Boulders that speak no more
TOWARDS the end of the 19th century, inspired by the call of the American Baptist missionaries to put an end to idol worship and to demonstrate the power of the living god over the ‘lifeless’ spirit world, the local converts to Christianity in an Ao Naga village openly desecrated a boulder held sacred by the villagers. While some of them climbed on it and used it as a latrine, some others cut a tree that had grown out of it.1
Of course, this act angered the villagers. For them, the boulder was a sacred and living entity. It had once upon a time defended their ancestors when their village was raided by another. Memory and wisdom was embedded in that boulder and it was to be respected and given due recognition. But, the missionaries did not subscribe to this rationale. In fact, they were proud of what the converts had done. They felt that such desecration of sacred boulders was a sign that converts had finally ‘outgrown their father’s theology’.2
In a related incident, there was another boulder on the path to a new village established by the missionaries. Those who travelled by this path often took a detour when they approached the boulder as it was believed to be the abode of a mighty spirit and the space around it was sacred. However, keen to demonstrate the superiority of his religion and to prove that there is no life in such boulders, one day, the missionary refused to take the detour and walked straight along the boulder. The converts were reluctant to follow suit. They feared the wrath of the mighty spirit. But, since no immediate harm came to the missionary, eventually, they too decided to walk along the boulder.
It is said that, much later, as the Christian presence in the area became considerable, the path that the missionary dared to take came to be cleared and made into a public highway – a sign of what the modern spatial regime brought in by the missionaries had eventually effected.3
There were numerous such sacred boulders scattered across the traditional habitats of various Naga tribes. They were the source of stories, wisdom and social memories. They conveyed myths related to the origins of particular groups, they told stories of wars and misfortune, they spoke of fortunate families that gave feasts of merit to the whole village and also of the less fortunate who became pariahs and outcasts. Most importantly, these boulders were living beings who not only related to humans but also to other constituents of the natural world. They were respected and frequently honoured through ritual performances for the wisdom and knowledge they provided.4
However, as Christianity spread, the perception towards these boulders began to change, many of them became the target of desecration by overzealous converts, sites to demonstrate the power of their faith, sometimes leading to disputes between the followers of traditional religious beliefs and the converts, but eventually, paving the way for their neglect and abandonment.
How do we understand the significance attributed to these boulders? Why did they and a host of other ‘inanimate’ beings in the natural world become the target of desecration, and eventually, neglect and abandonment in the modern times? How far did changes in religious beliefs and practices contribute towards this process, and what were its lasting effects? The present article is a preliminary and a modest attempt to engage with these questions by thinking through the shifting importance that the local people may have attributed to questions of space and time as a result of the incursions made by organized religions into the Naga inhabited areas during the last few decades of 19th and the long 20th century, and the effects thereof.5
It was in the late 19th century that Christianity first came into the Naga inhabited areas as a result of the mission work initiated by the American Baptist missionaries. Much later, in the second half of 20th century, Syndicated Hinduism came into the region as various organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar began to associate with the Heraka movement – a socio-religious movement that became popular among a certain section of the Nagas.6 Both these organized religions effected profound cultural and epistemic changes, more so in the case of the former as its reach and acceptance was far greater. Various institutions, practices, relationships and codes that sustained community living went into decline, paving the way for new kinds of aspirations and desires; and existing ways of seeing, knowing and feeling underwent change, ushering new ways of being and becoming in the world.7
There was also a shift in the importance that was attributed to questions of space and time. The spatial commitments of an earlier period began to increasingly give way to the temporal desires that the new dispensation promised.
The traditional belief system, as Vine J. Deloria and George Tinker illustrate in the Native American context, was one that was rooted in and confined to particular spatial contexts. It prioritized spatiality over temporality. It demonstrated a deeper attachment to its particular places of being, and to the various constituents – boulders, plants, trees, rivers, creeks, hills, caves, animals – which made up those places. There was a strong belief that these constituents have life/spirits residing in them, and hence are worthy of respect and recognition. Much of the ceremonial practices were geared towards maintaining a balance among them than arriving at any enlightened temporal state. The prominence attributed to space in such religious traditions didn’t preclude a sense of time. Time existed. It was just that time was realized only within a particular space and remained unique to that space.8
However, with the coming of organized religions, there was a gradual shift in perception. The new religions were evangelistic and not confined to any particular spatial context. They prioritized temporality over spatiality. They demonstrated less attachment to any particular space and were more concerned with spreading their beliefs across spatial and cultural boundaries. They were more interested in directing history to that temporal moment when the entire humanity would be converted and redeemed, and had a clearly laid out teleology, the fulfilment of which was the penultimate aim of human expectations and actions. More importantly, given their indifference to spatial and cultural specificities, their truth claims and agendas also tended to remain universalist as well as exclusivist. Though temporally driven, such religious traditions produced their own spatial imaginations. However, that was subject to the temporal expectations and visions of its proponents.9
This transition from a belief system rooted in and wedded to a particular spatial context, to one that insisted on fulfilling certain temporal projects, across different spaces and cultures was far-reaching especially given the fact that the cultural and moral expectations that both religious traditions put on its practitioners contrasted sharply. While the former emphasised the need for humans to fulfil their commitment towards their immediate life-world with no urges to universalise what they encountered as their particular, the latter stressed the need for humans to rise above their immediate life-world and attach themselves to universalist projects that promise to redeem them (and them alone) in history. Inevitably, the life of various boulders, trees, and other such beings in the natural world got enmeshed in this transition, making it difficult for them to regain their old stature.
