Inter-Tribal Marriages in India with Special Reference to

By: Dr. (Mrs.) Priyadarshni M. Gangte

Marriage as a social institution is an arrangement that enables persons to live together and co-operate with one another in an orderly social life and institutionalized relationship. It is essentially a rearrangement of social structure. In order to understand how it works. We have to examine how it binds persons together by convergence of interest and sentiment and how it controls and minimizes those conflicts that may possibly occur due to divergence of sentiment or interest. We may as well examine as to how it contributes to its working as a system. In doing so, we may come to an understanding or explanation as to how the system came into existence.
Marriage makes certain existing relationship particularly that of the bride to her family changed. New social relatives are created. It creates a relationship between the husband and the wife in the first place. It also creates new relationship between the husband and the wife’s relatives and between the wife and the husband’s relatives on the one hand, and between the relatives of the husbands and those of the wife who are, on both sides, interested in the marriage and in the children that are expected to result from it. In fact, marriage, like birth, death, or initiation at puberty, is rearrangement of structure that is essentially recurring in any society. It is a moment of continuing social process regulated by custom which is institutionalized may of dealing such event.
When marriage involves some modification or partial rupture of the relations between the bride and her immediate kin, it is least marked or felt, if the husband goes to live with his parents-in-law in a matri-local society. But it is most marked if the bride leaves her family and goes to live with her husband and his family in patri-local society. Her absence makes her own family suffer a loss. But it would be wrong to interpret the same as economic loss. It is the loss of a person in the family, and it is a breach of family solidarity. This aspect is given symbolic expression between the two kin groups in the forms of hostility by attempting to take or kidnap the bride by force. Either the girl or her kin or both, are expected to make a show of resistance at her bring thus taken away. Prof. Radcliff Brown (1960: p.50) says,
“Customs of this kind are the ritual or symbolic expression of the recognition that marriage entails the breaking of the solidarity that unites a woman to the family in which she has been born and grown up”.
In fact, such customs may be interpreted as manifestations of recognition accorded to the structural change that has been brought about the marriage.
The question of prevalence of payment of bride price in some tribal societies is an important aspect in marriage. Such payment of bride price may be taken as an indemnity or compensation given by the boy’s party to the bride’s kin for the loss of their daughter. It may also be regarded that such payment gives the husband and his kin certain rights over his wife and the children she bears.
Another indispensable aspect that should be understood is sets of regulations that govern marriage between persons related by kinship or through marriage. In some tribal societies there are rules which prohibit marriage between persons who stand in certain relationship. In some cases there are certain relatives between who marriage is not merely permitted but is desirable. The term ‘preferential marriage’ is commonly applied to customs of this kind. The most common form of this system is found in the cross-cousin marriage.
Having sufficiently covered some pertinent features on marriage over which attention needs to be focused, it is now expedient that we examine them as to how they are operative among the tribals of the North-East India. For a thorough understanding of the subject matter, it is essential that a brief background as to prevalence of systems of marriage and divorce among the tribals of North-East India is highlighted.
The entire North-East India comprising of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, known as ‘Seven Sisters’ is frequented by different groups of people from time immemorial in the form of migration from Burma and other places. Thus we find people of Mongoloid strains in respect of their physical features, culture, language, etc. They are subsequently identified and differentiated one from the other based on various historical processes of stress and strains; communications difficulties had contributed in no small measure to their being in isolation for a number of generations. In the process, ultimately different groups were either alienated one from the other or aligned among themselves, and thus came to bear various ethnic appellations identifying themselves as distinct tribes with distinct culture and tradition.
Prof. Bhowmick (1980:3) said,
“… present day cultured of these groups bear such mark of incorporation into the core of their cultural matrix.”
There are altogether 131 tribes with identifiable characteristics and traits distributed in different areas of this region (Sharma 1978) and as weaker sections of the people, the Government of India categorized them as ‘Scheduled’ so as to make the upliftment schemes available to them as provided in the Constitution of India.
It is true that this enchanted land known as the North-East region attracted waves of diverse ethnic groups through ages. It has come to stay as the confluence of the most colourful mosaic of ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity (Government of Assam, 1976:30). Together with this, there are different social systems among the tribal groups which can be divided hardly into three categories as follows :
(1) the matrilineal tribes. In this, the Khasis, the Jaintias and the Garos of Meghalaya are included.
(2) the homogeneous patrilineal tribes. The Kuki-Mizo tribes of Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura constitute the category.
(3) the heterogeneous patrilineal tribes. The Naga of Nagaland and Manipur and the Arunachali tribes of Arunachal Pradesh are the groups of this category.
