Deja Vu: Drawing Parallels between Nagaland 2018 And Nagercoil 1969

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Mar 5, 2018 12:51 PM +05:30 IST
Deja Vu: Drawing Parallels between Nagaland 2018 And Nagercoil 1969Sumi women from Nagaland. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • When indigenous movements started fighting against proselytising and for inclusive development in Nagercoil and Nagaland, Hindu-phobic forces started branding them ‘Satanic’ and doing everything possible to weaken them.

    They fear such movements will hinder their expansionist agenda.

Two weeks before the 2018 state elections in Nagaland, the powerful Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) warned the believers “to choose between the cross and the trishul”. The blatant politico-religious message of the NBCC contained some gruesome imagery taken from the consistent anti-pagan worldview of Christianity and spoke about the "invasion of the Hindutva forces" and lamented that the people in the state are siding with development and thus colluding with those who seek to “pierce the heart of Jesus Christ”.

Note the juxtaposition of trishul with the piercing of the heart of the Christian deity. The message is clear, loud and anti-secular at every level. It is not just against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); it is against forsaking ‘Christian principles’ for the sake of secular development. Nagaland has always been a fundamentalist baptist state within a secular India, where the secular institutions of Nagaland have always heeded the directions provided by the Baptist Church. Even in the Bible heartland of the American Baptist fundamentalist backwaters one cannot find such a stranglehold of church on the secular institutions. Books and movies deemed anti-Christian by the church (in this case Baptist) are banned. No other religious activity is allowed. Naga secessionist terror outfits proselytise with the automatic machine guns in the neighbouring states.

The NSCN insurgents surrendering arms.
The NSCN insurgents surrendering arms.

Things are not that worse in the southernmost district of the Indian mainland, Kanyakumari, at least not yet. But during elections, the churches of various denominations including the powerful Catholic and Church of South India (CSI) dioceses start releasing strategic suggestions to the voters in masses conducted before the polling. This blatant communal anti-secular directions never get contested by the parties, which otherwise swear by secularism, and the media too remains silent. In 1969, a very similar propaganda was carried out during Nagercoil Lok Sabha constituency by-election.

Both Kamaraj in 1969 and Pon Radhakrishnan, recently, faced similar situations with Christian communal forces  giving dictates to value religion over development.
Both Kamaraj in 1969 and Pon Radhakrishnan, recently, faced similar situations with Christian communal forces  giving dictates to value religion over development.

The candidate who then stood for the bypoll was from the old Congress, K Kamaraj, one of the tallest leaders of the state and one who was considered a king-maker in national politics. Against him stood Dr Matthias as an independent. Both Kamaraj and Matthias were Nadars. Joe Tamizhselvan alias Muthamizh Thevar, is an ex-Catholic theologian and a human rights activist from the Kanyakumari district. He is also a historian of coastal people. He describes in detail the communal propaganda that was launched against Kamaraj during the 1969 by-election in Nagercoil:

M.Karunanidhi stayed for two months and campaigned vigorously for Dr. Matthias. In a reference to the outsider status of Kamarajar, Karunanidhi cautioned, “A bullock which could not be sold in its own town market has come to the market at Nagercoil. Test it by checking its teeth and tail before voting.” He further employed various communal techniques against Kamarajar. He said that while Kamarajar worshipped Siva, Dr. Matthias worshiped Jesus and hence the literate population of Nagerkovil (which then had a population of 2,50,000 Christians as against 2,20,000 Hindus), should consider issues well and vote for their own Nadar. Then a statement was issued on behalf of ‘Christian Nadar Association’ in the Indian Express newspaper dated 2-January-1969 which stated that as this constituency essentially belonged to the Christians it was the duty of the Christians to elect a Christian over a non-Christian.’. Another one association of ‘Southern Nadars’ alleged that the Nadar community to which Kamarajar belonged - Virudhunagar Nadars excommunicated Christian converts and hence Southern district Nadars should vote for Dr Matthias and not Kamarajar. The Hindi bogey was also used against Kamarajar. Muhammaed Ismail, (who had earlier worked with Jinnah for Pakistan and had earned the title Quad-e-Millat) campaigned along with Karunanidhi against Kamarajar and stated that the vote for Kamarajar was a vote in favour of Hindi imposition.

