Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavism, is in the grip of aggressive evangelisation by Christian missionaries, and some of the Hindu religious heads are paying a heavy price for resisting it.
It’s time to stop these missionaries, otherwise Majuli risks losing its culture and identity, say Hindu community leaders.
A prominent priest and the head of a centuries-old monastery in Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavism in Assam, is being victimised for standing up to aggressive evangelisation by Christian missionaries. A court case has been filed against him by some Christian converts in Majuli and he is currently out on bail.
Janardhan Goswami, the Xatradhikar (head) of the Dakhinpat Grihashromi Xatra, has been resisting the activities of Christian missionaries in Majuli , the world’s largest river island. Majuli is the seat of Assam’s Vaishnavite culture and traditions propagated by the state’s revered fifteenth century saint Srimanta Sankardev. The Dakhinpat Grihashromi Xatra is an affiliate of the Dakhinpat Xatra that was established in 1584.
Majuli, which is also the constituency of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, is inhabited by about 1.58 lakh people, most of them Assamese-speaking non-tribals. The Misings, the largest tribal group in the island, number about 66,000. It is the Misings, who are generally poor, that the Christian missionaries have been targeting over the past three decades.
The Christian missionaries, whose sole purpose has been harvesting souls, first established their presence in Majuli in the late 1980s by setting up a school on government land. “They (the missionaries) started wooing the Misings with gifts of clothes, utensils, packaged food, toiletries and with promises of higher education. Then the conversions started,” Janardhan Goswami told Swarajya.
Gradually, the Christian converts started setting up churches not only on government land, but also on land belonging to the Xatras. Most of the land in Majuli is Debottar land (land vested to a Xatra where the deity is the proprietor and beneficiary) and the churches — there are 12 major churches there now — have been built on government and debottar land.
Janardhan Goswami and a few other Xatradhikars as well as senior Vaishnavite community leaders have been resisting the predatory evangelism of the Christian missionaries for many years now.
“To counter the pernicious influence of the missionaries on the impressionable tribals, we have launched many welfare, education and health schemes for the tribals. We are making them aware of their roots (they are Vaishnavites too) and age-old culture and traditions,” said Goswami.
But the missionaries have turned more aggressive and are now targeting those who are opposing their activities. Goswami’s case is a prime example. Exactly a year ago, some of his devotees objected to a makeshift church on debottar land that belongs to a Xatra. The bamboo structure with a corrugated iron roof had been erected by a Mising man who was a new convert to Christianity. He claimed that the land belonged to him.
However, the devotees of the Xatra would have none of it and demanded that the man, one Prasanta Payeng, demolish the structure. A scuffle ensued and the structure on land that had been allegedly encroached upon by Payeng suffered some damage.
Payeng and some other new converts to Christianity, reportedly egged on by a Baptist priest, lodged a complaint with the police. They named Janardhan Goswami in the FIR (first information report) they lodged.
The police, after investigating the complaint, reportedly found that the structure had been built on land that did not belong to the complainant (Payeng). The police also found that the land where the structure had been built illegally was partly government land and partly debottar land.
“We thought that was the end of the matter. But I got a shock on receiving summons from the court of the sub-divisional judicial magistrate asking me to appear before it on 11 September,” said Goswami.
Goswami appeared before the court on 25 September the first time that a Xatradhikar had to suffer such an ignominy in Assam — and was granted bail. The next hearing is on 16 October.
“I was not even present at the spot when the scuffle occurred. My devotees did not file any complaint either with the police or the court because the encroachers (Payeng and his neighbours who had converted to Christianity) had promised to demolish the structure and had admitted that the land did not belong to them. We could never imagine that they would file a complaint with the court so surreptitiously,” said Goswami.
This is, however, not the only instance of a church or a Christian missionary-run institution coming up on land that had been encroached upon. Most of the 12 big churches in Majuli stand on debottar or government land.
Attempts to evict them have been futile, mostly because the authorities shy away from taking on the powerful church that raises the bogey of persecution every time an attempt is made to thwart their illegal activities.
Nearly 60 per cent of Majuli’s Misings have converted to Christianity. Emboldened by their success, the evangelists now want to not only convert the remaining Misings, but also the other tribals as well as the Assamese non-tribals.
“If they have their way, and are allowed to carry on in this manner, Majuli will cease to be a seat of Vaishnavism that was established by Srimanta Sankardev. And Assam will lose its culture,” warns Goswami.