Dharmshala is a bigger town than Macleodganj-Forsythganj. One thing that strikes you immediately about Dharmshala is the total absence of political hoardings in every square. Pune is utterly infamous for its flex culture pouring out it’s ugliness in the name of pomp and exhibiting insecurity of some people. Vanity of vanities, as the Bible says. It was therefore very pleasant to see cityscape clear of political hoardings.
We didn’t have much time there but one thing no one wanted to miss was the majestic Dharmshala cricket stadium. It overlooks the snow-clad Dhauladhar summits in the background. Really majestic yet sublime. I am not a cricket fan but those of you who are should come here once.
Because the Shimla side of Himachal is more known, the number of outsiders on the Kangra side is relatively less but yet sizeable. It’s all poised to change now. The present CM of Himachal has been holding winter sessions of the state assembly in Dharmshala for last many years and he recently announced it to be the second capital of the state. It’s supposed to be the master-stroke in the upcoming assembly elections there.
On the journey, we also got an opportunity to meet the manager of Palampur tea processing cooperative. He was a very well informed and also enthusiastic enough to talk to us. Kangra valley tea is somewhat different from the Darjeeling and Assam tea. The kind is different and so is the processing. The cooperative was loss making a few years ago and the government had to take over. Today the losses are minimised and it is working fine. There are some private factories around but overall area under tea cultivation is not large here, people prefer other traditional crops like rice over tea. The harvest season here is shorter compared to the eastern Himalayas, and thus smaller is the processing season. And the usual paradox of India – that labour is difficult to find in the country of 1.3 billion population – was true here too. Plucking season demand of labour is huge. I have never understood this paradox well. The whole tea processing that we witnessed is a simple drying and segregating process – but the weathering stage which is crucial in the whole scheme of things is the most energy and time consuming. Most of the final product is green tea and black tea, not the CTC type which Indians largely consume, and thus its largely exported. But not directly. They auction it at Kolkata Tea Board first.
There is a place nearby in adjoining Mandi district for commercial paragliding. It’s a good place if you are interested in some adventure. Although largely safe and simple, it does take some gumption to jump in the valley.
People here are involved in constructing homes and hotels everywhere – in the plains and on the slopes, in the corners and on the road side, near the markets and far away. There is some amount of prosperity here largely owing to tourism industry as the local economic activity is mostly very basic. SBI ATMs can be sighted everywhere. Noticing it gives you some kind of patriotic feeling, like the one when we locate Indian Post Office in random border town. There is a narrow-gauge train too, coming from Pathankot. It’s not as famous as Kalka Shimla one but there is some scope to improve the connectivity. The roads however are superb. One must salute the state government for that. Shimla side people find Chandigarh nearer and go there for marketing or for other needs. For Kangra and Chamba it’s Pathankot, not Chandigarh. There is one Himalayan Bioresource Technology Institie of CSIR there. We didn’t get time to go there and see what they do.
There are many small cantonments here, dotting the landscape. Many schools here are named after Vikram Batra (PVC) who belonged to this region. Kangra also has distinction of producing the first PVC of India – Captain Somnath Sharma. Like the neighboring Kumaun Himalayas, this region is also known for producing excellent jawans and many officers, known for their professionalism and valour.
That is all.. It was a short trip of two days. Final impression is that of the Himalayas. It’s lasting. It’s a beauty where serenity meets majesty and creates a magic. That magic keeps you calling back to Himalayas again. That magical feeling never goes away. That magic persists deep inside your heart. That magic of the Himalayas.
Tibetans are somewhat interesting stock of people. They are stereotyped as peace-loving, spiritually oriented, meek and straightforward people. And yes, they are also supposed to invoke sympathy if not pity because they have lost their homeland.
They are trying to survive in an alien country, with their population fragmented across different provinces while in their own country they are being systematically reduced to minority by immigrant Han Chinese population. They have struggled hard to gather support and keep the movement alive for over two generations now. And they also face many problems. Finance is the least of it.
