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Op-Ed

Religion, Politics, John Thomas and the Nagas

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By EMN Updated: Nov 06, 2014 10:12 pm
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Benito Z. Swu

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Christian religion that we Nagas profess has its roots deeply entrenched with the American way of professing, and it is rightly so, as it was the American missionaries who first and foremost showed us the light.
Christian denominations, as I learned and understood, in the United States are usually divided in three large groups, Evangelicalism, Mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Christian denominations that do not fall within either of these groups are mostly associated with ethnic minorities, i.e. the various denominations of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Evangelicalism is difficult to date and to define. Scholars have argued that, as a self-conscious movement, evangelicalism did not arise until the mid-17th century, perhaps not until the ‘Great Awakening’ itself. The Great Awakening refers to that northeastern American Protestant revival movement that took place in the 1730s and 1740s. The fundamental premise of evangelicalism is the conversion of individuals from a state of sin to a “new birth” through preaching of the Word. The supporters of the ‘Awakening’ and its evangelical thrust – Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists – became the largest American Protestant denominations by the first decades of the 19th century. By the 1770s, the Baptists were growing rapidly both in the north where they founded Brown University, and in the South. Opponents of the ‘Awakening’ or those split by it – Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists – were left behind.
After independence the American states were obliged to write constitutions establishing how each would be governed. For three years, from 1778 to 1780, the political energies of Massachusetts were absorbed in drafting a charter of government that the voters would accept. One of the most contentious issues was whether the state would support the church financially. Advocating such a policy were the ministers and most members of the Congregational Church, which received public financial support, during the colonial period. The Baptists tenaciously adhered to their ancient conviction that churches should receive no support from the state. The Constitutional Convention chose to support the church and “Article Three” authorized a general religious tax to be directed to the church of a taxpayers’ choice.The “Second Great Awakening” was a Protestant movement that began around 1790, gained momentum by 1800, and after 1820 membership rose rapidly among Baptist and Methodist congregations whose preachers led the movement. It was past its peak by the 1840s. It was a reaction against skepticism, deism, and rational Christianity. Millions of new members enrolled in existing evangelical denominations and led to the formation of new denominations. Many converts believed that the ‘Awakening’ heralded a new millennial age. The “Second Great Awakening” stimulated the establishment of many reform movements designed to remedy the evils of society. During the “Second Great Awakening” new Protestant denominations emerged such as Adventism, the Restoration Movement, and groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism.
While the “First Great Awakening” was centered on reviving the spirituality of established congregations, “the Second Great Awakening” focused on the unchurched and sought to instill in them a deep sense of personal salvation as experienced in revival meetings. The principal innovation produced by the revivals was the camp meetings. When assembled in a field or at the edge of a forest for a prolonged religious meeting, the participants transformed the site into a camp meeting. Singing and preaching was the main activity for several days. The revivals were often intense and created intense emotions. Some fell away but many if not most became permanent church members. The Methodists and Baptists made them one of the evangelical signatures of the denomination.
The Christianity of the black population was grounded in evangelicalism. The ‘Second Great Awakening’ has been called the “central and defining event in the development of Afro-Christianity.” During these revivals, Baptists and Methodists converted large numbers of blacks. However, many were disappointed at the treatment they received from their fellow believers and at the backsliding in the commitment to abolish slavery that many white Baptists and Methodists had advocated immediately after the American Revolution. When their discontent could not be contained, forceful black leaders followed what was becoming an American habit—they formed new denominations. After the Civil War, Black Baptists desiring to practice Christianity away from racial discrimination, rapidly set up several separate state Baptist conventions. In 1866, black Baptists of the South and West combined to form the Consolidated American Baptist Convention. This Convention eventually collapsed but three national conventions formed in response. In 1895 the three conventions merged to create the National Baptist Convention. It is now the largest African-American religious organization in the United States.
In the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, there has been a marked rise in the evangelical wing of Protestant denominations, especially those that are more exclusively evangelical, and a corresponding decline in the mainstream liberal churches. The 1950s saw a boom in the Evangelical church in America. The post – World War II prosperity experienced in the U.S. also had its effects on the church. Church buildings were erected in large numbers, and the Evangelical church’s activities grew along with this expansive physical growth. In the southern United States, the Evangelicals, represented by leaders such as Billy Graham, have experienced a notable surge displacing the caricature of the pulpit pounding country preachers of fundamentalism. The stereotypes have gradually shifted. Although the Evangelical community worldwide is diverse, the ties that bind all Evangelicals are still apparent: a “high view” of Scripture, belief in the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, and the bodily resurrection of Christ.
