed tremendous harm to customary practices in Khasi society. The most severe is the outcome of male domination in the traditional council and the inheritance of clan and family properties to the youngest daughter. The consequences arose from the improper interpretation of Khasi customary laws by the British colonial rulers. The problem became manifold with the negligence and ignorance of the Khasi people about the foundation of their customary practices. The damage further escalated in the cross-cultural marriage with the patriarchal society. The austere patriarchal society tends to adopt the custom towards their tradition. Few Khasi families are inclined or influenced by the patriarchal system, have adapted themselves to the system, or imitated the prevailing trend. But this is primarily an elite mindset, while the matrilineal system is still very strong and vibrant with the majority of the indigenous people, particularly in the villages. If we consider the words of one social scientist that after certain hundreds of years, the Aryan culture will reach the foothills of the Himalayas; which means that all the North Eastern Tribal culture might be assimilated with the Bengal culture or may emerge or evolve a new form of mixed community.
In the matrilineal system, the eldest maternal uncle is usually the administrative and spiritual head of the family, and the father is the provider of the material needs of his offspring. The father of a particular family is otherwise, the uncle to his maternal family and clan. The decision on the domestic affairs of the family lies with the family council headed by the maternal uncle; while often the youngest daughter or sister is the custodian of domestic properties. In the same way, the affairs of the clan lie with the council of the clan, headed by the eldest maternal uncle. The role of the maternal uncles is more of an obligation and responsibility to the maternal family and the clan. In a particular Khasi family, the mother, as the bearer of her own clan’s offspring, is the custodian of all domestic resources and her eldest brother is the head of the family. All her other sisters after marriage will create a separate family structure within the clan, and all her brothers are uncles of their nephews and nieces with a delegation of responsibilities for the family and the clan, under the leadership of the eldest brother.
We can well imagine the social obligation of the Khasi man to his maternal family and the clan. Every obligation and responsibility is empowered with the authority of consensual endorsement within the maternal family and the clan. This obligation, responsibility, and collective authority of the Khasi men with their maternal family and clan is suddenly stripped by the British colonial rulers’ wrong interpretation of the customary practices. Adding more soreness to the wound, the colonial rulers construed that the youngest sister or daughter was the absolute inheritor and legitimate possessor of domestic resources and created a social precedence that devastated the entire cultural milieu throughout the post-colonial ages. Again, we can well imagine the social disaster arising out of the sole authority and ownership of maternal family resources by the youngest sister or daughter, overriding all the collective and lifelong contributions of her brothers and sisters, maternal uncles and aunts. And mind it, this is still prevalent today and is the generally accepted norm and customary law that stands very firm in the contemporary legal framework.
Therefore, in the present context, there is a social dilemma regarding the role of the maternal uncle and the father. In the present circumstances, the father is alien to the family affairs of his wife and children, and, as the uncle to his maternal family, he could hardly intervene in the family affairs of his married sister and brother-in-law. Moreover, cross-cultural marriages with men from the patriarchal community often created confrontation due to social and economic reasons. Usually, the men from patriarchal communities always tend to adopt their families into their customs, while very few will be lenient or adapt themselves in the matrilineal community. If these men are tolerant is tolerance of these men, it will be a compromise on social security and economic advantage. On most occasions, it could be with vested commercial interest or even hegemony, because most women are easily vulnerable to the control of men, particularly so with the youngest daughter superseding the intervention of her elder brothers and sisters, and even maternal uncles and aunts. She might even challenge and assert supreme authority over everyone else in certain cases with legal endorsement. There are instances where the youngest daughter usurps all powers and captures all family resources, disparaging her aged mother or grandmother also. In this manner, most Khasi men became unstable in social and economic security, because of the sudden transition of family structure and the gradual decline of the authority of the maternal uncle. The situation often led to complaints and protests by menfolk on the system and even resorted to domestic violence or social rebellion. The gradual increase of severe hindrances for Khasi men, to a certain extent, compelled them to be dependent on their mother or sister for livelihood. This is the last resort and is sometimes coupled with humiliation and frustration until they are ruined. This is the truth in a society that we should not shy away, and better late than never; we should still find a solution to this negative development.
On the other hand, some many daughters and sisters ignore and deride the prevailing system, and lay their trust and confidence in their elder brothers and sisters, uncles, and aunts for the growth and well-being of their personal life and community. This has come about with due regard to family values handed over from the ancestors for generations. While facing the prevailing system that is detrimental to the social fabric of the Khasi community, many men still abide by the current traditional custom of shouldering obligation and responsibilities over their respective maternal family or clan, without ignoring the composite family of their wife and children. He earned the respect of his maternal family and the clan as a whole as well as the house of in-laws. This is also the truth in a society that we should cherish and strengthen positive development.
In a similar situation of respecting family values, some women realized their position in society, upholding the role of men in the welfare of the community. So also men, realising their position in society, reciprocate their respect for the role of women in the welfare of the community. Therefore, there is a cordial and congenial atmosphere of mutual trust and interdependence among themselves. This is a positive attitude in the family and community. It is prevailing in certain families, ki dorbar shnong, and the community at large, where the leaders are morally righteous and obligatory.
On the other hand, there is an element of suspicion, mistrust, and selfishness among the other sections of society, where men dominate every sphere of social welfare activities. This situation compelled certain women who are concerned with the society and welfare of women to assert recognition and representation in the social administrative set-up. This has even led to demand for quotas for women and the gradual emergence of immature and mediocre people in the leadership domain. These so-called leaders are usually asserting their social and financial influence in the community. When mediocrity dominates over excellence, leadership is being asserted and challenged among themselves. This is the negative attitude in society and it prevails in the social structure.
Consequently, leadership issues are a matter of concern for both men and women. Each and everybody has the ambition to be a leader and, at the end of the day, people behave like leaders without any followers. When somebody with leadership potential and ability, is asserted or conducted as a leader and facilitates the intellectual and material resources for the benefit of the community, there will be some selfish elements to spit venom and ensure that he or she will never see the light of the day. This is also the truth that we should not shy away and find a solution to another negative development in the community.
There is a mechanism in the traditional system and customary practices of the Khasi community to deal with the situation within the community. The term ‘Rangbah‘ is enough to signify maturity in age and thought process, without any gender discrimination, unless misinterpreted. It is a qualification of intelligence, sound mind, decent character, and personal integrity when coupled with an individual trait of humbleness and courage, that will pave the way to excellence. Another trait of ‘tapnia‘ in Khasi parlance or the wit and ability to assert and disarm all the other arguments in a debate, which is an added potential to tone down the pitch of rhetoric.