Christianity is Nationality: the lesson of Nagaland

Christianity is Nationality: the lesson of Nagaland

A careful look at the northeastern Indian states brings to attention certain bold changes in the demography there. The six small states (excluding Assam) have a higher growth-rate of population than rest of the country. The total population of these six states in 1951 was 2.2 million. In 1991, it was 9.1 million. It grew 4.1 times in four decades, while the national average growth was 2.3 times. Nagaland and Tripura have registered highest growth rate of population.

The most striking feature of demographic change in the six states is the continuous decline in the number of Indian religionists (Hindu, Buddhist, and other local faiths) and the rise in Christian population. The census of 1901 recorded 91% people as Indian religionists; while in the 1991 census they remain a meager 56%. In the same period (1901-91), Muslims in this region have decreased from 6.61% to 4.69%. On the contrary, Christian population has grown from 2.22% to 39%.

The state of Nagaland had 0.59% Christians in its population in 1901, which now records (1991) 87.47% as Christians. American Baptist Church claims that more than 90% of the population in Nagaland is Christian. The state of Arunachal Pradesh did not allow entry to Christian missionaries for a long time. In 1971 census, the state had less than one percent Christians in its population. 1981 census recorded 4.32% Christians, while the Christian population galloped to 10.29% in the 1991 census.

99.7% of the population of --the area now recognized as-- the state of Mizoram was Indian religionist in 1901 census. In the population of 82 thousand, only 45 persons were Christians and 206 Muslims. The 1991 census shows 86% Christians in the state's population of 700,000. The states of Meghalaya, Manipur, and Tripura have recorded similar changes. These changes have not happened overnight, nor are they coincidental. They have happened as per planned strategies changing the religious demography of northeastern India to disintegrate the country further. Each northeastern state has a different story to tell.

Nagaland has the most shocking story of perversion, separatism, and foreign-engineered creation of a fake nationalism. A few months ago, Prime Minister Vajpayee was negotiating a peace-deal with the leaders of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) in Bangkok, Thailand. The previous Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao held similar talks in Paris and his predecessor H D Devegowda tried the same in Zurich. Since 1995, such "Prime Minister-level" talks are on. It is ridiculous that the Indian rulers are negotiating with terrorists when there is a legitimate elected government in the state. And this comes as a sequel to the four decades of battle between Indian armed forces and the Naga rebels ("freedom fighters" - to use their term). Still, the Nagaland riddle is unsolved.

Many are hoping that --in the present negotiations-- the Naga leaders will compromise their demand for a separate country. The aging leaders of NSCN (I-M faction) Muivah and Svu --now in their seventies-- are in exile for last three and half decades. They are tired and the Naga people are fed up of violence. 'Negotiate some peace at the earliest' is their likely mindset. It must be clear to them by now that come what may, India is not going to grant them "freedom". But the bone of contention is different now. It is the demand of "greater Nagaland" or "Nagalim". NSCN(I-M) is demanding a sovereign and independent "Nagalim" that shall include the Naga area of Myanmar, Naga-tribes' areas from the states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. This makes it further clear that the Naga identity --or the so-called nationality-- is uncertain and it flexes as per the wishes of those who define it. Their intention certainly is not the peace, but the continuation of the problem.Naga who?

Naga leaders are claiming many tribes to be Nagas. There is some tribe every other day, which suddenly rises and calls itself Naga. Interestingly, the only thing common in all such tribes is the American Baptist Church! An even more interesting fact is that the negotiations between two warring factions of NSCN were held in the headquarters of Baptist Church in Atlanta, USA. The web-site of this church (baptistpress.org) has scores of articles supporting Naga 'freedom'. This article will give an idea of how the American Baptist Church created the apparently Naga -- but practically Christian -- nationalism of Nagaland. The next article will explain why they are trying to keep the problem alive instead of helping peace.

Nobody knows the real number of "Nagas". Indian census (since British times) records tribes in their local name; e.g. Tangkhul tribe inhabits the hilly north of Manipur State. Indian census registers this tribe as Tangkhul. But this tribe since its conversion to Christianity calls itself Naga. There are many such tribes that have turned Naga. 'Naga' is not even one language, so the lingual population figures also can not give the number of Nagas. Naga Hoho (the pan Naga organization, dominated by the Church) claims 16 tribes in Manipur to be Nagas. This claim has no reasoning --language, tradition, law-- nothing supports this claim. As anthropologist Robbins Burling points out, Nagas speak 30 different languages.

