Patriarchal and Hindu Nepali migrant coalminers marry matriarchal and Christian Khasi indigenous women in India’s Meghalaya state. Read on to find out what happens
By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
Marriages, history shows us, are often tactical arrangements between rulers to expand empires, strengthen political alliances, establish peace between warring nations, avoid wars or create harmony in a conflict-ridden society. The Romans did it, the Mughals followed suit, and Nepal’s rulers were no different, in the seventh century marrying off Princess Bhrikuti to powerful emperor Songtsan Gampo of Tibet. Similarly, in the eighth century, King Jayadev II of Nepal brought home Rajyamati, daughter of Harshavardan, the king of Kamrup, Assam.
In contrast, when Kul Bahadur Magar, a Nepali coalmine worker in an area of Meghalaya that borders Kamrup, married Deng, a local ethnic Khasi woman, he did not have lofty goals of alliance building or peace-making. “Who thinks like that?” asked 45-year-old Magar. “I liked her, she liked me. We were both young and one day we married.” That was 13 years ago. Since then, the couple has been living peacefully in a shack with their four children, near the coalmine where Magar works. But their peace has now been shattered. The simmering mistrust between Nepali-speakers and the local Khasi community erupted into full-scale conflict during the course of May. Several Gorkhas (Nepali-speaking Indians) and migrants from Nepal were killed, the tragedies highlighting the constant vulnerability of both categories of Nepali-speaking residents of the Northeast. (Khasi Nepali Ethnic Conflict in Meghalaya, India)
Two years ago an ethnic conflict arose in a small town called Barsora in East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, a north-eastern Indian state. The Khasis who are majority in the state that has other indigenous communities like Garos and Jaintias, started evicting Nepali migrant labourers who toiled in the coal mines there. A group of leading Nepali migrants from Ladrampai, the commercial hub of neighbouring Jaintai Hills district, went there to hold talks with the locals. Locals had four complaints against migrants: 1. You steal our jobs. 2. You consume alcohol and crate nuisance at public places. 3. You are involved in terrorist activities. 4. You marry our women and help destroy our culture.
“The land here belongs to you; the mines are yours, men from your community need cheap labour and they hire poor Nepalis,” the migrant leaders replied, according to Toplal Bhandari, chairman of the Ladrampai unit of Mool Pravaha Akhil Bharat Nepali Ekata Samaj. “No Nepalis are allowed to sell liquor here. These are men from your community who own and run liquor shops. No Nepalis are involved in terrorist activities and terrorism is not ethnicity-specific. In fact, Nepalis secure you borders, let alone the thought of them harming India. As for Nepali men destroying your culture by marring your women, why don’t you look at the issue from this angle that yours is a matriarchal society where men have no ownership of properties, therefore, Nepalis never get hold of any of the properties that your women own. Instead, they serve your women till they become old and one day they are kicked out of their ‘homes’ to go back to Nepal where they have nothing. They are treated as if they were date expired medicine.”
In the family of the matriarchal Khasis and Garos (another ethnic community of Meghalaya with whom Nepalis enjoy relatively warm relations) women are the authority. The youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. The child bears mother’s surname and in some cases the husband, who moves into his wife’s house after marriage to look after the family, changes his surname to his wife’s. If the man is Hindu, like many Nepalis and Gorkhas, he will have to convert to Christianity. (They are usually given surname Dakhar, a Khasi word that also means foreigner. “A Nepali Brahman has become Burman,” said a Gorkha.)
Some Khasi men complain of ‘female hegemony’ just as women do of male supremacy in patriarchal society like Nepali. In his New York Times article of February 18, 1994 Syed Zubair Ahmed had written that a men’s right organization had been founded in Meghalaya to look after the interests of men. Alleging women as overbearing and dominating, according to the article, the men complained: “We are sick of playing the roles of breeding bulls and baby-sitters. We have no lines of succession. We have no land, no business.” On the other hand, women say that they prefer to marry outsiders- like Nepalis- because their own tribesmen tend to be irresponsible in family matters. The only domain that completely belongs to men in Meghalaya is politics and governance. No woman has ever become chief minister of the state.
Against the said background the Nepali argument seems convincing (a Nepali man was recently kicked out by his Khasi wife) but, to be honest, that is not the only truth. There are many instances of cunning Nepalis using the marriage with a Khasi woman as means to enter into the business and make money. In some cases Khasi women, on their part, take commission from their Nepali husbands. “I wanted to do timber business,” said an elderly Gorkha in Shillong who didn’t want to be identified as the issue was too embarrassing for him. “I had no option but to marry a Khasi woman.” A few years after the marriage the Meghalaya government banned the extraction of timber that rendered the marriage useless for this Gorkha. He then married a Nepali woman from Nepal. He has a daughter with the Khasi women and some more kids with the Nepali wife. He said he didn’t stay for long in his Khasi wife’s home. “We still have contact,” he said. “But we hardly meet. She is happy with her own life and I am happy with mine.”
Many Nepalis or Gorkhas who are staying in their Khasi wives’ homes in Meghalaya find it very difficult to admit so. To admit that they are living the life of a ghar jwain under the authority of a woman is a matter of humiliation for them who were born and raised in a patriarchal setup, some Gorkhas and Nepalis of Meghalaya who haven’t married Khasi women told me.
But not all become ghar jwains. Opposite has happened in Kul Bahadur Magar’s case. The Magar couple has been living in a shack near a coal mine where Magar works. Deng’s mother, who lives in a different village, is too poor to own a house.
Some Nepalis have taken their Khasi wives to Nepal where they are living a peaceful life. One such woman, by the way, wrote to me after reading an article that I wrote for the Kathmandu Post (Meghalaya Diary). She introduced herself as ‘a daughter of Meghalaya and daughter-in law of Nepal’. Just as Nepalis mistakenly brand all Khasis and Jaintias as gaikhane (beef eaters), she said, Khasis also wrongly put migrant Neaplis and Gorkhas in the same basket. When Khais become angry with Nepalis or Gorkhas they don’t differentiate between those who are married to Khasi women and those who aren’t.
People like Kul Bahadur Magar and Deng also appear to have concluded that their marriage alone cannot bring the two communities together. After the current unrest, the couple has been rethinking the wisdom of continuing to live in their shack near the coalmine. “Our daughters are growing,” said Magar, “and it is becoming difficult for them to live here. The Khasi target them as they are the children of a woman who ‘went for a dakhar’ – the Khasi word for foreigner. ‘Deng’, in fact, is just a nickname that means ‘second daughter’ in Khasi, as her formal name is Goma. In fact, she is a Hindu, the daughter of a Nepali man (a Tamang from Ramechhap, Nepal) and a Khasi woman. Because of the growing insecurity, Deng, who speaks fluent Nepali, is now insisting that the family move to Nepal, where Magar continues to own ancestral land. “I didn’t think I would go to Nepal,” said Magar. ‘But now I am thinking about it.”
A version of this article, in Nepali, first appeared in Kantipur daily (मेघालयका “घरज्वाइँ’हरु). First, second and last paragraphs of this article have also been used in a piece that I wrote for July 2010 issue of Himal Southasian magazine (Dakhar still). मेघालयमा मे महिनामा भएको तनावबारे कान्तिपुरमा प्रकाशित रिपोर्टहरु यहाँ छन् ।