The system of marriage of any given society is antiqualetedly high as the society itself. It ultimately becomes the custom, the system of which had not been coded by a legislative enactment. Thus it is the high antiquity of the custom which gives validity. Roy said,
“The birth and growth of a custom is the natural consequence of organized living of people and the progress of human society. With the growth and progress of human society, the rules of human conduct go on multiplying till a stage reaches when they become well recognised and well established body of rules. These rules are compendiously called customs. These rules of conduct must have obviously arisen and followed on account of their utility and necessity. They have been observed because they enjoyed the express or tacit sanction of the community.”
Thus when a particular system of marriage is examined it should be viewed in its right perspective and in the manner the people who adopt such a system takes it. (David Pearl : p.2).
Systems which rules the tribes (based for analysis) :
Khasis :
The Khasis as exogamous group, prohibits marriage of members inside the same clan and is called SANG (Taboo). As matrilineal people, descent through a common ancestress is counted. Marriage with the mother’s brother’s daughter during the lifetime of the mother’s brother is not permissible. Though, as a rule, monogamy is the practice, polygamy is not absolutely unknown. There are instances of a man marrying an informal alliance with another woman. Marriage between those related to the father within three generations is avoided, though marriage with the daughter of a father’s sister is permissible after the death of the father despite not being favoured.
Divorce :
Divorce is rare, extra-judicially permissible and bears no social stigma. Remarriage of divorcee is permissible. A widow cannot remarry within a year of the death of her husband. The bones of the husband are kept by the widow and till such time as the bones are with her she cannot re-marry. She has to hand over his bones to his mother before re-marriage. If she violates and remarries, it is considered as fornication.
The procedure of divorce is that a betel leave will be torn into 2(two) before witnesses. Both the man and the woman take 5(five) cowries (shells) in their hands. The wife hands over hers to the husband. The husband, on his part, will return them along with his to the wife who returns them all to the husband. The husband will then throw the cowries on the ground.
It is the husband who goes to live with the wife at the house of the mother-in-law. Kusum and Bakshi (1982:91) contended that the underlying practice is that patri-local residence works great hardship on the married women.
Among the Jaintias residence is duo-local. The husband stays with his own parents and visits the wife at her parents’ house. His earnings go to his mother’s family. Some orthodox husbands are reluctant even to drink from the mother-in-law’s house. They feel that as they do not give any part of their earnings to the family of the mother-in-law, they have no right to take anything from that family.
It is also a fact that a Khasi father earns for them while living with his wife and children. Whatever he earns remains with them and leaves them behind if he leaves them. The wife also acquires properties from the mixed earnings with her husband. The children have rightful claim. Therefore, when the father leaves them, none of the children and the wife has a right to claim maintenance from him. In the case of Christian wife it is held that the father, in bounden duty, was to maintain his children provided he had the means to do so.
Application of inter-personal conflict of laws :
In general, the youngest daughter known as KA KHADDUH inherits property. In case of ancestral property, transfer is allowed with the approval of the whole clan or family. As for personal property, it is not so rigid.
As against the Khasis matrilineal system, the Kukis are of a very strong patrilineal system. There is no water-tied compartmentalized exogamous clan as the Khasis have. Rule of exogamy prevails within the bounds of three generations on the father’s side. Decent is counted from father to sons’ is against the females among the Khasis. Marriage with the mother’s brother’s daughter who is termed as NEAINU is most preferred marriage.
Marriage with the father’s sisters is not only prohibited but is considered incestuous as against allowance of such marriage after the death of the father among the Khasis. Residence is not only one of the strong factors of patri-local; it is prestigious to maintain a joint family as against the matri-local among the Khasis. Though polygamy is not very much encouraged for commoners, it is a status symbol for persons of standing and position as against the rare instance of such marriage among the Khasis.
Maintenance of children for a man is inherent duty for a Kuki father, though even if his divorcee wife has to return to her natal home as against duty-free for a Khasi father against his divorced wife and her children.
The paradox of life for a Kuki woman is that she is never accorded a full-fledged membership of her clan. She is considered as the ‘beloved daughter’ of the clan, who, on her marriage would assume the full female membership of her husband where she should ‘be loved’ and ‘well treated’ for propagation of the male descendants of her husband’s family/clan, thereby being accorded honour and respect even on her death by payment of ‘corpse price’ called LUONGMAN to her father or brother as the case may be against absolute authority being accorded to the female among the Khasis (Gangte : 1993; p.69).
