Politics

Demography Watch: Christianity Is Spreading In Northeast Through Conversion Of Scheduled Tribes

Indian children hold candles as they stand ahead of their first communion during the celebrations of Christmas at a church in Agartala, capital of India’s northeastern state of Tripura, early 25 December 2006. Although Christians make up less than 3 percent of the country’s one-billion-plus population, Christmas is widely celebrated in India. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit: STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

The Centre For Policy Studies (CPS) has published its latest note on the Religion Data Census of 2011. In this note, the CPS analyses the spread of Christianity among the individual Scheduled Tribes of Assam, Tripura and Sikkim.

It says that Christianity in the Northeast has spread mainly through the conversion of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) of the region. There are numerous tribes that live here, specific tribes often dominate a specific district or even a sub-district.

Here. it is pertinent to look into how the religious demography of different tribes has changed over time, how and when they have moved away from their native religions—which in their doctrine and practice fall within the Hindu fold—to Christianity.

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Assam

In Assam, the situation is very different from other states of the region. The spread of Christianity in Assam has been limited and, more surprisingly, less than 20 percent of the Christians in the State are from the Scheduled Tribes (STs). This is very unusual. Elsewhere in the Northeast, the Christians are almost entirely tribal. The peculiar situation of Assam is because several essentially tribal communities of Assam have not been included in the ST list. Such communities include the tea tribes, one-fifth of whom are said to have been converted. Estimates indicate that perhaps all of the non-ST Christians of Assam are from the tea tribes.

There is a long-standing demand for the tea tribes and five other communities—the Tai Ahom, Moran, Matak, Chutia and Koch-Rajbongshi—to be included in the ST list of the State. The current Government at the Centre seems to be serious about accepting this demand. If and when that happens, Assam shall become a tribal-majority State, and the non-tribal component of the population shall become largely Muslim. This is likely to drastically reorder the political and religious demographic profile of the State.

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Christians form 12.8 percent of the current ST population of the State. Their share has risen to this level from 7.6 percent in 1991 and 8.8 percent in 2001. There are two separate ST lists for Assam, one for the autonomous hill districts and the other for the rest of Assam. The proportion of Christians among the hill STs is higher at 27.4 percent. Among the STs of the plains, the share of Christians is lower at 9.7 percent.

Of 6.7 lakh STs of the hill districts, 4.3 lakh are Karbi and 1 lakh Dimasa-Kachari. Christianity has spread mainly in the Karbi, 17.6 percent of whom are now Christian. The proportion in 1991 was 11.7 percent. The Dimasa and Kachari are largely Hindu. There are only 1.1 percent Christians among them. The share of Christians among the smaller hill tribes is much larger: the Kuki, Khasi-Jaintia, Garo, Hmar, Lushai (Mizo) and Naga tribes in the hill districts are largely Christian.

Among 32 lakh STs of the plains, there are 13.6 lakh Boros or Borocacharis, of them, 10 percent are now Christian. There is a limited Christian presence in the other plains tribes, which include the Miri, Rabha, Kachari Sonowal and Lalung. Garos have been included among the STs of plains after 2003. 96 percent of 1.36 lakh plains Garos are Christians.

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Tripura

In Tripura, Christians now form 13 percent of the ST population. Their share in 1991 was five percent. Of the ST population of 11.7 lakh in Tripura, 5.9 lakh are from the Tripuri group of tribes, 1.9 lakh are from the Riang and 0.83 lakh from the Jamatia. Christians have acquired a foothold in all three. But their share is the highest in the Riang at 17.3 percent. It has grown to this level from 8.5 percent in 1991. They have a share of near nine percent in the Tripuri and Jamatia also. In 1991, their share in the Tripuri was less than one percent and less than two percent in the Jamatia.

Christian presence is much higher in some of the relatively smaller tribes. Nearly 90 percent of Kuki, two-thirds of the Garo and half of the Halam are now Christian. The Christian share has been rising in all three tribal groups, but the rise is the most significant in the Halam. Christian presence among them was less than 20 percent in 1991 and has risen to 47 percent now.

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Tripura also has a significant presence of the Buddhist tribes of the Chakma and the Mag; the two together have a population of about 1.2 lakh and there are only 434 Christians among them. In general, the reach of Christianity among the Buddhist is rather limited.

There are also several relatively smaller and essentially Hindu tribes in Tripura. Christians seem to have begun acquiring some foothold in them, especially in the Orang, Santal, Lepcha and Munda.

Sikkim

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There are only four tribes in the ST list of Sikkim, the Bhutia, Lepcha, Limboo and Tamang. The latter two have been added to the list only in 2003 and have been counted among the STs for the first time in 2011. The Bhutia, Lepcha and Tamang are predominantly Buddhist, the Limboo are mainly Hindu.

Christians have a presence of less than three percent in the Bhutia. But, they have acquired a significant share of 14.7 percent in the Lepcha. Their share in the Limboo and Tamang is around nine percent. In the STs of Sikkim as a whole, the Christian presence has now reached 8.2 percent - it was 3.6 percent in 1991.

Read the complete note and analysis here.

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