It was a humid April afternoon. The sun had been beating down on us relentlessly for three days and it seemed as if we went from winter to summer in a flash, skipping a balmy spring. I was inside the office of the Arunachal Pradesh Christian Revival Church Council in Itanagar where its president, Tai Ete, half stood up to greet me with a ‘praise the lord’. Bespectacled and wearing a taango (the traditional sleeveless shirt of the Galo tribe), he was surrounded by members of his church’s organisation.
Ete said that he became a Christian in 1993, leaving behind his ancestral animist faith now referred to as Donyi-Poloism. When I asked how old he was when he converted, he replied: “I was mature enough.” Like most indigenous people of Arunachal Pradesh, Ete was not raised Christian and only converted later in life. Unlike in the States of Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland in the Northeast, where Christianity has been around for well over a hundred years, the religion was introduced only fairly recently in Arunachal Pradesh.
Toko Teki, the president of the Arunachal Christian Forum, said the first church in the State was established in Rayang village in present-day East Siang district in 1957. But people from indigenous tribes had already begun converting as early as 1920 when two men, Dugyon Lego, an Adi, and Tamik Dabi, a Galo, were baptised in Jorhat in Assam. Teki is from the Nyishi tribe and a ‘born Christian’. His father was converted in 1962 by church leaders of the John Firth Christian English High School in Assam’s Lakhimpur, which lies on the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh’s Papum Pare district.
From humble beginnings, the number of Christians of various denominations in Arunachal Pradesh increased to 30.26%, according to the 2011 Census. This was followed by 29.04% Hindus, and 26.2% ‘Other Religions’. A sizeable population (11.77%) of the 13.84 lakh people said they were Buddhist. These figures are, however, data points, and do not always represent actual numbers and certainly do not carry with them the perceived fears among the tribal population of the State.
Since October last year, Arunachal Pradesh has been embroiled in a religious controversy. Christian organisations have claimed that the administration in Tawang district was obstructing the construction of a building only because it was a church and not a Buddhist monastery. In Tawang and the adjacent West Kameng district, a majority of the indigenous Monpa people are adherents of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. While the State has witnessed a sizeable population of indigenous communities converting to Christianity, the region, referred to as ‘Mon’, remains a Buddhist bastion. The issue came to light when the administration issued an order to stop the construction of a church in the district headquarters.
What followed were a series of allegations thrown around between the Arunachal Christian Forum, the Arunachal Christian Revival Church Council, and the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh (IFCSAP), which has been spearheading the revival of ancient tribal belief and faith systems. The IFCSAP alleged that the church in question flouted building regulatory norms, while the Christian organisations denied it and claimed they were being unfairly targeted.
The IFCSAP argued that since the people of Tawang are mostly Buddhist, there was no need to build another church when three already existed. Christian bodies, on the other hand, said that the church was to serve the spiritual needs of Christians from other parts of the State working in the district. Ete argued that by the same token why should there be Buddhist monasteries in Itanagar, a predominately a Nyishi-populated area that has never been Buddhist.
Last November, Christians from across Arunachal congregated to voice their opposition to the Tawang district administration’s move. Later that month, the BJP State government formed a three-member committee of MLAs to investigate the matter and submit its report.
During the height of the debate, Teki told reporters that the Christian bodies will not hold any protests until the committee’s report is published. “We believe that the committee will work honestly but in case we feel the report is biased, we will decide on further action,” he had said that balmy April afternoon. Ete and others of his congregation are waiting to find out what the report has to say.
Around the time the debate began last year, various State units of the Janajati Suraksha Manch (or Tribal Protection Forum) began coaxing administrative heads to write letters to the Centre to remove the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status of people who had become Christians. But Ete, wearing his off-white taango with blue tribal motifs, questioned the motive of those seeking the removal of the ST status of converted tribal people.
