The Christian zeal to convert and a lack of proper administrative protections for the local people over centuries has meant that proselytisation has been hard to stop.
John Allen Chau, who was killed by the protected Sentinelese tribals on 17 November this year when he had gone to the North Sentinel Island to preach Christianity, was not the first Christian to be driven by the zeal to harvest souls in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The proselytising attempts started centuries ago, and have been met with mixed success.
The earliest attempts at proselytising in the Nicobar islands, primarily Car Nicobar, was made by French Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century, but they failed due to the hostility of the tribes, the adverse climate, and lack of amenities. Christian zealots from the Moravian Church made more determined attempts in the eighteenth century, but they, too, failed and 24 of them lost their lives. A Roman Catholic missionary made a third attempt in the early nineteenth century, but was unsuccessful. Next to try were the Danes a couple of decades later.
Ultimately, when the British took possession of the islands in 1869, proselytisers belonging to the Church of England finally succeeded in forcing the Nicobarese to convert. The British facilitated the entry of the Christian proselytisers to the islands and, according to accounts, provided armed guards to the proselytisers, who ventured into the islands inhabited by the tribes. They started with the Nicobarese, who they rounded up at gunpoint and forced to attend Bible lessons and, ultimately, convert.
According to the book Sons Of The Light: The Story of Car Nicobar, written in 1962 by Reverend M D Srinivasan, a Christian proselytiser who was based in Port Blair, the conversions of the Nicobarese to Christianity took off in a big way after a Tamil convert to Christianity, V Solomon Thumbuswamy, landed in Port Blair in late 1895. After the British established a penal colony in the Andamans, British officials posted there had set up an orphanage for aboriginal boys in 1885. Solomon was entrusted with the task of running this orphanage when he landed in Port Blair, and it was then that he started harvesting souls in a big way.
Bishop John Richardson Hacherka, one of the first Nicobarese converts to Christianity, is perhaps unwittingly quoted in the book as saying: “He (Solomon) used to accompany the (British) Superintendent of the (Port Blair) Settlement on his annual tour for the purpose of collecting (aboriginal) boys from the Nicobar (islands) for his school at Port Blair. As a result of this, parents hid their young boys in the jungle as soon as they detected the smoke of a steamer on the horizon. I was one of those boys. The villages would be emptied of young boys, and only adults would be left behind to look after the huts. As no younger boys could be found, some older lads were seized against their will and taken to Port Blair. After a few years, they were brought back with a few pidgin English phrases they had learned by heart and of which they were proud. These Car Nicobarese boys felt their exile; some of them tried to escape in an open boat and were all lost in the sea. To avoid such an occurrence again,. Solomon was sent to open a school at Car Nicobar. A bungalow and a small school were built for him. He collected his old boys and conducted prayers on Sundays. By force he collected twelve young boys of school age, of whom I was one”. Here is a Bishop, no less, recounting how the proselytisers forced Christianity down their throats!
Solomon, backed fully by the British administration and the Bishops and others of the Anglican Church in Calcutta and the Serampore Mission, went about forcibly converting the Nicobarese with, as is said, ‘missionary zeal’. The reason the proselytisers found it easy to convert the Nicobarese was, as Srinivasan says in his book, these aborigines were “of mild disposition”, “easy to manage”, and “gentle”. The other tribes, namely the Great Andamanese (of Strait Island), the Jarawas (of South and Middle Andamans), the Onges (Little Andaman), the Sentinelese (of Sentinel Island), and Shompens (of Great Nicobar), were hostile towards outsiders.
After Solomon abducted the young John Richardson (not his original name) and other Nicobarese boys and thoroughly indoctrinated them, the evangelists hit upon a sinister plan to convert more aborigines. The plan was put in place by the Bishop of Rangoon, who took away a few boys and two girls (including Richardson) from Solomon’s schools to Rangoon to groom them into becoming priests. These Nicobarese priests, reckoned the British evangelists, would be able to convert more of their own people and with greater ease to Christianity. The plan ultimately succeeded.
