Arunachal Diaries – 8

That was perhaps obvious of any organised religion. Following on…

Father Tommy was a very cordial, suave old uncle-type person. He initially appeared reluctant to give us an audience, agreed only when we approached him via one of his regular Church-attendees who was incidentally our student. He still seemed confused though as he could not gather why random people from far away Pune would want to talk to him. It could either be about Christianity or about Arunachal. Pune, you see, has a very notorious image outside and people coming herefrom are generally presumed to be of persuasion of some shade of right. This kind of suspicion follows by default and I have experienced it more than a few times in Delhi. Getting the Father to agree to talk was itself a difficult thing. But the challenge was to break the ice on good terms. More importantly, he mustn’t be allowed to treat us as ignorant beings and send us off by selling a stump speech as answer to any question – that would be a fruitless exercise with no new information or perspective added. We started with some seriously important questions on theology and social angle (from immanence of god to the use of contraceptives and his position on divorce) – aim being to persuade him of our noble intentions and also to set the level of talks. He slowly came around to believe in our sincerity. From Church in general we shifted gears to Arunachal later, the topic of our interest.

Our main concern was to understand contradiction between Catholic and tribal way of life. Catholics don’t like drinking and the tribals in Arunachal welcome everyone with apong (or raksi if you are in the influence zone of Nepal/Tibet) – may it be a random guest to their home or a child in the world – its a culturally-socially-ecologically sanctioned drink with some alcohol content – locally made. Catholics vehemently denounce the practice of polygamy and most certainly that of polyandry. Here in Arunachal, the picture is of rather free and loose relations – heterodoxy if one can call it so. How could he make the ethical-moral teachings of his faith palatable to such people and still attract them to the Sunday mass? Creating a community of faithful, I wonder, must be a daunting task.

He seems to have not worried much about these things. For him, the strategy was slow inculcation, step by step introduction of non-believers into the fold. It’s not easy to change the world-view in short time, he said. One has to be patient. And social change is the slowest of all. How can that be held against possibl religious change? I found his answer to be very true. Criminalising untouchability by Constitution does not make it disappear overnight. It takes time. The appraoch is peacemeal. Similarly, the introduction of Christianity can’t make sudden upheavel in their lives.

He then invited us to witness Sunday mass the next day. We were told that the mass is held three times – once in English, then in Hindi and at last in Nyishi – the language of locally dominant tribe. I remember that in the US when I was attending the alpha course on the bible at a semi-country parish-kind of place, there were many Chinese in our locality attending the meetings and for them all the instructions were issues in Mandarin in parallel. Its universally accepted trght that language is not only a medium of communication, but a whole culture in itself.

His said the main concern of the Church is service to the people and education is deemed as an efficient tool for moral upliftment. They have opened many churches and schools/colleges in last two and a half decades. Before that, Churches were forbidden from Arunachal. So, many churches sprang up in Assam dotting the border just across Arunachal, back in 1970s and 80s. The prospective and bright students would be sent to Shillong, the main NE centre with many convent establishments since the colonial times. This picture changed after 1990. In fact, the Church of Nyokom Lapang we were visiting was the first Catholic Church in Arunachal. Now more than a hundred Churches dot the region of around 30 km from Bandardeva-Lekhi-Naharlagun-Itanagar – the capital complex. This is obviously because of inter-denominational competition – may it be American Bapstistss or Lutherean or evangelical Pentacostals – each one trying to earn religious merit by winning more converts. So much so that they try to poach each other’s followers for which allegedly there is some material benefit. And the people too keep shifting from one Church to another for better luck… It’s difficult to ascertain the truth in such allegations but these are made by some people of other tribes regularly.

Father Tommy showing us his new project - a new school he was building - in the heart of the capital region. He then urged us to meet the Bishop once before leaving Arunachal.
Father Tommy showing us his new project – a new school he was building – in the heart of the capital region. He then urged us to meet the Bishop once before leaving Arunachal.

Not all the Christian education institutions are operated by the Church. There are wider philanthropic organisations within the whole netwrok like Don Bosco which run many schools/colleges. Unlike their counterparts in Maharashtra however, most of these schools are neither good enough nor reputed for their quality. Even suchlike dedicated people find it difficult to harness a talent in this remote and difficult region. (lets not think of the government services then) Nurturing educational institutions requires long, hard and patient leadership. It seems to be a common theme amongst the more analytical of locals to compare the output of students graduating from RK Mission School (Narottam Nagar/Alo) or VKV schools (Itanagar/Pasighat) with that of Don Bosco and other missionary schools – even the teachers from government colleges engage in this exercise to prove their point. And that point being that though VKV/RKM are relatively less endowed – their students are brighter and make better of their careers.

Not all fathers are probably equally dedicated. Some consider education as means to de-culturise the generation-next while some come across as sincere social workers. Our Father Tommy seems to have belonged to the second category. The college he conceptualised, started and groomed in his previous tenure at Ziro – Saint Claret College – of which he was the dean for many years also – has won all round praise for its quality delivery, even by the RSS people. (We will discuss the education sector in a separate article soon)

As the education sector first started in Pasighat – the region occupied by Adi tribe – these people got an advantage of early starter – by a generation or so. VKV was the first and thus today Adis are less affected by the conversion. And these people are in the various government posts and professional jobs. Nyishi people however, residing in the central part were benefited most by the missionary schools as their area was first opened to the Churches about little less than three decades ago. Today, most of the Nyishis are Christians. Nyishi tribe is also more populous and boasts of controlling the region around the newly settled capital – Itanagar. These people thus control the state politics to a large extent. The incumbent Congress CM – Nabam Tuki – belongs to Nyishi tribe and is a regular attendee of the Church manned by Father Tommy. One bench in the hall was carrying his name as a donor. There were a few names of other MLAs too. Churches thus have a very important role to play in community formation and also act as conduit of political influence.

To the people who are steeped in social custom, religion does not matter much as community ties very strong. They don’t care much about religious sanctions. Father does carry a lot of moral weight but he too can’t be seemed unreasonable. Tobom, a girl belonging to Galo tribe from Upper Siang – said she is a Christian and a child of her father’s second wife – without any regret or inhibition. These things are common and not contradictory for them. It doesn’t matter which religion they belong to as long as they are all Galos. This feels strange. Any expansionary religion acquires the folk colours and becomes regionalized in due course of time – the same story is being repeated here. However, the real issues are not these. These are apparently irreconcilable contradiction between allegience to geographically bounded nation-state and world-religions demanding supra-national affiliations – the issue of primacy in short. To many people, this difference is the real basis of the problem. To a liberal opinion nowadays, such exclusive nationalist viewpoint is abhorrent and unnecessarily bellicose, creating rifts. To a typical nationalists, on the contrary, other affiliations must be secondary to the primary relationship with a nation. They seem to think that when the chips are down and the push comes to shove – by dictat of zero-sum game – one has to be chosen over another. And the right choice is not automatic – it has to be nourished in peacetime.

To be continued…

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