Monday, November 17, 2014

The Gospel Journey in Arunachal Pradesh and Impediments

(This piece appeared in The Statesman, 17 November, 2014)

Notwithstanding immense hurdles to make headway in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, the sustained campaign seems to be paying in dividends to Christian missionaries in the state.

Nowhere else other than Arunachal Pradesh perhaps among the northeastern states, the Christianity has had a very tumultuous history. Compared to this state, Christian missionaries made easy and fairly smooth entry into states like Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram – where the local native tribes are known as valiant and at times even warmongers. 

But in Arunachal Pradesh, from the very beginning Christians had been facing ‘opposition’ and hardships from the locals as well as administration.
History book suggests Christian missionaries first landed in Arunachal way back in 1836 but the Khamti-British war in Sadiya and the locals’ ‘refusal’ to accept an alien religion (Christianity) made the story all different.

Mirbuk Church near Pasighat
Subsequently, the “seed of growth of Christianity” returned to Arunachal hills again only in 1954 when tribal Christian population from other states entered the then NEFA region.

But lately claims are being made in Christian quarters in the state that the missionary zeal for last six decades has paid in dividends and more and more people are coming forward to embrace the teachings of the Gospel.  
“There is good number of local Arunachalis now embracing Christianity. It has made significant entry among influential tribes like Adi and Nyishi and in geographical areas like Lower Subansiri, East Kameng, West Kameng Tirap and Changlang,” says Neelam Taram, a former Arunachal Pradesh Home Minister, who was arrested in 1970s for working for the church.

Neelam Taram with his wife
There are several reasons for the gradual increase in the followers of Christ. “One being the qualitative change in the society. With the advent of Christianity there has been marked change in the manner and behaviour of natives. People are staying away from vices like alcoholism and even polygamy,” says Taram. 

His views were endorsed by a young Mass Communication student in Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar; who says, “I converted to Christianity first as a young boy at the age of 12 and then I persuaded parents to embrace Christianity two years later in 2005”.

Topen Rimo maintains his father took to alcoholism in a serious way and, “My family was going haywire. My father used to beat my mother daily. Now thanks to Jesus teachings, we are a happy family”.
However, local non-Christians and various groups like Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh are trying to shield the spread of Christianity and to encourage locals to preserve their traditional rights and practices. 

Some say that even the RSS, the Sangh Parivar fountainhead that is championing the cause of Hindutva, is backing  local bodies (of non-Christians). But the local RSS leadership denies there being  any confrontation. 
“As an organisation, we are in no confrontation with local tribal groups nor do we try to influence their activities. People here are not only nationalists and peace-loving, but also show the  spirit of co-existence. 

In fact, all communities, native followers of the Donyi Polo religion, Protestant Christians, Catholic Christians, Buddhists and Hindus from other parts of India live together happily and participate in festivals like Durga Puja and Vishwakarma Puja,” says RSS pramukh in Itanagar, Pradip Joshi.

Therefore, perhaps it would not be erroneous to assert that away from the heat and dust of national controversies over conversion, converted Christians and native tribals practising traditional religions like Donyi Polo in Arunachal Pradesh are living in harmony and also “happily participate” in each other’s religious fests.
Blogger with RSS leader Pradip Joshi
The confrontation over the conversion-reconversion row is perhaps also attached to lifestyle and something basic, like eating habits. According to a local Christian educationist in Itanagar, “in food habits you would not find much of a difference between Christians and non-Christians in Arunachal Pradesh. Eating beef, for instance, is not much cherished even among Christians in the state,” he says. 

“Actually, a cow or bullock as an animal itself is ‘alien’ to Arunachal Pradesh and the natives. Can you believe, we don’t have a local Arunachali name for cow…”
However, protagonists of religious freedom like Neelam Taram are now on a campaign in the state demanding repeal of the controversial Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978. Under the Act, “no person shall be converted or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to other”.

Other states also have similar  anti-conversion laws. In 1967-68, Odhisa and Madhya Pradesh enacted the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 and the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968. These prohibit conversion from one religious faith to any other by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means and for matters connected therewith. 

But officials in Arunachal Pradesh say the Act is generally dormant. While there is a general debate nationwide that such laws actually “contravened” the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, another refrain is that the Act is not able to prevent people from renouncing their own indigenous religion and adopting a new religion. 

This is primarily because the clauses like ‘force’, ‘fraud’ and ‘inducement’ are just impossible to prove.
Nevertheless, one good thing about Arunachal Pradesh is that people are not into any oneupmaship game over the sensitive and touchy matter like religious faith. So despite conversion happening, a large number of people are also coming back to traditional religion”.
Either ways, conversion to Christianity or even ‘ghar wapsi (home coming)’ to own native religion of Donyi Polo, a religion of animism and semantic type faith, is essentially very cordial. 


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