During the 19th century, several American Baptist missionaries evangelized in the northeastern parts of India. In 1876, Dr. E. W. Clark first went to live in a Naga village, four years after his Assamese helper, Godhula, baptized the first Naga converts. Rev. and Mrs. A.F. Merrill arrived in India in 1928 and worked in the southeast section of the Garo Hills. Rev. and Mrs. M.J. Chance spent most of the years between 1950 – 1956 at Golaghat working with the Naga and Garo tribes. Even today the heaviest concentrations of Christians in India continue to be in the Northeast among the Nagas, Khasis, Kukis, and Mizos.
Allow me the liberty of reproducing herewith a John Thomas’ dissertation, “Missionaries, Church and the Formation of Naga Political Identity, 1918 – 1997.” The dissertation historicizes the formation of Naga political identity. It examines the intersection of religious and national identity in the formation of the Naga self by critically evaluating missionary, colonial, and nationalist representations of Naga political identity. Thomas is critical of a particular theological perspective, produced by American and Naga Baptist missionaries that mediated this identity formation. This theological perspective is based on a particular interpretation of Christianity based on a fundamentalist variety of Evangelical Christianity that emphasizes “a historical and fundamentalist reading of the Bible; solely interested in questions of personal sin, morality and salvation; aggressively exclusive in relating with secular ideologies and other religious faiths; and yet supportive of preserving the existing status quo”. This kind of fundamentalist, evangelical understanding imposes a particular religious identity on national identity, “wherein, being an evangelical Christian increasingly becomes a pre-requisite towards being a Naga.” Therefore, this theology is limited by a narrow focus on individual salvation, which reiterates a colonial logic of “saving the savage,” thereby taming the understanding of the Naga self. As such, it is inadequate to understand the complexities of the social, political and cultural specificity of the Naga situation, Thomas argues.
Even though American and British missionaries entered Assam in the 1820s and the 1830s, they could not make much headway in converting the “tribes” inhabiting the hills surrounding the Assam valley. They faced stiff resistance from the Nagas until the 1870s when they made some gains. Missionaries entered Assam as conduits of colonialism and were in collaboration with the British in “pacifying and controlling the tribes.” Of course, the primary motive for missionaries was the desire to evangelize the regions beyond Burma, into China and Central Asia. The British annexed this region primarily to consolidate their control of the frontier region that separated the British Indian empire from Burma. “The Making of a Christian Civilization,” describes the expansion of American Baptist missionary activity through mission fields, schools, and preaching tours. These activities were initially challenged by the Nagas as it devalued their customary cultural and ceremonial practices and, instead, preached a particular theology of salvation through Christ alone that also celebrated the exceptionalism of white Christian America. Eventually when the missionaries were able to gain some followers, it created rifts between converts and non-converts in the villages. However, conversion to Christianity was quite slow, with only twenty percent of the population converting until the 1940s. Here, Thomas deftly demonstrates the everyday workings of power that mediated the missionary civilizing mission.
Resistance to conversion was also followed by attempts from within the Naga community to reform certain customary and cultural practices to keep up with the changes introduced by colonialism. One such movement was the political and cultural movement initiated by Jadonang and Gaidinliu in the 1920s and 30s. This anti-colonial movement, with its own vision of an alternative modernity, first articulated the notion of a Naga Raj that would unite all Naga tribes and declare independence from both colonial rule and rulers from the plains. This period also saw the formation of another group, the Naga Club, formed by men educated in mission schools who articulated a modern vision of a Naga national identity different from the one envisaged by Jadonang and Gaidinliu.
Members of the Naga Club eventually formed the Naga National Council, which became representative of a collective Naga national identity. Disagreements between the Indian state and Naga nationalists on the question of Naga sovereignty resulted in a face-off, where the Indian state responded with military force. The Nagas were left with no alternative except to participate in an armed struggle. This period of the 1940s also saw the largest numbers of Nagas converting to Christianity, almost fifty percent of the population. Conversion was part of a process that enabled the Nagas to access structures of modernity in opposition to the colonial and Indian nationalist constructions of Naga “primitivism.” It also came in the wake of growing attacks on churches, pastors, and evangelists by the Indian armed forces, such that attacks on religion seemed like attacks on Naga national identity. This is an important argument that counters the conventional history that argues that the spread of Naga nationalism and conversions was because Christianity fueled separatism amongst the Nagas. This was far from accurate since “it was more the case that Naga nationalism found the access to modernity provided by Christianity relevant only at that particular historical juncture where constructing a modern national identity was important.” Thus, Christianity was hardly a priority for the Naga national movement in the initial period, though it gained more significance later as a way of opposing Indian nationalism.