Prior to the coming of the Baptist missionaries, religion was not an objectified category among the Nagas. There was no urge to define, defend or proclaim it. Rather, it was something that was given and deeply embedded in the material culture and its everyday transactions – a taken for granted ingredient of everyday lived reality. In fact, it was so embedded and integrated into the larger whole that it led James Johnstone, a British administrator, to suspect if Nagas had any religion at all.10 The lack of religion or the ‘primitiveness’ of religion that the British administrators and anthropologists referred to emerged out of an inability to clearly identify any formal or standardised structure as in the case of Semitic religions that they were familiar with in the Euro-American world.
One of the important reasons for the absence of an identifiable formal structure was that beliefs and practices differed from village to village, place to place. While there may have been similarities in beliefs and practices across different villages and tribes, the deities, the myths and the specificities of the ceremonial practices varied from place to place, indifferent to the logic of standardisation. As T.C. Hodson, in his work on the Nagas of Manipur, says: ‘everything they make tends to variety, everything is individual’, insisting on ‘points of difference’ rather than uniformity.11
There was such variance or ‘difference’ primarily because these were religious traditions that privileged space over and above the demands of time. The structure and form of a certain set of beliefs and practices were drawn from a particular place of dwelling and the web of relationships within it.12 It was centred on a particular place and how a balance was to be maintained among all the constituents who shared that particular place through principles of reciprocity and respect. In other words, fulfilling the commitment towards the various constituents of a given space that had been conceived as a place of dwelling with a history and context of its own was more important than a quest to become or evolve into something across and regardless of different spaces. The moral imperative that directed an action was to be realized within a particular place rather than in a speculated time.
Hence, as most of the anthropological literature indicate, each village had its own set of deities or spirits that resided in the trees, boulders, and other constituents of the natural world; there were myths and life experiences associated with each one of them; and the relationship between humans and them was mediated through various ceremonial practices and gennas13 observed collectively by the whole village.14 Given this reality, what is most important is that none of the traditional beliefs and practices had any relevance or meaning outside of its particular spatial context – a reason why standardisation and propagation would be a meaningless exercise. Religion became meaningful only so far as it was lived out in the concrete, in the here and now, among the particular trees, animals, boulders, hills, rivers and every other constituent of a particular place.
The spatially rooted pre-modern religious traditions did not fail to complement the already prevalent economic, political and socio-cultural arrangements that were based on inter-village differences. The principle marker of distinction and identity was the village that one belonged to. Constructed atop hills, with elaborate defences, stockades, fortifications and panjied15 ditches, each village and the forested land around it were distinct politico-spatial units in themselves. Each village administered its own affairs with no state to lord over them – leading colonial anthropologists to often portray the existing political landscape as an ensemble of ‘village republics’.
Economically, each village remained more or less a self-sufficient unit, producing enough food grains and breeding enough animals for the consumption of the village. Trade with other villages or with the plains was not uncommon, but it remained primarily for certain essential commodities. Culturally, each village had its own institutions and means through which its inhabitants learned and remembered the customary practices, stories, songs, art, ceremonial rites and the history specific to that village. For example, the morung, or the dormitory for unmarried men, was one such important educational and cultural institution. Despite belonging to the same tribe, there also existed stark linguistic variations between villages, once again indicative of the spatial disjuncture between villages, wherein at times, even neighbouring villages would find it difficult to comprehend each other’s language.
What becomes evident from all this is the fact that though mediated and made concrete through the notion of ‘village’, there had existed self-contained, disaggregated and differentiated spatial units or places constituted by the various beings that inhabited it, constantly producing and consuming the various marks of difference it embodied. This difference, cemented by the sense of place that was integral to the traditional belief systems and ceremonial practices, often made modern and temporal projects, eager for homogeneity, rather unimportant. For, no place could be the same. Every place was different. Their experiences, beliefs and expressions also remained different.