Richardson returned to his island home in 1912 and began to teach and preach. He was ordained as a priest in 1934 and, in January 1950, was consecrated as a Bishop. Richardson converted nearly all the Nicobarese to Christianity. He was also nominated by the president to represent Andaman and Nicobar in Parliament in 1952; he took full advantage of this chance to evangelise more and more people, not just the aborigines, but also other settlers, in the archipelago. After all, a member of Parliament was a larger-than-life personality to the aborigines and the poor people there, and could easily get the pliant administration to do his bidding, which, in his case, was to facilitate conversions.
But the Christian evangelists did not post much success in the Andamans initially. Srinivasan, in his book, writes that after an Anglican chaplain was taken prisoner by Japanese invaders from Port Blair in 1942, there was no preacher there till he reached there in 1955. Interestingly, he writes about the rivalry between the different Christian denominations: “For a period of nearly thirteen years there had been no organised parish life….During this time, in the absence of a resident priest, sects like the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals tried their best to lead our people astray. Nor was the Roman Church far behind in making use of the situation to their advantage”. But despite their best efforts, the proselytisers have not been able to convert all the aborigines of the archipelago to Christianity.
Of the estimated 4.27 lakh people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 21.28 per cent are Christians and a majority (69.45 per cent) are Hindus. Muslims constitute about 8.52 per cent of the population while Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and the animists (the aborigines) make for the rest. But of the nearly 40,000 people staying in the Nicobar group of islands, more than 72 per cent are Christians while only 23.56 per cent are Hindus (mostly migrants from the mainland and Burma). Almost 96 per cent of the Nicobarese are Christians. But the Christian proselytisers have had zero success with the Onges and the Sentinelese, and limited success with the Shompens, Jarawas, and Great Andamanese. And, thus, the determined efforts to convert them. John Allen Chau was just one among the Christian zealots driven by the blind fervour to proselytise.
This fervour is reflected in the literature of hardcore evangelist groups like the Joshua Project. This group lists the Sentinelese as a small group that “needs to know that Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins”. The site then lists two ‘Prayer Points’: (a) Pray that the Indian Government will allow Christians to earn the trust of the Sentinelese people, and that they will be permitted to live among them; (b) Pray that God will open doors to Sentinelese people to receive the gospel message.
The Joshua Project also has a similar listing for Onges that says: “The primary need of Onge people is to understand that Jesus Christ gave His life to pay the full penalty for their sins.” Among the ‘prayer points’ for the Onges are: “Pray that instead of alcohol and drugs the Onge will turn to Jesus Christ; Pray that they will not look to festivals for protection but to Jesus Christ; and pray for broken intercessors who will kneel before heaven's throne as long as it takes.”
Of the 400-odd Jarawas, just about 0.5 per cent have been lured into Christianity with material goods and cash doles. Joshua Projects’s prayer points for them include: “We must pray for broken disciples who will do whatever it takes to reach Jarawa people, and humbly earn their confidence to speak God's love and truth to them; pray that God's Holy Spirit will send dreams, visions, or whatever will communicate best to these dear people about their Creator God.” Just two of the 200-odd Shompens have been enticed into Christianity, and the Joshua Project, while stating that the Shompens need medical help and a stable food supply, emphasises: “Most of all, the Shom Pen need to hear of God's love in Christ in a way they can understand”.
The Joshua Project speaks similarly of the Great Andamanese, but posts good progress on evangelising the Nicobarese. The Joshua Project seeks ‘pioneer workers’ – like John Allen Chau – for “spreading the Gospel” (read: proselytising) the aborigines of the archipelago.
Interestingly, the Joshua Project lists in detail the ethnic composition of the entire population of the archipelago and the progress of evangelisation with regard to each on a five-point scale, the red dot being zero progress, to the dark green one being 100 per cent progress (that is, cent per cent success in proselytising). Among the communities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where evangelisation has been a moderate to good success are the Tamils, Bodos, Cherumars (Malayalee), Garos, Goans, Gurungs, Han Chinese, Karens, Kharias, Khasis, Maltos (Santhals), Mechs, Mundas, Oraons, Rabhas, Rais, Saora (Odiya tribe), Sherpas, and Singphos.
Another body actively engaged in evangelising is Finishing The Task (FTT), which describes itself as “an association of mission agencies and churches who want to see reproducing churches planted among every people group in the world”. The FTT says: “Jesus gave us the task of making disciples of all nations, and we know that eventually there will be people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation around his throne. Yet right now there are still over 7,073 unreached people groups in the world. Even more astonishing, there are 963 people groups who are not only unreached, but no one is even trying to reach them. Mission strategists call them ‘unengaged’. After 2,000 years, it should be unthinkable to us as the church of Jesus Christ that there would be any unengaged people groups left in the world.”
