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Arunachal’s Tribal Culture Fades As Fervent Proselytisation Fuels Christianity

A Nishi tribesman wearing the traditional head-dress having a hornbill beak. (Vinod Panicker/Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • There is a demographic and seditious time bomb ticking away in Arunachal Pradesh. Christian proselytisers are on a rampage here.

More than the red dragon staring belligerently from across the icy international border, it is rabid Christian proselytisers who are posing the gravest threat to the strategically located northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. The proselytisers, actively encouraged by some powerful politicians to harvest souls over the last two decades, have managed to convert – by allurements, blandishments, blatant bribery and even by force – a large section of the state’s tribal population to Christianity.

The 2011 Census data came as a shocker: the Christian population in the state stood at 30.26 per cent, making it the largest religious group in the state. Christians formed only 0.79 per cent of the state’s population in 1971. Two decades later, in 1991, Christians formed 10.30 per cent of the state’s population. But over the next two decades, their numbers nearly trebled.

Incidentally, the steep rise in conversions coincided with the rule of the Sonia Gandhi-led United Progressive Alliance government in Delhi. It is also no coincidence that a large majority of the new Christian converts are Catholics. This is quite unlike the other Christian-majority states of the North East, like Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, where the Protestant church – the Salvation Army, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Baptists – has been the most evangelical. Incidentally, Sonia Gandhi is a Catholic.

Changing Demographics

The first Census in Arunachal was carried out in 1971. Of the total population of 4.67 lakh, practitioners of indigenous faiths numbered the most, at 2.96 lakh, making for 63.46 per cent of the population. Their proportion of the population started declining sharply after 1981, and more so since 1991. The 2011 Census revealed they formed only 26.20 per cent of the state’s population. At the same time, the Christians, who numbered a mere 3,684 in 1971, rose to 89,013 in 1991, and shot up to 418,732, making them the largest religious group in the state.

According to the 2001 Census, there are a hundred tribal communities in Arunachal. Thirteen of them have less than 10 members each, three have only one member each and only 47 communities have more than 1,000 members each. The 2001 Census revealed that, of the 10.97 lakh people of the state, 7.05 lakh were tribal, and of them, 1.86 lakh (or 26.46 per cent) were Christians.

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The 2011 Census did not provide any religious break-up of the major tribal communities in the state. The major tribes of Arunachal are the Nissis (comprising the Nyishis, Nissis and Nishangs), the Adis (comprising the Adis, Adi Gallongs, Galongs, Bokars, Boris, Padam Pasis, Karkos and Adi Minyongs), the Apatanis, Wanchos, Noctes, Monpas, Sherdukpens, Tagins, Idu Mishmis, Khamtis and Tangsas.

By 2001, an overwhelming majority of the Wanchos (73.36 per cent) had converted, or been forced to convert, to Christianity. About 43.44 per cent of the Noctes had also been forced to become Christians. At present, it is estimated that 97 per cent of Wanchos and 85 per cent of Noctes are Christians. The Wanchos and Noctes inhabit the Tirap and Changlang districts bordering Nagaland and parts of Lohit and Anjaw districts. The two factions of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN, one led by S S Khaplang, who passed away on 9 June, and the other by Thuingaleng Muivah), egged on by the Baptist missionaries of Nagaland, have forcibly converted the members of these two tribes to Christianity.

The Nyishis, Nissis and Nishangs, the largest tribal group in the state who inhabit the central districts of East Kameng, Papum Pare, Lower Subansiri and Kurung Kumey, are the other major tribes to have converted. By 2001, 53.15 per cent of the Nyishis, 36.8 per cent of Nissis and 36.22 per cent of Nishangs had converted to Christianity. Today, 85 per cent of Nysihis, 62 per cent of Nissis and 51 per cent of Nishangs are Christians. Christians formed 72 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe population of these three districts in 2011; now they are 80 per cent of the population.

The Tangsas, inhabitants of Changlang district, were practitioners of the Rangfra faith, but they have been lured and threatened into converting since the mid-1980s. In 2001, 40 per cent of them became Christians while in 2011, 55 per cent of the Tangsas had become Christians. At present, it is estimated that 70 per cent of the Tangsas are Christians.