The primacy attributed to space over the demands of time doesn’t by any means imply that Nagas lived in a static and timeless existence, or they lacked a sense of history. It is just that time was meaningful only insofar as it came to be fulfilled and realized in a given space. Each village had a rich tradition of recording, narrating and passing on history. This was largely done through the stories, songs and tales narrated during festive occasions when the whole village came together, during a march or around a camp fire when questions related to a particular locality were raised, or during the course of ordinary conversations. The matters addressed in these histories ranged from the emergence of the village and its various clans to the commendable achievements of the ancestors.
While there were a few stories that were common to the tribe as a whole, what is important is that most of the stories were of ‘purely local interest’.16 Here too, it was the spatial unit called ‘village’ that was of significance. It became the canvas on which most of the stories came to be sketched, the backdrop on which past and its continuity into the present came to be reflected upon. And since these stories were also laced with wisdom and morals for the life ahead, they became signposts of how the future was to be realized in ‘place’.
The American Baptist missionaries who worked among the Nagas proudly claimed that the latter was living in a timeless and ‘savage’ existence and hence, they had to be ‘civilized’ and brought into the ambit of time. They initiated a patient yet determined evangelisation programme. Through institutions and practices such as itinerant preaching tours, printing and circulation of religious tracts, normal schools, Sunday schools, youth groups, medical camps, women’s prayer groups, and Bible study groups, they intervened in the mundane and everyday life of the local people, gradually altering the existing religious and cultural worldview. The power exercised in these interventions was hegemonic in character. It was employed over a period of time in the most subtle and unseen manner, to the extent that, at times, it was not even experienced as power at all.17 Yet, it was all too real and pervasive that it could alter the existing ways of perceiving and being in the world.
An important outcome of the evangelisation programme was the priority that came to be attributed to the demands of time over spatial commitments. Christianity, as it was promoted by the various missionary societies, was one that prioritised temporality over spatial considerations.18 The place where one dwelled and the constituents within it did not matter as compared to the larger commitment to a history that was headed towards certain finality. The individual subject was not bound by the relationship that was to be shared with other constituents of a particular place. What mattered was what that individual became or evolved into over a period of time.
More specifically, the primary concern was with leaving behind what one was, converting to a new personhood and attaining salvation within a larger telos headed towards a time when God’s reign would finally be realized. Hence, the movement from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’, from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization’, from ‘fall’ to ‘redemption’ was not only suggested but a requirement for self-fashioning.19 The evangelization programme of the missionaries was organized and geared towards enabling this process, not just within the confines of a particular village, but across villages, tribes, nations and even subcontinents.
One of the metaphors that missionaries often used as they constructed a new religious and cultural self among the Nagas was that of a ‘city set on the hill’. This is a useful metaphor to throw further light on the new spatial regime that was being put in place. The ‘city’ was an exclusive spatial zone designed to accommodate those who converted to the new religion of the missionaries. It was exclusive as it was not meant for the ‘heathen’ other, who was the embodiment of moral degeneration, spiritual depravity and physical dirt, but for the righteous one who had been ‘saved’ through Christ alone. It was governed by a different set of rules, directives and cultural codes, and those who inhabited it were not only expected to adopt and internalise it, but to remain sanitised from all external influences.
Among the Nagas, once converted to the new religion, it was necessary for the convert to be physically relocated from the original habitat, since the missionaries were of the opinion that the tendency for the convert to be lured back into ‘heathenism’ by unconverted relatives and friends was strong. Mass conversions were often followed by the construction of new villages which were exclusively meant for the converted. In these new villages, the converted remained physically isolated from their unconverted relatives and friends and were habituated into specific norms and practices. The boundaries of these new villages were clearly defined and could not be easily crossed.
However, as more and more people were converted and brought into the fold, these exclusive spaces expanded, going beyond the village, and encompassing a larger territorial unit, eventually claiming tribes, nations and even subcontinents for Christ. The religious interactions and social transactions between villages of the converted were encouraged and strengthened. The unity of the converted within and across tribes were affirmed. The nation itself came to be claimed for Christ – ‘Nagaland for Christ’. Eventually, transnational alliances and networks of the converted were also established and fostered, wherein regardless of where you came from, you became one in Christ.
Since it was immaterial to propagate its belief beyond its spatial context, the existing belief system increasingly became vulnerable and defenceless to the spatial expansion and the exclusivist claims of Christianity, inevitably leading to the breakdown of existing village communities. Given the strictures put on the converts and the general indifference cultivated towards ‘heathen’ practices, the converts eschewed meeting their customary obligations to their village – their primary place of dwelling. They refused to take part in the maintenance and repair of various common structures and institutions in a village like the morung, and in providing protection to the village from the raids of other villages.20 They also refused to observe days of genna, and to participate in and contribute to the various ceremonial practices and festivals that were deemed integral to the spiritual, social and economic integrity of the village.21
Besides these acts of non-cooperation, the converts also openly desecrated and ridiculed objects and ceremonies that the followers of the existing belief system held to be sacred. The acts of vandalism perpetrated on the boulder that was mentioned in the beginning of this article and the disregard for various other constituents of the natural world was not an aberration but part of this general trend. The beings that had constituted a place increasingly became meaningless props as the new religion promised treasures beyond here and now, beyond places.
