The Nagas & the Baptists

Print edition : August 19, 2016

Catholic Cathedral Kohima, Nagland, Asia's biggest hill station church. The book is more about Christianity than about the formation of a Naga political identity. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book discusses the role of the missionaries among the Nagas and argues that Christianity spread rapidly from the 1940s among them and became their window to modernity and new cultural aspirations.

THERE are very few scholars who venture out to engage critically with the subject of religion, particularly when it is entwined with nationalism, years of militancy and brutal state repression. Kudos to John Thomas for treading this difficult domain and coming out with an important work on evangelism among the Nagas in north-eastern India. The book is a refreshing look at Christianity, colonialism, cultural subjugation, emerging nationalism and people’s resistance. It marks a departure from the usual discourses, which look at the activities of Baptist missionaries either with unwavering admiration or with utter suspicion. What is, however, most endearing about the book is that it shows with evidence how the Baptist missionaries worked in tandem with not only the colonial state but also its legatee, the Indian state.

The book has been thematically divided into five chapters, which follow a narration that plots the events in a linear time frame. The narrative starts by detailing the initial encounter of the Nagas with Baptist missionaries. It recounts the mixed feelings the Nagas developed towards the new cosmology the missionaries offered, the active encouragement of the colonial officials in missionary endeavours and the change in the perception of the numerous converts from various Naga communities. The author shows how the pecuniary interests of the British, such as the establishment and expansion of tea gardens, led to the colonial administration’s decision to expand its territory in the hills. The author traces the origins of the activities of the American Baptist mission to its work among Native Americans.

He shows with incisive precision how Christianity came in handy for the expansionist ideology of the colonisers. The author describes how Native Americans who defied the expansionist colonial design were methodically massacred through armed canvassing. Many more got killed by diseases hitherto unknown to the region brought by the white settlers, which took the form of epidemics. The offensive of the white settlers was so severe that according to one estimate, by the 20th century a population that had probably been 12 million was reduced to just 2,37,000. Along with the physical annihilation of Native American tribes, regarded as one the worst genocides ever, the colonisers adopted a strategy of cultural annihilation, at the forefront of which was the Baptist mission, aided and abetted by the government. It passed laws declaring blasphemy a capital crime and the practice of local religion illegal.

As the evangelists became successful in their proselytising mission among Native Americans, they felt an urgent need to expand their activities to other countries and convert the other “heathen” races around the world. The series of religious revivals initiated in the aftermath of the American Revolution in response to the weakening grip of religion over people, known as the Second Great Awakening, also acted as a catalyst in the proselytising venture of the American Baptist missionary societies.

The author shows how Baptist missionaries started their work among different Naga groups from the mid 19th century, motivated by the zeal to “save” the souls of the “heathen”. Many missionary testimonials show how they were quick to spot the resemblance between Native Americans and the Nagas in terms of physical appearance and cultural practices. In fact, the modus operandi of the evangelists among the Nagas was strikingly similar to the one they used among Native Americans and included establishment of churches and mission schools; introduction of writing in the local languages; translation, printing and circulation of religious texts; provision of medical services; and training native converts in religious governance. The author shows with incisive insight the effect of the missionary intervention in the society and culture of the Nagas. Most importantly, the missionaries intruded into the existing Naga cosmology and changed it so that it was in sync with the monotheistic understanding of Christianity. The new religion created a Naga self that was “impure”, “dirty” and “uncivilised” and needed to be redeemed and civilised by the missionaries.

However, the evangelists did not meet with much success until Christianity became a hallmark of Naga nationalism. The book shows with data how the response of the Nagas towards evangelism was marked by indifference, if not hostility, for a long time. In fact, until the 1940s, conversion to Christianity was very low. According to him, the rapid spread of Christianity among Naga communities from the 1940s happened alongside the rising modern nationalist aspirations of the Nagas.

After setting the background for evangelism in the Naga Hills, the author goes on to depict two episodes of history that can be described as early attempts to forge unity among different Naga tribes and assert a singular political identity. These were the rebellion under the leadership of Haipou Jadonang and the submission of a memorandum by the Naga Club before the Simon Commission. While the formation of the Naga Club and political assertion under its aegis became an affair of much celebration in the narratives of Naga nationalism, the rebellion of Jadonang got dubbed as just the act of a maverick.

The author questions this bias and engages critically with the cosmological claims of the Heraka faith, which Jadonang founded, and with the rebellion he triggered with the aim of ushering in the Makam Gwangdi, or Naga Raj. The objective conditions for Naga dissent such as imposition of heavy taxes, forced labour, Kuki migration and the use of the colonial geopolitics have been discussed thoroughly. The demands of the Naga Club show the aspirations of the emerging middle class to get political recognition in the colonial dispensation of power.

The decades of the 1940s and the 1950s were marked by devastation, upheaval and tremendous changes in Naga society.