Payment of bride-price is another instance of male oriented society. The bride-price is a symbolic expression of long term cordial relationship that may exist between the two bodies of relatives honouring the mutual dignity and prestige of both the families of the wife and the husband so that the nuptial matrimonial alliance might not be so easily abrogated by the personal conflicts that may possibly occur as against the unsecured position of the husband being accorded among the Khasis.
Inheritance of all sorts of property is from father to eldest son, exclusive of all other sons, who are left at the discretion of the eldest son, let alone female right of inheritance as against the strong system of youngest daughter’s absolute authority among the Khasis.
Wonder of wonders, in the face of such conflicting of laws that are current among the Khasi tribes and the Kuki tribes, the first Kuki IAS Officer who retired as the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya married a Khasi widow and nothing of personal conflict having ever been heard of the marriage.
Be it as it may, another extreme case of patrilineal is that of the Tangkhul Nagas. A Tangkhul Naga father may earn, and be a millionaire, their inheritance system is such that the father, mother and their unmarried children have to move out to establish a new home, leaving behind all that he had hitherto earned and acquired to his married son. This process continues till his youngest son with whom he has to live, is married.
A conflict of inter-personal law as a result of inter-tribal marriage between the eldest son of a former Nagaland Tangkhul Naga Chief Secretary and his second Khasi wife arose. Incidentally, the Tangkhul Naga Officer had a first Kabui Naga wife who begot him a son, who was his eldest son. On the other, his Khasi wife happened to be the youngest daughter of a Khasi parent. The Naga Officer had landed properties in Manipur and as per inheritance law of the Tangkhul Naga his eldest son, born of the Kabui Naga wife was to inherit his properties. The properties fetched substantially huge monthly income and obviously attracted the attention of both the eldest son and the second wife of the officer. The son was entitled to the properties as per customary law of inheritance according to the Tangkhul Naga. Similarly, as per Khasi rule of inheritance, the second wife was entitled to claim inheritance of the same properties. A bone of contention ensued between the eldest son and the second wife of the officer. Had the son in question been of her own and the properties been in Shillong, Meghalaya, the second wife would have been of her own and the properties been in Shillong, Meghalaya, the second wife would have been a very strong contender to the litigation. Ultimately, the properties being in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga rule of inheritance prevails it was held in favour of the eldest son.
The law of divorce among the Kukis is very stringent and humiliating as against the simple rituals of tearing a betel leave into two and exchange of 4(four) cowries (shells) in their hands two times before witnesses to ultimately throw them on the ground symbolizing thereby finalization of the proceedings of divorcee among the Khais.
Among the Kukis, divorce is very rare. In as much as the proceeding of betrothal is a lengthy state of affairs through intricate rituals with a set rule for payment of bride-price, divorce is a more complicated affair. In the event of divorce proceedings having been finalized, the bride-price that had been settled had to be re-opened. If divorce is at the initiative of the husband and if he is held responsible by the Village Council, he forfeits reimbursement of the bride-price already paid. In addition, he is required to pay a fine of one Mithun for breach of the marriage alliance. In case the responsibility is held against the wife, her parents are liable to return the bride-price paid, together with a fine of one Mithun.
There was a case of inter-tribal marriage between a Garo Doctor and a Kuki Nurse, who settled in Manipur. It provides the case of both inter-personal conflict of marriage and divorce. The case, however, posed no conflict of laws. The Garo Doctor husband having hailed from a matrilineal society with matri-local residence found at no problem to compromise his position as a man ought to claim as prestige issue in the case of patrilineal society. He resided in Manipur with his wife and three sons and two daughters in his wife’s residence and was ready to abide by the rules governing the patrilineal system of his Kuki wife. In other words, while being at his wife’s residence he fulfils the matri-local system of his own society and at the same time submits himself to the patrilineal system of the Kukis.
As his children grew up and got married, one of the daughters had the misfortune of being divorced. Incidentally, despite the Garo husband’s submissive attitude to conform to the norms of life of his Kuki wife, the fact that the latter was under the patrilineal system was never overlooked and insisted that his family should abide by the Garo rules. The Garo husband continued to live under the Kuki custom and without conflict of laws the problem of his divorcee daughter was settled.
In the foregoing paragraphs attempts were made to focus as to the prevalence of different customs of marriage and divorce as practised among the various tribal groups of North-East India. Inter-tribal marriage and the consequences thereof as conflict of inter-personal laws bring out revealing facts and the conflicts created thereby in integrating the people of North-East India are positive aspects of the different tribal customs. The application of conflict of laws among the tribals appears to have not cast its long shadows of enmity and ill-feelings. The outlook and approach of the people to such inter-personal relationship should bring about the inevitable change that has been the unchanging law of nature.