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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 29 New Delhi July 7, 2018

Christianity and Development among the Tribes of North-East India: Pros and Cons

Monday 9 July 2018, by J.J. Roy Burman


A majority of the tribes in all the States of North-East India, except Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, have embraced Christianity leaving behind their traditional religions. However, their traditional social structure based on exogamous clan systems remained intact. This helped in controlling the lands through custodial rights. The traditional dress codes for attending the church masses, particularly for the women, are still in vogue. The traditional festivals, mainly linked to agricultural cycles, are as yet celebrated with great fun, fare and frolic. This is most apparent in the case of Nagaland where the parallel government proclaims ‘Nagalim for Christ’. Even the NSCN (IM) withdrew from its Maoist leanings in favour of Christian proclamations.

It would be absolutely wrong to accuse that missionaries allured the tribes into their fold through material incentives. In the case of Ao Nagas, it was they who invited Godhuli, a Bengali Christian evangelist from the Jorhat Mission in Assam, to their domain in the hills for initiating developmental works like spreading Western education and health, hygiene and sanitation. In the case of Garo Hills, Milton Sangma, a pioneering Garo scholar, has stated that contrary to the common belief, it is the Garos themselves who invited the missionaries from Assam to work amidst them. It should also be noted that the rate of Christianisation increased many folds after departure of the British. This may be assumed to be a part of the identity management process in the face of the formation of the Indian nation-state with a large Hindu and Muslim population. This was part of a defensive mechanism to salvage their independent existence.

In spite of remarkable achievements, certain drawbacks also need to be brought to light. The Western education that has been imparted, nullified the system of Age-Grade that operated through the Bachelor’s dormitory or Morungs which was most important as a part of the socialisation system. It not only imparted knowledge about normal daily life but also taught about ways of exploiting resources to the optimum level and also ways of cultivation and defending the village-states from external threats.

Today, alas, the students after attaining various degrees are not willing to return to their native villages and are always in search of government jobs or are even contended with petty jobs in different cities of the country—like working in the call centres or beauty parlours and various malls and restaurants. So their education has become dysfunctional and the communities are compelled to depend upon external funds and non-tribal labourers like Biharis, Nepalese and Muslim peoples from outside the State. This also creates a demo-graphic threat of being ethnically deluged in the tribal States. Similarly, the Western medical practices have paralysed the indigenous knowledge system that by and large depended on locally available herbs and shrubs known to the village medicine men. Today everything has vanished and for even minor sicknesses and diseases they run to the distant PHCs and hospitals and spend their life-time savings. This ultimately boosts the drug companies, Indian and multinationals. It is ignored that Nagaland has the lowest death rate and eighty-year-old men and women are a common sight in the villages.

Christianity has also failed to alleviate the status of women and we find no woman priest and officials of the Church institutions. Regarding the decision of the Churches to pressurising the Nagaland Government to stop brewing rice beer and Western liquor, this is ludicrous. They ignore the nutritional qualities and mineral-rich nourishment that is imperative for a person after daylong hard labour working in the fields. The prohibition policy too has led to the sale of illicit liquor or taking recourse to substance abuse leading to the spread of AIDS among the youth. In Mizoram at least the Church policy was reverted and the prohibition order was lifted by the State Government as a measure of substance abuse and drug controlling AIDS.

All these issues make it imperative to conduct serious researches and seminars, particularly in North-East India, and knowledge disseminated across for the benefit of the country. Combining anthropological as well as historical and political-economic approaches are urgently called for.

Prof J.J. Roy Burman belongs to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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