The author shows how the Second World War brought the Naga people untold misery and despair. With the Japanese invasion of Burma (now Myanmar), thousands of Indian refugees poured in through the Tamo-Moreh road towards Imphal and Dimapur. The flight of these people was perilous through hostile terrain and was mired in death, disease and starvation. As the route the refugees took was inhabited by the Nagas, they had to provide shelter and food to the starved, disease-stricken refugees. The author also recounts the atrocities the Japanese forces committed. The attitude of the Indian National Army was not very different, and there are accounts of rape, plunder and torture of hapless Naga villagers by these soldiers whose participation in the war had the exalted aim of freeing India from British imperialism. The missionaries and their years of work among the Nagas gave the allied forces an advantage as local support was crucial in that war. The experience of the war, however, made the Nagas realise their vulnerability.

When the British leaving India had become a formality and political activities to determine the modalities of the new political order gained momentum, the Naga middle class rose to ascertain the faith of the Naga people. Many of them came together, and the Naga National Council (NNC) was formed in 1946. At this crossroads of history, the NNC became the common platform where different Naga groups could voice their aspirations.

The author delineates the failed political negotiations and the NNC’s refusal to accept the autonomy provisions recommended by the subcommittee of the Constituent Assembly. It shows the apathy of national leaders with regard to negotiations with the NNC to reach a settlement on Naga aspirations. In 1951, the NNC conducted a plebiscite in which almost all the people voted for Naga sovereignty.

Initial resistance was marked by non-cooperation in the form of, among other things, students refusing to attend government schools, officials resigning en masse and village headmen refusing blankets given by the government. The government’s response, as the author shows, was marked by the use of extreme violence.

The NNC had no option but to go underground and wage an armed struggle. In the course of the protracted armed conflict, the Indian security forces committed umpteen human rights violations that included rape, torture, maiming for life, burning down of granaries and forced disappearances. The author has documented some of these ghastly incidents.

One of the principal arguments of the book is that Christianity spread rapidly from the 1940s as it became an integral part of the imagination of a distinct Naga nation. It became the window to modernity, reflecting the Nagas’ new sense of cultural aspirations. In fact, it was in the context of the Indian Army operations of the 1950s and the 1960s, accompanied by a dramatic rise in conversions, that the Nagaland Baptist Church Council initiated the “Nagaland for Christ” crusade, which was hugely successful. The revivals that spread across Naga areas in the 1950s seemed to provide spaces where people could take refuge from the prevailing situation of violence.

One of the major contributions of the book is to dispel the myth that missionaries played a role in fomenting separatism among the Nagas. According to the author, the simultaneous rise of Naga nationalism and increase in the number of conversions to Christianity led many “experts” to identify the missionaries as the cause of the growth of secessionist sentiments among the people of the Naga Hills. In fact, the author has shown that church leaders always took the side of the state and put moral pressure on the NNC to disarm and disband. He questions the peace efforts the churchmen initiated that culminated in the Shillong Accord and goes on to argue that the evangelists had created the ground for the penetration of the movement by Indian intelligence agencies.

Complicity of church leaders

The complicity of church leaders with the state is best exemplified by their silence in the matter of gross human rights violations by the security forces even when these involved religious institutions. There were numerous instances of the desecration of religious institutions. Churches were often used as detention camps and torture chambers. Pastors, deacons and church caretakers were regularly tortured. The book narrates the events following the Shillong Accord: the silence of the Naga leader Angami Zapu Phizo, the bewilderment of the cadre and the people, the internecine violence between pro-accord and anti-accord factions, and the creation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980.

It deals with how the NSCN appropriated Christianity as part of its organisational ideology by way of establishing a separate ministry for religious affairs. It undertook itinerant preaching tours and other evangelisation programmes among the Naga groups inhabiting eastern Nagaland, the area where the NSCN established its first base. According to its estimate, the NSCN won around 40,000 converts to Christianity in the control area by 1985. The book is, however, more about Christianity than about the formation of a Naga political identity and mentions almost nothing about the construction of a distinct Naga identity around an exonym. It accepts Naga nationalism quite uncritically as it was given and does not discuss the internal dynamics of the hegemonic process of nation-making. The book is silent on how diverse groups with different languages came together to accept Naga identity and form a unified front. The author accepts the given classification of the Naga people as “a collective of 40 to 60 tribes living between the Brahmaputra river in South Asia and the Chindwin river in South East Asia”. Although the author is critical of the standardisation of cosmology, language and ways of life, he does not feel it necessary to question the project of standardisation of “Naga ways of life” to validate Naga nationalism.

However, towards the end, the narrative gets marred by the ideological hue that he imports from one strand of ideology of one faction of the NSCN. He calls the coup of one group as being the result of machinations of the Indian intelligence agency. In a highly militarised zone such as north-eastern India, it is hardly possible to comment on which rebel group has what kind of relationship with state intelligence agencies. The situation is rather complex and requires a nuanced understanding rather than accepting the black-and-white narrative given by one faction of a rebel group.

Uddipan Dutta is a researcher based in Guwahati. He is at present associated with the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development.

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