Kamaraj defeated Dr Matthias and earned a spectacular victory. In this he had used a subtle community equation. While the Christians outnumbered Hindus in Nagercoil, there was a divide among the Catholics and Protestants (CSI) who numbered 1,00,000 and 1,50,000 respectively. The over-emphasis on Nadar Christian identity by Dravidian and Protestant campaigners had alienated the Catholics who mostly belonged to coastal communities. Kamaraj subtly used this faultline. With a majority of Hindu votes and a significant number of (but not all of) Catholic votes, Kamaraj could defeat Dr Matthias.

After Kamaraj’s exit and the ascendancy of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, aggressive proselytising elements in Kanyakumari district would once again become extremely active. In many places, Hindus were persecuted and there was a complete institutional surrender of the district administration to Christian communal forces. All these started building up communal pressure and the still majority, yet rapidly declining, Hindu population could not bear the proselytising attacks any more. In 1982, a series of Hindu-Christian riots broke out in the district. Justice P Venugopal (Retd), who had a Dravidian political view, was appointed by then chief minister Dr M G Ramachandran, as head of the commission to probe the Hindu-Christian riots that of 1982. Later the Justice revealed:

The Christians demanded that Kanyakumari should be renamed as ‘Kanni Mary’ (Virgin Mary) and Nagercoil as ‘Nather Koil’ (Jesus was called Yesu Nathar by Christians). This gave rise to resentment, distrust and suspicion in the majority community, leading to communal tension. ...   Article 25 of the Constitution, which confers the fundamental right to propagate one’s religion, has degenerated into violent criticism of Hindu religion by Christian missionaries who started the pernicious practice of ridiculing and belittling the Hindu religion and their gods and misinterpreting the Hindu religion. This was reciprocated by equally vile attacks and criticisms of Christian religion by the Hindus. ... The Commission after examining 161 witnesses and perusing 323 exhibits filed by various parties and hearing arguments of various organisations and associations of Hindus, Christians and Muslims represented by 16 advocates gave a categorical finding that the root cause of the tension and clashes in Kanyakumari was conversion of Hindus to Christianity and the propaganda methods adopted for the purpose.

Iyyavazhi - Indic Resistance To Proselytising And Movement For Inclusive Development:

The Christian propaganda attacking Indic spiritual traditions and the indigenous resistance movement has a long history in Tamil Nadu. The conflict can be traced to Iyya Vaikundar (1809-1851), a social reformer and spiritual warrior venerated by the people of Kanykumari district. He positioned himself as the avatar of Vishnu. Combining both Vaishnavism and Saivism, he made Iyyaa Hara Hara the greeting of the people. He condemned the birth-based discrimination, economic exploitation, and more importantly, perceived the whole causal chain of events which were deepening the fault lines and aggravating the sufferings of the weaker sections of the society. Perhaps, he was the first Indian philosopher-saint to make this critique of colonial historiography and wanted Indians to devise their own framework for studying these problems. He also condemned the proselytising religions, particularly their expansionist tendencies and their blind adherence to belief:

Lost in mutual vanity they claim exclusive greatness
They know not the all pervading Space is the greatest

One scripture is that of the cross claiming all world for itself
Another scripture wants the entire world to wear the cap
Yet another speaks of world submit to the cloak (of the Catholic clergy)
These of cruel scriptures always speak ill of others
With inability to question, they will assure mutual destruction.

Iyya and his movement were closely monitored and heavily attacked continuously by the missionaries. London Mission reports described Vaikundar as of 'deranged mind' (1838) and as a 'False Prophet' (1872). His movement was described as ‘an anti-Christian religious phenomenon' which had 'spread to an astonishing degree' created by 'a negative religious imposter, named Moottecoothee' (1843). Samuel Mateer, another influential missionary whose work 'The land of Charity' (1870) is even today used as a historical reference material, described Vaikundar movement in his book as an 'absurd medley of Hinduism and Demonolatry'. Iyya movement anticipated many of the later day Hindutva movement. Uniting people of all castes in camps, saffron flag as the flag of the movement etc. would later resonate with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement in the district.