They seem to have devised various ways of mobilising financial support. Many nations and many nationals seem to be providing the funds. Some unscrupulous elements from amongst the Tibetans also seem to have mastered the art of luring the impressionable people and monetising the gathered sympathy. Many have left India and settled in the developed world and send money from there or help their fellow brethren migrate there. Selling Tibetan art and culture is just another way. Finance is therefore not the major bottleneck it seems.
Major problems afflicting their movement are two – post Dalai Lama future and danger of keeping the Tibetan identity intact in the foreign land, esp when the population is fragmented.
Post Dalai Lama future is the imminent issue. Dalai Lama has carried the mantle of Tibetan cause for over half a century very artfully and with dignity. That he has not reached anywhere by and large is a different issue. And what after him? Panchen Lama, the second most revered Lama of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and the one who selects the boy reincarnating the Dalai Lama, has been abducted by the Chinese government during very young age. Suspicion is that he is kept in hiding somewhere and is being raised up as per the wishes of the Chinese state. When the time comes, he could very well select the future Dalai Lama from amongst the pro-Chinese Tibetan population from the region under tight grip of China. To obviate this possibility, the present Dalai Lama, the 14th one in the unbroken chain for over many centuries, has given indications that he might very well choose not to be reborn at all. There is another interesting possibility – of two Dalai Lamas, one pro China and other anti China. However, the government-in-exile already exists, pointing towards gradual separation of the political from the spiritual and thus some dilution in the authority of the office of Dalai Lama. No one can predict the future but everybody is seriously apprehensive. The day is not afar.
Tibetans are settled in various parts of India and there is also a huge expatriate community. It comes with a cost. They are finding it difficult to maintain their separate identity. Inter-racial marriages are not uncommon, their next generation is increasingly being raised up in non-Tibetan neighbourhoods. It’s a real struggle to maintain the cultural identity.
They seem to have done commendable job at Macleodganj nonetheless. There is a traditional way of teaching the Tibetan philosophy, traditional art forms of metal work, wood work and thang-ka paintings, as showcased at Norbulingka. They get lavish support from abroad. They have not stopped using Tibetan language for both official as well as mundane purposes yet. Hindi is used but not with acceptance. Social distance is tried to be maintained from the Indians wherever possible but economic interactions can’t be avoided. Many monasteries are built at regular distance with community support which provide focus to community identity as well as some cohesiveness. There are many camps dotting the whole landscape of Kangra valley from Dharmshala to Palampur. Lamas are generated at regular rate from upasaka families, keeping the balanced population.
But some strains are visible to a keen onlooker. I met some youth interested in finding out Katappa ne bahubali ko kyo maaraa and hotly discussing it, some girls listening to A R Rahman and even one random Lama cozying up with a runaway Tibetan girl in a secluded place in the valley. It’s difficult to remain in a land as interesting as India and not get affected by it. Many Tibetans regularly flock to Delhi, we were told, in the hope of getting a visa to the US. Not sure what’s the truth in it but wheels of modernisation and of human emotions are as ruthless as the relentlessly spinning wheel of dhamma.
I recently visited Macleodganj, the seat of the Tibetal government-in-exile, and the place where people generally go for smoking joint. It’s a calm place, a small sleepy town in the laps of Dhauladhar range of the mighty Himalayas, hustling with tourists.
Every visitor has a different purpose in mind – some want to see the famous monastery and listen to Dalai Lama, some are interested in adventure sports while others are there to enjoy Pahadi beauty. The market is full of Tibetans selling good fortune Buddhas, Thang-kas and Free Tibet flags, Biharis selling shirts and coffee, Kashmiris selling mufflers and overcoats. Hotels are full of authentic Tibetan food, continental items, and Punjabi dishes. Like Kasauli, the veritable Jewish town in the Himachal, Macleodganj is also famous for ease with which people can obtain some drugs. There are many Cafés here and there serving muffins and cafe latte. Tibetan owned hotels, along with serving thukpa and lamb momos, always exhibit a huge wallpaper size photo of Lhasa – a constant reminder to everyone of their homeland. Lamas in red robes rush up and down the streets. The firang visitors are interested in spiritual awakening or political understanding and are generally visibly involved in some kind of interaction with the Tibetans. Indian tourists of family type are more interested in visiting ‘spots’ and eating ice cream. And yes, taking selfies. Air is salubrious, sky is clear and weather is pleasant. It was a short trip for a couple of days.