In a recent article on the languages of northeast India, Burling had to take the trouble to separate the political project of Naga unity from the languages spoken by the people who call themselves Naga. "Today, the people known as 'Nagas' certainly recognize some common 'Naga' ethnicity", Burling writes, "but this recognition may have come only after the British gave them the name 'Naga'. Most of the indigenous people of Nagaland, together with some ethnic groups in the bordering areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar are, by general consensus, now accepted as 'Nagas', but this term should not fool us into believing that they must have some linguistic unity". Naga, Burling emphasized, "is not a linguistic label". Particularly striking to Burling was that some groups, "whose language a linguist would, without hesitation, classify as 'Kuki', have declared themselves to be 'Nagas''. Yet, adds Burling, "everyone agrees that Nagas and Kukis are sharply distinct ethnically. Indeed, they have been killing each other from time to time".

John Hutton, the British writer in 1922 mentioned that the expression Naga "is useful as an arbitrary term to denote the tribes living in certain parts of the Assam hills, which may be roughly defined as bounded by the Hokong valley in the north-east, the plain of the Brahmaputra Valley to the north-west, of Cachar to the south-west and of the Chindwin to east. In the south of the Manipur Valley roughly marks the point of contact between the 'Naga' tribes and the very much more closely interrelated group of Kuki tribes -- Thao, Lushei, Chin etc."(Hutton, 1922: xv-xvi) The area that Hutton called 'roughly defined' is now being demanded as independent Nagalim. The 80 years since Hutton wrote this have seen lot of activity that forged a Naga nationality.

The ethnic landscape of the hills, writes James Scott, has always confused outsiders -- states as well as ethnographers. The taxonomies about the hill peoples have been almost always wrong, groups identified as distinct were later found to be not `uniform, coherent, or stable through time'. The ethnic landscape has had a 'bewildering and intercalated gradients of cultural traits'. Whether it was linguistic practice, dress, rituals, diet or body decoration, neat boundary lines had been impossible to draw. Tri-lingualism, for example, is fairly common (Scott, 2000: 21-22). Thus in the case of the Nagas, ethnographers and missionaries engaged in what Julian Jacobs and his colleagues describe as a struggle 'to make sense of the ethnographic chaos' they perceived around them: hundreds, if not thousands, of small villages seemed to be somewhat similar to each other but also very different, by no means always sharing the same customs, political system, art or even language' (Jacobs, 1990: 23).

The funny thing is that Scott and Jacobs and their likes never understood that entire India is made up of villages that are "somewhat similar… but also very different". Language changes every twelve miles and each village has its own Gods and Goddesses. They call it "ethnographic chaos"; we call it diversity. Over plateau and other flatlands, the circumference of similarity is wide, for human communication and exchange of traditions is easier. In mountains, the difficult geography narrows down this circle of similarity. The nomadic groups and those who practiced shifting cultivation naturally had variety of languages and customs. It is the greatness of our culture that despite this variety, even outsiders can feel the "somewhat similar" nature of villages.Christian Missionaries

Christian Missionaries found their way out from these "ethnographic chaos". The first missionary stepped in the Naga areas 100 years ago (1903). According to the missionary records of history, Nagas had the practice of head-hunting. It was believed that unless a fresh human head is sacrificed, farms do not yield good crops. It was natural that even neighboring villages were die-hard enemies as they looked to each other for heads. The villages spoke dialects that were totally incomprehensible to their neighbors. The first few missionaries were beheaded too. But with great courage, they continued coming in. In 1931 census, Nagaland had 12.81% Christians. In next two decades (1951), the percentage of Christians rose to 46. Next four decades (1951-91) saw a record growth of Christians, with their percentage reaching 85. According to historian Richard Eaton it was "the most massive movement to Christianity in all of Asia, second only to that of the Philippines" (Eaton, 1997: 245)

Historian Sanjeeb Baruah writes in Journal of Peace Research: "The single most important development that made the imagining of Nagas as a collectivity possible was their conversion to Christianity… Today Christianity is an essential part of Naga identity. Except for the Zeilongrong Nagas, most Nagas are Christians. Eaton estimates the percentage of Christians to be 90%… and the NSCN-IM puts the figure at 95%. It was the American Baptist Mission that accounted for most of the proselytizing among Nagas; but the conversions of a number of Naga communities happened after the end of colonial rule and even after the Indian government expelled foreign missionaries from India. The profound destabilization of traditional Naga institutions during colonial rule, however, had set the stage for this profound cultural transformation. The village chiefs were the leaders of the community when Naga society was organized on a war footing. But when head-hunting was criminalized by colonial rulers and inter-village warfare ended, the traditional leaders lost their hold over younger warriors and it was these `would-be warriors' who, according to Richard Eaton, responded most readily to Christian teachings."