The vulnerabilities and fears generated by the exigencies of colonial and post-colonial state policies and the growing spread of Christianity compelled the followers of existing beliefs and ceremonial practices either to comply with the general trend and become Christians or to define, standardize and make legible what had otherwise been a formless and embedded belief system that was evident only in places. While the former was most often the case, as this section will illustrate, the latter trend was also noticeable among certain sections of the Nagas, albeit a small minority.
The process of standardizing existing beliefs and ceremonial practices was undertaken with utmost ingenuity; however, it was also done by adhering to what they saw and experienced as organized and systematised ‘religion’, which in this case were Christianity and Vaishnavism. It meant that they had to compromise on their earlier commitment to space and participate in the modern temporal project of constructing a consolidated religion out of the existing variegated beliefs and ceremonial practices, and make this religion worthy of being a competitor in the emerging religious market.
In the 1920s-30s, there emerged a politico-religious movement among the Zeliangrong Nagas under the leadership of Jadonang, and later, his disciple, Gaidinliu. In January 1931, Bisnu, one of the gods in the traditional religious pantheon, revealed a new religion to Jadonang.22 The contours and tenets of this new religion had been clearly laid out. It had a formal structure with standardised sets of liturgy, hymns, prayers and other texts. It also marked a shift from general respect and reverence towards multiple sacred entities to the worship of one supreme creator or ‘God’, namely, Tingkao Ragwang.
Earlier, the supreme creator was only one among the many gods and spirits that inhabited the Naga cosmology. Jadonang, however, amplified qualities of Tingkao Ragwang such as omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, justice, truth, and kindness, and proclaimed him to be the most important spiritual force that permeates the world. As individuals or as groups, people were encouraged to offer a prayer, facing east with hands put together, every morning and evening, to Tingkao Ragwang; and to direct all prayers and supplications to him. Meanwhile, people were also dissuaded from giving too much importance to some of the lesser gods and spirits, although the importance of acknowledging and respecting them continued to be stressed.
The new religion called for the abolition of numerous taboos, and the reduction of rituals, sacrifices and abstentions, as most of them were found to be time consuming and economically wasteful. Most importantly, the new religion called for the construction of temples. According to Jadonang, he was instructed by Bisnu in a dream that construction of temples would bring good health and prosperity.23 Following the death of Jadonang, this religion came to be further embellished and worked on by his disciple Gaidinliu. The manner in which she did it and the assistance she received in her endeavour from Hindutva organisations is something one will return to later in this article.
It was the aspiration for political and cultural integration of the Nagas that compelled Jadonang to reformulate and standardize the traditional beliefs and ceremonial practices. However, given the fact that erasure of difference is inherent to any attempt at standardisation, it was only expected that the earlier commitment to spatiality be also compromised. Earlier, the form and content of the hymns and prayers that were sung and recited were specific to a place. It was integral to the oral tradition of that particular place. It neither had any meaning nor any comprehension outside that place. It was not translatable across spaces. But, with standardisation, it had been abstracted out and rendered placeless.
Similarly, with importance being attributed to one supreme creator or God, Tingkao Ragwang, instead of the multiple sacred entities, the various beings situated in places were increasingly divested of all life and power while the one supreme god, who transcended all spatial differences and assumed a position of abstractness, became all-powerful.
The construction of temples also marked an important shift. Temples were never a part of the sacred geography earlier. They emerged as a response to the construction of churches, and they not only became the sacred centre of the reformulated religion but emerged as a potent symbol of consolidating people across spaces under one religious identity. Clearly, what becomes evident is that as in the case of other systematised and organized religions, the new religion put together by Jadonang and Gaidinliu, which later came to be called Heraka, strove towards transcending the spatial specificities of the traditional belief system and become a modern religious identity asserting its respective ‘truth’ in history, in time. Beginning in the 1960s, Heraka received much assistance from the votaries of Syndicated Hinduism, further displacing the traditional beliefs and ceremonial practices from their places and integrating them into the ambit of a new spatial and temporal regime.
