Ethnic Identity and Christianity

Published on September 5, 2008

Ethnic Identity and Christianity

By Jangkholam Haokip

Ethnic Identity and Christianity: A call for fresh theological reflection

Sometimes seen as a post-colonial phenomenon, ethnic identity and movement for its assertion has become a global issue. The twentieth century decolonization process was the process of ethnic identity construction and assertion for rights and equality at the same time. The ironic result is that the newly formed nations often turn out to be merely a replacement of their colonial rulers.

Jangkholam at the conference

Christianity, directly or indirectly the fruit of colonial administration in such a situation often becomes vulnerable to the manipulation of ethnically exclusive ideologies without being a transcending faith. This paper attempts to discuss the ethnic identity issues and the use of religion in the context of the tribal[1] people of Northeast India.

The World’s largest democratic nation just celebrated with pride its 61st anniversary on 15 August as one of the fastest growing economy in the world. However, sadly, the projection of the nation as ‘fast developing’ hides from view the dreadful life situation in the periphery, the tribal people in Northeast India in particular.

The region designated as ‘Northeast India’ lies between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the south and China and Tibet in the north. It lies approximately Lat. N.20° to 29° and long.90° to 89° E. With Sikkim, the entire area covers more than 254,994 square kilometres which is 8.06 percent of India’s total landmass and it is joined with the rest of India through a corridor of land between the north of Bangladesh and Tibet. There are eight states: Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Sikkim and the population is estimated to be 3.73 percent of the total population of India.

Traditionally, Northeast India was a home to the numerous indigenous tribal people who have possibly migrated to this region during the last three or four thousand years with their own cultures ranging from matrilineal to the patriarchal, and political structures from elected village headmen to powerful hereditary chieftainship.[2] These cultures underwent drastic changes with a heavy price to pay in a recent past.

The sanskritization[3] process that originated from north India reached the region and was continued until the political change was brought about by the British administration in the 1820s. As the result, the people in the plain areas of Assam and Manipur, for instance, were sanskritized and remain Hindus even today.  Added to that was another drastic change which came along with the British administration.

By signing a Treaty with the Burmese in 1826, the British administration for the first time brought the region under one administration with India[4] and the occupation of Assam was completed by 1840.[5] A radical change through this merger was the shifting of administration from local control to an area outside the region, making the region an isolated ‘frontier’ when viewed from the ruler’s point of view. This change was the beginning of the region’s dependency on others for their own administration and well being.

The merger also opened the floodgate of immigrants leading to an immense demographic change in the region which continues until the present day. The worst case is the state of Tripura where the immigrants turned the indigenous Tripuris into a minority and politically marginal group. Seeing the vulnerability of tribal cultural identity in the face of change, the British administration opted for a segregation polity.[6]

The administration decided to introduce an “inner line” policy for areas like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram[7] and restricted free movement of non-residents, excepting the Christian missionaries who were allowed freedom for their works. The system thus restricted the sanskritization process to the tribal people and encouraged the work of Christianity among them. In attempting to safeguard the tribal culture by introducing this system and Christianity the tribal people were further isolated from other communities.

Since independence, India further marginalized the people under its hierarchical social structure and systems.  The Indian Constitution inaugurated on 26 January 1950, categorized the varied ethnic groups in the region as ‘Schedule Tribes’. The term ‘Tribe’ or ‘Tribal’ in Hindi is adivasi (Adi-first, vasi-people), meaning original inhabitants, to signify their presence in the area before the Aryan invasion around 1500. The purpose of categorizing the whole varied people groups under one banner was to help address their issues and to facilitate national integration with constitutional provisions.

Although the provisions appear to be considerate and sensitive, the approach and method adopted for the development of the people have often been found otherwise as it is grounded in a religion-based caste system. The Manusmriti, a Hindu holy legal code, outlined the social hierarchical order governing the Hindu society into four castes called varnas: the Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. They were theologically explained by the Hindu Scriptures, the Vedas and are codified and legalized by Manu, the Hindu law giver and effectively justify the oppression of the so-called outcaste Dalits and tribals.[8]  

This is well observed by scholars outside the country. Furer-Haimendorf, for instance, writes, ‘unless the intellectually leading sections of the Indian population develop a spirit of cultural tolerance and an appreciation for tribal values, even the most elaborate schemes for the economic improvement of tribal populations are likely to prove abortive.’ [9] 

The marginalization of the region is also reflected in the management of the region’s resources.  The region is rich in mineral resources, including petroleum, natural gas and coal. However, the tribal people benefit little from these rich resources, because the region becomes only a supplier of raw materials for the wellbeing of those outside the region. Commenting on the situation Guha writes, ‘All in all, Assam was an “internal colony”, supplying cheap raw materials for metropolitan India to process and profit from.’[10] And for this reason, some argue that the present ethno-national movements in the region are due to the demographic change and economic exploitation.[11]