Prequel to the riots: (from left) Iyyavazhi, the symbol  and the movement; 1981 missionary propaganda book  in the guise of ‘scientific research’
Prequel to the riots: (from left) Iyyavazhi, the symbol and the movement; 1981 missionary propaganda book in the guise of ‘scientific research’

In 1981, an attack was launched on this movement in the form of a 'research book' printed by Kanyakumari Diocese and published by 'Institute of Evangelism and Research' which in turn was co-sponsored by Concordia Seminary and Christ College, California. The book, which portrayed the movement as the plot of Satan against Christianity, was hailed as ‘research publication’. The book contained the usual salvo of the choicest abuses against the spiritual social reformer and soon the district administration was forced to take action against the publishers. Today, again, the entire academia and polity are engaged in an effort to portray the Iyya Vaikundar movement as a separate religion. Even popular Iyyavazhi preachers identify themselves with Hindutva movement. So the 1982 riots were the culmination of a series of attacks on Hinduism at various levels.

The riots led to Hindu solidarity. This in turn helped in weaning away many Christians from the hold of the church, though not completely. In 1998 Pon Radhakrishnan was able to repeat the feat of Kamaraj. He consolidated the Hindu votes and a section of secular Christian votes too came his way. However, in 2004 he would be defeated by a sustained campaign by the churches to vote in a communal manner. In 2014 again Pon Radhakrishnan won. In both these periods, the district witnessed accelerated development work. It is interesting to note that in a district, where local cultural and spiritual traditions face monotheistic onslaught, Hindutva has come to provide natural protection to these movements. Also, Hindutva pitches secular inclusive development as the alternative to the evangelical onslaught.

Similar to this southernmost tiny district, the tiny state of Nagaland in the northeast too has a long history of indigenous spiritual traditions of Naga people fighting against evangelical forces.

Nagaland: Nehruvian Blunders

The problem of Nagas began with the tactical blunder Nehru committed with his intemperate response to initial Naga demands. Despite Gandhi’s support to an autonomous Naga region, Nehru is said to have encountered the demand with not only refusal but threats of ‘bloods of river’. With the resulting armed conflict and insurgency, the violent fields of Nagaland became effective harvesting fields for proselytisers. China too was supporting the Naga insurgency. The intelligence agencies of Nehruvian State, though Nehru himself would later express his fear about Nagaland becoming an international Christian issue, seemed to have considered the strongly pro-US Baptist mission as a counter to the lure of Maoism and supported the US-supported Baptist Church activities in Nagaland. Though the Nagaland Baptist Church officially asked the insurgents to be wary of atheist Maoist influence, the Christian fundamentalism added a new dimension to the movement. Though initially the 'Federal Government of Nagaland’ (FGN) had stated in 1956 that 'Religion will be free', this stand changed with the proclamation made on 3 March 1964 when FGN declared in its manifesto that 'Nagaland will be evangelised with the Gospel of Christ under the patronage of the Federal Government'.

Therein, Christian proselytism had become an important part of the political campaign of the FGN and NHG. This of course raised the ire of those who were followers of the traditional Naga religion and especially, those who followed the religious faith founded by Jadonang and Gaidinliu, ultimately leading Gaidinliu to form her own army and government that would be parallel to the FGN and NHG. There were many skirmished between the two groups, largely on religious lines through the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. However, soon enough, realising the disunity caused by religion, the FGN amended its constitution in 1968, which was later passed by the national assembly in 1971. The amended constitution stated that ‘Protestant Christianity and Naga religion are recognized Religions in Nagaland.’ In the late phase of the struggle in the 1980s, the movement once again resurrected the earlier slogan of ‘Nagaland for Christ’.
Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, Routledge, 2015

Naga Rani Gaidinliu And Heraka

Unseen to the outside world, which also does not want to see this, the native Naga spiritual traditions are still fighting a war against Christian aggression. For example, Rumpui Jeme, president of North Cachar Hills Heraka Association to which 56 Naga villages owe allegiance insist that they are not Christians. They continue to face threats from NSCN (IM) to convert to Christianity. ('Restorative Justice in India: Traditional Practice and Contemporary Applications', Ed R Thilagaraj, Jianhong Liu, 2017)

