This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Monday, 26 November 2012
Christianity, Conversions, and the Indian Tribal
I live in a state where the majority of people are Christians.
More to the point, I live in a part of the state where the majority (about 75%) of the people belong to the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, like the woman on the right.
Now, of the Khasi and Jaintia tribes, about 70% of the people are Christians.
Obviously the Khasis and Jaintias weren’t always Christians. They are Mon-Khmer people originating in what is now Cambodia who migrated to Eastern India in about 1400-1600 AD. Their religions followed the usual trend of tribal people, a mix of pantheism and nature worship; and as usual they must have picked up various customs from the lands through which they moved on their migration.
The Jaintias and the Khasis are closely related but not identical tribes, and their religions and languages differ slightly. Many of the Jaintias picked up a version of Hinduism; in fact, they are one of the very few tribes of India that might be claimed to have been largely, originally, Hindu. But the rest of the Jaintias, and all the Khasis, had a very different religion: Niam Tre. Niam Tre is, roughly speaking, a religion of clans and clan priests (lyngdohs) who interact with U Blei (“the god”) and sacrifice to him; a religion of sacred groves and clan kings (Syiems) who are also religious heads, a religion of sacrifice of goats and the red rooster that is the symbol of the religion. The red rooster is supposed to be U Blei’s representative on earth; sacrificing one allows its soul to carry the prayers of the people to U Blei.
You get the idea, don’t you? A fairly naturist religion, like shamanic religions since the dawn of time.
Well, Niam Tre was the only religion of the Khasis till the 19th century; and then the British arrived, and in their tracks the missionaries carrying the Bible and with the declared intention of saving souls for Christ.
In this state, probably fortunately for the Khasis and Jaintias, the missionaries were Catholics; they never really worked at exterminating the original religion. Still, from about 100% Niam Tre in 1820 or thereabouts, the Khasis are now only about 25% of that religion. Most of the rest are Christians of various denominations and a tiny minority are Muslims. A conversion rate of 75% away from an indigenous religion might look startling – until one compares it with the Baptists and Presbyterians who beat the Catholics to Nagaland and Mizoram states. There, today,almost everyone is a Baptist, like the Nagas, or a Presbyterian like the Hmar Mizo girl on the right; no other church, for all practical purposes, is suffered to exist, let alone other faith. Apart from a few dances and social customs, the culture of the Nagas and Mizos has vanished completely and utterly. Not so the Khasis; because Niam Tre still exists.
When I was a teenager, there was still a steady haemorrhage of Khasi people from Niam Tre to Christianity (especially Catholicism, but the fringe sects, too). There were several reasons for this: Christians were more socially acceptable (Niam Tre followers were thought to be village hicks, Nongkyndongs as they are called in Khasi), they had better chances in education and employment, and so on. But the remaining Niam Tre grew increasingly restive and a groundswell of resentment against Christianity grew and grew. This came to a head in 2001 when a Niam Tre elder by the name of Rijoy Sing Khongsah was kidnapped (and later murdered) by the HNLC terrorist group. I remember a rally by Niam Tre followers demanding Khongsah’s immediate release turned into an anti-Christian demonstration, with waving banners denouncing the “foreign religion.” Today, Niam Tre followers wear their religion as a mark of pride and make a point of showing that they aren’t Christians. It’s probably they who have saved Khasi and Jaintia culture from joining the Naga and Mizo cultures in extinction.
I’ve written this because I have seen for myself the reaction of tribal people to Christianity; but the experience of the Khasis, Jaintias, Mizos and Nagas is not quite relevant so far as the effect of Christianity on the entire tribal population of India is concerned, and this because
1. the Nagas, Khasis et al are not minority tribes living in a state with an overwhelming non-tribal Hindu majority; quite the reverse, and 2. this part of India is not in the crosshairs of the Hindu evangelism effort because most Indians literally do not know these states exist.
Further south and west, in the “Indian heartland”, there are tribes for whom the situation is rather different. Those tribes are no more historically Hindu than the Khasis or Jaintias, but they are small islands in a Hindu sea; and they have been, historically, denied even basic human rights by the Hindus around them. The epic Ramayana even depicts them as “monkeys”. They have had no schools, no roads, no hospitals, nothing. Until the missionaries arrived.
The missionaries did not really need to preach. They set up the schools and the health centres, and trained the tribespeople to take some form of modern care of themselves, and of course people who had been denied anything at all gravitated towards them and began converting in some numbers. The same thing had once happened with Islam and Buddhism, which had drawn millions away from the Hindu underclass because of their egalitarian message. But Buddhism has been almost resorbed back into Hinduism in India, and Islam is no longer a religion that seeks to convert; so that leaves only Christianity. And the tribespeople welcomed the chance to convert to it.
Of course I don’t suggest for a moment that the Christian missionaries were motivated by altruism towards the tribes. It’s always a cover for getting as many as people to convert to the missionaries’ religion; not by force, maybe, but by personal example. If you are a destitute tribesman who is suddenly provided with a school, and hospital, and a measure of human dignity, wouldn’t you react with simple gratitude to those who had worked to make this possible? Even if you hadn't the slightest idea of the religion?
Conversions work because it gets the church money. Unlike townspeople, though, who can be tithed for the church, the destitute Christian villager can’t pay the church anything; money is instead donated by organisations abroad based on the number of souls saved. This is therefore a strong influence on the missionaries to convert people. And sometimes this involved crude and offensive anti-Hindu propaganda ("false stone gods" and the like), and other tricks. (I remember a case of a village near Shillong where everyone was a Christian except one old Niam Tre woman who refused to convert. Mysteriously, stones began raining down on her house each evening. After she converted, the stones stopped. Amazing! Jesus had performed another miracle!)
How many of you have read the Chinua Achebe novel, Things Fall Apart? Those who have will remember how the new Christian converts among the Igbo went out of their way to anger their former co-religionists by killing their sacred snake, for instance. Similarly, the tribal religionists felt themselves insulted and slighted by their former co-religionists adopting new social mores and abandoning such things as tribal feasts and so on.. As here with the Niam Tre, resentment grew and grew.
Meanwhile, Hindu fascism was on the rise in India, driven by the ridiculous Nazi idea that a majority of 85% was in danger of becoming a minority because of conversions. The Muslims were problematical targets: they did not evangelise and though one could launch anti-Muslim pogroms the Muslims could hit back, and did so with devastating effect, many times. Tribal Christians are a small, vulnerable minority in a Hindu sea, with a ready-made resentment against them among their former co-religionists. What easier then than to tell those former co-religionists that they were Hindus after all, and unleash them on the Christian converts if they failed to "reconvert" to Hinduism?
So there was a meeting of three forces: the missionaries and their evangelising mission; the tribal religionists and their anti-Christian resentment; and the Hindu fascists.