People of the Galo tribe, like Ete, trace their genealogical origin to Abotani. Other tribes that fall under the broad Tani classification, including the Adi, Apatani, Nyishi, and Tagin, and the Mishings in Assam, also trace their mythical origins to the same Abotani. In October last year in the town of Pasighat, a State government official of the Adi tribe told me that he is an Adi because he comes from Abotani’s lineage. “Now, if an Adi has become a Christian and starts referring to Jesus Christ as ‘father,’ how can he still be an Adi,” he asked. The contention being that the word ‘abo’ literally means father and ‘tani’ means man, and that if Christians say ‘abo Jesu,’ they are not tribals any more, and must not avail the scheduled tribal status.
Ete and Teki were quick to dismiss such claims. “My identity as a Galo person cannot be taken away,” Ete said, as those around him nodded in agreement. He said that as a Galo he draws his lineage from Abotani but that his creator is someone else. “I am born a tribal and will stay that way,” said Teki, adding that Abotani is not a religious leader but rather a ‘biological forefather’. “Our culture lies in our clothes, the language we speak, how we welcome our guests. Ours is a culture of love. The Tani tribes were never under the rule of any king. We are a free-spirited and martial race. It’s what gives us our identity,” he said, adding: “I may be a Christian but I will always be identified as a member of my Toko clan.”
An oft-repeated argument against Christian conversion in the State is that some of the religion’s core beliefs go against traditional tribal cultural rituals, such as animal sacrifice carried out to please the various animist spirits that many tribes believe inhabit the world around them. In the Christian world view, Jesus died on the cross to suffer for all of humanity’s sins and no further sacrifices are required.
Teki is the first to admit that some of the Christian beliefs do go against his traditional Nyishi customs, especially where ritualistic sacrifices to appease spirits are essential. He, Ete, and many others of the Christian faith do not take part in such rituals.
But as leaders of Christian organisations, they publicly say that they do not discourage anyone from participating in tribal festivals where the sacrifice of a mithun (a bovine animal) is essential.
Even though they may say so, over the years there has been a watering down of traditional festivals. In 2017, at a major celebration of the Nyokum festival of the Nyishi tribe, many took exception to the fact that a mithun was not sacrificed and instead other animals were sacrificed at the sacred bamboo altar. Three years later, at another Nyokum celebration, concerns were expressed at a celebration where no animals were sacrificed at all. Such changes to ancient rituals are often met with distaste among the proponents of the animist faiths, who repeat the line that “loss of culture is loss of identity.”
It’s a dictum often echoed by members of organisations that have a direct or indirect support of right-wing Hindu organisations such as the RSS and the VHP or other State-specific surrogate organisations that portray Hinduism as the true religion of even a State like Arunachal Pradesh, which always consisted of independent villages, chieftains, and councils, and was never truly under the hold of any outside power.
Space for all
While religious conversion may lead to changes in certain practices, it is not always seen as a bad thing. Veteran politician James Lowangcha Wanglat, a Catholic from the Nocte tribe (classified by the Indian Constitution as a Naga tribe), said that headhunting among the Naga tribes “used to be their heart and soul” but is a practice that has since waned. “With headhunting, the young man graduated to adulthood and became eligible to marry a high-status woman. It was a customary ritual. Even the women were not shy of taking up arms and joining the men in battles to protect their tribe’s honour. Practices such as headhunting ended after the Naga areas came under the Indian administration and much before Christian missionaries first entered Tirap district in 1979 — as did tattooing, headhunting dances, sacrifices, the worship of the dead, and many other indigenous faith practices,” he pointed out.
Cultures and cultural practices often change with time. “(Earlier) our tradition and culture advocated kill or be killed. Today, it is about compassion, kindness, love, and doing business. So indigenous religious beliefs have transformed. I believe that a static culture is a dead culture. A great culture is always dynamic,” he said.
As the number of Christian adherents continues to grow and there is a resurgence among indigenous tribal faith believers, Christian leaders think there is space for both groups. Teki admits that the State will never be 100% Christian and that neither will it be 100% indigenous faith. “Whatever the followers of the indigenous faith are doing, they should continue doing it peacefully,” he said. Wanglat was “optimistic that Arunachal Pradesh will sail along in religious harmony”. The four-time legislator said, “Religious leaders must respect and give space for all to grow.”
(This article is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center as part of its ‘Finding an Old Religion in a New India series’.)
The writer is an Itanagar-based journalist and blogger writing about the Northeast.