Missionaries printed the Bible in selected Naga dialects such as Ao, Angami and Sema and in the process gave those dialects a written form using the Roman script. This meant a simplification of the Naga linguistic landscape -- for while the chosen dialects became recognized as standard, many other dialects disappeared. As literacy and education became a key to social mobility, Nagas realized the advantage of learning those standard dialects. Hundreds of young men from different areas, who were trained in the secondary schools and missionary training schools run by missionaries, were able to communicate with each other. To this generation, the idea of Nagas as a single identity became real. Conversion to Christianity separated their identity from the majority Hindu and Muslim populations of rest of India. It was Christianity alone that gave birth to a separate nationality amongst Nagas. The movement for political separatism or 'freedom' was based on their Christian identity concealed under the label Naga. The political and military struggle that Naga rebels carried on was firmly founded on their conversion to Christianity.Naga problem and India

British transferred power to India in 1947. Myanmar acquired some part of Naga Hills, but majority of it remained with India. The leaders of Naga National Council (NNC) met Gandhi-ji, and he assured them that they would not have to join the Indian Union against their wishes. Nowhere in British India or in princely states was anyone given such choice. Nagas did not get any special treatment. Like all other Hindu-majority Indian populations, they were integrated to the Indian union. There were Naga leaders like Queen Gaidenlieu who had fought against the British and firmly supported union with free India. The Christian converts -- who dominated the NNC -- however, thought otherwise and in 1951, conducted a 'referendum'. With American and other foreign missionaries still present and dominating, the result of the referendum was not surprising. (Foreign missionaries were expelled only after 1955.) The way the referendum was conducted was ridiculous. Volunteers of NNC went from village to village and collected thumbprints of villagers on the referendum documents. They declared that 99.99% of the villagers wanted independent nation of Nagaland. A biased agency conducting referendum amidst illiterate people without giving an opportunity for the other side to reach them was not a joke; it was a clever conspiracy to legitimize Naga separatism.

Around the same time, Indian army occupied the sensitive border areas of Naga Hills. Small-intensity conflicts with the Naga rebels began. Common people suffered atrocities from both sides. Popular opinion turned anti-India. The reasoning was simple. The Indians visible to Naga people were mostly soldiers who did not speak their language, were armed, and their goal was to maintain law and order. Christian propaganda added fuel to fire. That gave birth to the NSCN slogan, "Nagaland for Christ". NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) was not fighting for a 'National' or 'Socialist' cause, they had this clear goal: Nagaland for Christ. Even today, the guerrillas of NSCN carry two essential things: one, a packet of salt (to avoid dehydration at high altitudes) and two, the Bible. NSCN is running a parallel government for last many decades. Nobody -- be it a street-side vegetable vendor, or a federal government official -- can live without paying a 'tax' to NSCN. Before killing a 'traitor', the guerrillas yell "Nagaland for Christ" at him.

Daily Herald recently (May 5, 2003) published a story of a Naga pastor who went to the US as a Baptist missionary. This Naga pastor, Fr. David Jameer came to the US in 1952.. He later organized the handful of Nagas that lived in the US to support Naga freedom. He played a crucial role in negotiations for re-union between rival fractions of NSCN, as well as their negotiations with the Indian government. Fr. Jameer expressed his frustration in these words: "It's as if the Naga church is frozen in time, stuck in a 50-year-old morality… If you take a drink or have a smoke, then it's like you're a bad Christian, but if you pick up a gun and kill people - the church suddenly has nothing to say… 'Nagaland for Christ' what does that mean?"

Jameer after so many years has understood something that all religious nationalists/separatists should understand. Religious fanaticism --be it for any religion-- creates uncontrolled chauvinism and a superiority complex that demeans human respect. Fanaticism corrupts true religion and brings no good. It is unfortunate that -- the people of Kashmir gripped in the 'Jehadi' fanaticism, the people of Punjab under the spell of 'Khalistani' pride, and the people of Nagaland under the heels of 'Nagaland for Christ'-- have learnt this after a costly human sacrifice.

Christian Conversion created the so-called Naga nationality. This is a fact as clear as sunlight. The states of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are walking on the same "Christian" path. Ignoring the advent of Christianity and Christian proselytism in those areas shall prove suicidal to our national integration. More on this in the next article…


- Milind Thatte (03 May '04)

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