One powerful threat to ethnic groups of Northeast India comes from the Hindutva movement from ‘mainland’ India. The ideology emerged in the early 1920s emphasizes an Indian nationality based on ‘Hindu-ness’, or ‘Hindu characteristic’[12] By Hindutva Savarkar referred to ‘a way of life and a state of mind that is based on the cultural systems that evolved from India’[13] The ideology was popularized in the late 1980s and is represented and promoted by organizations such as: The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), National Volunteers Association started in 1925, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), World Hindu Council, started in 1964 as an activist wing with the aim to protect the Hindu culture and tradition, the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP), Indian Peoples Party, a Parliamentary front started in 1979.[14]

The clear impact of the ideology can be seen as Lobo highlights: ‘the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 1990 anti-reservation riots against the Mandal commission, the 1992 riots that followed Babri Masjid demolition and atrocities against the Christians since 1998’ which according to him is the Brahminic communal nationalism warring against the lower castes and minorities.[15]  The truth is that Dalits and Tribals are the products of the Hindu religion-based Caste system and therefore promoting an identity which is based on that religion, for the Dalits and Tribals, is working against their own dignity and existence as equal citizens with their fellow Indians.

For this reason Gine is absolutely right when he argues that the Indian tribals are a deceived community.[16] In the same light, Arvind Sarma argues that Hindutva is a movement of the privileged group of people favored by the Hindu social structure to transform the nation as a unified Hindu state such as has not existed before at the expense of the minority cultures.[17] 

The people of Northeast India, one way or the other, and despite their religious identity, whether Hinduism or Christianity, resisted the new and alien social structure and administration being imposed on them at the time of Independence and thereafter continue to search for alternative.

The Nagas started their resistance movement from Indian Independence in 1947 with a result yet to be seen. Then the Mizo National Movement for self-determination emerged in the 1970s but ended with the creation of the present Mizoram state in 1980s.[18] Later, similar movements for protection of identity, land and culture emerged in different parts of the region and thus every decade sees new movements emerging. According to the South Asia Intelligence Review, there are 115 armed rebel groups in northeast India and Manipur tops the list with 39 organizations, while the next state, Assam, has 36 groups.[19]

That makes no state free from an armed movement including Mizoram, often described as the most peaceful state. Most of these movements are ethnic-based, inter-crossing state boundaries and committed also to ethnic identity construction. While movements from Assam and Manipur valley are Hindu-based, others such as the Nagas, the Khasis and the Kukis are Christian by religion.

The dynamic and complexity of these Christianity-based movements is of interest. Christianity being the religion of the people it rightly or wrongly becomes the foundation and guiding principle for the movements. The objective of the bygone Mizo National Front includes, for instance, to serve the highest sovereignty and to unite all the Mizo under one political boundary, to improve and develop the Mizo condition and to maintain and defend Christianity.[20]

The socio-political and religious movements are indistinguishably connected as they (MNF) alleged; ‘the Indian officials chose to pay their visits to Mizoram exclusively on Sundays, thereby imposing much Sunday work and official business and making it impossible for Mizo Christians to observe the Lord’s Day… The Mizo people did not want to be ruled by and assimilated to “idol worshipers” [the Hindus]’.[21]

The appropriation of Christian faith in the search for alternative in the region can be seen further in the Naga movement. The movement was formed in 1946 under the name, ‘The National Council’ and later it led to the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland under Th. Muivah and Isaac Swu (NSCN-IM) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland under Khaplang (NSCN-K). A brief mention of NSCN-IM will give a clear picture of the issue under discussion.

On April 6, 1996, the NSCN (I-M), possibly the most powerful movement in the region at present, amended its manifesto to constitute Nagalim into an ‘Independent Sovereign Christian Socialist Democratic Republic.’[22] The principle of NSCN is ‘Nagalim belongs to the Nagas’ that is, a movement for a greater Nagaland which includes some parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur where Nagas live. The word, Lim in Ao-Naga means land. Besides crossing a boundary, the movement also crosses ethno-cultural boundaries.

The basis of the movement is a religious one, that is, ‘Christianity’. The conviction is that God alone can save the Nagas and hence the theme of the movement is ‘Nagaland for Christ’. Armed struggle is justified in the movement manifesto as follows, ‘We stand for the faith in God and the salvation of mankind in Jesus, the Christ alone, that is ‘NAGALAND FOR CHRIST’, yet this evangelical aim is wedded to a militant policy as spelt out clearly: ‘We rule out the illusion of saving Nagalim through peaceful means. It is arms and arms again that will save our nation and ensures freedom to the people.’[23] Added to this is religious superiority complex that missionizes the socio-political movement for ethnic identity. The manifesto of NSCN reads:

God wants us right now to stand for him. Now is the time to hold firm our ground with Christ and face the stick and carrot policy and of Christ are called for to make our country for Him and for Him alone…. Come for Christ, come for the Nagalim’s freedom. We are here and you will find us here always. Or you go for India and Burma and their goddesses. There is no third way, because “he who is not with me is against me and he who does not gather with me scatters.”[24]

The Nagalim ideology is a movement for greater Nagaland and so Naga came into conflict with the neighbouring states of Nagaland and various ethnic groups within them. Including Assam and Arunachal, Manipur, possibly the worst affected by the ideology, resisted the greater Nagaland movement with a great loss of lives and property including the State Assembly which was vandalized in protest by the movement in the year 2001.