In the Adi group of tribes comprising Adi Gallong, Adi, Galong, Abor, Bokar, Bori, Adi Minyong and some other sub-tribes, a large number have converted to Christianity. This tribal group inhabits the western-central part of Arunachal, comprising the West Siang, Upper Siang, East Siang, Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley districts. About 22 per cent of the Adi group in these districts had converted by 2011; today, the Christian converts are about 35 per cent of the Adi population. In 2011, a little over 15.2 per cent of the Idu Mishmis, another major tribe of Dibang Valley, were Christians, but at present, an estimated 24 per cent of the tribe have converted. About 27 per cent of the Apatanis and 65 per cent of the Tagins have become Christians.

Folk dance of an Adi tribe known as Tapu, in Upper Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh (Tekseng Mos/Wikimedia Commons) Folk dance of an Adi tribe known as Tapu, in Upper Siang district, Arunachal Pradesh (Tekseng Mos/Wikimedia Commons)

The only two districts where the Christian proselytisers haven’t been able to make much headway are the state’s western districts of West Kameng and Tawang, which have a large number of Buddhists. The Christian missionaries have not been able to entice, lure or threaten them into converting. But not for a lack of effort. “Last month, we got reports of a Naga teacher in a school set up by Christian missionaries in Tawang town teaching the Bible and enticing students to embrace Christianity. He was promising them free education in good colleges outside the state and monetary and material rewards for converting. We had to warn this proselytiser,” a popular youth leader from Tawang, who is also a close kin of present Chief Minister Pema Khandu, told Swarajya. The proselytisers have been able to convert only a few Nepali families in these two districts to Christianity.

The Church’s Silent Invasion

Arunachal Pradesh was a centrally administered unit called the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) from the British days till 1972, when it became a union territory. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi heeded the advice of experts on the need to keep this strategically located territory bordering Tibet away from the reach of the evangelical Christian church. They allowed only the Ramakrishna Mission and other Hindu organisations to set up schools and hospitals in the state.

But the Christian proselytisers would not be deterred. The church set up schools and healthcare clinics in the areas bordering Arunachal within Assam and admitted tribal students of Arunachal into these schools. The clinics also catered mostly to the poor tribals living along the Assam-Arunachal border. And it is in these schools and clinics that the tribals were indoctrinated and converted. The tribal converts then went into the interior areas of Arunachal and started preaching the gospel to their fellow tribals and converted more and more of them to Christianity.

What is ironical is that Arunachal Pradesh was the third state in India (after Odisha and Madhya Pradesh) to pass an anti-conversion act – The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978. The Act prevents conversion of people of indigenous faiths like Donyi-Polo, Rangfra (a tribal variant of Vaishnavism) and Buddhism through force (including physical threats, threats of divine displeasure or social excommunication), inducements or fraud into alien faiths like Christianity, and imposes heavy penalties on violators. But not a single person has ever been prosecuted even though it is well known that inducements and threats are the preferred tools of conversion by the Christian proselytisers. And even though the Act lays down a stringent procedure involving prior information to be provided to the state administration for any conversions, the procedures are observed only in violation by the Christian church.

Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s Roles

The policy of keeping Christian missionaries away from Arunachal was silently overturned by Rajiv Gandhi when he became the prime minister in 1984. “Rajiv Gandhi put a lot of pressure on Gegong Apang (the longest-serving chief minister of the state who is now with the BJP) to allow Christian missionaries in, but he (Apang) held out. However, for a backward state like Arunachal, which is wholly dependent on the Union government for funds, it is difficult to defy the prime minister of the day for very long. Hence, the state succumbed to pressure from New Delhi and didn’t enforce the anti-conversion Act,” a close aide of Apang, who did not want to be named, told Swarajya.

Statistics show that it was roughly in the decade coinciding with Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure that the Christian population in Arunachal had the first upsurge, from 4.32 per cent (in 1981) to 10.30 per cent (in 1991). Most of the conversions then happened in the second half of the decade, when Rajiv Gandhi was in power.

Apang was, however, steadfast in refusing entry of Christian missionaries into the state till his second stint in power (from August 2003 to April 2007). Apang’s successor Dorjee Khandu (of the Congress), despite being a Buddhist, also could do little to stop the Christian missionaries, who used every trick in the book to lure the poor tribals to Christianity. A range of inducements, including admissions in schools run by the missionaries, admissions and free scholarships in colleges run by them in other parts of the country, free healthcare, regular doles in the form of financial assistance and material gifts as well as blatant threats were employed by the proselytisers.