The FTT lists 12 ethnic ‘Unengaged Unreached Peoples Groups’ (UUPG) in India, and the Onges and Sentinelese figure among them. Ethnic groups that “have no known full-time workers involved in evangelism and church planting” are denoted as UUPG, and Christian churches and congregations are urged to donate and volunteer in the task of proselytising these groups. The other ethnic groups that figure in the UUPG list are the Aitons (of Assam, who follow Buddhism), the Barmis (migrants from Myanmar, who are also Buddhists), Baruas (Bengali), Bilaspuris (of Himachal Pradesh), Jalkeots (of Assam), Kumar Kshatriyas (Kannada), Morans, Serdukpens, Takaris (Telugu), and Zakhrins.
The Indian Christian Fellowship (ICF) is another group active in evangelising the aborigines of the archipelago. It describes itself as “an island ministry established to reach out to the thousands of unreached islanders in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands of India, with the glorious gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. The ICF was started in 1988 by one reverend Varughese Mathew “according to the vision given to him by our Lord, to save the neglected people and plant local churches in all 546 villages of the scattered islands”. The ICF website lists the progress made by Mathew, who has good contacts with Christian proselytising missions in Western countries and received funds from them (read this). It states: “Many of the Islands are totally unreached with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Before the second coming of our Lord, Rev. Varughese Mathew and ICF are attempting to reach all the 546 villages in these scattered Islands using all possible means”.
Note the “using all possible means” section of the statement of intent.
The Andaman Vision, a Chennai-based evangelical group, is yet another Christian evangelical group that solicits donations and volunteers from around the world to spread Christianity in the archipelago. Then, there are Twitter accounts and a Facebook page that provides information on the progress of evangelisation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and channelises donations that go towards proselytisation.
According to the administrators of the archipelago, the Christian missionaries spend huge sums of money for evangelisation. “Allen Chau (the American who was killed by the Sentinelese) gave Rs 25,000 to the fishermen to take him to that island. So one can well imagine the huge resources they have. Most of the money comes from other countries, and it is easy for the missionaries to lure the poor and needy into Christianity by giving them cash and materials. It is a very organised racket,” said a senior officer of the local administration.
The zealous missionaries often ruffle feathers with their aggressive preachings that abuse and belittle other faiths, and this often brings them into conflict with others. “We receive many complaints from people about Christian preachers abusing other faiths. Many warnings have been issued and cases registered, but they pay no heed. They have powerful backers in New Delhi and earlier (before 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP came to power), we had standing instructions not to disturb the Christian missionaries and, in fact, help them in reaching out to the aboriginal tribes like the Onges and Jarawas,” the senior officer, who did not want to be named for obvious reasons, said. There were a lot of conversions to Christianity during the 2004-2014 period, he said.
Instructions were also given to officials not to be strict with foreigners visiting the archipelago. That is why John Allen Chau, who came to India on a tourist visa, could move with such ease in the archipelago and did not even bother to register with the foreigners’ registration office there. “We know of many Western and South Korean missionaries who visit this place multiple times and sail to the islands where they are not supposed to go. But we have instructions not to disturb them and not to even question them. Such (unofficial, mostly verbal) instructions were issued sometime in 2005, but have not been expressly reversed,” the officer said.
But the present BJP-led government in New Delhi also appears to have made it easier for the proselytisers by removing the Restricted Areas Permit (RAP) requirement for foreigners to visit 29 islands, including the North Sentinel Island, where John Allen Chau had ventured. The restrictions were removed in the name of promoting tourism, but it evoked howls of protests. Administrators of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands say that the ill-advised move will surely pave the way for Christian missionaries, including foreign proselytisers, to set foot on these islands and entice the aborigines and other poor people living there to Christianity through fraudulent means.
The last word here is that, unfortunately, given the administrative apathy and the zeal of the Christian proselytisers, it seems only a matter of time before the goal of bodies like the ICF and FTT – making the Andaman and Nicobar Islands “an archipelago of Christ” – comes true.