Though the standardization and consolidation of traditional beliefs and ceremonial practices, as mentioned above, emerged purely out of a local initiative, its course, over a period of time, came to be greatly mediated by what RomilaThapar calls, ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ – a more consolidated and organized form of Hinduism that was modelled on Semitic faiths and had its emergence in the late 19th century. Syndicated Hinduism itself was a departure from the more spatially rooted and extremely heterogeneous religious tradition – in Thapar’s words: ‘a mosaic of belief system, some linked, others not’ – that the posterity loosely called ‘Hinduism’.24 It emerged as a result of the fear and anxiety of the caste elite that the ‘Hindu’ way of life was in danger and hence, there was an urgent need to defend, consolidate and strengthen it.
Arya Samaj, one of the first organisations established to address this need, criticized idolatry, polytheism, child marriage, restrictions on widow remarriage, foreign travel, Brahmanical pre-dominance, and called for purification, unification and strengthening of Hinduism in the light of the organized presence of Semitic faiths like Christianity and Islam. More importantly, from 1900 onwards, it also went in for large-scale shuddhi or mass purification campaign and conversion of lower castes, firmly establishing the idea of proselytization in Hinduism.25
By the early decades of the 20th century, Syndicated Hinduism came to be increasingly conjoined with the idea of nationalism. Speaking at the Bharata Dharma Mahamandal in the early 1900s, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, for instance, glorified the greatness and strength of India from the Vedic times, the shared heritage and culture of the people, and the need to consolidate all sects into a ‘mighty Hindu nation’.26 The conflation of consolidated Hinduism with nationalism found its fruition in the idea of ‘Hindutva’ as it was formulated by V.D. Savarkar in 1923, wherein he defined ‘Hindu’ not just as a religious identity but the common national, racial and civilizational identity of all those who inhabit the land between River Indus and the seas.27
Subsequently, the idea of Hindutva became the reigning ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the various affiliated organisations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar. It was this Hinduism, tailor-made by Hindutva, that gradually entered the religious landscape of the Nagas.
The rapid spread of Christianity and the movement for self-determination among the Nagas, from the late 1940s onwards, became a source of much anxiety for the votaries of Hindutva. They increasingly felt that it was their obligation to ‘protect’ the various tribes from ‘foreign influences’ and integrate them into the Indian nation. They were weary of the ‘Christian culture’ that the Nagas and other nationalities in the northeast adopted as it was contrary to what they defined as the ‘national culture’ of India. In a letter to Nehru dated 15 September 1953, Buddheswar Gohain, an Assamese headmaster of Seikho Government School in Tuensang sub-division wrote:
‘I am glad to note that the criers of Naga independence have of late been crushed by the military but there still remains the most powerful supporter of future revolt which, I am sure, the military cannot win. This is the Christianity (whose religionists) are offering full loyalty to the foreigners… It will be wise, in opinion, to check and replace the Christian culture immediately with national culture. Education in this district should immediately be freed from Christian influence even with the help of military when essential.’28
Consistent with this sentiment, the activities and movements of foreign missionaries came to be increasingly put under surveillance and restricted. In the Naga areas, foreign missionaries were frequently harassed and one of them was even charged with possession of ‘anti-state and other prejudicial documents’ – a charge that was eventually proved to be unfounded.29 By the mid-1950s, foreign missionaries in various parts of the region were asked to leave, and at the same time, various organisations affiliated to the Sangh Parivar began to make incursions into the Northeast, including the Naga inhabited areas.
Beginning in the 1960s, these organisations worked closely with the followers of various traditional religions, which were either reformulated or were looking for resources to do so, and this included Heraka, the religion founded by Jadonang and Gaidinliu.30 They provided finances and other resources for their standardisation; organised frequent meetings, workshops and cultural programmes; facilitated interactions with other ‘tribal’ religious organisations, both within and outside the region; and assisted in publishing printed literature and tracts.
However, in the process, these faiths, which were purely local initiatives, came to be appropriated and recast as tributaries and extensions of the larger river called ‘Hinduism’ with the existing religious and cultural practices becoming attuned to the standards set by Hindutva.31 The traditional gods increasingly came to be recast as avatars of the Hindu gods; the existing beliefs and myths became innovatively linked to Hindu epics and mythology; the existing symbols became infused with new meanings; the trees, rivers, boulders and other such beings came to be divested of its earlier identity and characteristics, at the same time, became objectified and adorned with all sorts of paraphernalia typical of Hindu worship and devotion.
As Arkotong Longkumer has shown, not only did Heraka begin to echo the ideological rhetoric of the RSS and VHP about the need to hold out against the invasion of foreign religion and culture, and about all religions being tributaries flowing into the larger ocean of ‘Hinduism’, but powerful symbols associated with Hinduism like om and swastika, and images of Ram and Sita came to adorn Heraka homes.32 As a result of their association with the Sangh Parivar, the discontent many of these faiths had towards Christianity became further sharpened and amplified, leading to frequent violent skirmishes. Followers of the Heraka entered into violent conflicts with the Naga National Council during the 1960s, not so much over political differences, but on the question of religion.