Arunachal got its first Christian chief minister in Nabam Tuki in November 2011. He, a Catholic, was handpicked by Sonia Gandhi. And under Tuki, not only did the church, especially the Catholic church, get a free rein to proselytise, Tuki also deployed the state machinery to help the church and discriminated in favour of Christians who became the exclusive beneficiaries of various state social welfare schemes. Tuki also prevented organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and organisations working for the preservation and spread of indigenous faiths from working among the tribals while allowing the Christian evangelicals to do so.

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Such was Tuki’s importance to the larger game plan of making Arunachal a Christian state that the Christian church and the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress did its best to keep him in power even when he had lost the support of the majority of the members of the legislative assembly during the political crisis in the state from the beginning to mid-2016. The then governor Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa had written to the union government about Tuki’s close ties with the proscribed NSCN faction led by the late S S Khaplang.

The NSCN, which has close links with the Christian church, has been forcing members of the Wancho and Nocte tribes inhabiting Arunachal’s Tirap and Changlang districts that border Nagaland to convert to Christianity. Rajkhowa also wrote about Tuki’s encouragement of the proselytising activities of Christian missionaries. Tuki, who was then engaged in a war of words with Rajkhowa, slaughtered a “mithun” (a semi-domesticated bovine) in front of the Raj Bhavan, allegedly at the behest of some Christian priests. Rajkhowa had protested saying bovines are held sacred by Hindus.

Why the Indigenous Faiths Became Easy Targets

“Donyi Polo” (or the Sun and the Moon), the predominant indigenous faith in the state whose adherents worship nature, faces the greatest threat from Christian proselytisers. The other indigenous faith – the Rangfra – which is a tribal variant of Vaishnavism – is nearly extinct as the Church has aggressively converted the Tangsas who were its primary adherents.

Nani Bath, a professor of political science in the Rajiv Gandhi Central University at Naharlagun near state capital Itanagar, explains that Donyi-Polo and Rangfra are not organised religions. “They are not codified religions, there is no religious text. There are no set rituals. Though the initiative to codify the Donyi-Polo faith was launched in the mid-1980s, it is still a work in progress. As such, Christian missionaries find it easy to lure away our people with allurements and material as well as financial enticements. The Christian missionaries also offer false hopes of salvation,” said Bath, who has written extensively on conversions.

Another factor, says Sunil Tayeng, a physician at Itanagar, is the expensive rituals that Donyi-Polo priests recommend. “For illnesses and to cast away evil spirits, they often recommend sacrificing pigs and mithuns, which the poor can’t really afford. Christian missionaries highlight these practices as witchcraft and sorcery while Christianity involves no such practices. So poor tribals are lured away,” he said.

The church sermons, say those who have attended them, are full of vile threats about non-Christians being condemned to rot in hell and suffering terrible deaths. “The missionaries manage to convince the simple and gullible tribals that only Christianity can lead them to salvation. And they also hold out various enticements like free education and healthcare as well as material benefits. Leaders of our indigenous faith cannot match the Christian missionaries,” said Tayeng.

Strengthening the Indigenous Faith

The process of making Donyi-Polo an organised religion was initiated by Talom Rukbo, who is known as the father of modern Donyi-Polo and revered as “Golgii Bote” (the immortal father). Rukbo, an Adi, was a multi-faceted personality who served as an officer in the NEFA administration. He revived many cultural festivals and started the process of codifying the faith, writing religious scriptures and giving the Donyi-Polo faith an organised form.

A festival of the Nyishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (Nandini Velho/Wikimedia Commons) A festival of the Nyishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (Nandini Velho/Wikimedia Commons)

Rukbo received a lot of help from the state government, particularly from then chief minister Gegong Apang, who established the Donyi Polo Academy, a premier school where students would be taught the indigenous faiths in order to keep them away from the proselytising Christian priests. He represented the Donyi-Polo faith at many national and international inter-faith meets and conferences as a result of which Donyi-Polo was recognised as a religion. Rukbo and some other scholars started writing prayer books, hymns and scriptures of the Donyi-Polo religion in 1986.

The book codifying the Donyi-Polo religion and containing its various prayers and hymns was completed in 1978, said civil servant Yamek Mize (popularly known as Taggu Didi), a proponent of the faith. Mize, who is also the Mahila Pramukh of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in Arunachal, says that weekly prayers are now held at the 500-odd Ganggings (Donyi-Polo prayer halls) across the state on weekends. “Adults and children are taught about their own culture and rituals, and the need to retain them. We preach about the dangers of converting to Christianity,” she said. Mize says that the simple tribals of the state are easily swayed by temptations, threats and emotions and the Christian missionaries take advantage of these traits to convert them. She also said that the church received huge funds from abroad for proselytising tribals.