There is one temple there – called Bhagsu Nag temple. And there is an old Church there – called St. John in the Wilderness. One is a typical of Shaiva temples all across the world – that are located in difficult terrains at some corner of the mother earth. The other is also a typical of neo-gothic architecture – impressive simplicity and profound sense of calmness amidst the Deodar forest. And yes, the Belgian tinted glass gifted by Lady Elgin. The one is a kul-devta of the Gorkha Rifles. All their regiments perform annual pooja there. The St John in the Wilderness is the Church of their former gora officers, as the numerous plaques and memorial stones indicate. Had Lord Elgin had his way, Macleodganj could have been India’s summer capital instead of Shimla.
In the western Himachal Pradesh, there is a Kangra valley and then the Chamba valley. Macleodganj falls near Kangra. Like all other Indian places, it has its own layered history. Its own original history is of of Gaddi tribe involved in transhumance, the vertical economy. They take their sheeps up and down the Himalayas seasonally and harness the costly and cozy wool. The landscape is full of lush green pastures in the valleys. Gaddi numbers are dwindling though as the next generation is not willing to get into the hard life of a migrant herder. Then the region also has the history of the numerous hill rajas, who gave patronage to the Pahadi paintings of rutu-mala and raag-malas, and the rajas who fought with each other and with the Mughals and also with the sikh gurus. Then it’s the same region that formed the inner line of defence of India during the British times. British Indian foreign policy that was obsessed with the Russian bear’s imminent aggression for over a century considered the inner line of Himalayas important for the defence of India. It was a favourite retreat of Lord Elgin, the famous liberal Whig viceroy in the 1860s, who is also buried here. When the Holy Dalai Lama, the spiritual-cum-political leader of the Tibetans, had to flee Tibet in late 1950s, he chose this place for his permanent residence and thus ensued a huge immigration of Tibetan population that changed the demography of the region. At that time it was called PEPSU and was a part of the larger Punjab. It was carved out separately by Indira Gandhi in the next decade. Today it’s a complete khichadi, like any other part of India. Common in uniqueness.
Let’s finish the last leg of the Christianity in the NE region before turning our focus onto the RSS and its sister organisations’ work.
Father Tommy is a clever and imaginative person. He understands the popular psyche well. From Mithun Gate on the highway, the winding road reaches the Church about a km inside – with the bell tower standing tall. All along the road, he has erected many panels depicting Christian legends and myths in mural-form at regular intervals. On days like the Good Friday and other such occasions, local tribal people take this route after the Mass – one by one garlanding the panels – dancing and singing, playing traditional drums in a procession. This has become a kind of a ritual now and has been around for 20 odd years. The road is also unofficially named after Mother Mary. Nowadays Indians seem to have learnt such things – palpable and ritualistic – putting exclusive claim on physical, as if marking their territoriality. This is not the characteristic of Abrahmic religions alone anymore. Such things are put to use by clever persons imaginatively. All that it takes is some social as well as aesthetic understanding of religion and human psyche. And obviously – the persistence, being routed in locality for long enough that the people forget the time before your arrival.
If one thinks, such kind of pradakshina is not actually a Christian practice. Starting from circumambulatory paths around stupas and then Hindu temples, it was also adopted by Sufi saints in the dargahs of their walis and pirs (they call it tawaaf). But this adoption is not an isolated example. There was a huge debate amongst the early Jesuits in India about the strategies to be adopted for conversion (Source – Sumit Sarkar). There emerged two schools. One stressing puritanical approach of religion while other trying to modify the European mores to suit Indian customs by adopting Indian ways – like niranjan and dhoop in front of god’s image, writing pious hymns in Indian metrical styles, adopting local language for mass etc. Puritanical faction opposed such dilution tooth and nail and even filed a complaint with the Vatican or whichever their higher-ups were. How that debate shaped up I don’t know but the later approach sounds logical to me. More than religion, it’s always about a community, a parish. If something new is to be inserted in a pre-existing society, it must morph itself into a form recognizable + palatable to cause minimum disruption.
