On October 25, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) proposed a bill that was aimed at ending the discrimination during distribution of property among the children in a family.
The bill, called the KHAD (Khasi Inheritance of Property) Bill, 2021, will be tabled in the council assembly in the winter session beginning November 8. This was proposed keeping in mind that there is no codification of the traditional practice of inheritance of ancestral property by the youngest daughter in the family.
This practice has not only made other siblings in a family feel alienated but also led to several disputes. KHADC chief executive member Titosstarwell Chyne said the proposed bill would address such contentious issues arising out of the traditional property inheritance.
Though the draft bill is yet to be made public for suggestions and opinions, many citizens, including youths, feel the mindset is changing and many parents are “rightly deciding” to equally distribute their property among their children. Some believe the KHADC bill will dilute the principles of the Khasi matrilineal society. As the debate steadily gains momentum, Sunday Monitor tries to find out whether or not this bill is relevant in this age.
Need for public debate
The KHADC so far has not consulted prominent citizens and social activists on drafting the bill. Michael Syiem, whose social organisation Maitshaphrang has been fighting for the rights of men and equitable distribution of property, said neither has KHADC approached him for a discussion nor he has put up a demand for holding one.
“We have been demanding and continue to demand pre-legislative participation and consultation at state and district council levels, but these institutions seem to prefer being opaque. Such a non-transparent culture in legislation, especially in the KHADC, has meant we raise the red flag after we get to see the bill, when the provisions are antithetical to notions of justice and equality as laid down in the constitution. These bills then lie in cold storage for years to be raked up every now and then for political and often misogynist reasons but don’t see the light of day as a functioning and implementable law,” said Thma U Rangli-Juki activist Angela Rangad.
A few youths whom Sunday Monitor spoke to also believe that the authorities should have an in-depth discussion before tabling any bill in the house.
“For us, it does not matter whether there’s a bill because my family is quite liberal when it comes the rights of my siblings. Nonetheless, a discussion is a must,” said a 30-year-old woman, also the youngest daughter, or khadduh, of her family.
Equitable distribution of property is a long-pending demand by several social groups and citizens and has remained one of the most debatable social issues in the state. Now that the KHADC is taking a step to deviate from the Khasi tradition, it becomes imminent that members of the council hold talks with various stakeholders.
Why the bill?
A section of the citizens feels the KHADC’s move is in the right direction and in tandem with the changing time.
“Khasi society is always evolving. Modern demands of property and inheritance for each sibling means strengthening each sibling financially at the early stage of his/her family life. It is not a transgressive inversion of traditional canon but a constructive balancing or equating for each sibling’s financial sustainance is important. The old system is antiquated. It had its strong influence mostly during pre-colonial and post-colonial Meghalaya,” said a young academician in his thirties on condition of anonymity.
UDP’s veteran leader Bindo B. Lanong too was appreciative of the bill, which is “important at a time when there prevails uncertainty over property distribution after the death of parents or even when parents are alive”.
Having said this, the bill is not the KHADC’s novel initiative. In 1984, a law was enacted for equitable distribution of self-acquired property. The Meghalaya Succession to Self-acquired Property (Khasi and Jaintia Special Provision) Act, 1984 — or simply the Succession Act — is an extension of the national legislation but a deviation from the Khasi custom of making a will.
While the act was very clear on the self-acquired property of women, ambiguity continued when it came to men. “.. it is difficult for a man to maintain the distinctive identity of his self-acquired property. Often, he is forced by circumstances to merge his self-acquired property with his wife’s property. When such mergers occur, the property is transmitted to his wife and children, and his mother and sister will lose their claims,” pointed out a study on gender and the Khasi family structure by Tiplut Nongbri.
Referring to the Succession Act, Rangad wondered how the new bill would be different from the existing law. “The KHADC CEM seems to be retracting on this, because if it is about ancestral property that the bill seeks to regulate then it is changing the very core of matrilineal customs, and hence, everything is up for grabs and questioning what is our custom? Are we creating new customs and can we continue to create new customs,” the activist asked.
“This law will create more disputes and attempts to dispossess each other. Customary rules had arrangements for ensuring even adopted children are taken care of and can inherit… it is an ordered arrangement. This proposal (the KHADC bill) will throw everything in flux,” she added.
However, Bindo pointed out that the Succession Act “is different as legal successor comes after the death of parents”.
“Also, self-acquired property (acquired individually) is different from ancestral property,” he said in defence of the bill.
While the Succession Act encompasses Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the KHADC bill only focuses on Khasi Hills. In this context, Syiem of Maitshaphrang strongly believes that the council was not the right authority to propose the bill and it should have been by the state government.
“I have not seen the draft yet but one thing is clear that this bill, if enacted, will only cover a part of the state. Then what about Garo Hills and Jaintia Hills? So, the state has the authority to do that,” said Syiem.
He was also of the opinion that when a law, the Succession Act, already exists, there was no need for another bill. Instead, necessary amendments should have been made to ensure equitable distribution.
About the practice in Jaintia Hills, green activist Sajay Laloo said in the Jaintia system, khadduh is the inheritor of the house or residential property. “The rest of the properties are to be divided among all by custom and practice. We are more or less similar to Hindu Undivided Family and have a joint family system too,” he added.
There are four categories of properties among Khasis for inheritance — ancestral property (nongtymmen), self-acquired property (nongkhynraw), property acquired after marriage (kamai iing khun iing tnga) and property acquired while living with clan (kamai iing kur).
“Division of property is more frequent than continuance in joint possession. The mother divides land among her daughters, usually on their marriage reserving a larger share for ka khadduh. The older daughters hold these as separate property. They can sell their share of the property without referring to the ka khadduh. It is to be noted that there is no obligation whatsoever upon the mother to divide the property equally among her daughters. Ka khadduh is given the largest share on account of the religious and family duties. Also, she takes the property as custodian,” says a study by Gitanjali Ghosh of National Law University and Judicial Academy, Assam.
The last sentence is crucial. Traditionally, the youngest daughter in the family is given the custodian of ancestral property and not ownership. With the custodianship comes the responsibility of taking care of aged parents and following the traditional rituals. However, over the years, “this has been misinterpreted, either naively or deliberately, as ownership and hence the whole confusion over the distribution of property”, said a 32-year-old man, the eldest son in the family. He refused to give his name lest there is misunderstanding in the family.
When it comes to distribution of property, Rangad reminded two things — the prevalence of landlessness and KHADC’s hypocrisy.
“The reality that there is growing landlessness and the statistic that 70% of Khasi families are property less needs to be acknowledged when we are discussing property rights and this bill,” said the rights activist.
On the KHADC’s double standards, she said, “These modernising attempts by KHADC are interesting because just a few days ago, faced with a demand by women to make the traditional system of local self-government gender-inclusive, the same KHADC hypocritically, gave an excuse of tradition.”
Another point of contention is that while the bill is aiming to make property distribution gender-inclusive, it will alienate those Khasi men and women who marry outside the tribe.
Whether or not the bill holds water will be established once the district council calls for suggestions and holds thorough discussion on each clause. Also, when a law already exists, then introducing authoritative duality will only complicate the situation.
While it is absolutely necessary to protect the principles of the Khasi matrilineal society, which are based on the philosophy of nature and nurture, it is important to put in place a legislation so that traditional practices are not misused for individual gains and the rights of every individual in the family are established.
~ Team Sunday Monitor
Photo courtesy: Michael Syiem