Fortifying their flanks?

It can be viewed, at the very least, as a sign of the capitulation of moderate Hindus, in this case, followers of 15th century Vaishnavite saint Sri Srimanta Xankardeb in Assam. Reeling under “attacks of proselytisation”, the Xatra Mahasabha of Assam, the apex body of 700 xatras;religious and cultural centres established by Sri Xankardev and his disciple Sri Madhabdev;that has served as the foundation of moderate thought and belief in the state among the Assamese for centuries, last year wrote to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, asking for help to stem the tide of conversions to Christianity among the smaller indigenous communities of the region. In an exclusive interview to Newsfile, the general secretary of the Mahasabha, Lakhi Mahanta, said that this had to be done as his organisation, based in the upper Assam district of Jorhat, was both “pennyless and powerless” to cope with the conversions that threatened to change the demography among smaller communities such as the Bodos, Misings, Karbis,Khasis, Nagas and Arunachalis, followers of age-old faiths such as Bathou, Brahma, Zeliangrong, Donyi Polo, Seng Khasi and Kokborok, among others.

While the Mahasabha is yet to receive a reply to its request, hardline action seems to have been taken quite instantly with the setting up of the North East Zone Indigenous Faith and Culture Protection Forum in April last year, backed by “likeminded organisations” such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Kalyan
Kendra, Vidya Bharati, Sanskar Bharati and the Vivekananda Kendra in Guwahati.Organisations such as the RSS have traditionally been frowned upon in Assam,especially in the Brahmaputra valley, as being representative of an aggressive school of Hinduism that goes against the teachings of Xankardeb and the grain of liberal, Assamese belief. That however seems to have changed gradually not among the Assamese alone but also the smaller groups. “Once we have conserved what we have, we will take up the issue of conversion among our people,” says Jaleshwar Brahma, organising secretary of the Forum, that brought together more than 300 representatives of indigenous faiths from the north-eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim at a recent seminar in Guwahati. The developments have meanwhile drawn the attention of the church. “We are aware. Such activities will add tension to a region that already has its own problems,” said Archbishop Thomas Membarmpil in Guwahati. “All this would only import problems from other parts of the country,to the North-east, where people have always lived with mutual respect.” As for the likelihood of a possible Sanskritisation of the indigenous faith wanting to reaffirm its doctrine in the present circumstances, Brahma says the Forum “will not allow anything of the sort”.

Up to 90 per cent of the population in states such as Nagaland and Mizoram are Christians. Between three to five per cent of his community of Bodos, followers of the Bathou and Brahma faiths since time immemorial, have converted to Christianity, says Brahma. The Forum, which has so far been confined to 17 main representatives from the eight states, will soon recruit members at the grassroots level. “We would be interested in joining hands with the Forum,” says Mahanta.

Detractors, however, strongly oppose the Mahasabha’s actions. “The RSS has been able to entrench itself in Assam because of the failings of the xatras. The Mahasabha has divided the Assamese community,” said Sonaram Sutia, 90, freedom fighter and former head of the Srimanta Xankar Xangha, a breakaway organisation spread across Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh that does not belong to any particular xatra, with its members choosing instead to inculcate the teachings of the Vaishnavite saint in their daily lives. “Our xangha is also trying bring back to its fold people from the smaller, indigenous communities,”says Sutia.Apart from a direct confrontation with the Christian population in the North-east, the recent developments could, at the end of the day, bring to the fore the differences within the Assamese themselves, divided as they are between the Mahantas, Goxains and numerically larger Kalitas. Together, however, the Assamese have been accused of looking down on the same communities they are now trying attempting to deliver from Christian missionaries. “As a block development officer at Majuli (the seat of the Vaishnavite movement in Assam)after Independence, I was witness to members of indigenous communities not being allowed to enter the xatras,” says Sutia. Brahma, however, disagrees. “We have to look at our own shortcomings first,” he says

It was on May 24, 1979 that freedom fighter Rani Gaidinliu of Nagaland;one of the five “women of eminence in Indian history” in whose name the Central Government has instituted the Stree Shakti Puraskar, the others being Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar, Kannagi, Mata Jijabai and Rani Lakshmi Bai—wrote to the President of India about the activities of Christian missionaries in Nagaland. They had called her community Satan worshippers, she said. While that may not necessarily be the touchstone that could rightly judge the work of the Christian missionary in the North-east, given the service they have provided for decades in the remotest of places ignored by most social organisations barring the rare Ramakrishna Mission, the newfound interest of the mainland Hindu organisation in north-eastern communities could also put to test the social fabric in a region that, for example, by and large held its peace even during Partition and after the Babri Masjid demolition. “While we are at fault for not doing what we should have done for communities such as the Bodos, it is not up to the BJP or the RSS to make it up for us,” says Abdul Majid, acclaimed Assamese actor and director, and winner of a national award for his film‘Chameli Memsaab’ in 1976. “I believe the equation between the Hindus and Muslims of Assam will stand the test of time.” The optimism notwithstanding, the truth, however, is that the latest developments could make a showdown between
the Sangh Parivar and the church in the North-east almost inevitable. “We want the indigenous communities in the region to connect with their pre-Christian faiths,” says Ram Madhav, RSS spokesperson in Delhi.

Not that the dharm yudh will happen without its hiccups. With the often seen psychological stricture that separates the rest of the country from the North-east, the neo-missionary from the mainland could, for one, always face the risk of falling prey to the temptation of the occasional faux passe. A case in point: at the function after the Forum’s recent seminar in Guwahati, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, head of the Gurukul Ashram in Coimbatore, who was out to convince his newfound congregation why the indigenous person from the North-east should not convert to Christianity, couldn’t help but mention, on stage, that he had been told that Nagaland didn’t even have crows;a however amusing, but popular mainland perception that a person from Nagaland eats anything that moves.

By Pranab Bora and Kuntil Baruwa