The temporal and spatial imagination fostered by the Sangh Parivar was one that was informed by the notion of Bharatvarsha as it was conceptualised and defined within the frames of nationalism.33 It was claimed to be an exclusive spatial zone that encompassed a vast and indefinite landmass, roughly covering the whole of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The only legitimate inhabitants of it would be the Hindus as they are the only ones who could claim it to be their pitribhumi (fatherland) and punyabhumi (holy land).34 The exclusive claims made on Bharatvarsha was legitimised by taking recourse to history, wherein it was said to have had a golden past that came to be disrupted as a result of ‘foreign invasions’ – Muslim and Christian – and hence, the need for a present that would reclaim and restore Bharatvarsha to its former glory.
Given the requirement to fulfil this historical mandate, it was not enough to appropriate local religious traditions into the Hindu fold.35 There needed to be a conscious effort to integrate them into the religion and culture of Bharatvarsha, and to generate a feeling and affect among them for the common ‘civilizational’ and ‘national’ space that they inhabited.36 Towards this end, the Sangh Parivar organized various conferences and festivals round the year, both at the regional, and more importantly, at the national level. These conferences and festivals, attended by representatives of the various ‘tribal’ communities, became new sites of socialisation – beyond the place, beyond the region and at the national plane.
The Sangh Parivar also put in place various educational institutions, cultural forums, welfare programmes and publishing houses. Modelled on Christian missionary work, the various schools and cultural centres worked primarily among children, youth and women, nurturing them gradually, but consistently, to become guardians of the ‘Hindu’ dharma (creed), sanskriti (culture) and nation.37 Of late, there have also been reports of children being recruited and sent to different schools run by the RSS and its affiliates in other parts of the India so that from a young age, they could be groomed into pracharaks and pracharikas (propagandists) who will one day come back to their communities and do the work that had already been initiated.38
If the effort of Christianity was to bring spatially constituted religious traditions into the ambit of a more anthropocentric linear time headed towards ‘civilization’ and ‘light’, and thereby integrate them into the trans-national spatial imagination of a world religion, the attempts of Syndicated Hinduism was to bring them into the larger fold of ‘Hindu dharma’ wherein, they would become an integral part of the national space and time defined by modern notions of Bharatvarsha. Either way, religion had been taken out of places, and had become tied to temporally driven projects.
This is not to say that religion did not have any presence in places or was not informed by spatial differences, especially in how it was practised. Nor does it imply that religion in its organized form was devoid of a sacred geography. It is just that places no longer informed how religious beliefs and practises came to be structured and envisioned. Both Christianity and Syndicated Hindus had their own political and sacred geographies. But, the frontiers of these geographies often remained ambiguous and malleable, subject to the temporal drives of its practitioners. The fact that Bharatvarsha itself does not have any definite boundaries and can stretch anywhere from the Indian subcontinent to other parts of Asia and beyond, remains a fine example of this.
What could be the implications of all this for the various tribal communities in the northeastern region in general, and Nagas in particular? Religious transitions do not happen independent of the larger socio-economic and political changes. Nor are they determined purely by the changes in material conditions – a mere superstructure. Religious transitions are constituted by as well as constitutive of the material culture. The effects of transition from a belief system that fostered deep commitment to a particular place of dwelling and its various constituents to a belief system that was primarily driven by certain temporal concerns with little regard for spatial contexts have been profound, especially in regard to the ecological and socio-cultural attitudes that it brought about among the local people.
One of the more obvious effects of this religious transition was the changing attitude of the local people towards their land and its resources. The political and economic intrusions of the colonial and post-colonial states had already integrated the region inhabited by the various tribal communities in the Northeast to the global capitalist system, leading to the emergence and widespread use of money, commodification of material objects and human labour, growing aspiration of individuals for better economic status, emergence of a middle class keen to consolidate power, and the growth of urban centres that are unplanned and unsustainable.
In this changed scenario, land and its resources no longer remained sacred and inalienable. They had become valued commodities to be accrued, transferred and exploited. Internal land alienation, wherein poorer households leased out or sold their land to richer households for meeting some of their monetary liabilities, became common. Common properties such as swamps, ponds, springs, etc. were encroached upon by individual households for improving their social status.39 Village chiefs and councils became susceptible to the inducements of private interests, working through benamis, for acquiring large pieces of land. Water and other such natural resources were increasingly exploited to meet the unwieldy demands of the new urban centres.
Deforestation and cutting down of mountains for construction of large scale highway projects and mining also became all too common.40 On the whole, land and its resources lost the privileged and sacred status they had. They had become things, commodities, to be owned and exploited so that ‘progress’ and ‘development’ may come.
