The Vanishing Women
In India, any talk about women's participation in politics or local government is sure to bring out the expression 'pati panchayat.’ It refers to the situation where elected women of village councils (panchayat) act like pawns while their husbands (pati) call the shots.
The trend, however, prevails even in areas of India that still do not have the Panchayat system. Take Meghalaya’s Garo Hills for example which have the traditional system of governance such as tribal councils.
Garo Hills is home to the Garos – one of the 3 leading tribes of Meghalaya (Garo,Khasi, and Jaintia). Garo Society is governed by matrilineal laws of succession and inheritance. Inheritance and descent, therefore, pass on from one generation of women to another. Usually it’s the youngest daughter who assumes the role of a family and the clan. Known as Nokma, she manages the property of the entire clan often consisting of an entire village.
But these days, all across Garo hills, it has become a common sight where the husband of a Nokma takes all the decisions, thus turning the woman into a puppet.
Now, what is the area of a Nokma’s jurisdiction? Well, it’s pretty much like that of a Sarpanch (village council head): chair the local village council meetings, act as an authority on disputes, pass judgments in the local court, and make important decisions on development schemes and plans etc.
In more than 2/3 of the cases, it’s been observed, the real Nokma herself never does any of these things, instead her son and son-in-law act in her place.
The situation is more serious than what it appears to be. In today’s Meghalaya, a section of people are asking for abolition of the matrilineal system.
[A few years ago, I had a close friend who never tired of telling me how men (mostly from the state of Rajasthan, Punjab and Delhi) came to Meghalaya, ‘lured’ local women into marriage with the sole purpose of accessing their property. Once married, they started a business and in next few years, transferred all the profit to their home towns and eventually left the tribal wives. I knew, he wasn’t talking of imagination; that, it happened. In fact a media colleague of mine is a child of such marriage of convenience and victim of a broken family. But I still call them sporadic events.]
The steady overtaking of Nokma‘s power is a direct threat to the age old matrilineal society itself.
No wonder, the trend is being discussed, among other places, in the Meghalaya State Commission for Women too. MSCW chairperson Biloris Lyndem has asked the women 'Nokmas' to assert their position and not to allow their husbands to officiate for them as being done generally. According to Lyndem, a significant increase in the existing number of Nokmas can help deal with the power imbalance and so, she has given open calls to NGOs and women organizations to go to villages and find out the exact number of women Nokmas currently holding the seat.
However, it’s a job easier said than done.
Last year, Akhtara - a community-based activist in West Garo hills who I trained to be a local reporter, tried to make a video on a Nokma.
Akhtara found it very difficult to interview the Nokma, who was unwilling to talk. According to Akhtara, all the while, the Nokma was clueless of what was happening in the village and, after a few questions, she asked Akhtara to leave. If this is any indication, more than mere words, the Nokmas need to be made aware of their responsibilities, need training in running an office and above all, need to be made aware of the importance of acting independently.
Yes, it will be a tough task to achieve this. But increased effort can help the process. A number of events are being organized these days at the national level for women Panchayat leaders that work as solution exchange forums. Inviting Nokmas to attend such events can help to a great deal. If the problem is common, it makes sense to have a common platform to address them and find a solution collectively.