Mukge Tayeng is the “Miri” (priest, also known as “Tabe”) of a 20-year-old Gangging at Itanagar. His Sunday morning prayers are attended by at least a hundred people. And, encouragingly, the numbers of his congregation are rising. Apart from conducting prayer sessions and talking about the religion, Tayeng also doubles up as a practitioner of traditional medicine and healing tactics.

But the healing powers, he says, cannot be learnt from anyone or be taught to anyone. “These powers came to me when I was young. I cannot codify them or write down the mantras that I chant while healing a person. It is the ‘Uyu’ (a supernatural spirit) that empowers Miris like me,” he says.

And this, explains Adi Tabi, a senior officer with a central public sector unit who is posted at Dibrugarh in Assam, is a severe shortcoming of this indigenous faith. “The Christian missionaries talk derisively of the mumbo-jumbo that the indigenous priests utter and refer to Donyi-Polo as a pagan religion. Today’s youth find it difficult to comprehend the supernatural ‘Uyu’ and the healing powers that the Miris derive from the ‘Uyu’. Hence, they get attracted to Christianity,” said Tabi.

The Dangers That Conversions Present

All this is not just about tribals of Arunachal abandoning their indigenous faiths and embracing Christianity. There are many dangers inherent in the conversions.

Professor Bath says that the traditional solidarity that existed within the various tribes of Arunachal Pradesh has broken down and there exist sharp divides between the Christians and non-Christians.

“The Christian converts do not participate in the traditional festivals which are central to tribal culture and life. They only celebrate Christian festivals. Very often, the new converts move away from their villages and establish new villages. If the majority of the families of a village convert to Christianity, the non-converts are ostracised. They are excommunicated and socially boycotted as a means of exerting pressure on them to convert. These nefarious tactics at the behest of the proselytisers create ill will and deep divisions in tribal societies. As a result, the simple tribal way of life is being destroyed by the Christian missionaries and they have divided tribal society, made it materialistic and immoral,” said physician Tayeng.

What is also a cause for alarm is that the Christian missionaries and many Naga and Malayalee priests have started spreading disaffection among the converts.

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“They deliver sermons deriding not only indigenous faiths like Donyi-Polo, but also Hinduism and then the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Such political sermons have increased after the fall of the Nabam Tuki government and after all (save one) legislators switched over to the BJP last year. The priests deliver fiery sermons against the BJP government at the centre and even exhort their congregations to resist the central government. They (the priests) often allude to the tribals of Arunachal joining hands with the Nagas to form a Christian state. A lot of church sermons are highly anti-national and deeply seditious,” said a state intelligence officer. Of prime concern are Christian priests and proselytisers hailing from Nagaland; they are believed to have strong links with one or both factions of the NSCN.

Thus, the church is not only dividing and destroying tribal society in Arunachal but also spreading disaffection against the country and promoting sedition in the very strategically located state bordering Tibet.

Braving the onslaught of Christianity, a few organisations like the Arunachal Vikas Parishad and Aji Nilung Tungko, as well as prominent proponents of Donyi-Polo, are working towards convincing Christian converts to return to their indigenous faith. A little progress has been made, says Yamek Mize, and the results of such efforts are encouraging.

“People are returning to their original indigenous faiths. That’s because after having converted, they are realising their mistake. After conversion, the missionaries stop all financial and material assistance to the new converts and, instead, demand a slice of their income for the church. They also realise that Christianity has many blind beliefs. The promises made by the proselytisers before conversions are never kept. And there is always pressure on the new converts to bring more and more of their fellow tribals into the fold. The converts are slowly realising the damage Christianity has done to our society and culture and so are returning to the Donyi-Polo fold,” said Mize.

The numbers of those returning to their original faith are, however, quite small. But Mize, and many others like her, feel that the trickle can turn into a tide with a little help from the state.

Featured Image: A Nishi tribesman wearing the traditional head-dress having a hornbill beak. (Vinod Panicker/Wikimedia Commons)

Also Read:

Dark ‘State’ Called Nagalim: Arunachal’s Evangelists Pose Grave Threat To National Security

The Fight In Arunachal Is Not Just Territorial, It’s Cultural Too

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