Arunachal Diaries – 7

And here comes the topic of Religious conversion.

It’s a complex topic, with many layers. Personally speaking, I like to remain on the side of the constitution. Who doesn’t? But our constitution is a law on a higher plain. It certainly lays out principles but it also requires contextual interpretations, it’s not as black and white as it may appear. Secondly, there is a vast difference in what we read in national media and what happens on the ground. Attaching motives is easy. I am trying here to paint what I saw and heard. None of it is my own opinion – you may call it a partial perspective at best if you like.

(It’s better to have given such declarations nowadays where labelling someone is a common practice and discourse level is down to the level beneath common sense, muddied in rhetoric, with people having no patience in general)

We all have been hearing/reading about the North Eastern theatre, its importance to missionaries, its geostrategic importance in today’s world and the new Great Game. Ram Guha explained in his book how the Baptists wanted to carve out a separate nation out of it during 1947 negotiations. In the Great Game East, Bertil Lintner talks a lot about NE and its recent history – including China’s support to Naga separatists. GK Pillai, ex-secretary to the home ministry has explained in many articles and speeches about the relevance of conversion in the whole security architecture – he even said that the NSCN people take their cue about talks with the Indian government from the Church outside India. Indian national media is rather naive and apathetic to what all happens there but it’s not entirely their fault (more about it later). In short, in NE, the religion question is not only about individual freedom and community rights of local people – it’s steeped in international games and it can’t be denied. I also feel that it’s a best barometer of Indian Republic – its unity and integrity – as the Preamble deftly calls it.

With Father Tommy of the Church of Nyokom Lapang - the first Catholic Church in Arunachal opened 26 years ago.
With Father Tommy of the Church of Nyokom Lapang – the first Catholic Church in Arunachal opened 26 years ago.

Christianity in the originally almost-tribal NE is a very convoluted subject. Frankly I had my reservations before going there, had imagined some vague picture, some arbitrary idea. While some of it has washed away, and some streaks are strengthened by the field experience. To start with, NE is a huge region with each state having its specificity. And then there is a huge diversity within. Not all Arunachal is animism/totemism following tribal. And most of them are certainly not primitive.

In the west of it (and also at some places in the east of it) there is a Buddhist majority. These people follow Tibetan Buddhism. Tawang Monastery and the claim of China over “Lower Tibet” is a well know topic. The Monpas as they are called are very sweet and peaceful people. They are in Tawang and West Kameng districts. Ranjit and Nitin were in Bomdi La who experienced their culture. I noticed two monasteries in Itanagar – one was of Tibetan style whose foundation stone was laid by His Holiness Dalai Lama about a couple of decades ago. And other was of Hinayana people. It’s said that, like baniyas from Gujarat and Marawari sahukars, these people do such grocery business; indulge in small money-lending business all over. Their problems are different. They are not worried by conversion as their original religion itself is well evolved, institutionalised and strong. They are in more in contact with Guwahati than with Itanagar because of geographic reasons. They already have a world identity.

The conversion issue is with tribal communities. Not all are equally affected. There is inter-tribal power play as well. And there is also inter-denominational competition between the Christianity too. The Father we met was bent on denigrating the Anglicans as false religion to start with and he did it more than once. Probably, it’s a part of the Catholic faith to denounce Anglicans by denying any legitimacy. His name was Father Tommy. A Keralite from Kottayam. Kottayam is kind of Pune of Kerala with the tradition of culture. Kottayam dialect is assumed to be the standard Malyalam benchmark as is Bangalore/Mysore Kannada or Puneri Marathi. Naturally, these people tend to carry some kind of air of cultural superiority and derivative moral authority. Kottayam is also the strong fort of Christianity in Kerala and Kerala is a strong fort of Christianity in India. Many fathers in rest of India are from Kerala and so were many in Arunachal too.

Catholics have their own father-creating colleges called seminaries. These seminaries teach the students about divinity, bible, and history of Christianity, impart them organisational skills and people talking skills. In the end, the students receive a degree, duly authorised by the University in Serampore. There tens of such seminaries all across India, including one in Pune from where I come. It’s called Union Biblical Seminary. Most of the students here are from NE and some from Nepal and Bhutan as well. Anyway. The important thing is their course structure. The whole education goes on for around a decade, in which they are also taught more than basics of other religions. That’s a good thing. I can hardly imagine a Ved-Path-Shala in Pune teaching the disciples about Quran and Old Testament. But the Fathers produced from these seminars are well-equipped with a strong ‘purva-paksha’, well read and knowledgeable. They are transferrable anywhere in India or abroad under the organisaiton manned from Vatican. As India administration has revenue districts and police districts, the Vatican also has divided with world into regions and provinces. Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in India, we were told, to have 2 Archbishops. Most other states have only one. I can only presume it’s because of work load in the remote land.

To be continued…

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