Tawang Church Issue: Local Buddhists Oppose 'Illegal' Structure; Christian Bodies Plan Statewide Movement

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Jul 22, 2022 05:35 PM +05:30 IST
Tawang Church Issue: Local Buddhists Oppose 'Illegal' Structure; Christian Bodies Plan Statewide Movement The Monpas (Buddhists in Tawang) represent a challenge to Christian proselytisers who have met with tremendous success in converting other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.
Snapshot
  • The foundation stone of the Tawang church was laid on 28 June 2015 and construction started immediately after that.

    Some locals raised objections on grounds that the structure was 'illegal'.

A major ethnic strife is brewing in the icy Himalayan heights of western Arunachal Pradesh--in the strategically located Tawang district that abuts Chinese-occupied Tibet to its north and Bhutan to its west.

The impending strife has been precipitated by Christian proselytisers trying aggressively to convert the Buddhist Monpas (the local tribe who have close affinity with the Sharchops of Bhutan). The proselytisers, mainly from the Christian Revival Church (CRC) that was born in Nagaland, have been forcibly constructing a large Church on government land.

The proselytisers, mainly Naga pastors, had started foraying into West Kameng and Tawang districts from the early 1990s with the sole intention of converting Monpas, who number about 75,000 and follow the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, to Christianity.

But they met with very limited success mainly because the Monpas are a very close-knit community and are devout Buddhists. They revere the Dalai Lama, who they worship as their spiritual head.

The Monpas have been followers of Tibetan Buddhism for the past few centuries. In fact, the sixth Dalai Lama--Tsangyang Gyatso--was a Monpa and was born in the Urgelling Monastery in Tawang.

The Gaden Namgyal Lhatse, popularly known as the ‘Tawang Monastery’, is the largest monastery in India and is more than 340 years old. As such, the Monpas are deeply rooted in Buddhism and Tawang is a revered place for followers of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism all over the world.

The Monpas represent a challenge to Christian proselytisers who have met with tremendous success in converting other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh over the last four decades.

Most of the indigenous tribes of Arunachal Pradesh were followers of the indigenous Donyi Polo and Rangfrah faiths which were animistic and shamamic in nature. The adherents of these faiths constituted nearly 65 per cent of the state’s population as per the 1971 census.

Aggressive proselytising by Christian missionaries since the early 1980s has resulted in a sharp decline in the population of followers of the indigenous faiths and the 2011 census revealed that they formed just about 26 percent of the state’s population. Their percentage is estimated to be around 15 per cent today.

At the same time, the number of Christians has gone up exponentially. In 1971, Christians numbered a mere 3,684. This number rose to 89,013 in 1991, 2,05,548 in 2001 and 4,18,732 in 2011. Today, Christians are the largest religious group in the state, making for 35 percent of the state’s population.

The Buddhist bastion of Tawang, thus, represented a huge challenge for the Christian missionaries and became the sole hurdle in their project of making Arunachal Pradesh a ‘Christian state’ like Nagaland and Mizoram.

That’s why the missionaries are making an aggressive bid to cement their presence in Tawang through a large Church. The district authorities have stopped the construction of the huge church on government land, and that has triggered a lot of belligerence amongst the missionaries.

The missionaries have, so far, met with limited success in Tawang and have been able to lure only some Nepali residents as well as non-Monpas to Christianity. “And that is why it is important for them (the missionaries) to have a powerful symbol like a grand church that can, one day, overshadow the Tawang monastery,” Sonam Tshering, a Monpa activist who has been involved in opposing the construction of the church, told Swarajya from Tawang.

Building a large and grand Church is crucial to the propagation of Christianity by missionaries all over the country. “A grand Church building towering over every other structure is a powerful symbol and acts like a magnet to local communities. It becomes a awe-inspiring symbol of Christianity and the proselytisers find it very easy to lure the gullible folks with all sorts of enticements,” said Dorjee Passang, a school teacher who has been studying proselytization of Arunachal’s tribals for the past two decades.