I was actually a little hesitant to open up the topic of conversion. But Ashishiji had no such qualms. He innocuously asked with all the innocent curiosity of the world on his face whether it’s true that the fathers are monetarily compensated for bringing people into their Church’s fold. Father Tommy was surprisingly free and frank. He neither looked hurt not angry, as if he was expecting this sort of question all the while. After a small pause he said that these are two different issues. Catholic Church, he said, certainly doesn’t encourage any such malpractice because belief in a faith can’t be bought. However they do believe in active conversion. Secondly, he said, there’re some ‘fringe Churches’ of other denominations bringing bad name to the Christianity as a whole damaging its reputation. He then voluntarily started talking about then-in-news ghar wapsi phenomenon. His argument in nutshell was that ghar wapsi is wrong and painful. However, the NE tribes don’t have any religion of their own. Their customs are backward, uncivil. It’s the duty of his Church to help them. And in the process if they choose to become Christian, it can’t be termed as ‘conversion’ because they lack any religion to start with. So, it’s a free market (his words) – all religions should come here and try to convert as many of them as possible. Whoever is better at it will get the most. The spirit of competition..!
I was aghast. I had thought of all people, he would have some respect for native tribal culture and belief system. For all his likeability and affability, he also had some streaks of dogmatism. But he was unabashedly open about his view and was very firm on his stance with all the logical arguments ready. I kind of liked it. His problem was that the tribals who are actually SC are denied the benefits of that status once they convert to Christianity. He wished that tribals should be able to keep the both statuses – SC and Religious minority benefits. Such dual-benefits are opposed from many other quarters. The arguments from both the sides are in public and the debate goes on.
The other people we came in contact with threw some light on not-so-nefarious activities. Kangir bhai said that the strategy adopted by Churches is not generally so much of a monetary allurement as it may cause a backlash sometime somewhere. There are other intelligent ways too. One example was a conversion of the woman in a house first. For some reason which I failed to understand, tribal women are easy to convert. And once they are converted, over time they bring the whole family along with. Women are thus always targeted. There must be some sociological and psychological reason to it, if at all it’s true. Second method he said was building huge and imposing churches in small bastis even if a person or two get converted. A single person in some remote basti actually doesn’t need such huge church and neither can he afford to build one. But he is requested to give some piece of land (as in Arunachal, outsiders can’t own it) on which in a short time a church with all the amenities and facilities is erected. Slowly, over a decade or so, the whole basti comes around. After all, no one gives them facility of any kind in their remote bastis, government hardly reaches there and the local church thus becomes a symbol of strength as well as provider of social services. It becomes the locus of community activity. Nagaland model of ‘communitisation’ is a well known now. There, so strong is their control over the local community and ground-level knowledge so upto-date that even the Government of India runs many of the social sector schemes through the churches for better targeting and reducing leakage. On the darker side however, this gives the church manipulating power and instances of denying government scheme benefits as punishment to those families missing on Sunday mass are not unknown.
The RSS people moan over the supposed money the church receives from outside. They often compare the suvidha a pracharak gets with those available to father to draw the point home. Whatever that may be. As elsewhere, here too Church is involved in social service as well as conversion. It finally boils down to the motivations and inclinations of individual members of the denomination and thus sweeping generalisations must be avoided. The last thing I would talk here is in the praise of Catholics. This is such a determined and devoted community. Simply see the number of fathers they produce, number of educational and health institutions they run and compare it with their population in India (less than 2%). And they have been doing it for a long time. In the name of religious service if not nation’s service; but it helps the nation nonetheless.
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.
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.