Guns and the 'Good News' - NorthEast
Posted November 22, 2004
(By arrangement with Newsfile)
Whether or not the Nagas ever have a homeland of their own beyond the borders of India, their nation, as envisioned by the deadliest militant group of the Northeast, the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), has always had its state religion: Christianity. The NSCN(I-M)'s slogan, "Nagaland for Christ", is a proposition that rankles not just Hindu hardliners, but also liberals. So much so, the demand of the Nagas for a separate homeland is based more on a need for a recognition of their separate religious identity than their claim of lack of historical ties with mainstream India.
Nagalim, a Christian state, constitutes the most significant part of the church's "provinces", and if realised, would be the brightest jewel in the crown for the missionary movement which has converted more than 90 per cent of Nagaland's population in just over a century. In the volatile politics of the Northeast this one factor could well constitute the next flashpoint causing bloodshed on a scale far exceeding that caused by the monster of militancy. Only, this time round, the players would be the Christian on one side versus sometimes the Hindu who feels exploited by him, and, sometimes even the Muslim who, as increasingly evident, has managed converts of his own in areas where the Christian missionary has failed to consolidate his hold.
For one, the disadvantage of the Christian missionary in offering anything by way of explanation regarding such deductions would be manifold. The figures on proselitisation in Nagaland have,over the years, replicated themselves in most areas of the Northeast where communities have lacked institutions of organised religion - be it among the Karbis, Tripuris, Khasis. That entire states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are today Christian establishes this beyond any doubt.
That the Northeast represents a "harvest to be reaped" is a fact which is hard for the church to deny. Equally distinct is the race among separate denominations for converts. There is ample evidence that while the church may wash its hands off such a possibility, it is a well known fact that barring groups such as the ULFA and the NDFB. most militant groups operating in the region have a religious agenda that often forms the core of its demand for separate homelands. In Tripura this would explain the increasing number of reports of the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), a predominantly Christian outfit forcing Hindu Tripuris, Reangs and Jamatias to convert.
The methods adopted by the NLFT in their "revolution" to create a Christian homeland makes for an interesting study: Jamatias, indigenous Tripuris who, for example, worship their traditional god Gadiya, an incarnation of Shiva, in the month of March have been asked to do so in December on Christmas day! In Tripura, aiding the militant is the oft-held Tripuri belief that a distinct, separate religion helps him develop an identity that distinguishes him from the immigrant Bengali who has overrun the community, reducing him to a minority. In Mizoram, again a Christian state, minority communities such as the Reangs and Chakmas have for years complained of the dominant Mizos forcing them to convert. In just about every case, the church has failed to condemn the violence.
The Indian State too has played a very conscious part in the degeneration of the situation in the Northeast. For one, while militancy in the Northeast has obviously brought with it sops running into billions of rupees, the focus has constantly been on half-baked, quantitative development. The distinct traditions, culture and beliefs of the people have been ignored on the specious plea that it is this that leads to an insurgency in the first place. In reality, such an approach only worsened the situation.
A large part of this money is being soaked up by vested interests that led to the creation of an unbelievably corrupt social layer. Second, the gradual erosion of social values and the increase in drug abuse-again something that the State has done little to contain-has led to a vacuum that Northeastern societies in areas such as Nagaland and Manipur have been left to grapple with. In Nagaland for example, the entire anti-drug movement is based on religious impetus and financial support provided by the church.
And it is here that the church becomes the organisation that it is: Powerful and beyond control. Even organisations like the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Karbi Students Union, that otherwise bend backwards to maintain their "secular" image, are now accepting the fact that the Christian missionary has economically exploited the people. As Prabin Boro, president of AASU says: "Missionaries offer higher prices for the houses they buy. This attracts the local population for their generosity."
Bhanuram Ingty, president of KSU, goes a step further saying that while Christian missionaries may not be directly exhorting the youth to join militant outfits, they brainwash them in such a way as to convince them that they have been deprived of a better life. Result: The boys finally take up arms to fight for what they believe are their "rights".
What stands out here is the fact that while the all-pervading church in Nagaland is to be credited with ending the fratricidal bloodbath among rival Naga insurgent groups, including the two factions of the NSCN, and for waging war against growing drug and alcohol abuse among Nagaland's youth, it has been by and large silent on the issue of Nagalim, even when it is a known fact that having failed to offer the people anything close to a country, the NSCN(I-M) will do all that it can to create a Nagalim even at the cost of neighbouring states.
Highway blockades by Naga groups in Manipur and the killing of Assamese peasants by Naga intruders is something that the church of Nagaland has always remained silent about. Scores of lives were lost on the Assam side in 1979 and 1985 in and around Merapani in attacks carried out by armed Nagas. While periodic clashes continue to occur on the Assam-Nagaland border, NSCN insurgents and propagators of Christianity have made strong inroads into the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh, another state that finds a place on the militants' list for the creation of Nagalim.
The two districts have witnessed an increase in their Christian population, according to state officials, from about 20,000 in the early 1990s to an estimated 200,000 at present. In this case the target has been the followers of the traditional Rangfra faith. The pattern was similar to that of the NLFT in Tripura: The local population is first asked to convert. Defiance leads to the burning down of temples and violence against the community, especially its religious leaders.
That there is a cut-throat edge to conversion is evident in the fact that at the end of the day there is an uncompromising game of numbers among the churches themselves. The AO Baptist resents the entry and growth of smaller denominations. There are cases when efforts to revive the old traditional way of life, one that is believed to have given the community its moorings have been referred to by the church as an endeavour to revive "barbarism", quite reminiscent of the complaint that Gaidinliu, the "Rani Ma" of the Haraka Zeliangs in Peren, had lodged with Jawaharlal Nehru. The missionaries were calling her and the followers of the Haraka faith "worshippers of Satan" in their own homeland.
The only areas where militant groups have failed to spearhead a movement for conversions to Christianity have been places like Cherrapunjee where the existence of an active Ramakrishna Mission has provided the local Jaintia community with a sense of belonging and identity. The past few years have added new dimensions to the conflict with a spurt in the activities of Islamic militants in the Northeast, especially Assam and parts of Tripura. That the NLFT and ULFA are now lodged in Bangladesh has also meant their having to give in to pressure from their hosts who are keen on creating an Islamic buffer to further their activities, not to mention their ties with lakhs of illegal Bangladeshis in Assam along with their network of madrasas that provides the Islamic fundamentalist with a base to access the new generation.
Against this backdrop, the entry of the Hindu hardliner constitutes the logical third phase. The recent show of strength by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad which organised a near-total bandh in Guwahati to protest the demolition of an apparently unauthorised Hanuman temple that would have been an obvious eyesore on a road that the government now plans to repair and one that could turn out to be Guwahati's showpiece. It was barely a few years ago that the Xatra Mahasabha had written to the VHP asking for support to stem the tide of Christian conversions in the Northeast.
The VHP's response was swift, with most of its sister organisations moving into the region and organising the indigenous communities while simultaneously building ties with the majority Hindu Assamese. Last year the Mahasabha and the VHP jointly organised a rally which for the first time included representatives of these communities. Over the past two years the Vivekananda Kendra in Guwahati has become a centre for resistance, with vitriolic speeches delivered against the Christian missionary. The question now is: How long will it be before there is a direct showdown between the larger Hindu family of the region and the church? For a region that has been torn apart by insurgencies for half a century, the developments over the past decade certainly do not augur well for the Northeast.