The Christian Revival Church (CRC), which is considered to be a particularly aggressive proselytiser, took a formal shape in Tawang with the appointment of its first pastor in June 1999. The present pastor, Joseph Singhi, took charge in June 2020.

The foundation stone of the Tawang church was laid on June 28, 2015 and construction started immediately after that. Some locals raised objections since the church authorities had forcibly occupied government land and the construction was, thus, an illegal one.

“But the church authorities threatened the local Monpa population and even when the district administration asked them to stop construction, they remained defiant and went ahead,” said Tshering.

It was only after the slabs were cast for the second floor of the church that the administration swung into action and arrested the pastor, Joseph Singhi, in October 2020.

Even the church authorities admit that they had been (illegally) occupying the large plot of land on which the construction of the church building started since 1999.

Sonara Degio, vice president of the Arunachal Pradesh Christian Church Revival Council, is quoted in this church publication (which highlights alleged persecution of Christians and proselytisers around the world) as saying: “We have been occupying the plot since 1999”. The operative term is occupying. Degio and other church leaders are yet to provide any document to prove that the land belongs to them legally.

The church authorities petitioned the Tawang district administration to ‘regularise’ the plot of land they had illegally occupied and allot it to the CRC in 2003. But the state government refused.

“The church used to operate out of a very small hut till the construction of the large structure commenced in June 2015. Our principal opposition to the construction of the structure is that it is coming up on government land that has been forcibly occupied by the church authorities. Freedom to practise one’s faith cannot be an excuse to commit grossly illegal acts like forcibly occupying land belonging to the government or private parties,” said Passang.

Also, given the very small number of Christians in Tawang, there is no need for such a large church to come up. “Will the Catholic Church allow a Buddhist monastery to come up in Vatican city? If not, why should a huge church be allowed to come up in Tawang that is an important seat of Buddhist culture and religion?” asked Tshering.

While Tshering’s question and reasoning is valid, what is incomprehensible is the audacity of the CRC authorities in demanding that they be allowed to not only continue with the construction of the church, but that the land they had forcibly occupied be handed over to them legally!

The Arunachal Christian Forum (ACF), a powerful umbrella organisation of various Christian denominations and church bodies, has taken up the contentious issue and is backing the demand for ‘regularisation’ of the plot of land that has been under the CRC’s occupation since 1999.

‘Regularisation’ is a euphemism for the government handing over possession of the (forcibly occupied or encroached) plot to the current occupant (in this case, the CRC). It is nothing but granting legal possession of a plot of land to a squatter who had illegally occupied it in the first place. The ACF is demanding exactly this in the garb of freedom of religion.

The ACF launched a statewide movement demanding the ‘regularisation’ of the plot of land in Tawang and allowing the construction of the church there in the middle of last month. But since the state government did not accede to its illegal demand, the ACF has now given a 'march to Tawang' call to Christians.

The ACF has appealed to Christians to heed its Tawang jao, church banao (march to Tawang on September 9 to construct the church). It has warned the state authorities against stopping Christians from flocking to Tawang and forcibly taking up the construction of the church. It has also warned the state government that it will be responsible for any unrest during the march.

This call has, naturally, inflamed passions in Tawang with the Monpas vowing to resist any forceful and illegal action by the ACF and Christians. “We will lay down our lives if need be to stop this illegality. How can anyone illegally occupy a plot of land and then demand its legal possession? And why should a huge church be constructed in Tawang? This is part of a grand design to lure our people to Christianity and that cannot be allowed,” said Tshering.

But the ACF appears determined to go ahead.

Arunachal Pradesh was off-limits to Christian missionaries till Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister in 1984. It was only then that the Prime Minister forced the state government to overturn the policy of keeping Christian missionaries away from the state.

Conversions to Christianity went up exponentially since then and peaked when the UPA, headed by Sonia Gandhi, came to power in 2004.

For more on how Arunachal Pradesh has been overrun by Christian soul harvesters, read: Arunachal’s tribal culture fades as fervent proselytisation fuels Christianity

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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