The growth in Christian population also led to the emergence and influence of local ecclesiastical organizations like the Nagaland Baptist Church Council. Their slogan of “Nagaland for Christ” was an affirmation of the American missionary project that anticipated converting the entire Naga population. This articulation also mediated the efforts of the Naga National Council in its imagining of a Naga nation, which would be inclusive of other religious persuasions. In the 1960s and 70s the Church was involved in mediating armed conflict between the Indian state and the Naga national movement. However, the limitation imposed by an American evangelical theology contributed to the taming of the political movement leading to the signing of the Shillong Accord (1975) by a section of the Naga National Council and the Indian state. The signing of the Shillong Accord led to dissatisfaction amongst a group of Naga nationalists who formed another organization, The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which continued the armed struggle against the Indian state demanding sovereignty for the Nagas. The Church and the Indian state’s allegation that they were communists led the NSCN to increasingly demonstrate their commitment to “Nagaland for Christ.” This was followed by the adoption of strict moral code by individual cadre members within an evangelical framework in the initial years.

Faced with the increasing fragmentation of the Naga movement and other national movements in the region following the counterinsurgency policies of the Indian state, the Church was increasingly involved in efforts to mediate between the Naga nationalists and the Indian state. The Church was initially reluctant to deal with issues of human rights violations, but had to confront these issues because of the severity of human rights abuses. However, this effort was limited by an individualized moral and political philosophy espoused by this theology. Thomas’ dissertation makes a critical contribution to the debate on historiography in India’s Northeast. He challenges colonial historiography that represents Naga history as a movement from “Darkness to Civilization.” He demonstrates the contradiction of a Naga nationalist history that coexists with this missionary history, which disparages the Naga past. Naga nationalist history, on the other hand, attempts to reclaim a proud pre-colonial past in which the Nagas were a brave and independent people un-subjugated either by the British or by the rulers of the plains. The missionary and Naga nationalist attempt at writing history is further complicated by Indian nationalist efforts to incorporate the Nagas into the new Indian nation-state as “tribals” and not as a distinct nationalist group, thereby reflecting the unequal process by which they were incorporated into the newly decolonized Indian nation-state. This Indian nationalist perspective on the Nagas is shared by the Indian state, Indian administrators, historians, anthropologists, and the military, which prioritize the Indian nation-state. At the same time, Thomas is also critical of contemporary attempts at writing transnational and post-frontier histories, which do not seem to historicize the formation of Naga political identity. Thomas’ dissertation is a much-needed critical historiography of the Northeast, which can help us engage with Naga history on its own terms. A must read in its entirety.
A tailpiece: Both the British and the Americans came with the intention to colonize us. The only difference was the motive. While the motive of the British was to take anything worth taking, the motive of the Americans was to give something that was selfless.

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By EMN Updated: Nov 06, 2014 10:12:13 pm