The emergent belief system that aligned itself with temporal agendas at the expense of pre-existing spatial commitments clearly was in consonance with this model of development. It reinforced and gave moral sanction to it. If capital had the propensity to spread across spaces, subsume local cultures and economies, and promise ‘development’ and ‘growth’, the new religious configurations further enhanced such a course by silencing multiple spirits and their habitats and promising ‘salvation’ in history. The growing appeal, in recent times, for the ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by independent churches, which promises greater material prosperity and success to those who pray fervently and have a strong faith is a perfect amalgam of the temporal projects initiated by the new religions and modern day capitalism.
As religious transition invalidated the relationship shared between the various constituents of a given place, the local people also came to be alienated from the various cultural markers/resources, located in places that gave them a sense of identity. Within an oral culture, where technology of writing hardly existed, the boulders, rivers, trees, etc. were markers or repositories of social memory and wisdom. Each of them had a story to tell and these stories became foundational for how a community perceived and conducted itself. However, as the new belief system spread, as the relationship between the local people and these geographic and cultural markers deteriorated, the stories they told became less and less audible, eventually going into oblivion.
With the spread and dominance of the written word – a phenomenon that accompanied the spread of the new belief system – aspersions were cast on the varied aspects of oral tradition and orality. The fact that social memory and wisdom, and knowledge in general, could be passed on through mediums other than the written or printed word became suspect. Only what was written or printed became legitimate and authentic. Hence, the growing refrain among the local people that the coming of the new belief system and the written word marked the beginning of all things in their history, and prior to that there was only darkness. Thus, the local self had become alienated not only from those markers/beings through which social memory and wisdom was passed on, but even from its own past.
Nagas, as in the case of other nationalities inhabiting the Himalayan ranges, inhabit a fragile ecological zone, and any attempt to implement a development model that fails to take into account the vast spatial differences and particularities within the region can turn out to be unsustainable as well as detrimental to their cultural life. Construction of industrial corridors, expressways, big dams and concrete urban jungles may appear to be an attractive proposition. But, the ecological and human costs of it will be far reaching.
Theological perspectives that privilege temporal agendas over spatial commitments are essentially universalist and wary of differences. They not only encourage consolidation of religious identities and produce conditions for religious conflicts, but also become impediments towards imagining sustainable futures. The need to reclaim places and to re-build economic, political and cultural life around places remain one of the important challenges for tribal communities in general, and Nagas in particular.
Most of the beings that constitute a given place may no longer speak, and even if they do, humans have lost the ability to listen to them. However, reimagining and reconfiguring what places could be, making them places of dwelling where one does not merely inhabit, alienated from oneself and the place itself, but dwells in ‘simple oneness’ with ‘each thing in its nature’, still remains a possibility.41
1. J.P. Mills, The Ao Nagas. OUP, Bombay, 1926, pp. 216-218.
2. Mary Mead Clark, A Corner in India. American Baptist Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1907, p. 59.
3. Clark, A Corner in India, pp. 58-59.
4. On the importance of boulder for Nagas, see Stuart Blackburn, ‘The Stories Stones Tell: Naga Oral Stories and Culture’, in Michael Oppitz, Thomas Kaiser, Alban von Stockhausen, Marion Wettstein (eds.), Naga Identities: Changing Local Cultures in the Northeast of India. Snoeck Publishers, Gent, 2008, pp. 259-268. Jelle J.P. Wouters, ‘The Social Lives of Stones: Studying the Past in the Chakhesang Naga Village of Phugwumi’, Anthropology Today 1(1), 2019, pp. 21-41.
5. In this article, Naga inhabited areas include not just the present state of Nagaland but parts of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam where Naga tribes inhabit.
6. Syndicated Hinduism is a term used by Romila Thapar to describe the consolidated and organized form of Hinduism that emerges in the late nineteenth century in response to and modelled on Semitic faiths. See Romila Thapar, The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 138-163.
7. For a detailed discussion of missionary work and its effects among the Nagas, see John Thomas, Evangelising the Nation: Religion and the Formation of Naga Political Identity. Routledge, Abingdon, 2016.
8. Vine J. Deloria Jr., God is Red: A Native View of Religion. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, 2003; George E. Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. Orbis Books, New York, 2008.
9. Deloria Jr., God is Red; Tinker, American Indian Liberation.
10. James Johnstone, My Experiences in Manipur and Naga Hills. S. Low, Marston & Co., London, 1896, p. 43.
11. T.C. Hodson, The Naga Tribes of Manipur. Macmillan & Co., London, 1911, pp. 123-124.
12. For a discussion on what constitutes a place of dwelling and the sense of place that it generates, see Keith H. Basso, ‘Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landcsape’, in Steven Feld & Keith H. Basso, eds., Senses of Place. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, 1996, pp. 53-90. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought. Harper Colophon Books, New York, 1971, pp. 143-162.