Standing at the centre of this conflict between the traditional Naga spiritual traditions and Christian proselytising is the memory and image of Rani Gaidinliu (1915-1993). The Rani who had fought against the British imperialism was also in the forefront of fight against theo-imperialism of Baptist Church. It was a spiritual experience of Rani, which helped in the uniting of Naga traditional spiritual streams into Heraka identity. When her birth centenary was celebrated in 2015, a proposal for her memorial museum and library in Kohima was strongly opposed by the Baptist Church. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC)’s General Secretary Zelhou Keyho opposed the memorial museum on religious grounds that a human figure cannot be equated to god excepting Christ. Heraka religion itself was criticised for having ties with the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). (The Morung Express, 14-Dec-2015) Heraka do not have a problem with this accusations. In fact, Rani herself had lent her support to the pan-Hindu movement in 1970s and this move had then helped in the recognition of indigenous Naga religion.

Naga Rani depicted in the ‘Bharat Mata’ of Sangh and Naga Rani Gaidinliu participating in the Sangh meeting.
Naga Rani depicted in the ‘Bharat Mata’ of Sangh and Naga Rani Gaidinliu participating in the Sangh meeting.

While the Christian Naga insurgency gets enormous aid from evangelical institutions from abroad, including proactive efforts by global Christian movements from Hong Kong to Geneva to bring splinter insurgency groups under one banner of ‘Nagaland for Christ’, they accuse Heraka of taking RSS help. Heraka Naga dismiss this charge while they accept and acknowledge the help RSS and VHP provide to them through initiatives like building of schools and hostels, and view it as a normal thing which is happening across the country. (Richard Kamei, 2015).

Even an academic who subscribes to the idea of tribals being non-Hindus cannot see the ’correlations’ emerging almost naturally in the narrative of the Naga Rani fighting for the natural and spiritual religions of her people. Dr Arkotong Longkumer now with the University of Edinburg in his work on the Heraka movement explains:

The symbol of Bhuban cave gains prominence in Gaidinliu’s biography of her numerous journeys there. Her biography enhances her position as a the heguang (a leader who will usher in a free community) due to her being seen as the daughter of Bhuban god, Cherachamdinliu. ... (T)his notion is evident to the future of the Heraka in the symbol of heguang and heguangram (free community). ...(H)er use of tradition and adoption of powerful symbols from ‘Hinduism’ ...brought out contested material, both in her role as heguang and Durga, a ‘Hindu’ Goddess, as ‘divine’. This highlights questions of legitimation ofor the Heraka. The pan-Hindu idea of Bharat Mata (Mother India) as a territorial deity correlates with the image of a ‘mother’, in Heraka contexts, and ‘Goddess’ in Gaidinliu’s biography. It portrays an imagery as uniting and including disparate groups in India, suc as the Heraka, under the wings of ‘Bharat Mata’.
Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging: The Heraka Movement in Northeast India, A&C Black, 2011
Postage stamp issued by Government of India to honour Rani Gaidinilu and the schematic diagram by Dr Arkotong Longkumer showing the natural correlation beween Heraka spirituality and rest of pan-Hindu spirituality.
Postage stamp issued by Government of India to honour Rani Gaidinilu and the schematic diagram by Dr Arkotong Longkumer showing the natural correlation beween Heraka spirituality and rest of pan-Hindu spirituality.

It is interesting that both in Nagercoil and Nagaland the proselytising attacks against the native local spiritual traditions have been initially rationalised by academics of Nehruvian and Marxist persuasion as the result of economic neglect by the Indian State and the inherent indifference of Hinduism to the condition of the marginalised tribals and suppressed castes. However, when the indigenous resistance movements started fighting against proselytising and also for the development inclusiveness, the so-called secular polity, media and academics strangely became silent regarding the attacks on these movements by far more powerful and internationally networked proselytising forces. The only concern of the Hindu-phobic triumvirate of polity-media-academia in the case of such resistance movements of indigenous Indic spirituality and culture, like Iyya Vazhi or Heraka, is to deny the Hindu identity of these movements, to cut them off from their pan-Hindu associations and thus considerably weaken them before the expansionist monotheist assault.

Hindutva combines inclusive secular development with indigenous resistance to proselytising: A model which is often accepted by people, ceteris paribus.
Hindutva combines inclusive secular development with indigenous resistance to proselytising: A model which is often accepted by people, ceteris paribus.

Clearly, Hindutva is despised by its opponents not because it is against diversity, but because it is the protection for the diversity of this land.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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