A death blow to matriliny

Incidents of rape and molestation of women are as common in Meghalaya as they are in the rest of india. And the case of josbina sangma has only strengthened the view that meghalaya is a matrilineal society with a patriarchal worldview, writes Patricia Mukhim
All those romantic notions about Meghalaya being a matrilineal society have been shattered with the recent brutal killing of Josbina Sangma, a Garo woman with four small children in Chokpot, Garo Hills. Her head was blown off by bullets from an automatic rifle fired by militants of the Garo National Liberation Army (GNLA). And while all this happened her children were witnesses, seeing their mother gunned down through the cracks in the walls of their bamboo hut.
Nothing can describe the horrendous nature of this killing. Militancy has brutalised this tribal society beyond imaginable limits. This and other outrageous acts against women in Meghalaya has shattered the myth that women in a matrilineal society enjoy a better social status than their counterparts in the rest of India.
Rape in this country is a pathological disorder, so much so most countries today have a travel advisory for women tourists visiting India. The latest statistics say that rape occurs every 22 minutes in India with Delhi topping the list.  The rape case in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, where two teenaged cousins from a lower caste were first raped and then murdered and their dead bodies hung from a tree, is bloodcurdling to say the least. It has made world organisations such as UN Women and others dish out sharp media statements that the state government of Uttar Pradesh and the central government should take stern action against the rapists.
Hardly had the Badaun incident got off the media headlines when another more heinous crime against a woman happened in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya.
This news made it to the national media, which kept it going for two days. It also got enough traction from the Union Home Ministry for it to send ten companies of Central forces comprising the CRPF and the BSF to launch an offensive against the GNLA.
That it took such a gruesome incident to make the Union Home Ministry take notice is itself a grim reminder of how India treats its peripheries. The Garo Hills has turned into a completely lawless territory. There are at least 15 militant groups operating here. All of them have splintered from the two main ones: the Achik National Volunteers Council (ANVC) and the GNLA. In fact, the GNLA is a remnant of the ANVC which is now in tripartite peace talks with the Government of India and the state government of Meghalaya. The sole preoccupation of these militant outfits is to extort, abduct and kill. They have no ideology and have made no pretence of having one.
Normally, militant outfits in the North-east have a sort of unwritten code of never harming women. The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) that was active in the Khasi and Jaintia regions of Meghalaya from the late 1980s to early 2000 had a definite code of conduct. Their aim, apart from a Hynniewtrep homeland (utopia) was also to curb crimes such as rapes that were occurring with greater frequency among the Khasi and Jaintia people. The HNLC devised a strategy for tackling rapists. They would nab the rapist and make him wear a lock on his ears and keep the key with themselves. This action of the HNLC had for a while reduced the number of rape cases. Although the HNLC indulged in extortion and killing like every militant outfit, rape was not one of their crimes.
The point to consider is why the same government is unable to rein in the militants in Garo Hills. It is a well established fact that Sohan Shira, who is now the 'army commander' of the virulent GNLA and was at one time a cadre of the ANVC, was about to be nabbed when the state government suddenly announced that it was agreeable to having peace talks with the ANVC militants. This has been a sore point with the State Police. They feel that ANVC was given a fresh lease of life by some leading politicians of the Garo Hills. In fact the irony of the situation in Meghalaya is that a former cop, Champion Sangma, became the leader of a new militant outfit  ~ the GNLA ~ and Sohan Shira broke away from the ANVC to join the GNLA. There has been no stopping Sohan Shira from then onwards. Even the police claim that he is a master strategist and all attempts to nab Shira have met with failure, ostensibly because his intelligence outfit functions better than that of the police.
But Sohan Shira is also known to be completely ruthless and unforgiving. Revenge has been his mission. Each time the police come close to nabbing him and kill some of his cadres, Sohan Shira would vow revenge and succeed in ambushing, killing and bleeding the security forces. He has complete control of his territory which has never been breached despite the best strategies of the security operatives. Shira is also not known to have any mercy for women. This is not the first time that he has ordered the killing of women, who he believes are police informers. In the case of Josbina Sangma who was eliminated on 3 June, she was also alleged to have been a police informer. But this has been the GNLA's modus operandi. They label villagers who refuse to co-operate as police informers and that gives them as easy alibi to torture and kill such people.
And now that the GNLA has received worldwide condemnation for the heinous crime against a defenceless woman, Shira claims that the cadre who shot at Josbina Sangma and tried to molest her are no longer with the GNLA. This contradicts the claims of the self-styled political affairs secretary of GNLA Bikdot Nikjang Marak, who in a statement issued to media, claimed that the GNLA had verified and confirmed that the woman was a police source and was responsible for the death of their training instructor Kram. But this is expected from Sohan Shira.   
Sociologists have been fascinated by Meghalaya's matrilineal society and how it has survived through the ages. Several scholars have come to study the internal dynamics of this society. They want to know whether women enjoy a special status and if so how does that make their lives different from that of women in patriarchal societies. But after understanding the underpinnings of Meghalaya's matrilineal arrangements sociologists form the opinion that women here are not economically empowered nor socially valued, except as carriers of the lineage. And as far as politics is concerned, they are kept out of it at the most critical level which is at the level of the village dorbar where a woman can never hold the position of a 'headman,' no matter how qualified she is. This actually shatters the myth that women in a matriliny live in a sort of paradise. Incidents of rape and molestation of women are as common here as they are in the rest of India. And the case of Josbina Sangma has only strengthened the view that Meghalaya is a matrilineal society with a patriarchal worldview. And what is more revealing are the findings of the National Family Health Survey of 2001-02 which shows that Meghalaya is a state where domestic violence is the highest in the country. This should tell us that matriliny is not a hunky-dory ride. And now women also bear the bitterest and harshest brunt of militancy. Josbina Sangma's children will carry the mental scars of seeing their mother's head blown into smithereens right in front of them. What a horrifying sight it must have been!