13. Genna is abstention/prohibition observed either collectively or individually.
14. To mention a few, Hodson, The Naga Tribes of Manipur; W.C. Smith, The Ao Naga Tribe of Assam. Macmillan & Co., London, 1925, pp. 74-114.
15. Bamboo sticks that are sharpened at one end and planted along the boundaries of a village as a defence to ward off intruders.
16. J.P. Mills, The Ao Nagas. Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1926, p. 307.
17. On hegemonic power and missionary work, see the introduction of Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.
18. For instances elsewhere, especially among the Native Americans, see Deloria Jr., God is Red; Tinker, American Indian Liberation.
19. Much of the modern re-telling of history among the Nagas follows this trajectory – so much so that there is a tendency to read their own pre-modern past as one that is degenerate and unworthy.
20. Clark, A Corner in India, p. 18; Mills, The Ao Nagas, p. 419.
21. Mills, The Ao Nagas. pp. 417-419.
22. The name Bisnu is not to be confused with the Hindu deity Vishnu. While the name itself, which is used mainly among the Rongmei Nagas living close to the plains, may have been a variation of Vishnu, a deity popular in the plains, Bisnu belonged to the traditional religious pantheon of the Zeliangrong tribes, which maintains a distinct character, identity and history.
23. John Thomas, ‘Sending out the Spears: Zeliangrong Movement, Naga Club and a Nation in the Making’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 49(3), August 2012, pp. 399-437.
24. Romila Thapar, in Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani and Sadanand Menon (eds.), On Nationalism. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2016, p. 23; Also see Romila Thapar, The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History. Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 138-163.
25. Dilip Simeon, ‘Communalism in Modern India: A Theoretical Examination’, South Asia Citizens’ Web, 4 August 2012, accessed 6 January 2018, http://www.sacw.net/article2760.html.
26. Dilip Simeon, ‘Communalism in Modern India’.
27. V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Veer Savarkar Prakashan, Bombay,1928.
28. Quoted in Michael Scott’s forward to some chapters written by former executive members of NNC, Nagaland State Archives, Kohima, p. 26.
29. B.I. Anderson, Annual Report of the Field Secretary of the Council of Baptist Churches in Assam, Council of Baptist Churches in Assam and Manipur Reports, 1955-56, pp. 35-36, Council of Baptist Churches in North-East India Archives, Guwahati.
30. Besides Heraka, some of the other reformulated traditional religions in the Northeast include Bathou among the Bodos, Seng Khasi among the Khasis, Donyi-Polo among the Tanis.
31. For instances of RSS and its affiliates working closely with the religion founded by Jadonang and Gaidinliu, see Arkotong Longkumer, Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging: The Heraka Movement in Northeast India. Continuum International, London, 2010, pp. 134-139.
32. Longkumer, Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging, p. 136.
33. For the contradictions between the modern usage of the concept ‘Bharatvarsha’ and how it was used in the early textual traditions, and for a discussion of the extent to which the term is historically constituted, see B.D. Chattopadhyaya, The Concept of Bharatvarsha and Other Essays. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2017.
34. Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002, pp. 244-262.
35. Here ‘local religious traditions’ include not just standardized faiths such as Heraka, but also all those traditional religious beliefs and practices among Nagas and among other nationalities that had not yet been standardized.
36. Arkotong Longkumer, ‘The Power of Persuasion: Hindutva, Christianity, and the Discourse of Religion and Culture in Northeast India’, Religion 47(2), December 2016, pp. 203-227.
37. An important new work on Hindutva in the Northeast that discusses these aspects in detail is: Arkotong Longkumer, The Great India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2021.
38. For instances of this among Khasis and Bodos, see Nandita Haksar, Across the Chicken Neck: Travels in Northeast India. Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2013; Neha Dixit, ‘Operation #BetiUthao’, Outlook, 8 August 2016, accessed 3 February 2018, https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/operation-betiuthao/297626.
39. U.A. Shimray, ‘Land Use System in Manipur Hills: A Case Study of the Tangkhul Naga’, in Walter Fernandes and Sanjay Barbora (eds.), Land, People and Politics: Contest over Tribal Land in Northeast India. North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati, 2008, pp. 88-112.
40. ‘Is Nagaland State’s Development Model Sustainable?’ The Morung Express, 22 May 2017, accessed 1 February 2018, http://morungexpress.com/nagaland-states-development-model-sustainable/
41. For Martin Heidegger, to dwell means to experience, care and safeguard the fourfold as it is presenced in the things that constitute a given place. Fourfold is the primal oneness of ‘staying on earth under the sky, before the divinities, among mortals’. See Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’.