Not belonging to the North East (NE), why should I bother about what is happening to the Christians there? As always, Sacred Scripture has the answer.
While describing the community of believers as a body, we are told that “If one part is hurt, all the parts share its pain” (1Cor 12:26). Again, “Each part must be equally concerned for all the others” (v 25). More importantly, “It is precisely the parts of the body that seem to be weakest, which are the indispensable ones” (v 22). Simply put, if the Christian community in the NE is under attack, it is the duty of every one of us to rise to their defence.
They were lethally attacked on 26th March at a rally organised by the Janjati Dharm Sanskriti Suraksha Manch” (JDSSM), Forum for protection of tribal religion and culture. It is a frontal organization of the RSS that has always been inimical to Christians and conversions.
The JDSSM had claimed that one lakh tribals from all over Assam would attend the rally. Organiser, an RSS publication, claimed that 55,000 attended, itself a questionable figure. Wealthy and influential sponsors are known to leave no stone unturned to ensure a big gathering. The participants may not necessarily be aware of the purpose of the rally.
Recently a veteran missionary from Chhatisgarh wrote an article on “Ghar Wapsi” (homecoming) of Christian tribals in the 1990s. Most of them did not know why they had been brought there. More recently, a suspended Catholic bishop orchestrated a “Prayer and Peace Rally” replete with food, transport and “beverages”. It turned out to be a thinly veiled attempt to drum up support for the suspended prelate!
The Organiser claimed that tribals from 30 districts of Assam attended, demanding that tribals who had converted to Christianity be debarred from getting reservations as provided for in Article 342 of the Constitution of India. They sought to draw a parallel with Article 341 for Scheduled Castes that debarred Christian and Muslim Dalits from such benefits, by virtue of a Presidential Order of 1950. The logic behind this demand is that if a similar step is taken for Scheduled Tribes it will immediately stem the tide of tribals converting to Christianity. The Organiser further reports that “unethical conversion” should be stopped. Commentators believe that this is a prelude to an anti-conversion law as already exists in 11 states of India.
Binud Kumbang, the JDSSM Co-Convenor, reportedly said, “The tribal people are the easiest prey or victims of conversions in India, mainly targeted by the highly communal theocratic foreign religious groups … Tribals have given up their original tribal culture, customs, rituals, way of life and traditions after conversion … Christian conversion was like slow poison, killing the tribals original beliefs … the purpose of reservations is to protect and preserve the tribal way of life”.
The JDSSM also claimed that of 2.28 crore Christians in India (2011 Census) 78 lakhs were from the NE region. That is 28% of the Indian Christian population. The figures are more or less accurate.
Could this massive rally have been organised without the support of the ruling BJP? Yet, true to its double speak, Dr Ranoj Pegu, the state’s Tribal Affairs Minister, conveniently stated, “It is a Central subject. We have nothing to do with it”. On the other hand Aditya Khakhlary, President of the All Assam Tribal Sangh said “We do not support their demand … it is unconstitutional … they (tribal Christians) are also following their traditions and customs”.
Some serious charges have been levied – unethical conversions, being easy prey and victims of a communal, theocratic, foreign religion, and the giving up of traditional culture and customs.
How has the Catholic hierarchy responded? This is what Abp John Moolachira of Guwahati said in a circular, “Please pray and ask our people to pray that this gathering will not adversely affect our work or the life of our people but encourage people to turn to Christ our Saviour”. Ouch, the archbishop has played straight into the hands of his detractors! Besides, is it enough to pray? Is there no need for evolving a counter narrative (not offensive)?
I contacted some bishops and members of the NE Catholic Research Forum. I am grateful to John Shilshi IPS (Retd), Dr Salam Irene and James Pochury of the latter for their inputs. Let us now dispassionately address the charges levelled at the NE Christians.
- Unethical Conversions: There is nothing unethical about a person or group converting to another religion, provided that it is not by allurement or coercion. The Catholic Church forbids such acts. I quote from the Vatican II “Declaration on Religious Freedom” – “No one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (DH 9). Hence one should “not exert coercion upon them” (DH 11). One must also ask our Hindu friends why they are so uptight about the tribals accepting Christianity? They were never Hindus in the first place. Even in Central India tribals are demanding that their ancestral Sarna religion be recorded in the Census, as they are not Hindus.
