- Although Arunachal Pradesh has anti-conversion laws and Christian missionaries are banned from entering the state, large-scale conversions have taken place through inducements and other illegal means.
- The establishment of the Department of Indigenous Beliefs and Cultural Affairs four years ago was a major effort to control conversions and encourage the practice and spread of animism and nature worship indigenous to Arunachal Pradesh.
The Department of #IndigenousAffairs (DIA) was created in 2017
One of the first acts of the ruling BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh was to create a Ministry of Indigenous Religion and Cultural Affairs in September 2017.
The department was also responsible for constructing prayer halls and other infrastructure for the practice and promotion of indigenous religions, promoting local languages and scriptures in order to codify the practices and rituals of indigenous religions and organizing programs and certificate courses for priests of these faiths.
The unspoken but underlying objective of these measures was to resist the onslaught of evangelism by Christian missionaries in the state.
Christians are the largest religious group in the state and constitute around 35 percent of the state’s total population of 17.12 lakh.
Statistics prove the Church’s warlike evangelization: Christians made up only 0.79 percent of the state’s population in 1971, then 4.32 percent in 1981, 10.3 percent in 1991, 18 .72 percent in 2001 and 30.26 percent in 2011.
Although Arunachal Pradesh has anti-conversion laws and Christian missionaries are banned from entering the state, large-scale conversions have taken place through inducements and other illegal means.
The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 expressly prohibits the conversion of tribal members to other non-indigenous faiths, but this law has never been enforced.
Christian missionaries operating from their bases in Assam, near the interstate border with Arunachal Pradesh, have managed to lure the tribals with free education, healthcare and stipends, and convert them.
The Congress, which has ruled Arunachal for most of the years since the state’s inception in 1987, had turned a blind eye to the activities of Christian missionaries operating just beyond its borders.
Successive governments from the Congress to the Centre, which had administered the North East Border Agency (NEFA) – the precursor to the state – had also done nothing to stop the mass conversions of the tribes.
BJP leaders say evangelism by Christian missionaries, particularly from the Roman Catholic Church, received a boost during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, in the mid-to-late 1980s, as well as under the UPA I and II regimes, when Sonia Gandhi was the real center of power. .
Donyi Polo as a faith was codified by Rukbo, whose birth anniversary December 1 is famous in Arunachal Pradesh as “Indigenous Faith Day”.
Various tribal animists, shamanic and other rituals were collected and codified, and the practices associated with many tribal forms of worship were formalized.
But the Congress governments in the state and the Center have done nothing to promote the indigenous faith and have even taken steps to dissuade tribals from practicing their traditional beliefs.
Christian missionaries, with huge funds, mostly from abroad, found it very easy to attract the economically and socially backward tribes.
Furthermore, indigenous religions placed great importance on animal sacrifices and other costly rituals, which imposed many hardships on the poor tribes.
“Christian missionaries opened schools, colleges, clinics and hospitals in many parts of Assam bordering Arunachal, provided free boarding and scholarships to tribal youth and free health care to the tribes. They also offered stipends such as food and other materials and even financial assistance for tribes to convert. Therefore, many fell into the trap and converted,” said Gao, state BJP chief.
Things have only started to change in the last four years since the BJP formed the state government. The establishment of the Department of Indigenous Religion and Cultural Affairs was a concrete step to encourage the practice and propagation of indigenous animism and nature worship of Arunachal Pradesh.
“Indigenous culture and beliefs constitute the identity and pride of our state. Our culture, of which our indigenous beliefs are an integral part, is like our roots. If our roots are not strong, we will not become a strong and healthy society,” said Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu.
Earlier this week, Khandu inaugurated a 15-day workshop on the “priesthood of indigenous religions” organized by the new department.
Workshop on the “Priesthood of indigenous religions”
The workshop, the first in a series planned by the department, aims to provide a platform for priests of indigenous faiths to exchange knowledge and views, and receive their feedback on steps that can be taken by the government to promote indigenous religions.
Indigenous and Cultural Affairs Minister Taba Tedir said the department decided to focus on priests because they are repositories of much of the knowledge about indigenous beliefs and practices.
“We will collect, collate and codify all these beliefs and practices. The department will also conduct certificate courses on priesthood and provide scholarships and incentives to all tribal youth interested in becoming priests,” he said.
Inaugurating the workshop earlier this week, Chief Minister Khandu had said that priests, as “custodians of ancient knowledge and wisdom”, “will play a very important role in preserving and propagating wisdom from our ancestors to future generations.
Khandu said the state government is also providing significant assistance to researchers and scholars to develop scripts for the indigenous dialects of the state.
“Without written script, almost all of our native languages are only spoken and transmitted orally. With modern education and exposure, the younger generation is moving away from their mother tongue and this has become a major concern for us,” he said.
“Our languages are the links with our culture. If the language is lost, our cultural heritage will be lost,” he warned.
Minister of Indigenous Affairs Tedir said the department was also working on publishing literature on indigenous folklores and traditions, sponsoring medicinal plants and traditional healing systems, promoting indigenous games and managing social protection programs for priests.
“This active promotion and state patronage of indigenous religions like Donyi-Polo will avert the onslaught of Christian missionaries and result in bringing converts back into the tribal fold. These measures will instill pride among our youth for our ancient beliefs and practices, and thereby prevent them from falling under the material spell of missionaries,” said Tajom Tasung, president of the Indigenous Religious and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh (IFCSAP) ( see the Company the Facebook page).
IFCSAP Secretary General Bai Taba says conversions to Christianity have also sparked social tensions. “They (Christian converts and priests) despise us and our beliefs, and they have denied their roots. This caused enmity between the tribes,” he said.
Taba said recent steps taken by the government to preserve, propagate and popularize tribal beliefs, beliefs and traditions will address this serious problem.
Khomseng Khomrang, a religious leader of the Rangfraa faith (which practices animism), said practices such as animal sacrifices and obscurantist practices are abandoned and tribal youth are encouraged to propagate indigenous beliefs.
Khomrang is also at the forefront of a movement to integrate indigenous religions like Donyi-Polo, Amik-Matai, Nani-Intaya and Rangfraa.
“There are many commonalities between all of these indigenous religions and all are based on animism and nature worship. The differences only exist in certain rituals,” Khomrang explained.
This movement to integrate indigenous religions is supported by the new department of indigenous religions. “Once all indigenous faiths are integrated, it will form a strong bulwark against Christian missionaries and also reverse the trend of conversions to Christianity,” said IFCSAP president Tajom Tasung.
The efforts of the new department have begun to bear fruit on the ground. IFCSAP says the rate of conversion to Christianity has declined significantly while the number of those returning to the tribal fold has also increased.
Congregations in the new indigenous faith prayer rooms built by the department are experiencing significant growth. And there is ample evidence of young men and women showing interest in and pride in their indigenous faith and cultures.
Much research into indigenous religions, medicines and cultural practices is underway and will result in the publication of numerous works. This will go a long way in promoting indigenous belief systems and religions.
At the same time, increased monitoring of the flow of funds from abroad by the Union government forced Christian missionaries to reduce their evangelistic activity. Negative reactions from the tribes also dampened their enthusiasm for drawing them into their Abrahamic fold.
All this is of course good news for Arunachal Pradesh.