The movement also led to a severe ethnic clash between the Nagas and Kukis, both Christians, living under the proposed greater Nagaland areas within Manipur with a heavy loss of lives.[25] In addition, the ethnic feeling spread to the neighbouring states in a similar manner so that in the year 1997, a quit notice was served to the Kukis of Nagaland.[26] The Kukis, in a similar way, started their political movement in the 1980s with a prayer for a land of their own so that they can serve God in security and peace.

A disturbing irony here is that by basing their identity on religion and then employing this as the justification for an ethnically exclusive state, this movement adopted an ideology and policy remarkably similar to the one advancing from ‘mainland’ India it sought to oppose. In one case the religion was Hinduism, in the other, Christianity. Such naive religio-political movement also blurs the vision of the religion itself, namely Christianity.

This becomes more obscured when a Christian-based ethnic movement clashes with other ethnic groups who professed the same religion. In seeking for God’s help in their genuine struggle, they make God invisible and a voiceless silent spectacle.  It is precisely this use of Christianity to provide religious sanction for such movements was underlying the urgent need for a fresh theological reflection.

[1] The term ‘Tribal’, a name officially adopted by the Indian Constitution, has a negative meaning and therefore an alternate name is desirous. We used it temporarily in the absence of a better term that can be accpted by the people themselves.

[2] Fredrick S. Downs, History of Christianity in India. Vol. V. Part 5. North East India in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Bangalore: The Church History Association of India, 1992, p. 5

[3] By sankritization we mean the process in which non-Hindu indigenous people were converted to Hinduism.

[4] Philip Woodruff, The Men Who Ruled India. Vol. II. The Guardians (London: Jonathan Cape, Ltd., 1971 [Reprint]), p. 119.

[5] Sajal Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict: Nationality Question in North-East India (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1990), p. 31.

[6] Singh, The Problem of Change, p. 18.

[7] Singh, The Problem of Change, pp. 19-20.

[8] See, Joseph D’souza, Dalit Freedom: Now and Forever. The Epic Struggle for Dalit Emancipation. Forwarded by Kancha Ilaiah and Udit Raj, tow of India’s major Dalit leaders (Centennial, USA: Dalit Freedom Network, 2006), p. 33.

[9] Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 322.

[10] Guha, India After Gandhi, p. 555

[11] For instance see, Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, p.  161 and Guha, India After Gandhi, p. 555

[12] Sebastian C.H. Kim, In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 63.

[14] For details, see Lancy Lobo, Globalization, Hindu Nationalism and Christians in India (New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2002), pp.60-74.

[15] Lobo, Globalization, Hindu Nationalism and Christians in India, p.72.

[16] Pratap Chandra Gine, ‘Doing Tribal Theology in North East Asia: A Retrospect and Prospect’ in The Journal of Theologies and Cultures in Asia, Vol.1.February 2002, p.20.

[17] For further discussion see, Shrinivas Tilak, ‘Hindutva – the Indian Secularists’ Metaphor for Illness and Perversion’ in Arvind Sharma (ed), Hinduism and Secularism After Ayodhya (New York: Palgrave Publishers Ltd, 2001), pp.123-134.

[18] Initially, the Mizo National Movement was a movement for integration for all the Kuki-Chin groups including those in the present day Manipur.

[19] The South Asia Intelligence Review: Weekly Assessment and briefing Assessed on August 6, 2008.

[20] Tlangchhuaka, quoted in The Presbyterian Church of Mizoram: The Testimony of a Self-supporting, Self-governing and Self-propagating Church (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1989), p. 39.

[21] The Presbyterian Church of Mizoram: The Testimony of a Self-supporting, Self-governing and Self-propagating Church (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1989), p. 39.

[22] ‘Preamble’ of NSCN Assessed on August 6, 2008

[23] See the Manifesto of the NSCN, ‘Manifesto: NAGALIM AND THE NATIONAL SOCIALIST COUNCIL’, Accessed August 6, 2008.

[24] See the Manifesto of the NSCN ‘Manifesto: NAGALIM AND THE EFFETE INDIAN AND BURMESE CULTURES AND THEIR FAITHS’ Assessed on August 6, 2008

[25] The worst phase of the ethnic clashes was between 1992 and 1997. PS Haokip has listed the names of Kukis killed during these clashes as 472 and numbers of villages burned down were 154. See, P.S. Haokip, Zale’n-gam: The Land of the Kukis, First Edition. (np), Kuki National Organization, 1995, pp. 48 – 76.

[26] The Kukis are one of the indigenous tribes of Nagaland. They are also found in other states such as, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and including Myanmar (Burma). Unlike the Nagas, they do not have a  state of their own. Their movement is for the political recognition of their ancestors’ land that consist of part of Manipur and part of Myanmar.

Note: This paper was presented at the Ecumenical International Conference on “Human Identity and the Gospel of Reconciliation”  at Balatonfüred, Hungary from August 16-23, 2008.

The author, former Registrar of Union Biblical Seminary, is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the International Christian College, Glasgow, United Kingdom.

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