- Easy Prey & Victims: This is an insult to the intelligence of the tribal people. Many of them are from warrior clans that have fended off much more powerful invaders. They are hunters, not hunted.
- Communal: The Church in India is in the vanguard of promoting secularism. The “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” states – “In her task of fostering unity and love among men and even among nations, the Church gives primary consideration to what human beings have in common” (NA 1).
- Theocratic: Theocracy means having a State religion. That does not exist in a secular country like India. In fact, Jesus is the founder of secularism when he said “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God” (Mat 22:21).
- Foreign Religion: Christianity is not a foreign religion. It is a universal one. The word catholic itself means “universal”. What does the JDSSM have to say about propagation of Hinduism in Far East countries like Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia? Buddhism originated in India, but today it is far more prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Tibet, Korea and Japan. Would these countries classify it as a “foreign religion”?
- Abnegation of Tribal Culture: This is the most poisonous arrow; but again the facts are to the contrary. I reply in Shilshi’s own words: “Tribals who became Christians have not given up their culture. They have, on the other hand, refined the culture to a level that could easily be understood by others. The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland is one example. A Christian majority State Nagaland annually hosts the festival which is culture-centric. It is the showcasing of the Naga tribal cultures. Christianity has helped every tribe of the NE improve their literature. Bible and hymns in their respective dialects is just one example. Every Church has adopted the culture in the way they worship, and also refined some of the practices. For example, whenever a local priest is ordained, he wears a vestment stitched out of their respective tribal shawls. So the Christian faith is not foreign as alleged. Through education, tribal scholars (Christians) have helped chronicle the history of their people, which otherwise was mostly oral”. Vatican II actually urges Christians to “acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (NA 2).
I now have a counter question. What is culture? Is it sacrosanct, especially when it militates against modern gender, secular and democratic values? Without offence to anybody let us look at some aspects of culture/ tradition that have been either legally banned or abandoned under societal pressure.
Topping the list is the Manusmriti and its endorsement of casteism. Then there were patently unjust practices like sati (the widow being burnt on her husband’s pyre), child marriage, the ban on widow remarriage etc. The Mandal Commission reported that in Kerala lower caste women were not allowed to cover the upper part of their bodies; a feast for the eyes of the upper castes that included the Syrian Christians. The head dress of Arunachali tribes like the Nishis and Apatanis had the head of the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). The Nagas were known as head hunters, a title retained by the Naga Regiment of the Indian Army.
Talking of the Naga Regiment, would the followers of a so-called “foreign religion” sacrifice their lives for the country? The Indian Army has 27 infantry regiments of which two are from the NE – Naga and Assam. The Naga Regiment, founded in 1970, had its baptism by fire in 1971 itself. It won one Mahavir Chakra, 4 Vir Chakras and 12 other gallantry awards. Sepoy Imliakum Ao of 2 Naga Regiment received the Mahavir Chakra. Naga officers in other regiments also won gallantry awards – Capt Neikezhkho Kenguruse of 2 Rajputana Rifles (Mahavir Chakra), Capt Elison Jami of 12 Para Special Forces and Maj Imliakum Keizar of 4 Gorkha Rifles both received the Shaurya Chakra, the peace time equivalent of the Vir Chakra.
The Assam Regiment was formed in 1941 in what was then an undivided Assam. But its jawans are mostly from “Christianised” tribes, not the Assamese. They won 71 gallantry awards within a year of their establishment. They have also won an award for the best marching contingent at the Republic Day Parade. Lance Naik Albert Ekka, a tribal Christian from Jharkhand, won the Paramvir Chakra posthumously. Do our tribal Christians still require a “certificate of nationalism” from the JDSSM?
Moving to Meghalaya James Michael Lyngdoh became the Chief Election Commissioner. He had then said that his greatest achievement was to conduct free and fair elections in J&K. Two other Khasis became Chairperson of the UPSC that conducts the exams for IAS/IFS/IPS officers. They are Rosemary Kharbuli and David Syiemlieh. Mizoram has the distinction of having the cleanest elections thanks to the moral authority of church leaders.
I rest my case in the defence of the brave daughters and sons of the NE Christian community and salute their honesty, bravery and commitment to the nation. Jai Hind.
(The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum).